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Millennial Money: 3 ways to save money in a high-cost city

By DALIA RAMIREZ of NerdWallet
Published: October 10, 2023, 7:37am

Traditional money-saving advice may not cut it if you live in one of America’s most expensive cities or urban areas. Residents of New York City, San Francisco, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Orange County, California, among others, are paying much more than the national average for housing, utilities, groceries, transportation, health care, and other goods and services.

There is a silver lining, though: High-cost cities can come with unique opportunities to save, such as housing lotteries, discounted tickets to cultural institutions for residents, and specialty grocery stores and farmers markets.


It can be more convenient to shop for groceries weekly at a traditional grocery store, but if you’re looking to cut costs in an expensive city, it may be worth the extra effort to shop wholesale and supplement with smaller, budget-friendly trips to the local grocery store.

“Shopping at Costco has made it really stark how much of a markup I accepted on groceries,” says Kyle Henson,a regional sales manager in New York who purchases food, household goods and even clothes at the wholesale store. He’s even invested in the store’s executive membership, which gets him and anyone who uses his card access to any Costco location and 2% cash back on purchases.

It’s easier to shop wholesale if you have a car, but if you don’t have a car Henson suggests taking public transit one way and a rideshare service or taxi on the way back, or even using Costco’s discounted rental car service to make the trip.

“I’ll go to Costco with a couple of friends, completely load up and then split everything,” says Vishal Vaidya, a cook in New York. Vaidya doesn’t have his own membership, but he can use Costco gift cards to shop in-store as a nonmember.

For non-bulk items such as fresh produce and meat, Vaidya adds small grocery trips to his daily routine. He shops at places he knows have good deals on specific items. If he’s passing through a neighborhood with Halal butchers, for example, he’ll pick up a cut of meat; when out on the weekends, he’ll stop by a farmers market on his way home.

“I’ve integrated these habits into my lifestyle,” Vaidya explains. Because he mostly cooks at home, he says that groceries are the primary way he saves money and that being frugal about food allows him to be more flexible in other areas of his life.

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Living in a big city may come with higher rent and food costs, but it can also come with access to great cultural institutions. Museums, movies and shows can be pricey, but city residents can sometimes secure free or discounted tickets.

In many cities, popular museums offer free entry for residents on certain days of the week, and some even have monthly free days for all visitors. For institutions that don’t advertise free admission, programs such as Culture Pass in New York and Discover & Go in Los Angeles give library card holders access to free and discounted tickets to museums and cultural centers.

“I assumed most cultural institutions would be free in New York, and I was very disappointed to find out that they weren’t,” Vaidya says. Museums were a big draw for him when moving to the city, and he quickly signed up for a library card and Culture Pass access. He sets a monthly reminder to reserve his tickets and uses the website to discover lesser-known gardens, galleries and shows.


Rent is typically the biggest expense for residents of cities with a high cost of living. However, there are affordable-housing lottery programs in many major cities, which can ease the financial burden.

“It’s surprisingly easy,” says Thomas Van de Pas, a bartender in New York who has won the city’s housing lottery three times. Housing lotteries typically incentivize developers with higher building size limits, tax breaks or lower-cost loans in exchange for reserving a portion of new housing developments for the lottery. Rent-stabilized units are available for applicants in specific income brackets.

Los Angeles, for example, reserves affordable housing units for those it considers “very low income” (about $44,000 per year for one person). But other cities, such as New York and Washington, D.C., have options for applicants well over the area’s median income — as high as $163,000 per year per person in New York, or $186,000 per couple.

Your odds may be better if you’re an existing resident of the neighborhood. In New York, for example, 50% of city-financed units are reserved for residents of a given Community Board, which is a grouping of several neighborhoods.

Van de Pas recommends applying well before your current lease ends because applications are accepted on a rolling basis. “You may have to be flexible and break your current lease if you get a good deal,” he says. “I’m willing to pay the upfront cost of getting out of my lease, because I’m getting a unit below market rate.”

As with groceries, seeking discounts on housing can take some extra effort, but that temporary inconvenience may help save you much more in the long run.


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C2ER Quarter 2, 2023 Cost of Living Index

Dalia Ramirez is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: dramirez@nerdwallet.com.