New York City is expensive.
Trulia quotes the median rent price of a New York City apartment as $4,995; to buy, it’s a median price of $1.2 million. SmartAsset says the cost of living in the city is “at least” 68.8% higher than the national average, and, based on experience I’ll tell you: a $14 cocktail is not remotely out of the ordinary.
I lived in midtown Manhattan for five years, paying through the nose for rent on a lovely apartment where the windows didn’t fully close in the winter and buying $7 tubs of yogurt with a pang of horror.
But after some time, I realised it wasn’t just the cost of living that makes life in Manhattan so hard to afford — it’s the constant, unyielding pressure to spend.
I’m not talking about keeping up with the Joneses via $45 blowouts and $100 nights toasting life at a rooftop bar. That’s an entirely separate phenomenon and frankly, one that’s easy enough to avoid when all of your Joneses are 20-somethings living in the outer boroughs. I mean the in-your-face opportunities to spend money as you walk down the street, an activity that’s nearly unavoidable for most New Yorkers.
With a few exceptions, any given block is peppered with money sinks: on your right, a food truck, a stand selling knock-off sunglasses, and a fruit vendor’s footpath stall. On your left, two clothing shops (one of which has a huge yellow sale sign in the window), a bodega shilling flowers, that bagel place where you can get the morning coffee deal, a grocery store, a drugstore that reminds you you’re out of sunscreen, a shop that seems to sell only irresistible little Japanese bowls for $5, a bar spilling music onto the footpath, and three restaurants.
How many times a day can you say no?
Psychologist Roy Baumeister has studied willpower extensively and has found that people may have only a limited amount. That means every time you exercise yours, you have a little less left for later — say, when your coworker brings in doughnuts or your friend invites you to skip the gym for karaoke night.
Moving to the suburbs a few months ago makes me think it’s less difficult outside of a walkable city. On the way to the train each morning in a town you could never call remotely rural, I pass some apartment buildings and only a handful of unappealing storefronts including an insurance office, a dry cleaner, a formal wear shop in which I’ve never seen a soul, and a company that teaches children to play the piano. The only temptation is a coffee shop with pictures of elaborately topped waffles in the window. If I happen to be in the car, it all whizzes by like scenery, rather than opportunity.
Saving money can be hard, and it’s only more so when the opportunities to do it overflow. So how do you fight back? My favourite strategy is simply not to start spending in the first place. For instance, the window waffles are less tempting than they could be because I’ve never once bought one. As far as I’m concerned, they’re simply out of the question. My coworker Kathleen Elkins likes to use only cash, which is both more limited and more painful to watch slip through your fingers than the swipe of a credit card. Frankly, I think half the battle is just being aware that you’re under bombardment at all times.
And hey, this isn’t to say I’m a paragon of willpower by any means — just ask the CVS around the corner from my office.
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