New York on the Cheap

“Falling out of love with New York is a situation of not having enough money… If you have money, it gets better and better,” Joan Didion writes in The Revolution Will Be Accessorized.

Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to live cheaply in New York. It’s all a matter of knowledge and (some) hard work. It’s more like a game. A challenge. Here are the ways I have attempted to save money over the last two years I’ve spent living here. Thank you to the friends who contributed. (Note: I don’t mind if you use these tips, but please give credit where it’s due).

Food and Drink

It is completely false that you need to have $20 sandwiches and $15 cocktails in order to fully enjoy New York’s culinary scene, a common misconception perpetuated by the concierges at overpriced Midtown hotels. There are plenty of places to eat cheaply and deliciously. Some of the best food in New York is found in a greasy hole-in-the-wall.

1) Yelp. A lot.

99 cent oysters at Ngam in the East Village. Photo by Victoria Sung.

I downloaded the Yelp app and its been one of the most useful things I have. New York is a big Yelp city. Before heading to a restaurant or bar, Yelp it to check out the price range and menu to avoid surprises. (The thing to be careful about in New York is the ‘surprise! this is the price tag!’ moment when you sit down to eat in an otherwise unremarkable restaurant). Single dollar sign means $10 per person. There are also plenty of magazines, websites, and blogs dedicated to finding the best cheap eats in New York.

2) Go where the students are

Mamoun’s Falafel in the Village is practically a NYU institution, and with good reason. At $2 per falafel sandwich, there are few places where you can eat so cheaply. Other student hang outs include the ubiquitous $1 pizza slice places around the city (a popular one is 2 Bros Pizza) and halal carts that sell chicken and rice; in fact, there is a ‘Chicken and Rice’ club at NYU devoted to the $5 plates of steaming spicy fare. On the way to classes, I would often stop at the breakfast food carts to buy a cup of $1 coffee. Larger bodegas sometimes have delis that provide $3 breakfast sandwiches and rolls.

Avoid places where everyone is wearing “I Heart New York” shirts, because you’re guaranteed to get ripped off. Times Square is possibly one of the worst places to get your value for money.

3) Partayy? Comparison shop

Do some comparison shopping when buying alcohol. When I moved here, I was shocked to find that two bodegas a block apart could have as much as a $5 difference in pricing for a six-pack of beer. The favorite of broke New Yorkers is the “Two Buck Chuck,” a (now) $3.25 bottle of wine from Trader Joe’s wine shop. My favorite place to buy spirits is Warehouse Wine and Liquor, where my boyfriend bought 18-year old Scotch for 50% off and I got a giant bottle of Grey Goose for $30.

Sometimes, though, you need to leave your tiny apartment. Again, Yelp to find the best happy hours in your neighborhood. Verlaine in the Lower East Side has the most fantastic lychee martinis for $5 until 10PM. Hipster bars such as the Cake Shop or the Levee will have $2 cans of beer. Local deal apps like ScoutMob offer discounts at restaurants and bars without commitment, unlike Groupon and LivingSocial. It’s all about doing your homework, and making sure you carry cash on you, since many of these places don’t accept credit card.

4) Grocery shop in Chinatown

Specifically, the Two Bridges area. The sidewalk vendors and super markets in the area are unparalleled in pricing and variety (except for maybe Flushing, Queens).

5) Eat in Chinatown

Develop a thick skin and don’t feel bad about the server yelling at you. My favorite cheap place to eat is Mei Li Wah Bakery on Bayard St. Typically I’ll spend $4 here and leave in a food coma. If you’re willing to leave the Canal St area, the further east you head, the cheaper the food gets. My friend Roberto Jamora recommends $1 dumplings on Allen and Delancey St.

6) Go shawty, it’s your birthday: Sign up for stuff

This will make your birthday all the better. I have a registered Starbucks card which gives me a free drink during my birthday month. Delicious cupcake shop Butter Lane will give you a free cupcake on your birthday. I’m sure there are tons of companies which offer this perk, and its not necessarily only the large companies that offer this.

New York is a mecca of culture, and it’s not true that you need a lot of money to enjoy it. From Broadway to the parkway, there’s always a discount for those looking for it.

1) Attend museums during their free admission days

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photo from the New York Times

All the major museums in New York have either free admission day/hours or have a suggested admission fee. And there are so many museums in New York that you’ll always find one that has a new exhibit you haven’t seen before. Recently I went to the Frick Collection on Sunday afternoon during their “pay-what-you-want” admission time. I paid $3, got an audioguide, and spent four hours there. Every Sunday they have their “Sunday Sketch” program where they provide you with pencils and paper to sketch in their Garden Gallery. It’s a great way to spend some time and get some culture for cheap.

For major museums, check to make sure whether their admission price is fixed or a suggestion only. The Met, for example, always has a suggested admission price, but you can pay what you want.

2) Art galleries are always free. Pretentious attitude not included.

