Hello young people, and welcome to New York! First, I have some bad news for you: Everyone who's already here will blame all of the city’s problems on you. Ignore them—they’re just jealous of your firm young bodies and generally optimistic attitude. And, in about five years, it'll be your turn to grouse about young people moving into your city.
But first you have to survive here for those five years, a tough task given that New York is becoming more expensive by the day. Fortunately, you can trust me, a guy who’s never made more than $30,000 a year in eight years of living here, to let you in on ways to live here on the cheap and still enjoy it.
Get an ID
An NYC ID, I mean: It comes with a ridiculous amount of benefits that will make living here both more affordable and more fun. For starters, you can get 5 percent off groceries at Food Bazaar, a grocery chain (non-organic, non-locally sourced division) with locations in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn if you shop there on a weekday before 7 pm. You also get 20 percent off membership at the YMCA—which has branches everywhere in the city and charges much less than the fancy Equinoxes and Pure Yogas—and 10 percent off city rec center memberships if you like to work out.
The really big payoff of the NYC ID, however, is that you can get free one-year memberships at 43 museums and cultural institutions around the city (you can find a full list of them here). Will you go to every single museum you get a membership at? Probably not. But it offers a year of free entry to heavy-hitters like MOMA, The New Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Brooklyn Museum. (Keep in mind, though, that you have to separately go to each museum to claim your free membership—we've got tips on the whole process here.) Be sure to use the ID get a Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) membership, too, as that will get you half-price movie tickets for a year, as well as 20 percent off purchases at nearby Greenlight, as well as 10 percent off a number of date-friendly spots in the surrounding neighborhood, Fort Greene.
Develop smart Cineplex habits
Speaking of movies, you’ll want to go to them, I bet! (That is, when you're not Netflixing.) But in case you haven’t heard, going to a movie in the city practically requires taking out a mortgage. You’re looking at $13 on average—cheaper only if you go to the first showing of the day—but prepare to spend over the average. It’s crazy, which is why if you want to see a bunch of movies but also not spend yourself into a coma, there are a few theatres you should patronize.
The Cobble Hill and Williamsburg Cinemas, owned by the same company, offer the miraculous price of $9 for every show on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as for any show before 2 pm on weekends. Both theatres have a plethora of screens and show new releases, so you're not limiting yourself to arthouse films, or don't have to wait for big new blockbusters to become available online.
Also in the realm of the $9 ticket, Forest Hills, Queens (birthplace of The Ramones!) has the Cinemart CInemas, which has $9 shows all the time. Midwood’s Kent Theater also has $9 movie tickets and trumps everyone else with a $5 “Bargain Wednesday” deal. The downside to Kent and CInemart is that they’re three-screen theatres, so your choices are usually a bit limited when compared to other theaters in the city. Still, they’ve usually got one current blockbuster you might be into, and you can spend the five or six dollars you saved on your ticket on beers to bring in the theater.
Take the city's cultural handouts
Beyond movies and the museums you can get into with your NYC ID, the city also keeps a list of free museums handy for you, allowing you to get a slice of that famous culture without having to pretend you don’t see the “suggested donation” sign right in front of your face. A new addition to the free museums that isn’t on the city’s list at the moment is the Brooklyn Museum, which in addition to hosting First Saturdays (free programming on the first Saturday of every month), now offers free admission every single Thursday night.
Eat for free (or dirt cheap)
Straight up: You probably can't find truly free food unless you're willing to dumpster-dive. (And before you make that face I know you’re making, check out this video comedian Jeff Seal made for Gothamist.) New York City grocery stores throw out a ton of edible food, and if you’re willing to hit the streets after business hours, you can reap that bounty.
If you're not into that option, you can hit up the right bars on the right days that give you free food with your drinks:
There’s the Brazen Head in Cobble Hill, which has free wings on Mondays, free cheese and crackers on Wednesdays, and free bagels on Sunday. There are the lounges—Alligator in Williamsburg, and Crocodile in the East Village—where you can get a free personal pizza with every drink you buy (bad if you’re trying to avoid carbs, but great if you’re trying to trick your body into feeling full due to an abundance of carbs). Denny’s Steak Pub in Kensington always has a hot plate out with some kind of food (and also has $2 Budweisers all day long), and you can get a hot dog with every drink at Rudy’s in Hell’s Kitchen or beer-braised hot dogs every Wednesday between 5 pm and 7 pm at Nolita’s Spring Lounge. Williamsburg’s South 4th Bar puts out pizza every Sunday from nearby Williamsburg Pizza, which combined with a make-your-own-Bloody Mary bar for $5 does wonders for fighting hangovers. (For more options, Thrillist has a huge list here.)
