In 2014, I moved from Baltimore, MD to Washington, DC — one of the most expensive cities in the United States. In spite of moving to a city with a higher cost of living than the one I left, I managed to reduce my cost of living by a substantial amount. Last year, I spent $38k in total. This year, I plan to spend $30-32k.
Despite this, my quality of life hasn’t suffered a bit.
This didn’t happen by accident. In hindsight, I realize that I used the clean slate strategy to implement lifestyle changes in parallel with moving. It took a lot of intentional decision making, along with challenging presumptions of what I needed to have in my day-to-day life.
I’ve seen proclamations that one would need to earn a minimum of $90,000 in order to live comfortably as a single person in DC. This is simply not true. Messages like this can serve as a form of confirmation bias, which discourages people from looking at the cost of their lifestyle through a scrutinizing lens.
Today I will share how I’ve managed to maintain a (very) reasonable cost of living in one of the most expensive American cities (while still living lavishly).
Design a lifestyle that makes saving easy
There are five pillars of my life that I’ve designed with a clear idea of what I want. I don’t take these decisions lightly, and I’m not too open to compromising them. I know that my holistic lifestyle is more important than any one pillar of it.
Since moving to DC, I’ve designed my life intentionally so that these pillars are naturally engrained in a cost-effective manner.
The pillars are:
- Living space
Living space comes at a premium in cities, especially a city like DC. It’s common for a 1 bedroom apartment to cost the same amount as a full-blown house outside of the city. Square footage is the sacrificial goat when paying for convenience and proximity.
My wife Annelise and I currently live in a 1 bedroom, 700 square foot apartment that rents for $2,000/month due to its unbeatable location. But nice apartments in DC can be rented for $1,500 or less.
There’s plenty of good deals to be had, given booming developments in the luxury condo/apartment space. New buildings with fancy amenities are desired, and they are being built in hordes. This drives down competition for units that lack amenities.
The apartment we currently live in is a ground-floor unit in an older rowhome. There’s no front desk, no gym, no roof deck or pool, and no cleaning service vacuuming the hallway outside of our door. Our willingness to sacrifice amenities enabled us to get a great deal for our apartment.
And it is right in the thick of everything, with a stellar 98 walk score, 92 bike score, and 92 transit score. Such accessibility is my personal utopia.
Older places like ours aren’t in demand the way they were even a few short years ago. We took full advantage of that fact, but we don’t even consider it to be a sacrifice.
Having already lived in a large, amenity-rich building (which happened to be much more expensive), I much prefer living in an older stand-alone unit. Our place has character, and isn’t lacking any of the lifestyle conveniences such as an in-unit washer and dryer and up-to-date appliances.
Traffic in DC sucks. I would rather gouge my eyes out with a spork than have to deal with it on a regular basis.
Anecdotally, traffic is the reason people detest the thought of ever living in a city. When friends visit, the first thing they talk about is the traffic, and how they could never deal with it on a regular basis.
I agree! I wouldn’t want to live in a city either if I had to fight traffic as part of my routine existence. So Annelise and I designed our lives such that we wouldn’t have to. We were willing to pay a bit of a premium for this, considering apartments can be found in the city for lower rents than what we are currently paying.
There are two primary ways we have used proximity to our advantage:
- The vast majority of places we ever need to go are at most a 30 minute walk away, and shorter if biking or using transit. This allows us to remove 90% of our need for a car.
- We have turned our minimized car dependency into an income stream.
Turn a depreciating asset into a money maker
Our first apartment together in DC came with a private parking space in an attached garage. We quickly learned that street parking was solid – spots within a block or two of our building could be found with no problem. Since we didn’t mind parking on the street, we rented out our private parking space for $240/month.
When we moved in 2017, we were used to that extra monthly income and wanted to replicate it — but we no longer had a private parking space to rent out. Fortunately, the sharing economy has started etching its way into just about every facet of life these days, and of course this includes cars.
We were vaguely aware of a company called Getaround, which allows you to rent your car by the hour or day(s) while you aren’t using it. After a few months of deliberation, we signed up and our car was listed. It’s worked out great so far, earning us an average of $300/month (edit: It’s actually $375, I underestimated this!).
Our car is a 2006 Honda Civic with 90k miles on it. Who would have thought that a 2006 car would be an income generator in 2018? That income more than pays for the cost of keeping the car around. And we still have the flexibility of using it whenever we need to.
So instead of leasing or buying a new car on credit every few years (like the majority of Americans), we are able to make money off the older car we’ve had for years. This is a game-changer when it comes to cost of living, especially in an expensive city.