If you’re looking to get a reading of New York’s vibrant art, check out art galleries in Chelsea or the Lower East Side. Fan of a particular gallery? Find out when their exhibition openings are, and you might be able to get a free glass of wine and some hors d’oeuvres, or maybe even a chance to meet the artist.

The more adventurous can head out to Brooklyn and Queens for the fantastical world of artist-run spaces. Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Long Island City are where the gritty warehouse-dominated landscape house the avant garde. The Bushwick Open Studios, for example, is an annual event where artists open their studio space to the public. Be prepared to be shocked, titillated, and possibly offended – there’s no other way to experience the heart of New York culture. As Yoko Ono once said, “Artists are going to be the metronome of this society.”

3) Never pay full price for Broadway

Photo by TKTS

I love seeing Broadway and off-Broadway shows, but they can get expensive. Once in a while though, I’ll head over to the TKTS booth (or check their app!) to see if my favorite shows are on sale. Often you’ll get fantastic seats at 40%-50% off. I saw War Horse from the 2nd row for $65 (40% off). Tip: the Brooklyn and South St Seaport locations open 4 hours earlier than the Times Square one, which means better seats!

For popular and/or sold-out shows like Wicked, find out what their rush ticket policy is. You might be able to get them for $30-50. If you end up with less-than-stellar seats, check out the empty seats during intermission. This is how I went from being on the 4th balcony at the Nutcracker to 2nd.

Enrolled as a student? Many plays have student discounts, and many schools such as New York University have their own ticket center with discounted prices.

4) Take advantage of public spaces – just don’t occupy it (cause the legal fees are expensive.. har har, bad joke)

Photo by Victoria Sung

Provided the weather is nice enough, there’s no charge for sitting in a park and people watching. From the Highline to Battery Park, New York has some of the most beautiful and well maintained parks I have ever seen. As a NYU alum, I love Washington Square Park. It has some of the best people watching in New York, and when the weather is beautiful there will be at least two or three different musical acts in the park. And of course, I love the Central Park Mall. It’s beautiful and spacious – best to go in the morning, during a weekday, when it’s less busy. My other favorites are Prospect Park and Stuyvesant Cove along the East River. If you live here, chances are there will be a park within walking distance of your house.

For a ‘New York’ experience that isn’t too cliched or touristy, walk the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s about a 30 minute walk and you end up in the DUMBO area of Brooklyn with fantastic views of Manhattan.

5) Summer nights = free entertainment

Despite the heat, humidity, and stench, New York is a great place to be during those sweltering summer months. Last month, I attended a free New York Philharmonic concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to listen to some Debussy and Tchaikovsky. (See this list of free NYC summer concerts.) Music lounges and bars such as the Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side feature up and coming artists for cheap or free.

Photo by Victoria Sung

If music isn’t your thing, check out free movie screenings across the city. We all know that movies nowadays cost an arm and a leg, so save some money by sitting down to watch a movie screening under the stars. At River Flicks along the Hudson River they even provide free popcorn. Still stuck on enjoying the A/C in a theater? AMC Loews has $6 matinees at their locations across the city.

6) Walking: Or, how to be a real New Yorker

My roommate Meredith enjoys self-guided walking tours of New York’s architecture. She says, “I just went through a NY guide book and picked out buildings that would be cool if I just saw them.”

As a history buff, I love the Bowery Boys podcasts for different historical landmarks and neighborhoods.

New York is the setting of a lot of great television and movies. Although the official tours are expensive and can cost upwards of $40 per person, you can do your own tours. Law & Order, the legendary legal and police drama filmed on location, is one of the more popular tours, and the NYC mayoral office provides a list of locations here.

Other stuff

1) Transportation: Transfer, transfer, transfer

The unlimited monthly pass ($109) is a great thing if you use public transit everyday. If, like me, you don’t, usage of both train and bus routes is a way to cut your spending in half. As long as you make the transfer within two hours and don’t mind walking a little distance, you can jump on the bus or train for free. Let’s say you wanted to go grocery shopping in Chinatown. You can take the 6 down to Canal, and jump on the M103 bus on the way back. Ta da! You’ve paid for one trip.

Check the MTA website to find out what bus routes connect to your destination.

2) Fitness: donation based classes

There’s Yoga to the People, which offers donation based vinyasa and hot yoga in various locations around New York. They even provide rented mats and water. This is a great way to avoid the overpriced studios in New York, as long as you don’t mind sharing your personal space.

Recently, I discovered Liberated Movement, which is housed in the Battery Dance Company studio in Chinatown and offers six dance classes a week ranging from Zumba to bhangra to ballet. During the summer months, there are free yoga classes in various public spaces like Bryant Park. There are plenty of classes like these across the city. All it takes is a little research and courage.

I probably haven’t even scratched the surface of ways to live cheaply in New York. I’m sure everyone has their own way of saving money in this expensive city. There are so many ways to live in New York, and finding things on the cheap can be another adventure. Just do your research, carry cash, and keep an open mind. Happy hunting!

Have your own way of living cheap in New York? Share it in the comments!


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