How 2 New Grads Erased $20,000 in Debt in 2 Years - While Living in NYC

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The Big Apple. The City That Never Sleeps. The Capital of the World. There are lots of ways to describe New York City, but "inexpensive" isn't one. So moving to Manhattan fresh out of college while trying to tackle student loan debt might seem like a counterintuitive move. But that's what my wife, Joanna, and I did.

Just months after getting our diplomas framed, Joanna and I sat down and got serious about our finances and attacking our $20,000+ in student loan debt. While interest rates were favorable and our cumulative debt was lower than many graduates, we couldn't stand the feeling of owing anything to anyone. Imagine our conundrum when I got my dream job offer from a storied advertising agency in New York -- the most expensive city in America.

Despite a cost of living that's 125 percent higher than the U.S. average, we were committed to paying off our debt in two years. And the craziest part of it all? We did it. (We were in Manhattan for a year and a half, and then we moved to Boston for a year.)

Here's how we slew our debt while living large (and by large, I mean small) in New York.

Budget and Expense Tracking

Instead of first budgeting out typical expense categories (food, transportation, tourist activities, etc.), we figured out how much we wanted to put toward paying down our debt each month. After subtracting that from our monthly income, we knew how much money we had remaining for all of our discretionary and leisure spending.

We created an itemized budget and then tracked our expenses like accountants from the Internal Revenue Service. Every penny of every expense was accounted for throughout each month. If we noticed that our $350 food budget was running low halfway through the month, we knew to cut back or face the wrath of beans, rice and ramen for the duration. This tracking helped ensure that our get-out-of-debt goals were walking the walk.

Entertainment

When we first moved to the city, we received tons of must-see and must-do tips from friends. The only problem was that most of those sights and sounds were well outside our price range. I think we're the only people who lived in Manhattan and never saw a show on Broadway. Instead, we focused on the city's countless free sights and activities, including the Met on free admission days or a live recording of "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon." We would occasionally splurge on a bucket list item, but we made sure to space them out throughout the year.

Groceries and Food

Food isn't cheap in the Big Apple. We learned early on that certain suburban indulgences would have to be tabled, like ice cream (which ran $5 a quart -- just typing that makes me shudder all over again). We set a tight $250 grocery budget and an even tighter $100 eating-out budget.

For most groceries and household goods, we would catch a bus to Costco once a month, where milk was half the price of the local grocers'. We'd load up 30 to 50 pounds of loot in duffel bags and backpacks and make the 45-minute trek home. These trips helped us justify forgoing the exorbitant costs of joining a gym. And in order to keep our eating-out budget in check, we'd oftentimes meet friends for dessert after they'd gone out to eat at a pricey (to us) sit-down restaurant.

Transportation

In our almost two years of city living, we hailed two taxis. We had our youth, our legs and stubborn monthly debt goals steering us clear of the convenient, albeit somewhat terrifying cabs. We loved walking around the city -- there's always something new to see. On the rare occasion that we couldn't walk to our destination, we used public transportation. My employer subsidized monthly unlimited metro passes, and Joanna would refill her card $100 at a time to access more inexpensive per ride rates. And when the opportunity presented itself, I'd swipe my unlimited card for Joanna, to cut down on costs even more.

Frank Sinatra summed up life in Gotham the best when he sang "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. It's up to you, New York ... New York, New York!" And since we made budgeting and paying off debt a reality while we lived there, we know we can make our finances happen anywhere.

Joanna and Johnny are the writing duo behind OurFreakingBudget.com, a personal finance blog documenting the joys, pains and realities of living on a budget.


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7 Comments

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frank1946

Tavern on the Green still in business ?

Nice to visit NYC.

March 19 2014 at 12:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
RMS

Well, OK, they did it, but, there were two incomes, and they don't say how much the incomes were. Salaries in NYC are generally higher than in surrounding areas. The article doesn't mention where they lived or how much they paid in rent. The range of apartment sizes and monthly rent in NYC is vast. They might have been able to do this even cheaper by living outside the city in one of the five boroughs or Jersey.

March 18 2014 at 7:04 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
cvanac8550

Cate ...NYC is a wonderful place to visit and live for old and young ...try it sometime and it's not nearly about just the broadway shows ..they are miniscular to what the city has ot offer and cheaply if you know where to look.....

March 18 2014 at 5:31 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cvanac8550's comment
classof68gto

Most New Yorkers live in their own little world and used to work with them in Fl. where I worked.

March 18 2014 at 9:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Cate

For me, I do not understand the draw of living in an overpriced, overcrowded city which most cannot afford just to see an overpriced play or show. Glad it worked out...
GOOD FOR YOU TWO.

March 18 2014 at 1:55 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
prnyl

It is all about individual effort and these two have it- CONGRATULATIONS- there are not enough like these two out in the world- too many on the entitlement train this country has produced.

March 18 2014 at 1:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
wenumafet

These are some good tips. I used to live in Manhattan too and struggled with spending more than I needed to.
Here are some of my tips for people looking to cut back and maybe pay off their debts:
1) Start by selling everything you don't need.
2) Cut eating out as much as possible.. aim for eating on less than $2/day (definitely possible).
3) Cut back on transportation costs. Drive a cheap car (Honda Civic), get cheap $25/month insurance (check 4AutoInsuranceQuote), use GasBuddy for gas.
4) Don't bite off more than you can chew with rent/mortgage or whatever house cost you have.
5) Pay off all your debts one by one. Start with the highest interest ones.

March 18 2014 at 12:52 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply