Video 03: New York City is Affordable, Part 2

In this video, I compare the budgets of two people: a single person living in Indianapolis making $10/hr (above minimum wage there), and a single person living in New York City making $15/hr (exactly minimum wage there). The result: if you’re working in something that could be considered a “minimum-wage job,” there’s a good chance you’d take home more money in NYC than in the middle of the country.

If you’re watching YouTube videos about moving to New York, and someone gives you a list of expenses and calls it a budget–that’s wrong. Unfortunately that’s a lot of YouTubers who talk about moving to New York. But that’s not what a budget is.

A budget is an estimate of expenses and income for a set period of time. A budget doesn’t just have all the money going out, but also all of the money coming in.

Both of those numbers together tell you whether a place is affordable or unaffordable, expensive or cheap. If you only have a list of expenses, you just know how much a place costs, without corresponding knowledge of how much it returns.

Comparative Budget Calculator

So: in my video, I break down a comprehensive budget that includes expenses and income. The Excel calculator that I use is embedded below, and you can use it yourself; I recommend changing the yellow cells, but leaving the white ones alone. If you refresh the page, the calculator will go back to its original form.

Explanation of Budget Numbers: Expenses

  • Car ownership:
    • Insurance: estimate pulled from AAA.
    • Car payment: there’s so much variability here. I took the monthly cost of a used car from here and cut it almost in half–this budget is for someone working close to minimum wage.
    • Parking: this cost is a composite of several things. The potential cost of parking even semi-regularly within the city, either in a garage or at a meter; the cost of parking tickets; any increase in rent to provide you with parking. Lower this number as you see fit.
    • Gas was calculated like this: 1,200 miles driven a month in a car that averages 25 miles per gallon, with gas at $2.50 a gallon.
    • Monthly car maintenance was calculated like this: I assumed a cost of 4.97 cents per mile driven, plus 1 cent a mile for wear on tires. This totals 5.97 cents per mile of incurred maintenance costs, and since I assumed an average 1,200 drive per month above, that means an average monthly cost of $71.64. Of course, this wouldn’t be paid every month. You’d pay larger sums for maintenance that are then averaged across the whole year.
    • Another note about car ownership: having a car brings much more risk and potential expense into your life. One accident can land you with a four-figure fix that a New Yorker wouldn’t ever have, not to mention an increased insurance rate.
  • New Yorker’s transportation: a monthly metro card with unlimited subway use is $127. I added $30 more for incidental Ubers and taxis.
  • Entertainment is a small flat fee that I sort of pulled from thin air. It’s the max you’d likely spend if you’re on minimum wage.
  • Food was calculated roughly, since it varies so much by one’s size and level of physical activity. I spend about $200-250 as a tall, active 28-year-old man. You can find food prices for Manhattan here–they’re quite reasonable.
  • Subscriptions: like entertainment, I pulled this out of the air. Common subscriptions I would expect people to have are things like Spotify, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and some personal product (mine is Dollar Shave Club).
  • Gym: there are cheap gyms almost everywhere, so this is just a ballpark figure.
  • Internet: This is half out of thin air, half real. I used central Indianapolis (see here) as an example, and saw that internet speeds of 500 mbps and higher become expensive quite quickly. RCN is a popular internet provider in NYC, although it’s not universally available, and they have a 500 mbps plan for $35/month (that’s also the one I have), which I split with my roommate.
  • Misc: laundry, haircuts, contact solution, renewing a license, new work shoes, &c. The $150 number is out of thin air, but seems realistic. I couldn’t find reliable data to nail this down, so I ballparked it.
  • Renter’s insurance: this assumes a price of $200/year, although there are much cheaper options available, like Lemonade.
  • Utilities: this is a ballpark. There are too many variables here, like: how many roommates to split the bill, how big is the apartment, etc. In New York, who pays for heating gets interesting.
  • Rent: ballpark numbers based on canvasing sites like these for New York and apartments.com and zillow.com.
  • Debt/savings: I left this blank.

Explanation of Budget Numbers: Income

  • Taxes: I used this tax calculator to estimate taxes.
  • Calculating average net (after-tax) pay:
    ([hourly rate] x [40 hours per week] x [52 weeks per year]) – [taxes] = annual net pay. Divide this by 12 for the monthly average.
  • Calculating the net pay in months with two paychecks, and those with three:
    ([hourly rate] x [40 hours per week] x [52 weeks per year]) – [taxes] = annual net pay. Divide this by 26, which is the number of paychecks in a year if you’re paid every two weeks. Multiply this number by two to get your two-paycheck months’ take-home pay, and by three for the two magical months where you have three paychecks per month.

Video 02: New York City is Affordable, Part 1

This is the first half of a two-parter, explaining how and when New York City can be affordable.

Common Perceptions About the Cost of NYC

  1. If you’re on the lowest end of the income scale, then you’re used to bad living conditions, so you don’t mind the fact that you’ll have to live in them to exist in NYC, because that’s all you can afford anyway.
  2. If you’re making a good six-figure salary, you can be comfortable in NYC. You make enough to actually enjoy the city and take advantage of what it has to offer.
  3. If you’re most people—who aren’t poor, but aren’t rich either—you won’t be able to afford to live comfortably in NYC. But since you do have some money, you won’t tolerate the NYC living conditions that you can afford, so you leave for a cheaper part of the country to enjoy a better lifestyle.

