You know that Jay-Z song (feat. Alicia Keys) “Empire State of Mind”? Much to the confusion of anyone I’m with when it comes on the radio, this amazing duo’s hit always brings too-real tears to my eyes. Having lived in NYC for five years next month, I know that it’s the city that dreams are made of, yes, but it’s also the “concrete jungle” that at any given moment, threatens to crush those dreams with a traffic-rerouting construction plan expected to be finished around April 2024.
I love my life in New York and in many ways am living the dream so many want. I live in a “charming” studio on the Upper West Side across from Riverside Park, and I work in an industry and on projects that are exactly suited to my tastes. I practice yoga regularly and eat healthy, conscious meals. Walking down the street with my on-trend vegan-leather backpack and Athleta leggings, I do give myself a mental high-five–Yeah, I’ve got this! And yet, my Dumplings, living in New York is as tough as everyone says it is, and my lifestyle–and budget–sometimes feel less like an Empire State Building, and more like a Tiny House in the prairies.
As anyone who follows the news on the impeding overtime law knows, publishing–my industry–is notoriously low-paying, which means that budgeting is a skill I’ve honed as carefully as my Trikonasana pose alignment. Having inherited the frugal gene certainly helps my situation, hence why I’ve been able to make it work for so long. Being vegan adds an extra layer of complication to a budgeted life in NYC; while there’s no shortage of vegan-friendly restaurants, gorgeous farmer’s markets, organic/specialty markets, and Whole Foods locations, one can indulge in such luxuries only so much when every cent (literally) counts. My balance of spending and saving certainly leans toward the latter, as you’ll see, but that doesn’t mean I feel like I’m lacking (well, most of the time). Instead, the disciplined, well-planned, and increasingly minimalist lifestyle that I’ve developed over time is helping me blossom into my true self more and more; it’s shown me that I can take advantage of my naturally restrictive habits and intuitions in a beneficial, healthy way.
If you’re thinking of moving to the big city with your eyes set on a creative industry like publishing, or perhaps feel like putting yourself in the Empire State of Mind, these priorities may inspire you to make your dream a reality.
Most of my budget, aside from housing-related costs like rent, electric/gas, and internet service, goes to food. This makes sense–being able to do anything requires proper fuel, and with the 24/7 pace of New York City, you can need a lot of fuel. That doesn’t mean, though, that the food I buy is necessarily expensive item-for-item. I always look for sale and store-brand varieties of staple items: Whole Foods, despite its reputation, has its wonderful 365 line, which offers the best quality-price ratio out there, and its bulk dry goods section makes getting enough of high-quality, organic ingredients at wholesale prices possible. (Trader Joe’s is a close second in that ratio, but you have to factor in the cost of the loooong lines to your mental health). My vegan diet is also very produce-based, so I try to eat seasonally in order to avoid buying frozen or canned versions of fruits and veggies; I’ve become a loyal customer of the impossibly cheap corner fruit-stand man, and yet I will readily pay $1 an apple for deliciously fresh and crisp varieties at the farmer’s market every Sunday and Thursday morning.
Unlike those creative Seamless ads you see around town, I don’t rely heavily on take-out or restaurants because of my “charming” kitchen’s size. Rather, I feel best when I prepare my own foods at home; because I’m single and live alone, I can also cook with great freedom. Eating out is more of a social activity, and I’m lucky in that my company allows me a certain amount per month for business-related lunches, which helps me enjoy different cuisines not on my dime. At the same time, my friends and I (vegan and non-vegan) are connoisseurs of cheap restaurants, which unlike in other cities can sometimes mean better than gourmet in terms of the quality of one’s meal. At my two favorite restaurants, Hummus Place and Mooncake Foods, I can get my favorite filling, nutritious meal for under $15 (with add-ons). That’s not to say I can eat out every night of the week, but at the same time I never feel like my “splurge” on dinner out is unmanageable.
Over the years my beauty regiment has tapered off from medium intensity (foundation, eyeshadow, mascara, blush, lipstick, 2-3 hair products) to low intensity (serum, BB cream, eyebrow pencil, mascara, highlighter, tinted lip balm, 1 hair product). I don’t feel like I’ve let myself go, but rather have realized that beauty comes more from how I feel about myself, and it really does show on the outside. I use my makeup as a frame for my skin, to define rather than hide. When my yoga teacher recently told me once that I had “glowing skin,” I was shocked, since I had for years been ashamed of my complexion due to horrendous acne that stretched from pre- to very-post-puberty. I knew it had to do with my vegan diet and mindful, simple skincare, and so I literally became more comfortable in my skin without layers of product. As a result, I indulge in those products that keep me glowing with the least effort.
A little goes a long way for all of these, which ultimately keeps costs down in the long run. I was introduced to many via the wonderful subscription box Petit Vour, which I recommend if you’re interested in exploring vetted vegan beauty.
I hate shopping for clothes, so this is an easy one. When I do find myself in a situation where I am literally wearing same things multiple times in one week, I invest in pieces that I can wear almost 12 months of the year, and for work and on weekends. My aesthetic is minimalist–sheath dresses, slim-cut pants–and I stick to a neutral color palette so most things go together. Everlane is a favorite brand of mine, and I respect their ethical production and price transparency so much that it makes me happier just knowing I bought from them instead of fast fashion stores. Outside of that, I have a curated wardrobe of yoga/exercise clothes from brands I know will last, but which is bought exclusively on sale. For me, quality trumps quantity. Always. My recent Marie Kondo-ing of my wardrobe allowed me to fit all of my clothes in 5 small dresser drawers (two of which are socks/underwear/tights), and a single row of hanging clothes.
I have a yearly unlimited membership to a fairly upscale yoga studio, which costs over $1,000 a year. If you were to look at my budget from the outside you’d probably say to cut that right off the bat. However, I make the most of this membership in many ways: since I attend classes 3-4 times a week, each class comes to $10 or less (as opposed to $30 for a walk in); and with my membership I get discounts on merchandise and a free month of yoga. My cardio comes from good old fashioned walking; I walk to work, 25-30 minutes each way, and run in the park all year round. (I guess that means I invest, too, in good sneakers as part of my clothing budget!) Who would want to sweat in a gym when you could sweat in nature?
I’m an introvert and I don’t drink, so most of my socializing is centered around meals (cheap ones, see above) and quality me-time with a book. To me, taking a walk with a friend, reading in the park, or browsing around free galleries in Chelsea is far preferable to the hullabaloo of what you’d think a night out in the city would be. Sometimes I wish I had unlimited funds to enjoy the city’s highlights more, or travel outside the borough, but then I’d also miss out on what it really means to be a New Yorker.
I consider this part of my vegan outlook because my philosophy is rooted in environmentalism. By walking most places, and taking mass transit only when it’s very bad weather or my destination is more than 3 stops away, I feel I’m doing my part to decrease fossil fuel emissions and save the planet from further destruction as much as I do so with my eating and purchasing choices. I also save lots of money! MTA fares are expensive, yes, but Ubers and taxis are even more so. Plus, there’s never traffic when my feet are in charge.
Where do you spend and where do you save?
Also by Jennifer: A Day in the Life of a Peaceful Dumpling Editor
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Photos: Adrian Williams via Unsplash, Jennifer Kurdyla