Being Thrifty and Eating Right in New York Was Really, Really Hard

So I’ve lost a little weight recently — not a ton, maybe five pounds — and I was thinking today about why that never happened in New York, when I was younger and also probably getting more exercise (just from walking around more.) Also, as you may have noticed, I’m a lot better at sticking to a budget and saving money now than I used to be 🙂 And I think the two things are actually interconnected, not just in the way that financial and weight metaphors often work together, but because the pattern of living in New York is practically designed to disrupt weight control and money control.

Don’t get me wrong, living in New York does not have to be as painfully expensive as many people think. The Broke and Beautiful Life, for one, documents this admirably. But I am so much healthier, both financially and otherwise, now, than I was then. Here’s a typical day in the life, with a little bit of choose your own adventure, for me in New York:

–Wake up. Make and drink coffee.
–Get dressed and pack to go out. Since I won’t come home until the end of the day, that can be pretty elaborate depending on what I’m up to; I might need multiple pieces of clothing, an extra pair of shoes, books, food, umbrella, whatever.
–I don’t like to eat breakfast right away, and I’m probably headed out to somewhere I can’t easily bring breakfast to. Either I choke down a piece of toast at home, or I buy a bagel or croissant or donut or breakfast sandwich when I get closer to work, or I don’t eat breakfast at all.
–Walk to the train, take the train to work. Generally 60-90 minutes, so by the time I get off the train, I’m starving, and prone to buying something expensive and unhealthy.
–Work. Break for lunch. About 60-70% of the time, I’ve managed to pack and bring lunch with me — fairly impressive actually since it involves not only pre-planning the food and cooking it, but also carrying it all over the city.
–About 2 pm, I need coffee, and I also need to eat again. Usually I buy the coffee ($1-3) and sometimes also a snack ($1-5) unless I’ve managed to pack something.
–Variation: at 5-6 pm, I might go home and eat there (pretty cheap, although I pass multiple tempting take-out options on the way, and since I don’t get off the train for another 60-90 minutes after I leave work, my blood sugar is often crashing and it seems so much easier to pick up dinner than to cook.)
–Variation: at 5-6 pm, I leave work, but I’m doing something in the evening, like a play or concert. I’m not going to hike all the way home and then back into midtown, so I have to buy a cup of tea or coffee somewhere so that I have a place to sit for an hour or two.
–Variation: at 5-6 pm, more work. When I worked in the theater, we had a 2-hour break in between shows, and I almost always went out and bought food. Could I have not done that? Yeah. Was it way easier and more exciting to do that than to bring both lunch and dinner from home? Yeah. So, $10-15, usually a nice sandwich, pretty frequently a brownie or some other kind of desserty thing, because I’m going to be working all evening and I need the energy burst.

The common ground in all of these scenarios is that, so many days, I either was out and needed a place to hang out for a while, and by far the easiest choice is to find a coffeeshop and buy a drink and/or snack; or I was getting myself into a position where I was starving, because I spent so much time on the train and didn’t carry enough snacks with me. I lived so far from where I spent most of my time that I couldn’t just run home and grab dinner before going to do something in the evening, so I ate dinner out a lot. I wasn’t eating at Le Bernardin or anything, but $10-15 a pop adds up.

If I were doing it all over again, I’d be much more obsessive about carrying apple slices with me, and much more obsessive about cash budgeting. But I don’t know if there was a way, other than a level of willpower and organization that I didn’t have and still don’t, to solve the basic problems of very long days out of the house + tons of delicious, tempting, highly available food that I passed all the time because I was always out walking on the street.

The city I live in now is small enough that I’m 10 or at the most 20 minutes from everything. It’s easy to run home after work and grab food before heading to a movie or to see friends or whatever. Plus, since I drive to work, it’s also easier to take multiple meals with me (I take breakfast and lunch every day, and usually throw a snack in there too.) I’m also not exhausted and cranky/hungry all the time because my commute isn’t so insane. And finally, nobody in town makes a decent croissant, so I am not tempted, as a general rule, to spend money on something that’s also terrible for me! This is not to say that I never grab a meal out, but it’s much less a part of my daily repertoire here than it was in New York. Some of that is my newfound dedication to having my shit together, but some of it is just that temptation is much, much less strong. Turns out it’s easier to do the right thing when doing the right thing isn’t so difficult!

