I never really decided to spend only $8,000 in one year—it just sort of happened. I didn’t even realize the extent of my thrift until tallying up my income on the eve of March 15. When you take the amount of money I brought home (roughly $13,000) and subtract the amount I had thrown to the black void that is private student loans (roughly $5,000), combined with the fact that both my checking and my savings accounts were more or less empty on January 1, it was pretty simple math. And while I maybe didn’t expect my spending to have been quite that lean, I can’t say I was all that surprised either. Since I moved to Brooklyn two years ago, I’ve staunchly maintained that despite New York City’s reputation as the playground for the rich (or, as will become clear later, because of it) you can pretty much spend as much, or as little as you want here.
So how did I come to only spend eight grand? Well, in a way, the answer starts right before I packed up my life into a clunker of a 92 Jetta on the verge of a breakdown, and made the drive to my first apartment in Brooklyn.
Just a few days before, I was sweating under the weight of a cap-and-gown ensemble while Mayor Bloomberg addressed my class of roughly 450 Bard College grads. To paraphrase, he promised that all of us who moved to New York City would be welcomed with “open arms.” But that wasn’t exactly how it played out for me.
During the first month of my new life in New York, the superintendent of my building, who I later learned was addicted to crack, broke into my room and stole a handful of blank checks. She then proceeded to use them to milk my checking account to -$1000. After my first six months I was unemployed, having been fired from my first two jobs, the latter of which was bussing tables at a roach-infested restaurant.
I finished up 2007 doing freelance photography. Though it has a romantic ring to it, this more or less translated to taking snap shots of drunk people in nightclubs, and a myriad of odd jobs from taking head shots of a police detective for his MySpace page to playing the role of one of ten “fake” paparazzi photographers in a Burger King commercial. For all of this, I made around $800 a month, $550 of which had to go to rent at the time. With only $250 left for everything else, including student loans, I had to figure out how to live frugally.
One of the main reasons I’m able to spend so little is that my rent in a shared Bed Stuy brownstone is cheap, even for Brooklyn. I pay $440 a month, all utilities included. Also included are wooden floors, two large windows, original molding, two large walk-in closets, a built in bookcase, and a personal bathroom. Yeah, that’s right—I have my own bathroom. My rent dropped $110 because we decided to rent out our living room. Bed Stuy might not have the same restaurants and bars as trendier neighborhoods have, but it’s quiet with tree lined streets, and it’s got perhaps the best roti in Brooklyn.
When it came time to paint my room, I went to Build it Green in Astoria and walked off with a gallon of blue paint and a quart of white for a total of $6, which of course I wrote off my next rent check.
I don’t need to spend much on clothes because my job, as a part-time assistant for a small business owner, requires only that I look clean. So I usually shop at the Salvation Army or go to a Free Market, basically a massive giveaway that happens usually every few months. They’re highly unpredictable. There’s either tons of great stuff, or a meager selection that’s clearly been sitting at the bottom of someone’s closest for the last year. Still, it’s free, and always worth a check. (To sign up for email notices for when the next one is planned, contact them at email@example.com.)
That said, I did need to buy clothes since moving to the city for interviews, and found them at chain stores common to Brooklyn like “Danice” or “Pretty Girl.” I’ve gotten nice blouses sold two for $10, and basic black skirts for $15 that look just as professional as more costly items elsewhere.
My diet consists mainly of gourmet ingredients: pre-washed baby spinach and watercress, fresh mozzarella, portabella mushrooms, smoked salmon, chocolate croissants, free range eggs, salmon steaks, spicy Italian sausage, hummus, crème fraiche, Odwalla granola bars—these are just some of the gourmet items I’ve picked out of supermarket trash bins in the past year.
As for quality, most of the time the items I find have not even passed their expiration date, and if they have, it’s usually only by a day or two. While sometimes eating for free means slightly bruised fruit or slicing off a bit of mold on a block of cheese, I’ve foraged for everything from fish filets to pork chops and never gotten sick—something I can’t say for people who regularly eat at restaurants.
Where do I find the best stuff? Mainly in Manhattan. Le Pain Quotidien has probably the best bread in all of New York City. It’s covered with rolled oats, and inside is chuck full with nuts and cranberries. They’ve also got nice plain whole wheat loafs, and some serious chocolate brownies. An excess of bagels can be found nightly at Daniel’s Bagels in Murray Hill, or Bagel Store in Williamsburg. For Daniel’s, don’t just hone in on the first bag you find. They usually put out 2-3 bags of just bagels—the freshest will often still be warm, and will always have several bagels still stuck together. That’s how you know they’re fresh off the baking pan.
Fruits and Vegetables: On the Chrystie Street edge of the Whole Foods in the Bowery, between around 4-6:30 PM you’ll find rows of green dumpsters that on any given day are full to the brim with fruit and vegetables. It’s somewhat hit or miss, so if you don’t strike gold the first time don’t be discouraged.
For dairy and meat, Gristedes and D’Agostino also offer a wider array of finds. Pretty much every store is good, but I have particular luck with the branches in Murray Hill. Especially the Gristedes on 32nd Street and Third Avenue. Not only do I routinely get vegetables, dairy, and meat, but this is the main spot where I find special treats like the aforementioned smoked salmon.
While the number of people who bike to work rose 35% in 2008, I’d bet a lot of money that even among those most did not bike in the dead of winter. I know because I was out on the streets, come snow or blistery winds, and I can tell you, there were certainly a lot less bikes than there is now.
While I am a huge fan of biking, even I admit it’s not for everyone. You will get into accidents. I don’t care how cautious you are. If you don’t feel you can afford to hit the pavement every once in a while, then biking probably isn’t for you. Even I sometimes drop the cash to take the train if I’m on my way to a photography gig; my camera is just too valuable to risk a long ride.
I always take full advantage of free museum days and summer concert series during summer, but I also have a few money-saving tricks that aren’t so obvious.
Movies: If you don’t have a Brooklyn Library card already, get one. Their movie collection is actually pretty impressive, and while it can be hard to just walk in and find the title you want, you can request anything in their system to be shipped to the branch nearest you.
Eating Out: Two words—mystery shopper. For obvious reasons, there is a limit to what I can say about this, but I highly recommend searching around Craigslist for people advertising jobs as mystery shoppers. It allows me to drop $240 on a dinner for two without having to actually pay.
Drinking: Probably my favorite way to drink for free is the weekly see-and-be-seen fest that is gallery openings in Chelsea. Not only is the booze free, but it tends to be decent, often with accompanying snacks. Plus you get to look vaguely classy in the process, making this a great idea if you want to hang out with a friend who has slightly higher standards. A little advice: I’ve found a somewhat intriguing negative correlation between the quality of the artwork and the quality of the free handouts.
In the end, I’m not sure how long I’ll live like this. While I can’t say that I feel like I’ve missed out at all by living such a thrift-conscious lifestyle, I admit my current situation is not ideal. There are some things that I’ve yet to find a solution. For example, if anyone knows an affordable darkroom rental, uh, let me know.
And certainly, if I landed one of those salaried jobs I sometimes fantasize about, I’m sure I’d spend more money. But until then, I know I can live for a year on less than some people in this city spend in a month.