How to Survive as a Post-Grad in NYC How to Survive as a Post-Grad in NYC

How to Survive as a Post-Grad in NYC

by Maggie Boyle

New York is a city full of opportunity, inspiration, and hope. People move here every day from all over the world to pursue their dreams. But, how easy is it to pursue your dreams with an empty wallet?

Every spring, a new wave of post-grads from all over the world gears up to make the move they’ve been waiting for their whole lives. Getting a full-time job right out of college is hard enough, but getting a well-paid full-time job right out of college is certainly not a guarantee. Chances are, you’re going to start out small. So how do you ensure your survival in a city where rent can cost more than your tuition?

For me, waitressing at night to make some extra cash has helped me balance summer internships in NYC over the past few years. If “budgeting” means taking the subway everywhere and drinking a bottle of $7 wine from CVS before going to the bar, then sure, I’m a great budgeter. But let’s be honest, learning how to budget is a difficult process, and in a pricey city like NYC, the urge and temptation to spend money lurks around every corner coffee shop and under every rooftop bar. Saving money often means having to get creative when it comes to making plans with friends that don’t break the bank. In my quest to become a better budgeter, I’ve tried to find inexpensive or free things to do in the city. So, how difficult is it, really,  to balance your social life with your checkbook?

I chatted with a few recent college graduates who are living and working in NYC and tapped them for their thoughts on budgeting, splurging, and saving cash.

Matthew, who went to school at DePaul University and is used to city life, has to factor student loans into his monthly budget.

Milk Makeup: How long ago did you graduate/where did you go to school?


Matthew: I graduated in 2016 and went to DePaul University.

MMU: What’s your job? Do you have a salary or an hourly wage?

M: I work as a Financial Analyst and make a yearly salary.

MMU: What made you decide to move to NYC?

M: I’ve always loved New York. I decided to move mostly because of the energy and unbounded opportunity that this city has to offer. I had interned in NYC before graduating and decided that this is where I saw myself full-time.

MMU: Do you have a system in place when it comes to budgeting? How did that come about?

M: I have a loose one; basically I keep a mental note of my monthly expenses, and I try to overestimate those to give myself a cushion so that I have a rough idea of how much money I have for spending or saving. I work with numbers all day, so it’s easy for me to keep track of my finances in my head.

MMU: What would you say are some of your biggest splurges? Have you thought about ways you could cut down on them?

M: I definitely spend the most on food, drinks, and going out on the weekends. I go on weekend trips pretty often, which adds up as well. I also spend a decent amount of money on clothes. I am able to cut down on those costs in the winter since I’m not spending as much cash on weekend trips to the beach and going out to rooftops and fun summer places. Summer is definitely my splurging season.

MMU: What’s your living/rent situation?

M: I live in a 3-bedroom apartment in the Financial District with two roommates. We each pay the same amount each month.

MMU: Did you have student loans? If so, or if you want to talk about them, how does that fall into your budgeting equation?

M: Yes, I do have student loans. They make it pretty easy to set up payment plans so that it just becomes a recurring monthly expense that I don’t end up having to even think about often. I am able to factor the monthly student loan cost easily into my monthly budget without it setting me too far back.

MMU: Do you have any NYC hacks for saving money?

M: Cooking and eating at home! To be honest, I don’t do this often, but I know that if I did, it would save a ton of money. One hundred dollars of groceries can probably last you at least two weeks, whereas if you’re spending up to $15 a night on dinner/food, that adds up so quickly.

MMU: What advice do you have to recent grads who just moved to NYC?

M: It may seem cliché, but get out and experience all that this city has to offer. That’s hard when you aren’t making tons of money, but there’s still a lot to do here that is free or pretty inexpensive.

MMU: What’s the biggest financial mistake you made when you first moved here?

M: The biggest mistake I made was probably just not ever checking my bank account. I wasn’t tracking my spending at all and was alarmed almost every time I bothered to check. It might hurt to look, but it hurts much more when it compounds.

MMU: Do you save a certain percentage of your paycheck or no? If not, do you have a saving system?

M: I try to save a few hundred a month into a personal investment account. I also put some of my paycheck every month into a 401k.

Jake, a Brooklyn resident who works as an Assistant Buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue, thinks that exploring boroughs other than Manhattan is key as a recent grad.

Milk Makeup: How long ago did you graduate/where did you go to school?

Jake: I went to The Ohio State University and I graduated in May 2017.

MMU:  What’s your job? Do you have a salary or an hourly wage?