You’ll also have a veritable smorgasbord (not Smorgasburg, that’s expensive and full of lines) of cheap eats if you just walk out your door, unless you live somewhere totally characterless. Halal street meat will run you around $6 for lamb or chicken over rice, along with a salad, and usually comes with enough food that you can split it into two meals if you’re trying to stretch your dollar. Williamsburg’s Oasis has a $3 falafel, perfect for grabbing on the go on the way to McCarren Park or Summerscreen. There’s also tacos, so many tacos, that you can choose from in Bushwick or Sunset Park. Eater’s Robert Siestema keeps a running map of his favorite cheap spots around the city on Eater, and if you’re ever looking for a restaurant to impress someone without setting fire to your wallet, Michelin comes out with their list of Bib Gourmands, where you can get two courses and a glass of wine for less than $40, every year.
If you want to cook at home and try to make the most of that, you might try taking a look at food stamps. New York needs a whole host of documents from you to determine if you’re eligible for food stamps, and while your student loans aren’t going to affect your eligibility for food stamps, but your rent, utility payments, medical expenses could all help determine if you get them. You should keep in mind that unless your first job when you get here is exploited Huffington Post intern, you probably won’t have an office job and food stamps.
Stay healthy (if not wealthy)
The advent of Obamacare means that you probably won’t find yourself utterly uninsured, even if your job doesn’t offer you health insurance. That said, your employer-sponsored plan or whatever you find on the exchange market could saddle you with a deductible that makes it all but impossible to use unless you fall down the stairs. Plus, there’s usually a total lack of dental insurance or vision coverage. Fortunately, this is a big city and you’ve got options.
The Bronx’s Morris Health Center offers sliding scale payment for their services (a full range of treatments for adults, mental health, dental work, and even urgent care). As a bonus, you won’t be dealing with dental students fumbling around and learning on your mouth if you go in for a cleaning.
If Brooklyn's more convenient and you're totally uninsured, the Brooklyn Free Clinic can help you out when you’re feeling aches and pains, need gynecological work or a breast exam or just need a check up. The only downside is that appointments are only on Wednesdays from 5 pm to 7 pm, and again, are only for people who don’t have insurance.
As far as sexual health is concerned, the City of New York offers sliding scale STD testing at clinics around the city. Planned Parenthood has a medical center in all five boroughs, all of which take every private insurer in the state along with Medicaid, and provide a whole range of services not limited to STD testing,women’s health services, birth control and abortion (referral only in Staten Island). And for preventative measures, you'll quickly notice that bowls of NYC-branded condoms are put out in bars and certain stores (like Housing Works) as though they were free pretzels.
And of course, there’s your mouth, which frequently betrays you no matter how good a job you think you do taking care of it. If you find yourself with a tooth issue and insurance that doesn’t give you dental, New York University has a whole list of free and low cost clinics where you can take care of your mouth problems.
Embrace your friend—summer
“Hot time summer in the city/empty wallet don’t get me feeling no pity,” so goes the Lovin’ Spoonful song (don’t look it up, just trust me). The Spoons knew what they were talking about, because with some careful planning, you can get through a summer barely spending a cent. Your highlights include:
SummerStage: A five-borough party composed of free concerts all over the city, with a main hub of bigger shows at the Central Park amphitheater. The bad news is you have to pay to see some of the shows at the amphitheater. The good news is that sound carries out of it very well, and you’re more than welcome to put down a blanket behind the theater and listen to the music for free.
Celebrate Brooklyn: Live from the Prospect Park amphitheater, it’s a summer of music! Celebrate Brooklyn pulls out a mix of mainstream and niche acts every summer, for a series of shows every year from the beginning of June until mid-August. Like SummerStage, a handful of the shows are benefits that have paid admission, but similar to the Central Park amphitheater, there’s a ton of space around Prospect Park stage for you to lay out in the grass and enjoy the tunes.
Another thing that gets cheaper as the temperature goes up: movies (yes, that subject again). Sure, you want to see the summer blockbusters that your friends will be talking about, but at this point, you can probably just get the comic trade paperbacks for all the X-Men and Avengers movies coming out. Save your cash and instead bring a blanket and some snacks to any one of these 100-percent-free summer movie festivals that show a mix of old classics, new blockbusters and artsy documentaries:
SummerScreen: Wednesdays at 6pm in July and August, McCarren Park
Movies With A View: Thursdays at 6pm in July and August, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 1
Flicks On The Beach: Mondays at 6pm in July and August, West 10th Street and the boardwalk
Pier 1 Picture Show: Wednesdays at 6:30pm, July and August, Pier 1 and 70th Street
FIlm Forum: Wednesdays at 7pm, July and August, Socrates Sculpture Park
HBO Bryant Park Film Festival: Mondays at 5pm from June through August, Bryant Park
Hudson River Flicks: Wednesdays at 8:30pm, July and August, Hudson River Park
Red Hook Flicks: Tuesdays at 8:30pm, July through September, Valentino Pier
Narrows Botanical Garden: Fridays at 8:30pm, June through September
You should also always be on the lookout for bars near you running free movie nights. You’ll have to buy a drink or two just so you’re not a total freeloading jerk, but it gives you an opportunity to meet your neighbors and bond while you get drunk in bar’s backyard.
