- The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most expensive urban areas in the US. But it’s still possible to live here on a modest income.
- My wife and I got priced out of San Francisco and moved to the East Bay to find an affordable place to live.
- When I quit a good-paying office job to become a freelancer, I had to make additional adjustments to my lifestyle to fit into a smaller budget.
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When I first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1987, I was a grad student with no money.
In the 1980s, San Francisco was expensive, but it wasn’t crazy overpriced like it is today. I was able to live in San Francisco without a lot of money for many years, thanks to rent-controlled apartments.
For my last 10 years in the city, my wife and I lived in a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom flat that also had a garage of more than 300 square feet where I ran my art business. Our rent was $US900 a month.
In 2004, we felt ready to buy, even though we still had hardly any money. We couldn’t afford San Francisco, but we were able to buy a condo in the East Bay, in the Triple Point neighbourhood where Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville meet. The condo is much smaller than our old apartment. We have adjusted to living in less than 800 square feet with just one bedroom. The fixed expense of our mortgage and the fact that our home is small has helped us afford the Bay Area.
A few years ago, I quit my job to become a full-time freelance writer. That came with a steep pay cut, but we still manage to make it work.
Here’s how I live in the Bay Area on $US50,000 a year.
I share a small condo with my wife and my share of the mortgage is much less than I would pay to rent an apartment in the Bay Area. First-time homebuyer assistance makes it possible.
My monthly home expense is $US1,000. That covers my half of the mortgage and property taxes. Over the years, we’ve been able to refinance to get a lower rate, so our mortgage payment is less than $US1,500 a month.
But what really made our little condo affordable was first-time homebuyer assistance. Our city had a program that gave us a silent second mortgage, which means that we don’t have to pay it off until we sell.
I gave up my car about 10 years ago. That saves me more than $US500 a month.
When you include car payments, gas, insurance, repairs, and depreciation, it costs about $US3,600 to own a car in the Bay Area, a local reporter found. Credit Karma reports that the average new car payment in 2019 is $US554 per month and the average for a used car is $US391. It would cost me between $US690 and $US850 per month to own a motor vehicle.
When I gave up my car, I assumed I would use a big chunk of the money I saved on car alternatives such as taxis, rentals, and car-sharing programs. I don’t. It’s too easy to get around by bike and public transit, and I’m usually too cheap to shell out $US10 bucks for a taxi home. Going car-free is one of the things that made it possible to start my writing career.
Public transit costs me about $US45 a month. I spend an additional $US20 or so a month on rides with Lyft and Gig, a car-sharing program.
I spend a little more than $US10 a week on public transit. If I need to get somewhere in a hurry, I will take an occasional Lyft ride or borrow a car with Gig, a local car-sharing program.
I also occasionally borrow a car from a neighbour. The cost for this: an occasional tank of gas, about $US40 every couple of months.
I mostly get around by bike, which is so cheap it’s almost free. Plus, it’s great exercise.
Most of the places I need to go are easy to get to by bike, so that’s my main mode of transportation. With the money I save on car payments, I can splash out a little on my bikes and gear and still save money. I have two bikes, a Brompton folding bike and a Burley hybrid.
My bike expenses are limited to repairs and maintenance and replacing bike gear that wears out. This year, I’ve spent $US60 on two pairs of bike gloves, $US89 on a folding helmet from Indiegogo that I hope to receive someday, and $US200 on repairs and maintenance. That’s probably it for the rest of the year, so biking will cost me $US349 this year, or less than $US30 per month.
For $US150 a year, I get unlimited rides with our local bike-sharing program.
I put a lot of miles on my bikes and I usually spend a bit more on tune-ups and replacement parts. That’s because many of my rides are on someone else’s bike. For $US150 a year, I get unlimited rides on Bay Wheels, the Bay Area’s bike-share program operated by Lyft.
I use bike-share bikes when I want to leave from one metro station and return home from another, or when I’m going somewhere that doesn’t feel safe to park my bike. I take approximately 26 trips using Bay Wheels each month. That breaks down to less than $US0.50 per ride. That’s way cheaper than the bus or train and it includes bike maintenance.
My home is too small for me to work at home, but I rent an inexpensive space in an artist’s warehouse.
I rent a small workspace for my freelance business in a warehouse of Burning Man artists. The rent is $US242 a month and I get to see the magnificent artwork as it’s being created.