36 thoughts on “Being Thrifty and Eating Right in New York Was Really, Really Hard

  1. Kirsten says:

    I’ve come to earlier, reading finance blogs, that circumstances (like where you live) and the people around us probably influence our ability to be frugal more than anything else. Stephanie’s blog stands out as an exception to the rule, proving that it doesn’t have to be the case. But, kinda like your experience in NYC – I spent waaaaaay more money when I lived in Houston because there were more place to spend it…

    Super cool to see the Rock Star Finance badge!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, circumstances matter a LOT. Very few human beings have the self-discipline to navigate around tons and tons of temptations, and I’m kind of done beating myself up about not being one of them. I think it’s better to figure out what your temptations are and then figure out a way not to have to run into them constantly 🙂

  2. Food can be a huge budget leak for many of us. I teach summer school co-op, and there are days when I’m out on the road from 7:00-5:00 visiting students at their placements. Last summer, I made the commitment not to spend a cent on food on these travel days. It was awkward, but I (almost) managed ($4.05 at Starbucks one day). It took a big, compartmentalized lunch (& breakfast & snack) bag in which I could place an ice-filled container to keep everything fresh-ish. So often, frugal just does not look cool. This bag was no exception, but it did the trick : )

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, having a car is a big help too! It makes it more possible to pack everything along, if you’re not carting it on your back everywhere. That said, getting through a whole summer of 10-hour days with nothing but a single Starbucks breakdown makes you insanely cool in my eyes 🙂

      1. But good point about the car. Would I have carried that thing around with me all day? Not so sure about that.

  3. Isabella says:

    There really has to be a plan with the entire food thing if we want to be frugal AND healthy with our eating. Even with just Hubby and I (4 kids grown), I spend a lot of time on food prep. I pack breakfast and lunch for my husband and lunch for me when I substitute teach. (I always eat breakfast at home.) There is always a plan for dinner, so food is prepped, or at least, thawing in the fridge. To this day, I tape an index card on the fridge with the week’s menu, something I always did when the kids were growing up. But we were and still are able to avoid restaurant food because I always have a plan. I cook a wide variety of foods, and we really do like eating at home!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Planning is absolutely, absolutely key! I planned in fits and starts when I lived in NYC, and if I had to move back there I think I could take what I’ve learned since then with me and do better. But man, it was killer to be in the learning phase of my 20s and living in such an expensive place.

  4. You had a 60-90 commute? That’s insane! I don’t know if I’d have had the energy to meal plan either if I was spending so much time just getting to/from work.

    Right now I feel like I’m not at all thrifty with food spending, but I’ve come to learn I am alright with it. Sure, I could be spending less, but I always feel like I’m spending with my health and wellbeing in mind. And for me, as long as I’m not spending exorbitant amounts, that’s good enough.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      That’s not unusual for NY (keep in mind I was including door to door walking — usually about 10-15 to get to the train and another 10 or so to get to where I was going on the other end.) It really sucked, though, and as I was there longer, I found it harder and harder to get on the subway. It’s not the public transportation aspect — I was fine on buses and whenever the train came above ground — it was the underground part. Over the years I developed some mild claustrophobia. Anyway! It was a big problem in terms of energy for meal planning, for me, and I imagine for a lot of other people as well. The few times I did have a short commute, it was infinitely easier to handle the rest of my life.

  5. Hannah says:

    This makes me think of how incredibly lucky I was (from a financial and weight maintenance perspective) for my first work friends to be a group of runners. Since we ran at lunch, I had to bring food or I wouldn’t have time to eat, and since I was running at lunch I felt too tired to go to loud bars after work, and since I was home, I made a point to cook something every night.

    My eating out was generally limited to a “bottomless coffee mug” from Bruegger’s located just one block from my office. I seemed to have taken the bottomless mug as a challenge because I feel confident that they lost money on me for three years in a row.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      mmmmmmm, bottomless coffee 🙂 I’m impressed by the fact that you actually ran with them at lunch, though! I think if I’d made friends with a group of runners, I’d have said “go get ’em, guys” and restricted our friendship to the 2:30 coffee break 🙂

  6. I agree that NYC is a tricky place to live frugally. There’s just so much temptation to spend – great food, fun nightlife, lots of shows and entertainment options, all kinds of shops, you name it!! I lived there when I was single and for the first 18 months that I was married. I think being single and childless made it easier for me to spend money there, but I’m sure I’d find ways to spend money as a parent there, too.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Oh, you definitely would! You could take your kid to the American Girl store all the time, just to name one example. I shudder to think how much money I spent on croissants alone!

  7. Alicia says:

    When I first started grad school I lived right down town. Like “stumble from the pub” distance. I gained a tonne of weight because I never had the excuse of “I don’t want to come back downtown”… so I was eating a lot of take-out, and drinking a good amount with my friends. Plus I lived within spitting distance of Subway, the grocery store (aka, never meal planned, just ran across the street to get whatever I felt like that night), Little Caesar’s, a Lebanese restaurant, etc. And that was nothing…I can’t imagine having the food choices that NYC has…

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, I just am not that great at resisting temptation when it’s sitting right in front of me. Not an excuse — I wish I’d done better — but a statement of fact, you know? So many choices! It really is Sin City when it comes to food 🙂

  8. Anne from E. says:

    In situations like that it helps me a lot that I’m on a low carb diet for years now (had to reduce my carb intake because of health reasons). As my blood sugar is always low and I’m very comfortable with it, I never have this urgent need to eat. Of course my stomach tells me when it is empty, but then I can go on for quite a while until something healthy and inexpensive comes into reach. For me, it has been quite a kind of liberation and my wallet is very happy about that, too!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, medically necessary food restrictions can actually be helpful in that way! The urgent need to eat is actually pretty alarming not so much because I’m ever in any danger (I’m not) but because my willpower drops to basically nothing and I am almost incapable of making good decisions.

