Broke Girl in the City, Part 1

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It’s no secret that New York is expensive. My adopted hometown regularly tops “Most Expensive Cities in America” lists, and I once tweeted about having to pay $6 for a toothbrush. So, you know, everybody gets it*. But what do you do if you want to live and love in the Greatest City in the World and your account balance rarely has more than two digits in front of the decimal? Is selling body parts of debatable necessity on Craigslist the only answer? I’ve lived without a job in New York for 16 months, and am happy to report it is not.

After starting this post I realized just how many weird, wonderful ways I’ve figured out to save money in this city, so this is the first of 2 (3? 4?) Broke Girl posts. We’ll start with the simple stuff: Food, Transportation, and Potty Breaks.

Buy Inexpensive, Healthy, Filling Food
Falafel: As a single girl, the majority of my meals are comprised of cereal, KIND bars, and/ or frozen yogurt. But (wo)man cannot live on Yogurtland alone, so every once in a while I branch out. I had never even seen falafel until I came to New York and now it makes up the majority of my savory food intake. It’s hot, flavorful, and often contains a variety of green fresh things, which, if you were paying attention to the list above, you know I don’t get a lot of. Falafel pitas in the city range from $2.50 to $5.50, which is easy to part with when I know it’ll keep me full for several hours. Maoz is one of my favorite pita purveyors because of their multiple locations and extensive (free!) salad/ toppings bar. (Try the marinated carrots.) If you find yourself in Williamsburg (I’m sorry), Oasis on 7th and Bedford is freakin’ delicious and freakin’ cheap. The place is a dump, but you won’t care when you’re cramming a steaming two dollar pita stuffed with their perfectly pickled red cabbage into your maw.

Tacos: This is tricky. Not only because New York, in general, has terrible Mexican food, but because the few decent Mexican places that do exist are so expensive you’ll end up over-salting your chorizo with your tears. But sometimes this California girl just needs a taco, so I compromise. Chipotle is everywhere which normally means AVOID, but they’re everywhere because they’re cheap and delicious, so cool your jets. Two tacos for $6 is nothing to sneeze at. Pony up to the assembly line with the rest of the assistant account executives on their lunch break and make like a boss by asking for corn tortillas.
(Pro Tip: Want more protein but don’t want to pay for it? Semantics are your friend. Ask for “a little more” meat. Saying “extra meat” means they charge you… extra. Avoid the word “extra” and you’re set.)

Salad: When cilantro is the only green thing I’ve eaten in a few weeks, I head to the Whole Foods salad bar. Normally fraught with financial peril, there are a few tricks to making it cheaper. First, grab the small box. Don’t get greedy, Hungry Eyes, you’ll fill it AND your stomach. Next, get whatever you want, but think about how heavy it is before plopping it in your box. Most salad bars, including this one, charge by weight, so keep that in mind when you’re selecting your goodies. Lettuce? Basically free. Quinoa? Chickpeas? Vegan tortellini? A little heavier, but not bad. Go for it. Chicken? Salmon? Steak? Mmm. This is the good stuff. But it’s heavy, so take it as easy as you can. Eyeing a big wedge of steamed sweet potato or chunk of glistening beet? Danger, Will Robinson! That heavy block of root veggie will cost you big at the register. If you really can’t resist, ask for a sample and eat it on your way to checkout.

Know Where to Rest Your Room
Because I stay in the outer boroughs a lot, I often find myself in the city all day without a home base. Knowing where to pee in peace is key to surviving a day in Manhattan. The absolute best, most consistently clean and lovely bathrooms are in movie theaters, hotels, and upscale department stores. But they also require the most time and energy (and in the case of movie theaters, money) to use. My favorite public toilet in the city is at the Plaza (obviously), but you’ve got to have some big ol’ lady cajones to get to it. Not seeing a movie? Anywhere but midtown? Starbucks is an ever-present option. Cleanliness is hit-or-miss, but their omnipresence means you can just try another one if you encounter a gross situation. Apple Stores and Barnes and Noble also receive honorable mention; the latter certainly doesn’t gleam, but it’s not nearly as bad as other options. Speaking of bad, avoid any bathroom in a transit station, park, or grocery store. Whole Foods bathrooms are particularly awful; I don’t know if they’re morally opposed to using cleaning agents more than once a month or if they just have such a varied clientele that things get gross fast, but man… I still have PTSD from an incident in Union Square. Avoid.

Minimize Transit Expenses
Buy an unlimited MetroCard. Just do it. $30 is tough for me to cough up in one swipe, but I don’t care if you’re only in the city for only three days, you will use it, and it is worth it. That said, if you’re between cards or just don’t believe me, walk as much as you possibly can. New York is smaller than it seems and you’ll likely stumble across something wonderful, work off the tacos you just ate, AND save yourself an unnecessary subway swipe. Boom.

Okay, that’s it for Part 1. Do you feel empowered? Queasy? Sad for me? Whatever. New York is wonderful whether you’re young or old, employed or not, rich or poor… The latter just requires that you work it a little. And what’s more fun than workin’ it?

See you in Part 2.

*Trying to describe life in New York to friends back home is often what I imagine explaining football to me is like. There are a few moments of intense, focused, willful attention, and then it all fades to dead, glassy eyes with poorly-timed nodding. I/ they don’t get it. And I/ they don’t care.

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