How to Actually Save Money by the Time You're 35 in NYC

man with money in his wallet
Nick Krueck/Thrillist

Every day is a new adventure for young New Yorkers as we try to figure out how to make that paycheck last ‘til the very last possible second. We invent new e-mail addresses to score first-time Seamless deals, print out gym coupons for gyms, and eat a strict diet of dollar pizza and popcorn just to pay rent. But on the off chance that you DON’T want to be the 35-year-old with six roommates and a freezer full of chili that you made back in 2013, we reached out to a couple of financial advisors to find out if it’s even possible to save money in New York. Turns out it is. You’re just going to have to try. A lot.

“It might sound cliché, but I think it’s even hard for people who make a great living to save in New York because this city is so outrageously expensive,” says Bryan Campbell, vice president of finance and head of external reporting for American Express. “In addition to that, there is so much to do in the city that you sort of have to have the balance of, ‘Do I want to save this?’ or ‘Do I want to take advantage of actually living here, because I probably won’t forever.’”

TKTS booth in Times Square, New York City
<a href=";pl=edit-00">saaton</a> / <a href=";pl=edit-00"></a>

First of all, don’t feel bad about blowing all your cash

Almost everyone else is doing exactly the same thing, because why even bother living here if you aren’t going to LIVE here? Surely you can move back to that three-bedroom duplex in Gainesville, FL and sit on your couch and save up all your dollars for the four bedroom starter home down the street. In New York you’re closing the bar at 4am, splurging at Bouley because you got your first credit card, seeing Hamilton (twice), and spending at least $60/month on the gym to work off all the Bouley.

“There’s a huge pull to do that kind of thing while you’re young and while you can before you have other commitments and priorities, so weighing whether eating at this restaurant, or saving $50 to try and build a nest egg is difficult,” Campbell adds. PREACH!

That said, it’s probably a good idea to save SOME of your dollars. Here’s how:

man with open wallet with credit cards and cash
Sergey Nepsha/Shutterstock

Control yourself

It seems obvious, but having self control is the number one way to save money in New York, and also the most difficult to achieve because of all the aforementioned stimulation. “It boils down to being true to yourself and whatever it is that you set out for yourself. Everybody can create a goal and develop a personal plan, but you have to stick to it,” says Campbell. This can be as small as having three drinks instead of five, but that extra money has to be put aside, and not just spent on a cab ride home later.

Invest. No, but really.

“What I did is I took advantage of raises,” says Campbell. “If you’re making $50,000 and all of a sudden you start making $60,000, remind yourself that you lived off the $50k and survived just fine. Take a portion of the raise and put it into your 401k, or if you don’t have one, then have a portion of it direct deposited to an online savings account where it can be out of sight out of mind. That’s free money.” A 401k is especially great if your company will match a percentage of it, allowing you to maximize your contribution to your retirement. “Even if you’re adding $100 a month, that is $1,200 a year. If you take that and you grow for a couple of years, before you know it you’ve got enough to invest in safe stocks, and you can grow your money that way,” adds Campbell.

two people moving in together roommates

Get a roommate

Amount saved per year: $6,000 if rent is $3,000/month
For most of us under 35, this is not a choice. It’s a necessity. Still, there are those people who absolutely HAVE to live alone. Well, guess what? You’re throwing money out the window while peeing on it, and then letting it burst into flames. “You can immediately pay yourself by having a roommate. Your $2,000/month rent for a one-bedroom might go up to $3,000/month for a two-bedroom, but split between two people that’s $500 you’re saving. $500 a month is $6,000 a year, which is real money, especially when you’re talking about someone making $60-70,000 a year,” Campbell says.

Quit smoking

Amount saved per year: $4,914
“You know you need to bid farewell to tobacco’s smooth, sultry embrace sooner or later, so living in the city with the most expensive cigarettes in the country makes now as good a time as any,” says Jamie Brown*, a Chartered Financial Analyst and vice president of a boutique wealth advisory firm. Cigarettes in New York cost, on average, $13.50 (yes, seriously), and if you’re buying two packs a week, that’s $27. Multiplied by 52 weeks is $1404. If you’re leaning into the Don Draper, smoking a pack a day thing, that’s $4,914 a year. On cigarettes. “This could all be going to your savings account instead,” Brown says.

woman buying wine

Quit drinking

Amount saved per year: $5,564 on average
Brown based this one on “an average week in NYC for someone with an active social life but who drives a desk for a living; drinks with friends one night after work during the week, going out on Friday night, and a nice dinner on Saturday." Let’s break it down per night:

“Night one: weeknight drinks after work at an upscale bar. Craft beers are $8 each with tip. You call it a night after your third because it's a Wednesday and you're getting close to 30. Total damage: $24.

"Night two: Friday night, it's go time. Two nice beers at the first bar ($8 each with tip) before you move to a dive and switch to Bud Light. Six Bud Lights later ($6 each with tip), and you’re ready for a slice of pizza from Joe's ($3). Nightly total: $55.

"Night three: Saturday night, dinner at a decent restaurant, nothing super fancy. You get a glass of wine while you're waiting for your table ($10), then split a bottle over dinner ($18 each). Your total: $28.

"Combined, that's $107 on alcohol in one week. Obviously some weeks may be more and some less, but this seems like a reasonable average. That's $5,564. On booze. In one. Year. Excuse me while I go re-evaluate some life choices.”

Airbnb your apartment

Amount earned per year: $2,000 on average if you rent your place for two weeks out of the year
“Despite their persistent PR campaigns, this remains kinda-sorta-no-but-really-technically illegal. That said, there’s good money to be made renting out your place when you’re not here, and your super probably won’t get wise if your ‘friends from out of town’ come visit occasionally,” says Brown. “A week-long rental could easily put $1,000 in your pocket, and there are even servers like Happy Host that, for a small cut, will handle all the logistics for you.”

Figure out which Metrocard makes the most sense for you

“A 30-day unlimited Metrocard currently costs $116.50. Alternatively, each swipe costs $2.75, but you get an 11% bonus when you load more than $5.50 onto a card, which means your actual fare is $2.48. $116.50 divided by $2.48 is approximately 47. If you’re not riding the subway or bus more than 47 times in 30 days, don’t waste money buying a 30-day card.”  

So, how much can you really save by 35?

Even if you just got a roommate, Airbnb’d your apartment two weeks out of the year, quit smoking, and quit drinking at age 25, in 10 years you would save $184,780. And that’s BEFORE investing. It’s highly unrealistic to assume everyone’s going to quit boozing in their 20s and early 30s, but if you’re taking the rest of these tips into consideration, you’ll be surprised just how much you can save.

And seriously... invest

Again, to make up for all the thousands you're spending on booze, investing is seriously important. “If you are fortunate enough to work a job with a 401k plan, this is the easiest and most powerful way to start saving for retirement,” says Brown. “If your employer provides a 1:1 match, you’re getting an instant, 100% return on whatever you contribute, vesting restriction aside. If your employer matches half of your contribution, that’s still a 50% gain. Most hedge fund managers would give their first born for portfolio returns like that. Don’t pass it up. Invest that money across mutual funds that cover different asset classes, or simply use a target date mutual fund that will handle the portfolio management for you.”

*Name has been changed.

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Meagan Drillinger is a contributing writer for Thrillist and uses her credit card as a form of savings for her checking account. Same same. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook at @drillinjourneys.