J: I work as an Assistant Buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue and am paid a yearly salary.

MMU: What made you decide to move to NYC?

J:  I always wanted to move to a big city after college. Once I decided I wanted to work in fashion, it only made sense to do so. From there, it just worked out that the company I wanted to work for was based in NYC and the job I got offered was here.

MMU: Do you have a system in place when it comes to budgeting? How did that come about?

J: Not really… I never spend money I don’t have and I make sure to pay off my credit card in full each month which helps. Other than that, I try to limit spending money on small daily things like coffee that can build up to a bunch of money over time.

MMU: What would you say are some of your biggest splurges? Have you thought about ways you could cut down on them?

J: I’m always spending more on clothes than I should, but I don’t see that changing any time soon. I also have spent a bunch on concert tickets, but again, I have yet to regret any ticket I’ve bought.

MMU: What’s your living/rent situation?

J: I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn with 2 roommates and we pay a total of $3,050 a month, split between us for a 3-bedroom apartment.

MMU: Did you have student loans? If so, or if you want to talk about them, how does that fall into your budgeting equation?

J: No! I am extremely fortunate to have no student loans.

MMU: Do you have any NYC hacks for saving money?

J: First things first, make sure to find the bars with the best happy hours and drink prices near you. Beer/shot combos in Brooklyn have saved my wallet from more damage on many occasions. Also, grocery shop to avoid spending money on daily meals. I try to avoid eating out during the week as much as possible.

MMU: What advice do you have to recent grads who just moved to NYC?

J: Paying more money to live in a smaller place in a slightly trendier neighborhood is not always worth it! When you are finding a place to live and deciding between apartments that are separated by a couple hundred dollars per month, try and think of how much that can add up to over 12 months. Always try and think of how costs will add up over the year, and not just by month. It is a great way to put things in perspective and see how an extra $150 a month ($1800 a year) could be a vacation instead!

MMU: What’s the biggest financial mistake you made when you first moved here?

J: The biggest financial mistake I made when I first moved here was spending first and saving second. I would spend, spend, spend and then at the end of the month “save” what I had left (usually nothing). Now that I’ve been here for almost a year, I am trying to save first and then spend what is left after that.

MMU: Do you save a certain percentage of your paycheck or no? If not, do you have a saving system? 


J: Ten percent of my paycheck goes to a 401k I have set up, but I don’t have a structured saving method outside of that… yet. I’m now trying to figure out the best saving system for me where I can live comfortably but actually build somewhat of a savings account.

Lainie, who gets paid an hourly wage as a technician at New York Presbyterian Hospital, admits that splurging on beauty products may be her biggest problem.

Milk Makeup: How long ago did you graduate/where did you go to school?

Lainie: I went to the University of Connecticut and graduated in May 2017.

MMU: What’s your job? Do you have a salary or an hourly wage?

L: I am a technician at New York Presbyterian Hospital. I have an hourly wage.

MMU: What made you decide to move to NYC?

L: The main reason I moved to NYC is that I was offered a position in Manhattan. I grew up and went to college near NYC so I have a ton of friends in the area, which made the move easier. Also, New York City is the best city in the world, and I don’t know why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

MMU: Do you have a system in place when it comes to budgeting? How did that come about?

L: I wish. After living in the city for a year I’m still learning and looking for ways to budget. Some months are easier than others, but adulting is hard.

MMU: What would you say are some of your biggest splurges? Have you thought about ways you could cut down on them?

L: Makeup, clothes, beauty products, home decor, food, mani-pedis, blowouts, weekend getaways… you know, the usual. I’ve learned to save money on makeup by separating my everyday makeup from my nighttime makeup, so that way I can use them separately and then they last longer. I have also found everyday products that are cheaper than what I used to buy.

MMU: Did you have student loans? If so, or if you want to talk about them, how does that fall into your budgeting equation?

L: No.

MMU:  What’s your living/rent situation?

L: I live in a one bedroom apartment in the Financial District with a roommate and we each pay about $1,500 per month.

MMU: Do you have any NYC hacks for saving money?

L: I wish I had more! I think my only hack is to walk everywhere. Don’t waste money on Ubers unless you’re drunk, sad, or extremely late. Walking is great because it’s free, good for you, and you can learn the area much better that way.

MMU: What advice do you have to recent grads who just moved to NYC?

L: I’m definitely not in any position to be giving anyone financial advice, but the advice I’d give to recent grads is the same advice I should give myself: try to save money each month. There are apps that you can connect your bank account to that take out a few dollars from your bank account each month or week and that really adds up. Try to save some of your paycheck every time you get paid.

