NYC On A Budget, Part I: Moving, or How Not to Live in the Ghetto

New York is notoriously expensive, and getting a job fresh out of college isn’t always easy. Having been through all this, and with more and more friends wanting to move here and/or work in publishing, I thought I’d do a little series to help them out. It can be a challenge living here, there’s no doubt about that. But as Tim Gunn always says, “Make it work!”

I did, and you can too.

And I promise you, it’s worth it.


Moving in (and to) New York sucks. This is just a fact of life. But being here is worth the pain of moving your things up five flights of stairs in the middle of August. Trust me.

Now, first thing you need to know: your budget (and be realistic about it. I’ve heard it said that you’ll want about $8000 saved up before you move here, and that’s honestly pretty accurate). You may want to spend $2000 on a studio in SoHo, but the reality is you may only be able to afford a $600 room in a three bedroom apartment in the Brooklyn ghetto. Know how much you can afford to spend, then check online to see what neighborhoods that may put you in. If you’ve got your heart set on a particular area but can’t afford it, this website offers some great alternatives.

(Word to the wise: stay out of places like Bedstuy, Jamaica, Utica, and the more dangerous parts of Harlem.)

Got an idea of where you can actually afford to live? Awesome! Now do some googling. Are those areas safe? Close to trains? Is it somewhere you wouldn’t be afraid to take your parents? (God, I wish I’d used the Parent Test a lot these last few years.)

Take some time to check out Google Street View (god bless the genius in charge of that). Hop on the train and visit (both during the day and at night). If you don’t feel safe, cross it off your list. However, keep in mind that you may need to adjust your thinking if you’re moving here from a small town that’s never been witness to graffiti. Living in a big city is nothing like living in Podunk, Nowhere, and it may take some time to adjust. Don’t write some place off just because you aren’t used to it. Safety is one thing, being out of your comfort zone is another.

Next comes the fun (?) part: apartment hunting! Websites like Trulia, NakedApartmentsCraigslist, Padmapper and The Village Voice are all great places to help you get started. The great thing about New York is that someone is always looking to move. It may take some serious looking on your part, but if you’re on a deadline, it is possible to find an apartment on a day’s notice. I can’t guarantee that it’ll be your dream apartment, but you will definitely be able to find something.

Set up as many viewings as you can manage. Looking for an apartment can be a full-time job, especially if you don’t have one yet. When I first moved here, I spent hours and hours scouring Craigslist for possibilities. I saw really horrible places full of dead roaches (Seriously. I counted at least 12.) and places with formal dining rooms and magical kitchens. The more you see, the better chance you have of finding something you really like.

But know this: housing in New York goes *like that*. I’m not joking. If you see a place that is exactly what you’re looking for, and within your budget, do not hesitate. Chances are, it’s also someone else’s perfect apartment, and it’ll be gone in a day. Probably sooner. So bring your checkbook with you while you’re hunting and don’t be afraid to sign your life away. (Just keep in mind that you may need a guarantor, so talk to your parents ahead of time. There’s some crazy math thing that you need to make such-and-such times the rent before you can sign on your own, and if you have no job, well…)

Before you sign, here are just a few things you’re going to want to ask:

  • Is the sale being done through a broker? If so, how much is the broker’s fee?
  • What amount will you have to put down to secure the apartment? First and last month’s rent? First, last, and a security deposit? First, last, and a broker’s fee? (If you’re subletting, chances are you may not have to pay all of that, but you should ask anyway.)
  • Is there laundry on-site or nearby? Grocery stores? A pharmacy? Subway stop?
  • How close is the landlord? (On-site landlords are better, in my opinion, if only because they’re on hand to fix anything that may go wrong.)
  • Where is the fuse box? (Tip courtesy of all my guy friends.)
  • How much do utilities run on average? (It’s pretty standard for heat and hot water to be included in your rent, but always check.)
  • Has the building/apartment had problems with roaches or bed bugs?
  • Does the building allow animals? (This may or may not matter to you.)

