What It’s Really Like to Live on $24K a Year in a City Like NYC

"The best way to afford more of what I want is to increase my earnings."

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It may sound romantic to be a writer in NYC—cue scene of Carrie Bradshaw typing away in her unrealistically nice apartment—but the reality is, it’s a constant grind to earn a livable paycheck in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In fact, at $24,000 a year, I’m earning about half the $55,150 median income in Brooklyn, where I live.

I’ve had to dig deep to make ends meet—sometimes stretching leftovers for days or waiting tables to cover my bills while I wait for freelance checks to clear. Fortunately, those times are becoming increasingly rare, thanks to solid budgeting and a lot of grit. Here’s how I’m making it work.

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1. I track every dollar.

I’ll admit it’s a pain to keep track of everything that flows in and out of my bank account, though tools like Mint and Quickbooks help. But it’s crucial, especially because my income fluctuates. Not only does keeping close tabs on my money make life easier when it’s time to submit quarterly tax payments, but knowing exactly what’s in my account helps inform my everyday spending decisions.

2. I know my priorities.

Each month, no matter what, I need to pay bills like my phone and utilities on time, buy groceries and cover my $950 share of the rent for the two-bedroom apartment I share with a roommate. (Yep, $950. And that’s actually below average for my neighborhood!) I also try to set aside at least 10 to 15 percent of my earnings for the future. This way, I’m giving myself a cushion in slower months or in case of an emergency.

I usually have about $600 left over, but sometimes I can only meet these top priorities. In those months, I know I have to forego a night out with friends or something else I want—but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for financial stability.

3. I have fun for cheap—or free.

Especially during those slow months, it’s important to find ways to entertain myself for cheap. Often, I’ll invite friends over for a potluck dinner party, which saves money, gives me the social interaction I want and means I get a break from cooking. I also look for free fun, like outdoor concerts and no-admission museums, to get out without draining my bank account.

4. I comparison-shop for food.

I try to keep food costs for me and my pet rabbit to about $75 per week. (If that sounds high, keep in mind that groceries here cost up to 39 percent more than the national average, and I make most meals at home.) That requires going to a few different grocery stores in my neighborhood, as well as farmers markets, to find the best prices. For example, I can always count on one market to offer the cheapest produce, but for staples like rice and coffee, Trader Joe’s is cheapest. While this can be time consuming, the savings is worth the effort.

Related: 10 Cheap (and Healthy) Foods that Last a Long Time

5. I’m always hustling for new work.

Of course, the best way to afford more of what I want is to increase my earnings, so I’m always brainstorming new ways to find work. For example, I’ve contacted local businesses I frequent to see if I can use my social media background to help with theirs. It’s a win-win: I make money while supporting a local business in my own way.

I also do my best to provide great service to existing clients—by being responsible and communicative and meeting deadlines—so they’ll continue to work with me. As a result, I’ve had some steady clients refer me to new ones.

6. I prepare for slow months.

Years ago, a few months into freelance writing life, I recognized some natural slow seasons, like mid-summer and the holidays—and created a plan to ride them out.

The first step was diversifying my work. In addition to writing articles and doing social media consulting, I’ve gotten paid for editing and writing resumes. I’ve even worked with temp agencies and have landed some great contract content jobs, which is a nice fallback option when money’s extra tight.

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to making it on a tight (and variable) income in an expensive city, and it can be stressful at times. But it’s possible to do. And the benefits—of working for myself and living in a city I love—make the effort worth it.

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