MMU: What’s the biggest financial mistake you made when you first moved here?

L: Thinking that because I was getting paid well, better than any other job I’d ever had in my life, that I could afford to do and buy whatever I wanted. That was definitely not the case, but I wasn’t used to having money.

Lauren, two months post-grad and currently searching for a job, is confident in her budgeting abilities.

Milk Makeup: How long ago did you graduate/where did you go to school?

Lauren: I just graduated in May of 2018, and attended the University of Colorado at Boulder.

MMU: What’s your job? Do you have a salary or an hourly wage?

L: I’m a freelance writer, and I get paid per story. I am currently looking for a full-time position.

MMU: What made you decide to move to NYC?

L: I’m originally from Southern California, but I moved to NYC because there are way more job opportunities for my field of work, which is editorial journalism and media.

MMU: Do you have a system in place when it comes to budgeting? How did that come about?

L: Yes, I budget my money very well. I give myself a limit for what I can spend on everything from groceries, to drinks with friends, to Ubers, and other miscellaneous things. I look over my expenses each month (rent, utilities, bills), and put that money aside. Then I see how much money I have left from there.

MMU: What would you say are some of your biggest splurges? Have you thought about ways you could cut down on them?

L: My biggest splurge is definitely dinners/drinks out with friends. For the most part, we try to find a good happy hour, but sometimes that just isn’t the case. I enjoy spending time with people and doing things that usually include spending money, so I budget accordingly.

MMU: What’s your living/rent situation?

L: I just signed a lease in the East Village for a three-bedroom apartment with two other girls. We each pay the same amount of rent each month.

MMU: Did you have student loans? If so, or if you want to talk about them, how does that fall into your budgeting equation?

L: I did not have any student loans.

MMU: Do you have any NYC hacks for saving money?

L: Happy hours are the move! There are so many things to do outside that don’t cost money like walking through Central Park or window shopping in SoHo. As for saving money, I save money by only going out a few times a week and bringing a certain amount of money with me so that I don’t overspend. I also shop for groceries at Trader Joe’s and fruit stands, both of which have great prices.

MMU: What advice do you have to recent grads who just moved to NYC?

L: Get a job ASAP if you don’t already have one! Until then, sublease a cheap apartment and budget wisely. Also, even if you have a job, consider getting a side job to make some extra money.

MMU: What’s the biggest financial mistake you made when you first moved here?

L: I just signed a lease for a pretty pricey apartment that, with my current job situation, I’m not sure I can afford. It’s not necessarily a “mistake” yet, so I’m hoping to get a full-time position soon so that it doesn’t turn into one!

Though it may seem like the struggle to pay rent will never ease up, there are tons of successful New Yorkers who were in the same position not long ago. Becoming financially stable on your own, especially in a city like New York, takes years, and a whole lot of endurance. I had the pleasure of chatting with a few seasoned New Yorkers about how they got their start, their advice to recent-grads, and their journeys to where they are today.

Phoebe Lovatt, London-born freelance journalist and founder of The Working Women’s Club, took the plunge in 2015 and decided to relocate to NYC.

Image: Phoebe Lovatt

Milk Makeup: What was your goal when starting The WW club? Would you say that your goals for The WW club have changed as it’s grown?

Phoebe Lovatt: I started The WW Club in January 2015, as a pop-up co-work and event space in downtown Los Angeles, where I was living and working as a freelance journalist at the time (I moved there from my hometown of London in 2012). I had no idea it would resonate with women around the world in the way it did — my inbox was instantly flooded! Since then my goal has been to extend the spirit of solidarity and support through global events, digital content, and my book, The Working Woman’s Handbook: Ideas, Insights, and Inspiration for a Successful Creative Career.

MMU: What was your first big journalism assignment out of college? What did you learn from it?

PL: I started working as a journalist while I was still at college (I had been doing regular magazine internships since my mid-teens). When I was 19, I was interning at a London-based music magazine called RWD during Easter break and I was sent to interview a then-unknown band called The XX. I learned that I really like asking people questions and exploring the ideas behind their work and creative processes.

MMU: What university did you attend and what did you major in?

PL: I graduated from University College London with a BA (Honors!) in History.

MMU: How did you get to NYC?

PL: Originally, I moved to Los Angeles and lived and worked there for almost three years. By 2015, I had launched The WW Club and also felt that my adventure in LA had come to an end, so I picked up and started afresh in Brooklyn in the autumn of that year. I’ve been here ever since.

