Surviving a Big City on a Small Budget


I’ve lived in a few expensive cities in my day. I interned in London, worked in New York and currently live in Denver. Ridiculous rent prices and marked-up retail items are just a part of my life at this point.
I’m also no stranger to a low salary, and the majority of my time in these cities has been spent hovering just above the poverty line. I’ve learned to hustle, scrimp and generally make the most of every penny I can find – all while managing to still have fun and enjoy my life.
If you love the big city but hate the big price tag, read ahead for some tips on how to make it work.
Take Advantage of Free Days
Most cultural centers offer free days every month or yearly quarter. Use those days to explore museums, botanic gardens and more without paying a fee.
Always ask if they have discounts. A friend of mine unexpectedly saved a few bucks off admission after she casually asked a museum staffer if they had special prices for teachers.
Use Public Transportation
The bigger the city, the more likely it is to have decent public transportation. Many who live in Chicago, New York or San Francisco get by only using the bus and rail systems.
The cost comparison might also convince you. An unlimited 30-day subway and bus pass in New York City costs $116.50 , while car owners pay an average of $725 a month for insurance, registration and maintenance.
Bicyclists can save even more and spend between $300 and $600 a year, not including the ability to park almost anywhere. This is a great option for cities with a temperate climate, as well as cities with subpar or pricey transit options.
Find a Cheap Apartment
The less you spend on housing, the more you’ll have to enjoy the city you’re in. Saving $100 a month on an apartment is $100 you can spend on restaurants, concerts, comedy shows and more. Which would you rather have – an apartment with a slightly bigger closet or more opportunities to have fun?

If you’re already living in the cheapest housing situation you can handle, try adding a roommate. You can save a few hundred dollars by splitting a pad with someone else, and you can share costs on utilities and internet as well as rent.
Splurge on Experiences, Not Stuff
Studies show that experiences make us happier than consumer goods. Spending $250 on a “Hamilton” ticket will probably provide more joy than a new outfit, for example.
Buy used clothes, shop at discount grocery stores and use the library so you can afford to see your favorite band or eat at the hottest restaurant in town.
Volunteer
Want to check out next weekend’s art festival, but can’t afford admission? Contact the organizers and see if they need volunteers. Almost every large event needs a slew of volunteers, who usually receive free entrance and a complimentary meal for working just a few hours.
The most popular events have strict sign-up deadlines and often require training sessions, so contact organizers in advance.
Research Online
When I lived in New York and London, I read publications like Time Out every week to see what bargain events were happening around town. Now that I’m in Denver, I go to the website Reddit to find the cheap or free activities going on. I even discovered a local newsletter that only mentions affordable options for people who want to explore their city without paying tourist prices.
Browse old website standbys like Groupon and LivingSocial to spot unique attractions that won’t break your budget.
Do you live in a big city on a small budget? What are some ways you save to enjoy both necessities and experiences? Let us know in the comments!
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