Financial Survival Guide for City Families
The decision to raise your children in an expensive metropolis can turn into a mental argument that you re-litigate inside your head daily. You love your home, but struggle against the constant tide of things working against you. Everything usually boils down to money, which could fix many of the things that make city life challenging. Or, you could just move someplace cheaper.
Thus, the internal struggle of most ordinary urban dwellers: stay in an unaffordable place I love, or move someplace affordable that I don’t.
Our family decided to stay. The only way we can live peacefully with this decision is to call on survival strategies that we’ve honed through the years. Finding ways to save money is important. But equally essential is something that, happily, we have far more control over.
Your mind is the key to confronting any obstacle. It is capable of utterly transforming our perception of life. No matter how much money I’m able to save, if, in my mind, I believe having a bigger home and a yard is what I need to be happy, then I will never be happy here.
Many people do need that to be happy, which I completely get. But for those, like me, who truly love where they live, but find their brain wallowing in wants, always wishing for more (Buddhists would call this dukkah)… the trick is to adjust your mind. Not the size of your house.
If you really start paying attention to where your happiness and satisfaction come from, doors begin to unlock. No life is perfect. Everyone makes trade-offs. Of course, much of the world lives in unspeakable deprivation. Keeping sight of this can offer needed perspective when you make judgements about wants and needs.
But even with the right perspective, there’s no way around it: The more intentional, smart and creative you are about money, the more bearable that inner struggle becomes. Especially with the big stuff.
Expense numero uno. I’m sorry to say I don’t have any tricks for making it cheaper. It is one of those areas where mindset is key. My friends and I all complain about our small apartments. It would definitely be nice to have a larger home. But would it really be transformative to my happiness to have more space? I’m not so sure. As a renter I have often gotten down about not owning. Then one day I had an epiphany: if I didn’t know I was renting, would my life be much different? Aside from my lack of wallpaper… no. Believe me, I would love to have the security of owning. Or the luxury of a spacious home. But would I be significantly happier? Again, I think the answer is no. And on the bright side, I am completely debt-free.
Is the sky really blue? I don’t know. But it looks blue. Reality is what your consciousness says it is. And it is far more subjective than we realize when we’re mired in the minutiae of our daily grind. We tend to place a lot of importance on things that ultimately are not material to our happiness.
I used to fret that my children are not experiencing growing up with a yard, or bigger bedrooms. I had those things. But they have gotten to have so many cool experiences that I did not. The point is, they have a happy childhood. Anything beyond that is over-thinking.
Children are amazing… the world they inhabit when they’re small is not bound by four walls. It is so much more vast than our shriveled adult minds can comprehend. By the time they’re big enough that it’s not, they’re a stone’s throw from college. Do I really need a huge house for, like, the four years they’re in high-school?
A friend of mine just had to downsize her enormous apartment. Her children graduated college and moved into their own apartments. Having to leave her home was painful for her. Downsizing… such a modern and depressing concept.
If you’re a middle class family in an expensive area, chances are everyone is working. Childcare is the big challenge after housing. Daycare is expensive and stressful, as is hiring a nanny. The choice is not easy. We’ve always hired babysitters, while being uncomfortable having another person’s livelihood in our hands. Our finances always felt so tenuous, how could we ensure someone else’s security? Babysitters need to get paid even if you go on vacation, or if they’re sick. They have to pay their bills too.
There is no way around this expense when you have a baby. You need an experienced person whom you can trust. But don’t despair. This is a finite period of time (though you may sometimes wish it lasted forever).
By the time your kids are about 4, you can consider a college student for babysitting, which may be more affordable than a career nanny. This has taken a lot of the pressure off our family. We found an amazing, hard working student in our local parenting forum. I always pay her for extra hours when I can, but because she is young, part-time and not paying her family’s bills, I feel it is ok not to pay her for every vacation and holiday as I would a professional nanny.
You definitely need to make friends with moms and dads who can help and with whom you can trade favors. It is very difficult for working parents to survive without support from peers.
Like everyone I knew, I enrolled my first son in Pre-K at the age of 2. I spent a fortune for him to go two days a week. Then I wizened up with kid number two. I realized it wasn’t necessary for my son to reach his junior year of Pre-K before graduating to Kindergarten. If you’re using Pre-K for childcare, yes. But if you’re also still paying a babysitter, the combined expense can be back-breaking.
Finally, I found our savior: religious education (sorry for the pun). If you are not opposed to it, it is amazing how much cheaper it can be, and in our case, higher quality. I went to Catholic school, so I was ok sending my son to an amazing Catholic school for a fraction of the cost of his nursery school. By the time my younger son was ready for Pre-K, they started a program for 3 year olds, as most now have. This helped cut our Pre-K tuition costs significantly. Luckily in New York, free Pre-K is now guaranteed for 4 year olds.
Neverending food and dining options are fun. But our family used to spend $1500 a month on groceries, on average. Crazy as that is, I’m sure a lot of families fall into many of the traps we did, being busy and just not paying attention. That cost us dearly until we completely revamped the way we shop, reducing our food spending a good $500 per month, minimum.
First, we got over our fear of buying in bulk. We stopped constantly shopping independently of each other. We sync shopping lists on our phones with the Grocery iQ app. And we no longer over-optimistically buy food for meals further than three nights out. Sometimes you come home from work and you Just. Can’t. Cook. If you’re buying ingredients a week out and this happens often enough, food is going in the garbage. Take advantage of living in the city and embrace small shopping trips. But only for meal staples. Do not buy toilet paper at the deli!
I’m not going to tell you to bring your lunch to work every day. If you can, you’re better than me. I enjoy having lunches at work that I wouldn’t make for myself. But I bring incidentals – drink, chips, snacks etc – that I buy in bulk. It’s a small change that can save $50 a month or more. If you can make your lunch sometimes, even better. The Kitchn has a ton of great lunch ideas.
Biannual stoop sales are my life blood. Not only are they a de-cluttering orgasm, but you really can make some money. I always post mine on Craig’s List and people actually get in the car and come. I price everything cheap – mostly $1. But when you have 600 kids’ books, toys and tee shirts to get rid of, a buck each adds up. If you’re not having stoop sales, you’re leaving money on the table.
There are so many more areas that present financial conundrums. The accepted wisdom is that it’s better to spend money on experiences rather than things. I agree, but experiences can send you to the poor house too. From kid classes to sports to just going to the movies. Saving money on kids’ activities could take up an entire post. I’ve stopped putting pressure on myself to do everything, especially things that are too costly. There are so many free or inexpensive alternatives.
I have let go of so many things that society tells me I need in order to give my family a good life. Instead, I allow myself to enjoy the happiness I feel every day, without making useless judgements about it. The less you listen to what other people think constitutes a fulfilling life, the better off you will be. No matter where you live.
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