A Penny Pincher's Guide to Living in New York
A Penny Pincher Grows Up
by Matthew Stevens
I am, and have always been, a self-described cheapskate. For me, saving money is not only a lifestyle, but also a genuine source of pleasure. I seek out bargains the same way a birder with a high-powered scope might seek out the black rump of an Azure Gallinule, i.e. with passionate diligence. Paradoxically, I live in New York City (San Francisco currently holds the honor of most expensive rent prices of all US cities, but New York is a very close second). The price of renting in New York is, was, and will always be, hard for me to swallow. In fact, the high cost of living in this city fills me with a quenchless rage.
It would have been easier for me, no doubt, had I begun the rent-paying stage of my life on one of the coasts where rents are invariably high, or at least higher than average. Unfortunately (for my sensibilities), I came of age in the Mountain West where $400/month, or less, was the norm. Imagine my shock, then, when I signed my first lease in NYC... $925/month for a boxy, non-air-conditioned, 6th floor walk-up with no outdoor space in one of the most remote neighborhoods (Inwood) in Manhattan! In hindsight, I have a special fondness for that apartment; there are many reasons, not least of which is that it was the lowest price I ever paid for rent in New York.
Like many young New Yorkers, the following years were a steady stream of new leases in new neighborhoods, but UNlike many young New Yorkers, I had little interest in the next big scene — the cool ‘hoods with the hippest bars and best restaurants. My criteria for a neighborhood were simple: the cheapest rents balanced against an acceptable level of commuting hassle. So, after Inwood came Sunset Park, then Crown Heights, then Bedford-Stuyvesant (known in New York simply as Bed-Stuy). Each of these neighborhoods have changed dramatically since I lived in them, but at the time, they were all almost strictly residential. This meant there were few bars, fewer restaurants, no coffeeshops, dingy laundromats, and atrocious grocery stores. And while all of these areas were, more or less, decently accessible by subway from where I worked in Manhattan, my stubborn frugality told me that commuting by train was a lazy luxury reserved for weak-willed social climbers. The only good and noble way to commute, as far as I was concerned, was biking. Besides, it was (almost) free.
I was an ardent, and aggressive, biker. I rode hard, I rode fast, and while I was respectful of pedestrian rights, I had no patience for their common lack of consideration — their habits of standing in the street to wait for the light to change, of hailing taxis from the middle of bike lanes, of crossing the street without checking for non-motorized traffic, and so on. But walkers weren’t the only problem, not by a long shot. Taxis, busses, delivery trucks, town cars, cops, really ALL motorized vehicles were an equal threat. They all had a general disregard for bicycles. They changed lanes erratically, parked carelessly, and flung their doors open without looking behind them. As far as I was concerned, riding a bike in New York was akin to engaging in a daily battle against not one, but TWO accursed enemies.
I loved riding my bike in the city, and I still do, but I didn’t account for the long-term effect commuting by bike would have on my psyche. I became a mean person. Screaming at cars became a reflex, not a decision. Likewise with pedestrians. I assumed the worst in all people. I swiped at corner-crowders. I spit on cabs. I fantasized about breaking truck windows and getting in righteous fist fights. I was angry, so very angry, and young, and so unwilling to change. It, in large part, is what eventually drove me out of the city. I didn’t like the person I had become.
I was gone from New York for over 2 years, which, as it turned out, was ample time to reflect on past sins. Away from the city, I relaxed back into my generally good-natured self. I relearned old strategies to cope with stress. I taught myself to feel less hostile, and also to shed a good deal of anger. Still, when my wife and I put ourselves in the position of moving back to New York, I experienced an immediate sense of angst. Was I doomed to fall into the clutches of my old self? Would I be hooked like Peter Pan to the perpetual burden of self-righteous youth, forever battling the street pirates of NYC? I didn't want to be that person, and what’s more, I actually wanted to feel (at least in some small way) like I could enjoy living in New York.
We came up with a solution, and at first, it felt just as ugly an option as slipping back into my old ways. For the first time in my adult, penny-pinching life, I accepted the notion that paying more money, and living closer to where I worked — so close I wouldn’t have to commute — would actually make me happier. And it did, and still does. Don’t get me wrong, it took me months to adjust to the principle of it, and there is a shadow of revolt still lurking deep inside. It’s not a perfect situation. The new place (like any apartment in New York) comes with its own set of problems; we have much less space than we ever did in Brooklyn, and our ability to save has been inhibited. But those issues are minor compared with overall mental and emotional well-being. Most importantly, I’m now mature enough to know when to pinch money, and when to let it go. Or, at least I’m trying.