Living in one of the most expensive cities in America as a college student is intimidating. But it’s actually the best time to experience New York City. Being a poor college student, you get a lot of opportunities just because you’re in school and everyone thinks you’re poor.
I moved to New York City with most of my savings going towards tuition and housing while managing a small budget of 500 dollars per month for food, getting around, and going out. As scary as it all sounds, it all worked out better than I thought.
Read on to see how I’ve managed living on a dime in New York City, and why moving here as a college student is the best time to experience this cultural hub.
1.) My Room is a Literal Closet (But I’m Never Home to Care)
The first thing I did was figure out the dorm situation versus sharing a room. Dorms are the easier choice and can run you anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 a semester if you know where to look. Even better, it’s easier to put housing expenses in loans that are easier to pay back. It’ll usually depend on your college. If you attend a CUNY college, dorms are relatively cheaper but don’t exclude Columbia or NYU because of the price. You can still find cheap dorms by looking in YMCA rooming. Moving into dorm life also means it’s easier to make friends, get free food and drinks because of weekly events and the chance to complain about dorm life together. It’s not an ideal living situation but that’s what you bond over.
One thing to keep in mind is that you will not be spending as much time as you think in your room in New York City. You’ll be too busy to remember it’s even there sometimes so don’t stress too much on how small it is or how horrendous it looks.
If dorms aren’t your thing, renting a room is the next best thing. Sharing a space is the only way to afford this city. That being said, New York City is a crazy place and the people you share your experience with will either make or break this city for you. But that’s all the more reason to look for roommates. The roommate stories are the best stories. They’re basically a rite of passage to life in New York City.
Depending on which college you attend, there’s cheaper neighborhoods all over New York City. The best to look into are Harlem, Washington Heights, and East Village in Manhattan. There’s Sunset Park, Clinton Hill, and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn. Lastly there’s Astoria in Queens. The commute is one thing to consider when searching for neighborhoods outside of the college area. How long are you really willing to spend on a train morning and night? You might save on money but not on sanity.
My final expense on housing per month: $500 (at $2,000 a semester)
2.) I Walk Miles a Day to Commute Anywhere (At Least I Don’t Need a Gym Membership)
Mentioning trains, the commute in New York City is both a pain and a gain. During my first semester, I walked more often than I ever used the train, bus, or taxi (this was also before Uber got on the roll). Because my dorm was a 40 minute walk from my school and I stayed around my neighborhood for most of it, it was easy to manage. But that gets boring and there’s too much in New York City to explore. So managing transportation becomes essential if you want to avoid overspending on taxis for last minute rides and getting lost on the train before you know where you’re going.
If you’re in college, a MetroCard will be your best friend. I never made the transition to a monthly card because I still don’t use the train as much to take advantage of that. But if you find yourself spending more time on the train than in the fresh air, it’s worth a look into. Better yet, think about getting a bike, that way you’re always fit and saving on transportation altogether.
Uber is uber cheap right now with $5 commute rides in the city if you’re running late and don’t want to worry about public transportation. Especially if you’re out for the night and had a few drinks with friends, getting back is easiest with a ride. Remember- it’s even cheaper if you all can split the price.
My final expense on transportation per month: $60-70 (between the MetroCard and the occasional Uber)
3.) Since When Does a Salad Cost $20? (Guess it’s Dollar Pizza Again)
Food and drinks easily become the greatest expense living in New York City if you’re not careful. Especially being in college, you want quick meals and endless drinks. I spent most of my budget last year getting takeout and eating out all the time. I drained my savings pretty quickly between paying for deliveries and pricey meals that come with pricey cocktails.
But the best way to experience the real food in New York City is to look for the cheaper deals like restaurants in Chinatown that still sell sandwiches for a dollar or street food (Halal carts are the best) or just get that dollar slice of pizza again. You’re a college student after all, no one cares. Or even better get two at the same time with the Crocodile Lounge where every drink you buy gets you a free slice of pizza.
Speaking of drinks, this easily becomes the second biggest expense. If you club out or head into watering holes all the time, drinks can get pricey if you don’t hit happy hours or find a cheap pub (preferably with a great bartender who’ll give you some free drinks). Most neighborhoods have their pick of cheap pubs if you know where to look. The best are found in the grit of New York City: head down to East Village, Greenwich, and both the LWS and LES for the best cheap nights out (added bonus if you’re a girl because free drinks).
The best way to save on food and drinks is buying everything yourself. Trader Joes is the place to hit for groceries. You won’t find cheaper prices for produce unless you really scour the city for those hidden grocery stores in the corners of neighborhoods like Chinatown (they’re out there). But the best part of Trader Joes is getting 3 dollar wine. Way cheaper than most drinks you’ll find in New York City, even during happy hours.
My final expense on food and drinks per month: $200-300 (between groceries, eating out, and drinks)
4.) There’s No Time to Work (But I Still Did It)
This depends on whether you have enough time to spare to work on the side. But if you do, extra cash goes a long way in New York City. And if you get a job in a restaurant, you get free meals, free wine tastings, and free coffee (because you’ll need it).
Last year I worked as a server for a busy restaurant. Half of my paychecks went to tuition expenses and the other half went toward my budget for the month. But scoring a free meal before and after work helps when you’ve barely got enough time grabbing your own between work and classes and heading out for nights. If you think you can handle the stress from customers and drama from coworkers, go for it!
There’s other options if you want something easier for extra money. Checking in with your school for tutoring or being an RA for dorms makes all the difference money wise. Usually you can pick your own hours for these and it’s a lot less stressful of a job. Other options are temp work on Craigslist, signing up for an app like TaskRabbit, babysitting on your days off, or if it all fails you can hit up your parents to bring back an allowance.
5.) This Is the Whole Reason I Moved Here! (And I’ll Never Regret It)
Experiencing New York City is the reason everyone moves down here! Being a student, the opportunities to explore and enjoy this city are boundless. Beyond the ability to get into museums for free, watching live concerts for free, and catching stars like Aubrey Plaza in Upright Citizens Brigade FOR FREE, you can look through Time Out and Skint to catch the endless free and cheap events to do in New York City. Everything else in New York City may be expensive but it all makes up for all that you’ll see and do here.
Beyond that, getting a Student Advantage Card will get you loads of discounts when you go shopping. If you need a haircut or color, there’s endless chances of volunteering at a boutique salon (if you can risk it). Rush tickets for Broadway and off Broadway shows run from 5 dollars. Looking to your school for events gives you so many chances to meet new people, get free food, endless drinks and parties, and even more opportunities to experience the cultural hub that New York City is. The list never ends.
But the best part of city dwelling is that you make it your own with the friends you make. My most memorable experiences came from crazy nights at house parties, bar hopping with strangers-turned-friends, and finding extraordinary hidden corners in New York City in the middle of the day with friends. New York City becomes your own creative journey. You can’t put a price on that.
My final expense on experiencing New York City per month: $0-50