I shop at the farmers market for good prices on fresh produce and prepared foods.
I do most of the grocery shopping for our household. At the farmers market this week, I spent $US57 for two bags of fresh veggies and fruit, a loaf of bread, two bars of fancy vegan chocolate, and four tamales. I find that the produce at the farmers market is much fresher than what you find in the grocery store – this makes it a better deal because it lasts longer in the fridge, so very little goes to waste.
And I buy groceries in bulk at Costco.
Living in a small place and buying bulk at Costco aren’t the best match, but I find ways to stash a supply of our favourite foods in the closets. I buy almond milk, tofu, butter, cereal, honey, spices, and frozen blueberries by the case. I go to Costco about five times a year to stock up. I save enough to cover the $US60 membership fee several times over.
Before I became a freelancer, I often spent $US300 a month on alternative healthcare. Not anymore.
While I still had my office job, I saw a slew of alternative health practitioners: chiropractor, naturopath, acupuncturist, massage therapist. None of this was covered by insurance and I spent thousands of dollars every year out of pocket.
When I quit to go freelance, I had to let all that go. But I don’t need to give up self-care entirely. I can get a 50-minute student massage at a massage school for just $US35.
Eating out a couple of times a week doesn’t have to be expensive. Most of my restaurant meals come to under $US20, including tip.
The Bay Area is home to some very fine restaurants, but you can also find fabulous food without the Michelin star or the prices to go with it. You don’t have to pay a lot to have the best tacos you will ever eat at La Taqueria in San Francisco, but you will have to fight the crowds, since their burritos were named the best in the US.
This week I joined friends for tacos ($US12), shared a Vietnamese dinner ($US19), and took myself out to lunch at my favourite lunch spot ($US20, including a juice). I usually drink tap water instead of buying drinks, which helps keep the cost of eating out reasonable.
I can’t live without my gym membership. I swim at the YMCA for $US71 a month.
Biking is great, but I love to swim. I could save a little money by swimming at a city pool, but the hours are limited and the outdoor pools are cold in winter. My $US71 monthly membership fee at the Y includes a locker rental and use of other facilities like the weight room and hot tub. It’s a little splurge that’s so worth it.
My weakness is shopping for clothing. I’ve found ways to reduce my clothing budget and still have fun and fabulous clothes.
Clothes are my Achilles’ heel. I love to shop and I love to buy new clothes, so I’ve had to find ways to indulge my passion on the cheap. My favourite store sells designer clothes at steep discounts and has frequent sales. I’ve been able to buy some fun clothes without spending the grocery money.
For fun, we’ll go to a local $US10 movie theatre.
When it comes to a fun night out, I don’t have to go to a first-run theatre and shell out $US15 for a ticket and a small fortune for popcorn. Oakland’s New Parkway Theatre shows an eclectic and interesting collection of movies, both old and new, and admission is usually just $US10. Plus, the seating is comfy couches and you can order dinner to be delivered to your seat. On a recent visit, dinner for two plus popcorn was just $US36.
Our family membership to the Oakland Museum of California gives us unlimited access to a year’s worth of cultural events for just $US95.
One way I’ve found to save money while still getting to enjoy the Bay Area’s rich culture is to buy a membership to the Oakland Museum of California. Our family membership gets us admission to the regular museum’s collection of art and historical artifacts plus special shows. Regular admission to the current exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is $US21, so our membership pays for itself in just a few visits.
We decided to pay $US20 extra for the family membership because it allows us to treat our friends by taking them as guests. On a recent weekend, we went for the Day of the Dead celebration and came home with sugar skulls for our own offrenda.
I take advantage of freebies whenever I can.
This week, we were lucky enough to get to see a Cirque du Soleil show for free. The tickets were a perk from my wife’s job, but there are lots of ways to enjoy Bay Area cultural events for free. In the past, I have volunteered as an usher to see performances and gotten free tickets from friends who couldn’t make a show.
Some days, the best things in life really are free. It doesn’t cost anything to enjoy the beautiful Bay Area.
One of my favourite things to do in the Bay Area is ride my bike by the water. Price: absolutely free.
After the show, we rode along the Embarcadero under the glistening lights of the Bay Bridge. That’s why I fight to stake out my little spot in this expensive part of the country – because it’s absolutely beautiful.
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