Head to the beach
Never pass up a beach trip, since despite the presence of some haters, the city’s beaches are a great way to spend a day for little more than a subway fare (or a bike ride). If you head to Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways or Coney Island in Brooklyn, you’ll be presented with the option of buying some moderately-priced bougie food items from either the Rockaway Beach Bazaar or the Coney Island Smorgasburg outpost. Resist the urge to buy beach food, and instead hit up a grocery store to grab fruit and snacks and beers (and cups, cups are very important, since outdoor drinking is technically against the law here) for a summer day that can’t be beat.
Find a furnished apartment—or buy cheap
There will, of course, be things that you just have to spend money on when you move here. The best piece of advice I can give you as far as furniture is that you should find yourself a furnished sublet where the person isn’t coming back. Craigslist is full of these situations, and it’s a great place to start. Do you have friends who already live in the city? Put them to work for you by polling their Facebook friends to see if any of them have an extra room, or also on the Facebook front you can also look for a place on Gypsy Housing NYC. After all, you don’t want to show up here with a giant van you have to navigate in traffic or pay someone else to drive. Nor do you want to be stuck lugging a mattress up your stairs like some kinda chump. The other advantage to this plan is that usually the people moving out and selling their stuff to you are doing it at a discount, because they don’t want to pay movers any more than you do.
Get a bike
Other than that, your big purchase should be a bike. Look at it like this: from May to September (and sometimes April to October), the weather in New York is good enough that you can ride your bike every single day. If you ditch your monthly MetroCard for those months, you’ve saved $582.50, which is just about what you paid for bike. And that’s just for a single summer! Cycling in the city might seem kind of intimidating, but the city is adding more bike lanes every day, and as long as you ride with the idea that you belong on the road, you should be safe.
If you want to feel a bit safer, cycling advocates and the people behind the Five Boro Bike Tour, Bike New York, provide a range of classes and group rides that will have you so comfortable you get yourself a fixed gear and a permanent car-stopping scowl in no time. If you want to do it in a female-safe environment, WE Bike NYC does a range of safety and repair classes, along with groups rides, every month.
You can get a good bike with a lock that won’t be immediately clipped for between $600 and $700. That sounds like a lot of money off the bat, but you’re going to have that bike your whole life in the city unless it gets stolen. Which if you get a good lock, it won’t be. There are plenty of good bike shops in the city (this is just a small number of them) to choose from, but no matter where you go, just know what kind of bike you want. You’ll want something light enough to carry up and down stairs, but it doesn’t have to be made of titanium, and it should have thick enough tires to deal with the glass and potholes the streets are full of. As for locks, stay away from cable locks (light and easy to cut) and U-locks (they don’t leave you much wiggle room), and go for a chain from a company like Kryptonite. Also ask about getting your wheels changed from quick release to locking skewers, which will make stealing your wheels that much more difficult.
If you don’t want to deal with the worry of locking your own bike up, you can always get a one year Citi Bike membership for $155. The downsides to that are twofold: Citi Bike isn’t found all over the city at the moment, and the bikes don’t move too quickly. And if worse comes to worse, I can tell you that being hit by a car was the best financial boon in my entire life (but that's for another story another time).
Failing all that? Walk! Walking is great, and the city is incredibly pedestrian friendly. I’ve walked from Crown Heights to Bushwick and from Gowanus to DUMBO, and the best part about it all is that walking is 100% free. You might think at first you don’t want to walk all that much because it’s boring, but there’s plenty of visual stimuli on every block.
Cut the cord
Your roommates may suggest you all get in on a cable package. Don’t do this. Seriously, whatever you do, make sure you don’t do this. Beyond the fact that you’re young and shouldn’t be wasting your prime years watching TV while you pay this ridiculous rent, a little teamwork with your roommates will let you cut the cord with ease. Bargain basement packages won’t get you any channels worth watching, and there’s no sense in splitting on $40 or $70 cable package between three or four people when you can each pay for a cheaper streaming service and share passwords.
If one of you gets Hulu ($7.99/$11.99 per month), one of you gets Netflix ($8.99 per month for streaming) and one of you gets Amazon Prime ($99 per year, which breaks down to $8.25 per month), you’ll have streaming services that get you current TV and a huge amount of movies. You can also grab HBO Now for $14.99, either with a fourth roommate or by each of you chipping in five bucks. Will all of that let you see everything? No, you’ll still have to find a way to watch some of cable TV’s hotter weekly dramas, but that’s why you find friends who'll share their parents’ cable provider password. And if you and your roommates go in on cable replacements like the Roku or Amazon FireStick, it'll still be cheaper than actual cable.