Reading these interviews can be a bit like Inside the Actors Studio, where you start thinking up the clever answers you’d give… which is just what I was doing recently when I got to this question: “What is something frugal that you do that is unusual?” My immediate thought was, well, I live in New York City.
I know, right? New York City? The land of excuse me, is this price in American dollars?
It’s true that many of the traditional money-saving methods that work in suburban or rural areas don’t always work in NYC or other large cities (i.e. growing your own food is usually right out), but city life has its own frugal advantages. And sometimes, city living even comes out ahead.
My first example: transportation.
To start with, let me give you an idea of what my neighborhood is like. I compiled a list of the stores and services I use (so, I’m not including gyms, churches, nail salons, liquor stores, etc.) that are within what I consider to be “walking distance.” This can vary depending on the weather and/or the weight of what I’m carrying, but within a 10- to 20-minute walk I can get to:
- two New York Public Library branches
- at least 20 places to buy food: supermarkets (small and full-sized), greengrocers, meat markets, fishmongers
- three different farmers’ markets, one of which is year-round
- over 75 restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, pizza joints, fast food locations, et cetera— including at least four Dunkin Donuts locations (which, if you’re from Massachusetts, you understand is a necessity)
- two branches of our bank
- a huge thrift store
- three large public parks (including one with a public pool) and at least five playgrounds
- a museum housing the medieval art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
- a movie theater
- Target (although I don’t shop there right now)
- more dentists, doctors (including two hospitals), veterinarians, clothing, housewares, hardware, shoe stores, drugstores, and dollar stores than I can even try to count
My address has a 98 Walk Score—even better than the city’s average.
Still, I can’t get everything I need around here—I need to get to my classes, for instance—but I can walk to two different subway lines (one of which is on my block) or one of 13 different bus routes (not including the nearby bus terminal!) to get elsewhere.
(I should point out that in the four years I’ve lived here, I’ve taken a cab exactly twice: once when we were rushing to get a friend to his train on time [he didn’t make it] and once when we were on our way to a restaurant, nowhere near the subway, I was wearing towering heels, and it started pouring. So, feel free to factor in my $3/year annual cab fare.)
Okay… subway fare (or bus fare, but I usually take the subway). My husband buys an unlimited monthly MTA pass for $89 a month. His new company uses TransitChek so the cost of his pass is deducted directly from his paycheck before taxes, which saves us about $400 a year… somehow? I don’t fully understand it, quite honestly, so I’m just going to say it’s $89 and stick with it.
As for me, I don’t make enough round trips to make a monthly pass cost-effective, so I pay as I go (at $2.25 per fare), spending about $60 a month on average.
Our kid, like most NYC schoolchildren, gets a MetroCard from the city to use when school is in session. A rough estimate of her average subway use (weekends during the school year + regular use during the summer) average about $25 a month over the course of the year.
So, for our family of three: $89 + $60 + $25 = $154 a month or $1,848 a year. In addition to our subway cost, about once a year, we rent a car to drive to my mom’s house in Massachusetts. (We tried taking a bus or train, but once there, we pretty much can’t get anywhere else without a car.) With that added expense, let’s round our cost up to an even $2000 a year mostly because I like nice, round numbers.
I will now theoretically transplant my family to an average suburb! [whooshing noises; smattering of applause]
Assuming other things stay the same (my husband still commutes to his job; the kid and I still need to get places), I think we would almost certainly need two cars—but for the sake of frugality, let’s say we can manage with one. If we drive a small sedan, an average of 10,000 miles a year, according to AAA’s 2010 edition of Your Driving Costs [PDF] this will cost us about 56.4 cents a mile, for a total of $5,640 a year—and that’s excluding car loan payments.
Okay, average Americans aren’t as nearly frugal as you and I are, right? Even if I cut that in half (let’s say I become a car mechanic who never leaves the house) that’s still $820 more per year than our subway costs.
And that’s just apples-to-apples cost of going from home to elsewhere and back again. I’m not factoring in any health benefit from walking at least a couple miles a day (or any money saved in gym membership). I can’t put a price on the reading/thinking/people-watching I do on the subway when I’m alone or the conversations I can have with my husband and kid without distractions (creepy guy asking for change not withstanding). And I don’t know what a car emitting 3 tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year costs everyone on the planet.
But! I already hear you exclaiming. Doesn’t the fact you pay so much in rent make this savings a wash? Wouldn’t it still be cheaper to buy a place in the suburbs, even if it means driving everywhere?
Next up: me vs. the rent-vs.-buy calculators.