10 Legit Ways to Save Money in an Expensive City

Beth Stebner
how to save money in a big city


The pros of living in a big city like New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles outweigh the cons in every category save one—these metropolises can wreak serious havoc on your finances. And even if you think you’re being smart about money, all those nights out—not to mention some seriously exorbitant rent and that Chloe bag that you just had to have—and you’re left with less than you hoped in your bank account. Sound familiar?

“There’s a lot of smiling and nodding going on—women don’t know financial terms or concepts but pretend they do, instead of just asking,” Nicole Lapin, a money correspondent for “The Wendy Williams Show” and author of the new book Rich Bitch: A Simple 12-Step Plan for Getting Your Financial Life Together…Finally, says. All that spending with reckless abandon means not putting away for emergencies or your retirement.

“Money speak comes up in all aspects of life, from jobs to social situations to relationships, so the sooner you can understand and speak it, the sooner you’ll be able to accomplish what you want to.”

Even if you have an entry-level salary, there are ways to save money that don’t involve dining on ramen for the rest of your life. Lapin and Holly Perez, Mint’s consumer market money expert, break down 10 ways to keep your wallet (and your savings account) full.

MORE: 101 Tips to Help You Save Money Right Now

1. Break Down Your Spending Habits.
Instead of just blindly throwing some money into a savings account, Lapin recommends breaking expenses into three categories—Essentials (what you need to live on, 70 percent), Endgame (what you need to save for the future, 15 percent) and Extras (the fun category—things like entertainment, vacations, and dinners out, also 15 percent). Use a budgeting app to see where your money is going each month—whether it’s the gym, Netflix, Ubers, or Zara, it’s sobering to see how quickly those little impulse buys add up.

If you’re really in a bind or splurged on something you shouldn’t have, Lapin says to take from your “fun money” category first to pay the bill down. “You need to double-down on your payments each month until your splurge is covered,” she says.

2. Take an Entertainment Time-Out.
If you’re in a big city, the temptation to spend is right in front of you all the time. Happy hours, concerts, dinners, drinks, weekend trips, and shopping all can destroy budget. Lapin suggests putting a moratorium on your social calendar—only for a month—to help replenish your savings. “Enjoy the gifts you were given over the holidays or curl up with a new book,” she says. And use a digital tool like Level Money to track exactly where your money is going every month. It’ll replenish your savings and help you refocus your spending.

Or, if you want to keep a more active social calendar, try taking “no-spend” day once a week. “You may be surprised how often you’re reaching for a credit card or clicking through PayPal before you even realize it,” Perez tells us. So, on that day, pack your lunch, forgo the morning coffee, and don’t spend your lunch break surfing the sale section of Barneys.

MORE: How to Save Money on Groceries

3. Seriously, Curb Your Dining Habits.
According to Mint, city dwellers in Los Angeles spent more than $170 million eating out in 2014, while New Yorkers and San Franciscans forked over $300 million in restaurants. Sure, going to the hottest new eatery is part of the fun of city living, not to mention, you don’t have to deal with the dishes afterward. But you’re also wasting a ton of money. Perez recommends making cooking at home fun by scouring local farmers’ markets and buying in season. “It’s good for your wallet and your waistline,” she says.

And when you do fall victim to Seamless, make sure to order something that will make a great leftover lunch later in the week to spread out the cost.

4. Get Your Debt in Check.
Now that you’re not dropping $100 or more a night on dinner and drinks or a Taylor Swift concert, you’ve got some cash to help you deal with your debts. Lapin and Perez both recommend paying off high-interest credit card debts first because they typically come with sky-high interest rates and hefty late fees.

Perez says that if you’re only making minimum payments on a $10,000 credit card balance at 15% interest—or around $225 a month—it would take nearly 30 years to pay off the balance, with an additional $12,000 lost to interest payments.

“Getting aggressive with paying debt down first will have long-term benefits,” she adds. “So while you may forgo savings in the beginning, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor by not essentially flushing thousands of dollars down the toilet.

how to save money in a city


5. Automate Your Savings.
When your paycheck is automatically deposited into your bank account, it’s easy to feel flush with cash and go on a spending spree, but that’s exactly what you shouldn’t be doing. “Have your bank automatically deposit a portion of it into a savings account,” says Mint consumer money expert Holly Perez. “You won’t even realize that it’s not there.” And if it’s not in your checking account, it’s harder to spend.

6. Work on Your Side Hustle.
Indulging in passion projects can help you earn a little extra cash, Lapin says. “Like to get your craft on? Sell your homemade jewelry on Etsy. Want to make it as a writer? Try your hand at paid online reviews or freelancing sites.” Even easy jobs like babysitting or shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk can give you some extra cash on the side.

MORE: 30 Things 20-Somethings Need to Stop Spending Money On

7. Treat Yourself (in Moderation).
“I like to think of a financial diet as a food diet,” Lapin says. Much like a fad diet with hundreds of restrictions leads you to binge-eat a Cronut, keeping yourself on too tight a leash leads to binge spending on big-ticket items. So if you’ve gone through and cut out every indulgence—from your morning latte to your weekly manicures—look to see what still feels like a luxury without the price tag. “I argue for the morning latte because it’s the equivalent of eating a Hershey kiss in a diet—it keeps you on track and stops you from feeling deprived.” You heard it here first, people. Go ahead and #treatyoself.

8. Create a Concrete Goal.
Instead of saying blindly that you want to save $$$, Perez recommends having a concrete goal in mind. “Try budgeting three months in advance, and plan a reward at the end of that third month,” she recommends. So if you’re saving for a trip to Paris or a broker’s fee for a new apartment, use that as motivation. If you’re building up your nest egg, create a hard-numbers goal and say you want to save six months of your living expenses.

how to save money in a big city


9. Realize the Rent Is Too Damn High (But Still Don’t Spend More than You Have to on It).
If you’re lucky enough to call a city like New York or San Francisco home, you know that rent, even for a tiny shoe box, is laughably expensive. In the Bay Area, the median rent is more than $3,500 for a one-bedroom, while it’s just over $4,000 in Manhattan (and no, those aren’t typos). When you put that against a typical entry-level salary in industries like fashion or PR, it’s enough to give you a panic attack. Lapin’s sage advice? “Manage your expectations, and fast.”

While you may harbor dreams of a walkable commute or an enviable address in the Mission District or the West Village, renting in a pricey neighborhood is a one-way ticket to an empty bank account. “In order to save up, do not spend more than 35 percent on housing,” Lapin says. “Period. End of story.”

MORE: Tips on How to Save Money, from Women in Finance

Maybe that means getting roommates or living in a less-trendy zip code and commuting longer distances. But look at it this way—you’re saving more in the long run, and you can use your commute time to brush up on your reading.

10. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.
Though it sounds like a lot, Perez and Lapin recommend setting aside 10 to 20 percent of your paycheck each month for savings and investments. “Your 20s and early 30s are your peak savings years and lay the foundations for big purchases—like a house—down the road,” Lapin says.

“Budgeting does not mean have less fun. It means making conscious decisions about how you’re doing to use your money based on how you want to live.”

Think of budgeting as making choices for the future—saving now equals a beach house later. A girl can dream, right?