Three Problems with These Perceptions

  1. Other places outside of New York are assumed to be cheaper because their housing costs are lower. But a budget is more than just housing…and other budgets often aren’t cheaper when you work it all out.
  2. This makes NYC seem like a Dickensian dystopia with only billionaires and serfs. But the median household income for Manhattan is $79,781, and for New York City as a whole it’s only $57,782 (source). Household, not individual. These are not legions of serfs, and they’re making it work somehow.
  3. This view makes it seem like those earning minimum wage can’t make it in NYC. That their housing options are boxes and their food options are discarded ketchup packets. But if you’re a minimum-wage worker, New York City is one of your best bets, and it has plenty to offer. If you work at McDonalds and you want to live in New York, it’s likely that you’re better off here than in many other allegedly cheaper parts of the country.

Video 01: New York is More Accessible Than I Thought

In this first video of the series, I just want to establish how I’ll do things differently than many YouTubers that I’ve encountered. Although I touch on the topics of food and rent prices, this is not a video about food or rent in New York City. It is an introduction to my evidence-based style of video, and I look forward to producing dedicated examinations of various discrete topics within New York City personal finance. Whether you live here or want to move here, I hope these things are helpful.

Resources to use to follow along with the video, and for further detail:

  1. Album of Trader Joe’s prices
  2. Album of Key Foods prices
  3. Album of city Target prices
  4. To view the YouTube video with the bad budget that I reference in my video, follow this link. It was produced in 2017, and a related video on the same topic was produced in 2019 (link here). The 2019 video nominally touches upon some of the issues I bring up with the 2017 version, but it actually winds up producing more errors in the process. Perhaps I’ll do a more in-depth post about it.
  5. You can estimate your tax burden in New York City by going to this calculator. You’ll need this estimate (plus ~5% for health insurance/other benefits) for the budget calculator below.
  6. This is a simple budget calculator that I made in Excel to give you a quick idea of what you (or you and roommates combined) would need to make to afford certain rent prices, and vice versa. This calculator keeps in mind the general rule most landlords in NYC use: your pre-tax income has to be at least 40x your monthly rent.

Last Essay for February

Last Essay for February

Writing an essay a day is an easy thing to do. Writing an interesting essay a day is not, at least not for me. The month of February was an excellent exercise in cutting the chaff from the wheat, and I’m glad that I did my essay-a-day project.

Observations that I’ve made about the past month’s worth of writing:

  • I often did not know what I was going to write about until a few hours before I had to write it. This produced some pieces that were uninspiring to me, but also generated some of my favorite essays. As with fiction writing, sometimes you just have to trust the process.
  • I have a tendency to pick theses that are too ambitious for short essays. Many times during February, I would be two or three thousands words deep into an essay and realize that it would require thousands more to properly address its thesis. I would then have to set that essay aside and think of something else to write that could be properly confined to 500-1,500 words.
  • I didn’t anticipate so many pieces that were inspired by, or incorporated, music. My writing in the past hasn’t done this, but I’ve found it to be valuable to me (and hopefully anyone who reads the essays). I’m not exactly sure how I’ll incorporate music into future writing, but it’s exciting to have a new tool.
  • I’ve always written consistently, almost daily. But the writing would be very short notes and to-do lists in one notebook or another. After this February, the notebooks will likely contain more essays. I find myself drifting into the David Sedaris pattern of writing, although I know he didn’t publicly post most of his notebook scribblings (I actually haven’t either—there are piles of filled notebooks in my room right now).

I think I’ll do another essay-a-day project later in the year, but definitely not before June. I have a book to finish writing.

Cat Tatt

Cat Tatt

I ordered a temporary tattoo that should last somewhere between one and three weeks. The tattoo is of a cat. I am excited.

There’s not much that I have to say about the acceptability of tattoos that I haven’t already said in “Blue Hair, Don’t Care,” but, as with my blue hair, my tattoo will be temporary.

I don’t care to have permanently colored hair or inked skin; that doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to the idea in general, just that I prefer optionality. Why have blue hair forever (or until the dye wears out), when I can have blue hair one day, and green hair the next, and my natural hair color the day after?

Now that I’ve walked around Cambridge and Boston with colored hair for a bit, I’ll be interested to compare its reception to the cat tattoo’s. The colored hair drew a lot of slanted eyes, and I was looked at askance on multiple occasions.

Perhaps part of the reason for this was that, apart from my hair (which was itself styled in the fashion of a Harvard cut), the rest of my self-presentation was remarkably plain. I usually wear mostly blacks, dark blues, and olive colors in the winter, and these are always the colors of sweaters, slim-straight pants, and vests. Maybe the looks were just a result of the contrast between the atypical hair color and the very typical everything else.

But some of the looks definitely weren’t, which I hadn’t expected in large numbers. Being surprised that someone is atypical in some manner of self presentation in Cambridge is like walking around Hell and being surprised that people are being poked with pitchforks. It’s just how things are done here.

So, given that, even places like Cambridge have a long way to go before reaching blue-hair-don’t-care status.

But the cat tattoo will be different in a few ways:

  • I will deploy it in a few weeks when it’s consistently warm enough to wear shorts on my outdoor runs.
  • I will place the cat tattoo on my calf muscle.
  • Images of cats, generally, portend whimsy. Brazenly colored hair does not—if anything, the connotations associated with that are slightly negative on balance.
  • Even though no one will know my tattoo is temporary upon visual inspection, a cat tattoo is sort of in the category of a tattoo with “Mom” written on banner that encircles a heart. Yeah, it’s a tattoo, but it’s not a skull or even just barbed wire. It’s. A. Cat.

Of course, I’ll have to wear the cat tattoo by itself for a few days, and then also color my hair to see what the joint impression will be. I will be delighted and overcome with the aforementioned whimsy, and I hope that others can be as well.