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How to save big bucks when you live in a big city

Living in a major city can throw your expenses out of whack if you're not careful.


January 17, 2019

Research most smart and sane budgeting wisdom and you’ll likely find variations around the 50/20/30 rule. That means you should be spending your take-home salary using the following method: 50% on fixed costs, 20% on savings and 30% on discretionary income.

However, as any city-dweller who’s just realized they could have bought "Hamilton" tickets for the amount they spent on monthly takeout comes to realize, living near or around a big city, especially if you’ve got a growing family, can really eat away at any attempt to save. (Especially if you're a single parent!)

So, how can you not throw away your shot?

Stefanie O’Connell, author of "The Broke and Beautiful Life: Small Town Budget, Big City Dream," shared some ways to hack the top 5 biggest expenses to city living (besides childcare) and start living within your means.

"I’ll concede that some city savings are easier implemented than others," O'Connell said, "but just because the big city can be expensive doesn’t mean it has to be."

1. Save on housing

This is going to be your biggest cost, so it pays to be conscious.

"Often, we get our heart set on a certain neighborhood, then try to shoehorn ourselves in to a higher rent,” O’Connell said. “Instead, figure out what you can afford and then make it a challenge to find your ideal home, if not your ideal neighborhood.”

If you’re iffy, O’Connell suggested subletting or renting an Airbnb apartment in neighborhoods you wouldn’t have considered and see how it feels. Here’s another thing to consider to boost the case for moving: People spending less than 50 percent on fixed costs tend to feel abundant, but any more, and you start to feel stretched.

Potential savings: $6,000 per year, if you swap neighborhoods to shave $500 off monthly rent/mortgage.

2. Save on transportation

Consider going carless for at least a year, O’Connell said. One perk of living in a city is that there are other ways to make commutes on public transport more pleasant.

“Public transit is the great leveler in big city cost of living calculations. Sure, we big-city dwellers may have inflated housing prices to contend with (even with all the savvy saving strategies mentioned above), but we regain some of that ground by giving up our wheels.

Potential savings: $9,122 (average, based on 15,000 miles of yearly driving)

3. Save on food

City dwellers in Los Angeles spent more than $170 million eating out in 2014, while New Yorkers and San Franciscans forked over $300 million in restaurants.

The painful but necessary fix?

Disable your Seamless account, Dominos app and other apps that make it too easy to order out. Instead, set a food budget. Try to automate weekly meal planning and cooking as much as possible.

Potential savings: $4,800 (if you’re averaging $200 a week on food and you bring it down to $100)

4. Save on entertainment

Here’s where living in cities really pays off.

Those "Hamilton" tickets notwithstanding, “Big cities are hot spots for free entertainment, classes and events," O'Connell said. "Check your public library and parks and recreation event calendars to score everything from free concerts by A-list pop stars to free yoga classes.”

These days, subscription cable is a luxury most people really don’t need. Consider getting a streaming service to get on-demand shows you actually want to watch.

It's important to prioritize your relationship with your significant other, which can be especially difficult after kids come into the picture. But there are ways to connect with your partner without spending a ton of time and money, like simply taking the time to listen to each other's days.

Potential savings: $840 per year (if you cut cable and switch to a basic package with Wi-Fi)

5. Save on wellness

Take care of yourself if you want to avoid the all-too-common problem of burnout among working moms and working dads. But with boutique fitness gyms charging upward of $35 a class, and massage and other wellness services in abundance in big cities, it’s totally possible to spend more than $500 a month if you’re not careful.

While most people might not think of linking both physical and emotional wellness, giving yourself a comprehensive self-care fund for the month can help you figure out what’s truly working and what’s not. After a few months, make a list of what’s brought you the biggest results so you aren’t tempted to splurge on the latest juice fast on promo in your social feed.

You may just find that sitting alone and reading in a small local coffee shop for an hour might bring you just as much joy as a $100 therapy session, and it costs $5.

Potential savings: $1,200 to $2,400 a year.

So, at the end of the day, when you add up the savings from all 5 hacks, how much could you be saving?

Drumroll please ...

Total annual savings: $23,162.

All of a sudden, those "Hamilton" tickets are looking mighty affordable!

This article originally appeared on Fabric.