  9. Where do you live? I’m curious! Yes I can totally see how it would be tough to live in NY and have a small waistline and fat budget! That town is full of temptation! Working from home is very helpful in avoiding temptation here in LA…at least something offsets the otherwise high cost of living here!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      a pretty small city in Indiana — I’m trying to stay fairly un-googleable so I’d rather not name it 🙂 Working at home is amazingly helpful in avoiding temptation. I did some of that when I was in NY (I freelanced and was a grad student, so my work situation changed constantly) and those were definitely my thriftiest, healthiest periods.

  10. DebtFreeJD says:

    “Turns out it’s easier to do the right thing when doing the right thing isn’t so difficult!” Amen!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      It would be pretty nice if everything was set up to enable us to make good choices more often 🙂

  11. That really does sound like a lot of work! I have to admit- I get really tempted if I pass good food all the time. Working at home forces me to eat here. I guess that’s a good thing!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I eat way way better when I’m working at home, historically 🙂

  12. I think one of the ‘perks’ of living in a big city is that you’ve got more nice places to eat out. On one side it’s good that there seems to be endless amount of new places to try out, but on the other hand, it’s not necessarily good for your pocket and for your health. Our lifestyle is definitely influenced by our environment and it’s easy not to be tempted when the temptation isn’t there!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Yeah, you’re totally right — it’s great to have all that variety and interesting choice, and on the other hand….. Easier in a small city or the suburbs (especially if you don’t like fast food or places like Olive Garden.)

  13. You’re giving me flashbacks to when I lived in NYC and struggled through that commute ritual too… so much time was spent on the subway! It was such a challenge to pack and tote enough food everyday–I can remember going through elaborate routines with tuna sandwiches :). We still live in a city, but it’s just so much more manageable and I really don’t miss the hustle of New York. Glad to hear you’re happier with your current spot too!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      I gave myself flashbacks! Ugh, it was just so hard to maintain a healthy routine with all that time on the subway. I think the people I know in the Boston area mostly bike to work, with a minority having far enough to go that they take the T — although maybe my friends aren’t typical of the region, I dunno.

  14. Kalie says:

    Long days out are hard to plan and pack for. We’ve past that stage of being out 12+ hours a day now that we have little kids, but I still keep peanuts or other snacks in my car so we don’t have to stop if someone gets hungry. And my husband takes a huge packed lunch which I like to say contains breakfast, brunch, lunch, and linner. My sister once saw me packing it and said it looked like the wrestler’s lunch in the Breakfast Club.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      LOL! I know — my enormous bag that I take to work has enough food for ten people, I feel like 🙂 I’m just a wreck if I get hungry so I’m eating constantly. The trick is to not make that all expensive/awful for me.

  15. One of the great things about working from home is not getting caught hungry while I’m out and about. I can’t imagine how much money it saves.

    Congrats on the weight loss.

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Thanks! Although I just bought ice cream so maybe it won’t last long 🙂

  16. Needing a place to “kill time” in NYC is a serious disruption to any budget. It’s taken me ten years to figure out where I can go for free, and even then, I cave and go for the coffee shop more often than I should :/

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Man, I never really got a great plan. The atrium at the Lincoln Center was pretty good but I was still always tempted to buy coffee there!

  17. Jessica says:

    Being away from home for long hours and eating at least 5 times a day like I do can take some serious planning. Even though I’m in LA, where there is no shortage of good food, I’ve set up a system (mostly Sunday meal prep) so that it’s easier for me to eat food at/from home rather than eat out. It just sucks because I have to carry so much stuff with me every day. I know that if I had to commute like you did in NYC there’s no way I could do it. I wouldn’t want the hassle of carrying all the stuff, then I’d get hangry and give in to some delicious take out!

    1. thesingledollar says:

      Carrying around so much food is just a huge pain. I take a ton of stuff to work with me as it is now, but it doesn’t feel so bad because the commute’s so much easier.

  18. It’s funny that Kirsten spent more in Houston. Now that I’m in Houston, I spend way less than in New Orleans. There’s nothing good to eat here, comparatively! Hahaha. But yes, mindset is certainly the biggest influencer. My move just happened to kind of line up with the start of my debt repayment journey, so that’s worked out.

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