Take note of the closest subways, and figure out how long your commute will be to work/school/the places you want to be. Know that a cheaper rent will probably put you further away from the city, so you can expect a decent commute (especially if there are transfers involved). When I lived in Brooklyn, it took me the better part of an hour to get to my office in Midtown. These days it takes me 25 minutes from where I live in Washington Heights. And no transfers. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

Also, really take into consideration the things you are willing to compromise on. If you’re paying off student loans like me, it really eats into your housing budget. So if you want to live in that nice neighborhood with the shorter commute, think about the things you’re willing to give up. Maybe it means eating out only once a week, and making the rest of your meals at home. Maybe you have to give up your morning trip to Starbucks, cable, or your fancy gym membership. All those clothes you like to buy, you might have to stop for a while. It’s all about what’s most important to you. (And I’ll cover ways to cut costs in future installments.)

Once you’ve taken all of that into consideration, and you’ve found a place, you need to figure out how you’re going to get all your stuff there. When I first moved here, I came with two suitcases, so moving wasn’t a big deal. The second time required some more planning. But you can find decently priced movers on Craigslist or Groupon (or even guys just standing outside the UHaul shop), or you can rent a UHaul for a day. Look at the options available to you and the amount of things you have.

Once you’re all moved in:

Do a thorough investigation of your new abode. Your landlord will most likely have you fill out a checklist of things, so it’s the perfect time for you to take stock of things you need fixed or want to change. Check for working smoke detectors, make sure the windows all lock (especially if you’re on the ground floor), and that the oven doesn’t start on fire when you turn it on (…that may have happened to me… twice). Did your apartment come with window AC units? Make sure they work.

You’re also going to want internet, and possibly cable. Check out CableMover to see what providers are available in your area. If you’re living on a budget, maybe skip the DVR and HBO — that’s why God invented the internet. I can tell you from personal experience that Optimum is literally half the cost of Time Warner (screw you, Time Warner), and pretty much anything I want to watch, I can find it online somewhere. As for internet, I miss the days when I could just bum wifi from my upstairs neighbors, who never thought to password protect things. To be fair, they threw crazy parties and were always really rude and obnoxious, so I didn’t feel as bad using their wifi.

If you’re a homebody, or a pinterest addict, you’ll probably want to paint, install some shelves, etc. Make sure you ask your landlord about painting. I’ve lived in places where it wasn’t allowed, period, and other landlords have paid for all the materials as long as I did the actual work. But hey, it never hurts to ask!

And one final tip before I’m done for the day: make sure to go online and change your address with USPS. I completely forgot about this one when I moved, and who knows what kind of mail never made it to me!

Welp, that’s all I have for now. I hope this was helpful for those of you who’ve been considering a move! If I missed anything, or you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you!


7 thoughts on “NYC On A Budget, Part I: Moving, or How Not to Live in the Ghetto

  1. Just wanted to say how much I appreciate posts like these. I’m a bit of a ways off from this step (currently a freshman in college), but my eventual dream is to work in publishing and live in NYC. So many great tips that never would have occurred to me! Bookmarking this for sure.

    1. I’m glad this was helpful, Kacey! I wish I’d know all of this stuff before I decided to uproot my life and come here, so hopefully I’m saving some of you guys the trouble!

  2. Hey there!
    I’m a member of the former PH community and I came here to ask you for advice on the big move to NYC. Imagine my surprise when I found that you’ve already written about it! I’m considering taking a job with the NYC Teaching Fellows, but I’m a little intimidated by the city and finding a place and figuring out all the logistics. So, I was just wondering how you did it. Thanks for posting this! I appreciate it. You’re awesome.


    1. Hi Kara,

      Glad this could help! I’ve had a lot of friends move here lately, and a bunch more who’d like to, so hopefully this stuff is helpful. I’ve got at least two more installments coming, but keep an eye on the NYC on a Budget page listed at the top of the site — there’ll be some extra stuff posted there as well. And if you have more specific questions, feel free to email me!

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