Frugal Life in NYC: Transportation

One of my favorite blogs, Almost Frugal, has a regular feature called This Is What Frugal Looks Like in which bloggers answer the same four questions about frugal living.

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.

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9 thoughts on “Frugal Life in NYC: Transportation

  1. Kristen,
    I’ve thought about this a lot, and it was a big factor in moving down here. The change in rent was no where near the cost of a car payment plus insurance. However I didn’t consider the city’s payroll tax. Living outside of New York saves you 10-percent right off the top. I still don’t know if it comes out even or not, but in the four years I’ve lived here it seems to have gotten more expensive to be a New Yorker, mostly because of increased subway fares, but also because of the yearly rent increases. We sublet at first, then took over the apartment, and that’s gone up 30-percent as well. Just thought I’d share. Love the new look of the site.

  2. Speaking of frugal entertainment, I get free books through Publishers Weekly, where I blog. If you have a topic you like to read about, let me know, I’ll grab you some books in that genre. No guarantee about quality, but I can promise free books.

    1. You are the nicest! Right now, I’m trying to cut down on the literal stacks of books I have in my living room (two book nerds + my husband was a Kirkus reviewer = OMG I am totally going to die like a Collyer brother) buuuuut once I pare down, I may take you up on your offer, if it still stands.

  3. The public transport system in NYC sounds considerably cheaper than the London one. Admittedly, I live at the end of a commuter line but a one day travel card (which allows me to use trains, tubes and buses) is in the realm of £16. An annual commuter ticket (train only) is over £3000 by itself.

    1. I think in most big urban areas that intercity transportation is generally cheap, but getting into the city from the suburbs (especially by light rail commuter trains) is not as cheap.

      For almost all of my life before moving to NYC, I lived in the suburbs to the north of Boston. Boston’s subway itself is pretty cheap ($59/month for unlimited subway and local bus service) but that’s assuming you live within walking distance of a subway station to begin with.

      When my husband and I had to commute to Boston from the suburbs, we could either drive my car 10-15 minutes to the commuter rail station (so, still paying to have a car plus paying $150/month each for a train pass, but at least we get to work in about an hour) OR walk over to the bus stop near our apartment and take a bus to the nearest subway station (for $90/month each and we hopefully get to work in about 90 minutes, provided I don’t die of cold waiting for the bus in a New England winter).

      It’s funny; my husband’s new job is at the opposite end of Manhattan from where we live and at times, it seems like wow, what a super long commute he has now! I really ought to remember the days of riding the 441 bus for an hour at a time.

  4. “Kristen –

    Great post – it’s important to calculate and weigh the cost of your commute, and a good decision by your husband to take part in the TransitChek program. As a TransitChek employee, I can help clarify how it works. It sounds like $89 is deducted from your husband’s pay for his monthly MetroCard before taxes are taken out. If that’s the case, he’s paying for his monthly commute with money that hasn’t been taxed. This saves you guys money. If he had to buy his $89 MetroCard with money that was already taxed, and if you guys pay about 40% of your income in taxes, he’d have to earn about $122 to buy an $89 MetroCard.

    Hope that helps!”

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