MMU: How long post-graduation did it take until you felt financially stable?

PL: I’m not sure I’d say I feel totally financially stable now — I live in the world’s most expensive city, I’m self-employed, self-sufficient, and run an independent business — it’s not a totally stable situation! That said, I’m much less anxious about money than I used to be. That’s partly because my earning ability has increased — I’m better and more experienced than I used to be in my capacities as a writer, journalist, and moderator, and I’m paid more accordingly — and partly because I’ve intentionally established various streams of income through my business.

MMU: Do you have a system in place when it comes to budgeting? How did that come about?

PL: I keep a simple spreadsheet outlining my personal incomings and outgoings — you can actually download a template of this via The WW Club — so I always have an idea what I’m making vs. spending. I use budgeting software like Mint to keep on top of my spending, too — it’s useful to be able to see where your money is going and perhaps shouldn’t be (cough, Uber, cough). And of course, I have an accountant to help me with my personal and corporate tax returns. In my opinion, this is a non-negotiable business expense for anyone who is managing their own finances.

MMU: What would you say are some of your biggest splurges?

PL: I live alone in New York, so obviously my rent is astronomical! I also spend a lot on cabs and travel generally (for work and pleasure), quality food, personal care (things like acupuncture, supplements etc. — health is wealth), and let’s be real, clothes. But I eat out far less than most people I know in NYC (I prefer to cook my own food a lot of the time) and try to watch my spending in most other categories.

MMU: What advice do you have, budget and living-wise, for young post-grads who just landed in NYC?

PL: Don’t be tempted to keep up with the Joneses. There is an immense amount of pressure in New York to eat out all the time, wear new outfits every day, and generally subscribe to the consumerist culture of the city. If you’re 25 and can’t afford to eat out every night and live in your own apartment, you’re not a failure! Most people doing that before the age of 30 are either living off their parents’ money or running themselves into credit card debt. The few visible exceptions you see on Instagram probably have a unique set of personal circumstances, too. Live within your means, find roommates you love, figure out how to grocery shop and cook for yourself, and embrace the endless cheap eats and free entertainment options (museums, free concerts, people watching!) that this incredible city has to offer. New York is not easy to navigate on a tight budget, but there are ways to make it work.

MMU: Do you have any hacks when it comes to saving money?

PL: As above, don’t be tempted to live a lifestyle that’s beyond your means just because you’ve seen someone else doing it. Figure out your impulse buying triggers (e.g. Instagram) and keep track of them, as well as regularly reviewing your general spending habits. Saving money can be incredibly tricky when you’re self-employed — a good rule of thumb is to take 30% of every paycheck and add to one account that’s strictly for taxes, and then add another 10% to your savings account. It’s painful, but it will help you to sleep at night. Long term, try to find ways to build passive income streams and also ensure that you regularly raise your freelance rates as you improve and gain experience in your field of work.

Cyndi Ramirez, an NYC native who went on to become founder of the Lower East Side relaxation-destination Chillhouse, as well as the successful food blog Taste the Style, tackled the editorial and beauty world at a young age.

Image: Cyndi Ramirez

Milk Makeup: How did you get where you are now career-wise?

Cyndi Ramirez: We’ll be here all day if I told you. It’s a weird, long story. I had no path in my early 20s. There was no linear roadmap to success for me because I’ve never been one to follow the rules. I suppose everything changed when I launched my own blog. I met and worked with some wonderful people who have supported me ’til this day. I’ve worked hard and found a couple of ways to make changes in the editorial and now beauty marketplace.

MMU: What, if any, struggles did you face along the way?

CR: I could be here all day, part two. Every month is a new “struggle” or a new growing pain. However, I try not to think of these obstacles as “struggles,” but rather just learning experiences that guide us towards a better path forward. But I suppose one example I can share was Chillhouse’s cafe getting shut down by the health department for a couple of months only a few months after opening. It was one of the most stressful times of my life, but we figured out a solution and it actually resulted in a better physical space overall. Again, every “struggle” is simply a lesson. And man, have I learned a lot.

MMU: What university did you attend and what did you major in?

CR: I’m an LIM College dropout. Twice.

MMU: How did you get to NYC?

CR: I was born here.

MMU: How long post-graduation did it take until you felt financially stable?

CR: I didn’t graduate [college] and moved out of my mom’s when I was 19, so I had to be financially stable at a young age. But my finances have always gone through ebbs and flows. I’ve had to make financial sacrifices to be an entrepreneur, some of which I still make today.