Exercise for free
The great thing about living in a city is that there are tons of amazing outdoor areas to run and bike around. This is especially true in DC, where there’s no shortage of parks, rivers, monuments, and beautiful neighborhoods to run in, along, around, and through (respectively).
If cardio isn’t your thing, exercise can still be cheap (or free). A set of weights can be purchased for less than $150 on Amazon, and you can use them in the comfort of your own home. Or you can build core strength by using your own body weight as resistance.
Boutique fitness studios and gyms are pervasive in cities, screaming to take your money on nearly every block. But it’s far from necessary to pay the exorbitant price of using them.
And let’s not forget about taking walks. Walks are great for mental health, and they are one of my favorite pastimes. If you work in the city, you can hack this by taking walks during lunch hour. You don’t need to buy lunch in order to justify leaving the office. I used to enjoy my lunch time walks more than anything. It was built-in sanity check for my day.
Make experiences special
I’m not about deprivation; I enjoy partaking in all things that make city living great. This includes dining out at restaurants, checking out bars and breweries, visiting cafes and bakeries, going to concerts and festivals, and generally supporting local establishments.
I find that treating these experiences as something special allows them to be appreciated and enjoyed on the level they should be. It becomes something to look forward to and appreciate, rather than just another outing on the town.
If these experiences become routine, not only are they more mundane — they are also exponentially more expensive. Try to enjoy the things around you with some discipline and planning, while not allowing fear of missing out to make you feel deprived.
I’ve found that the best way to do this is by minimizing boredom. It’s when I feel bored that I am compelled to indulge in unhealthy habits.
One unhealthy habit is a mental one — the mindset that everyone else is having fun and I need to be out having fun, too. That’s when I make impulsive decisions that go against what I know to be best for myself.
How to minimize boredom? I’ve found there’s a trio of low-cost activities that help in doing just that. And they happen to be right at my fingertips as a city dweller.
Explore, discover, and connect
Everything I love about city life boils down to endless opportunities to explore, discover, and connect. There’s always a new neighborhood, street, or alleyway waiting for you to pay attention to it. It’s amazing how much you will notice when you do.
Just as there’s no shortage of places to explore, there’s no shortage of hideouts, events, and activities to discover. And these discoveries lead to connection. They enable you to get involved with your community, with organizations to support, and best of all they help you find your people.
The number one thing I do when I’m bored is take a walk or go for a bike ride. There’s no better way to feel connected to a place than to take it in, to leave my phone at home and keep my head up. This opens up the mind to all sorts of ideas and possibilities. It would be a shame to live in a place with so much to offer, and to ignore it by living life with my head in my phone.
Absorbing the city has helped me find my favorite places to go for just about anything. I have go-to places to think, write, eat, drink. My list of these places would be much shorter (and a lot less interesting) if I didn’t get out and explore.
I currently have a “bucket list” of various places I want to visit in DC because I’ve actively sought them out. When I’m bored, I take a look at this list and immediately have multiple excuses to get out the door.
Exploration hasn’t only lead me to discover my favorite places for various activities. It’s also enabled me to discover events and organizations to be a part of. I’ve found meet-ups that cater to my interests, attended speaking events, discovered new bands, taken part in group bike rides, and found volunteer opportunities.
What’s really great is that exploration and discovery both compound. Once you find new places and activities, you can keep going back to them. Plus, exploration and discovery don’t get any less fun once you start finding your niche. You can keep exploring and discovering. It’s like a bank you can always withdraw from.
Intentional or not, when you become active in your city, you start finding your tribe. And having a tribe is one of the most important pillars of happiness.
It’s inevitable. When you get involved with things that interest you, you find other people who are also interested in those things. It’s so obvious that I feel silly typing it out.
Since leaving my job, I’ve found out first-hand the effects of stringing days together without much human contact. It’s not fun. The longer I go without human contact, the more self-critical I am. This was somewhat of a surprising insight, because I lean on the introverted side of the spectrum.
I’ve recently made a much more concentrated effort to connect. I don’t always feel like doing it, but I never regret it when I do. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of opportunities to connect when living in a city.
If city living is your thing, go all-in. Design your life so that you can make the most of it while keeping costs low. The main idea I want to drive home is that it’s not at all impossible to live a cost-effective, yet lavish life — even in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.
My best memories in DC have been picnics, game nights, and potluck dinners. Riding my bike across town at sunset on a perfect spring night. Going for a run with a friend and having a beer afterwards.
It’s no coincidence that these things tie into exploration, discovery, and connection. And money isn’t a necessary precursor for any of them. It’s a myth that living the good life in an expensive city needs to be…well, expensive. The good life can be lived for less no matter where you are.