I am well-acquainted with living on a minimum wage salary of $15 an hour in New York City. Stretching the minimum wage to fit your lifestyle, in one of the most expensive cities in the country (if not the world), takes a little bit of creativity and a lot of preparation. Here are some tricks I use to save money in NYC on a $15/hour salary.
1. Walk as much as possible
The transportation fare in NYC is currently $2.75 per ride on a standard MetroCard. Walking is free.
While it isn’t always possible or practical to walk to my next destination, if I’m traveling less than five subway stops and am not in a huge rush, I find that speed-walking suits me just fine. Every time I skip out on public transportation, I save $2.75. This equates to 11 minutes of working (before taxes) — and while that may not sound like a lot, can easily add up over time.
But if your destination is out of walking distance or there’s a blizzard outside...
2. ... take advantage of free MTA transfers
When you use a pay-per-ride MetroCard, you can transfer from subway to local bus or subway to subway — or any combination of the two — for free, within two hours of the time you swiped your card.
I always keep track of the two-hour window: I’ll duck out a few minutes early if I’m out with friends or be sure to walk a little bit faster to the bus stop if I know the time window is closing.
3. Load your MetroCard in bulk
For some, an unlimited MetroCard is a financially-savvy choice. But, since I walk often and use public transportation sparingly, the pay-per-ride MetroCard was my best option. If you aren’t sure which card to get, the MTA has a calculator.
I also make a point to load my pay-per-ride card in bulk. You can purchase a pre-valued MetroCard get the exact number of rides you need plus a 5% bonus when you add $5.50 or more — I typically purchase the $39 one, which gives me $2 in bonus value.
4. Invest in free entertainment for your commute
Instead of running up my phone data bill by endlessly scroll through Twitter on the subway, I made the New York Public Library a staple of my commute.
With a library card, you can get books and DVDs for free — I keep a rotation of books in my bag so I am never without one. You can also download the Overdrive app and listen to free audiobooks, via the library.
5. Pack your own lunch
Though eating day-old baked ziti may not be your first choice, planning ahead and packing your own lunch can save you an average $15 per day, the equivalent of one hour of work. Set aside one evening during the week — typically Sunday — to cook up large batches of food for the entire week. Stuck on what to make? Here's a simple lunch that costs less than $1 a day.
If you decide to eat lunch out, stick to picking it up over delivery. Most eateries are within walking distance, and you’ll save on the delivery fee, which runs an average of $5, plus tip.
6. Utilize restaurant & bar deals
If I’m meeting up friends for drinks after work, I stick to the happy hour specials, and limit myself to one or two drinks. Or, I’ll go for the company and skip the drinks altogether: Alcohol has one of the biggest markups in the food industry, and you (and your wallet) will thank you if you take a pass. When I’m eating out, I’ll take advantage of any special deals, or opt to split something with a friend.
7. Take advantage of free office food
I am lucky to work in an office with free snacks, soda, coffee and fruit. On a typical day, I consume some Greek yogurt with granola, one snack (typically a granola bar or bag of Veggie Straws) and a cup of tea. If I were to buy these daily snacks on my own, it would be roughly $7 a day. But if you’re out of the office and start getting hungry...
8. ... keep emergency snacks on hand
Whether it’s a granola bar or a bag of pretzels, keeping snacks in my purse has often saved me from impromptu spending. Though it's tempting to shell out a few bucks for an overpriced snack from a bodega, if I have a perfectly good snack on hand, I don’t spend money.
Next time you are at the grocery store, grab a couple bags of your favorite chips or trail mix and stick them in your bag. Your wallet will thank you later.
9. Be honest about money & know when to turn down plans
I don’t think discussing money should be nearly as taboo as it is. When my friends make plans that are out of my budget, like a pricey dinner or VIP concert tickets, I speak up. Most of the time my friends and I figure out an affordable alternative. Most people can be understanding when you tell them you’re trying to stick to a budget — and sometimes they’re sticking to one, too. Just by ignoring my FOMO and saying no to plans that didn’t feel worth the price, I’ve saved quite a bit.
On a minimum wage salary? The best way to keep your finances in check is by making a budget. Try this easy budget spreadsheet to get started.