MMU: What would you say are some of your biggest splurges?

CR: Travel, hands down. But even then we’re conservative in our hotel stays. We typically Airbnb.

MMU: What advice do you have, budget and living-wise, for young post-grads who just landed in NYC?

CR: Make friends with a bartender, buy your furniture on Craigslist, get good at thrifting, and try finding free things to do in NYC. There is so much you can do!

MMU: Do you have any hacks when it comes to saving money?

CR: Download Daily Budget. My husband uses it and swears by it. I’m still figuring it all out, just like you guys.

Madeline Poole, an artist at heart, learned how to take her talents from her apartment salon to the fingernails of celebrities and beyond into other creative endeavors.

Image: Madeline Poole

Milk Makeup: How did you get where you are now career-wise?

Madeline Poole: Well, that’s a long story. But I was always very good with detail and painting so when I met an on-set manicurist years ago, it struck me as a job I could actually make money doing. So I went to beauty school, started a blog, made a little portfolio, and had people come to my apartment like it was a salon. Then I got an agent, the agency showed me the ropes of working on set, and then I started with small set jobs, things people needed last minute. From there I was able to build a career and take on the jobs I wanted to do. When I get into something I get really obsessed, so I just spent many, many nights up late practicing and trying to come up with things I’d never seen before. I think it takes being obsessed and putting all your free time into something to make it really work.

MMU: What, if any, struggles did you face along the way?

MP: At the beginning of a project/career when you’re gaining momentum and it starts to look like things are working out for you, you often don’t start making a good income right away. You have to play the game a little, you know, fake it ‘til you make it. I always found that challenging because I’m an over-sharer and I’m bad at lying. Recently I was struggling because I realized I was losing my interest in what I was doing and I wanted to branch out and try new things. I decided I wanted to work in design more and do graphics in the cosmetic and fashion industry. I’m not trained in the programs — I learned everything on YouTube — so I struggle with having confidence in my knowledge, and it’s not easy to switch careers or to try to have two. I like a lot of different forms of creative expression, and ever since I started doing nails, people assume that’s all I can do.

MMU: What university did you attend and what did you major in?

MP: I went to MICA, which is an art school in Baltimore, and I majored in painting. And I went to beauty school in LA.

MMU: How did you get to NYC?

MP: After I left Maryland, I went to LA because I thought it would be a nicer place to struggle with rent (and it was). My plan was to move to NY when I felt capable of finding a sustainable income. I started coming here with someone I was dating, and then just kept staying a little longer each time. And then I just ended up moving here; it was sort of an accident.

MMU: How long post-graduation did it take until you felt financially stable?

MP: That took a really long time. I didn’t feel financially stable until about 3-4 years ago, so I was 28 or 29. And to be completely honest, I don’t know how long that feeling will last. But at least I know I’m very resourceful.

MMU: Do you have a system in place when it comes to budgeting? How did that come about?

MP: I’m really disorganized and probably a bad person to give advice on this, haha. But I don’t let my bank account drop below a certain amount. There’s, like, a code yellow, code orange, and code red amount. It has also helped me to pay quarterly taxes so I’m not shocked by a massive chunk of savings leaving my bank account in April.

MMU: What would you say are some of your biggest splurges?

MP: Travel! Don’t ask me to buy a plane ticket because I will. Food in NY is also an issue for me because I love the social aspect of eating out and it’s how I stay in contact with a lot of my friends, but it really adds up. One way I’ve been saving this year is by riding Citibike everywhere instead of using car services. It’s also very fun.

MMU: What advice do you have, budget and living-wise, for young post-grads who just landed in NYC?

MP: Well, I love clothes, and getting dressed is a big part of my identity, but I like to rework and salvage things I have. I’ve always been really crafty and resourceful, so I find ways to fix and clean shoes that seem beyond repair. I have a sewing machine and I alter my own clothes. Now I buy almost 90% of my clothes second hand from thrift or vintage stores or off of Etsy. I always feel the most special in things I’ve added a personal touch to, and it’s an excellent way to save money if you’re a big shopper.

MMU: Do you have any hacks when it comes to saving money?

MP: Cooking at home is very important, so I try to do that as much as I can. And I do my very best to use cars only when I need to. The biggest money sucker for me is that I live alone and my rent is very high. So if you can stand to have a roommate, I’d highly recommend it. The last thing I’d recommend… I have lots of anxiety about checking my bank account even when I know it’s gonna be fine. But I’ve gotten into the habit of looking at it often so that charges don’t go unnoticed and I’m keeping myself in check.