A few short months ago I moved out to LA with just barely $4000 to my name, no job except a small social media gig that gave me 8 hours of work a week, and absolutely no idea where life was going to take me. I still don’t know about that last thing, but now, after working two unpaid internships and remaining unemployed (for the most part) I still have about a quarter of what I started with. In a city where I’ve been told that it takes at least $3000 a month to live, I’ve made a go of it averaging about a $1000 a month in expenses. How have I made it this long with a roof over my head, gas for my car, and food in my mouth? I’m certainly not starving myself, that’s for sure. Here’s how I did it:
Finding a place to live in LA is difficult, here’s why: LA is sprawling, and the second largest city in America, and everyone seems to think the weather here is the bomb dot com so they all come running. Because of that, real estate is insane and things move quickly because, when you find a good deal on an apartment, you can bet that about 300 other people also believe they’ve found a good deal on an apartment. No matter where you live your commute is going to take up all of your free time, and–if you’re like me and you like nature–your choices when it comes to housing that isn’t sandwiched in the middle of a busy city are a million dollar hole in your pocket on the beach, or dead grass on something that sort of resembles a mountain.
Average rent in LA runs about $700/mo (on the cheapside) and $900-$1000/mo (on the: I have a good, stable income and can afford to rub it in your $700/mo face). Currently, I pay under $600, and I live in a house in a calm, convenient part of town. How did I get so lucky? Well it takes some diligent searching, but it also takes some thinking outside of the box. When I came to LA, I asked myself where I might find safe, affordable housing with strangers I could trust. This question led me to reaching out to friends, family, pastors of random churches I looked up online, and even some church website classifieds. In fact, it was through this last suggestion that I found the home where I am currently staying. So just ask yourself: “what type of people do I want to live with, and where would they post room vacancies?” And then search from there.
The key here is rather simple, but isn’t all that easy if you aren’t a connoisseur in the kitchen. The secret is to cook at home. FOR EVERY MEAL. It might not seem like a big deal to go out to eat, even if it’s only once a week, but here in LA, a CHEAP meal is going to run you $15+. For those of you who don’t do a lot of grocery shopping, if you play your cards right, $15 can get you enough ingredients to make a week’s worth of meals.
The trick here is to be mindful of price tags when you go to the grocery store. It’s great if you want to eat all-natural, organic foods (you should definitely make sure to provide yourself with plenty of fresh, healthy options: it’s cheaper to eat well then to go see the doctor) but buying organic for everything is not necessary, nor does it do much good for your wallet. If you’re really concerned about pesticides and chemicals, do a simple google search for what foods you should buy organic, and which are okay to buy normally.
Know which stores have cheaper prices on what. Here’s the deal: I don’t know why, but every grocery store has that one thing, or that one category of thing that is slightly cheaper than most of the other stores nearby. It’s how they retain customers against the competition. It’s good to be observant of prices and figure out which stores offer the best deals on what. In general, weekday mornings (especially the beginning of the week) tend to offer the best and lowest deals on things like produce. Also, this tends to be the time with the fewest number of people in the store, so if you can go in the mornings during the week, I highly recommend it. However, spending precious gas to drive from one store to another for five cents difference on an item is counterproductive, so plan out your grocery store trips and always be looking for the lesser of two evils.
Meat: always buy meat on sale. Freeze everything! (Just make sure it’s sealed well). On the weekends (or on the days when you have the most flexible/free time) cook in bulk: make meals with multiple servings, then freeze the extra food in one serving packages as fast go-to meals later. Only buy what you know you’re going to eat! This means planning meals ahead of time and only buying ingredients for those meals, plus staples that you know you will use for snacks/on-the-run bites-to-eat like milk, cereal, bread, mac’n’cheese, etc.
There is absolutely no way getting around LA without a car. I mean, people do it, but we’re talking HOURS spent planning out bus routes and waiting/walking to public transportation. The truth is, getting around LA is going to cost you money no matter what, but there are a few things you can do to ease the pocket pain:
#1. Buy a Costco membership. Considering the cheap prices for things that are nice to have in bulk, like personal hygiene items and vitamins, it’s worth the $50. Also, with a Costco card, you can use their gas station, which is always at least 10 cents cheaper a gallon than any other local gas station. Not to mention, if you sign up for the American Express card and use it for purchases, you get points back that go towards a monetary refund at the end of the year (so with enough purchases, your membership can be free).
#2. Be mindful of when it is useful to take the metro. For instance, (so long as you have a place to park your car where you don’t have to worry about getting ticketed for street cleaning, etc.) there are bus lines that will take you pretty much directly to the airport, meaning–should you ever decide to fly out on a weekend trip, or for the holidays–instead of spending $12/day on parking at LAX, you can spend $1 on a bus ride that will take you to the LAX parking lot, where you can catch a free shuttle to your terminal. If you want to spend the day up in Hollywood, or you’re taking an improv class up there, or going to see a movie at the Egyptian theater, or whatever (there are many more reasons to avoid Hollywood, rather than spend time there) and you have a few hours to kill, it might be worth the time to drive to your nearest train station (there is usually a free parking lot for metro users near the station) and spend the $1.50 to take the train up to the Hollywood exit. $3.00 for a round trip ride and two hours of travel time (especially if you have a book or something you can work on in the mean time) is definitely worth it to avoid getting screwed over by the ridiculously expensive parking fees (If you decide to go anywhere remotely tourist-y, expect to pay at LEAST $10 to park. LA makes a killing off of screwing tourists over, and unfortunately locals have to deal with the prices as well because if it.) Also, car pool when you can! Sharing the burden of parking expenses is always a good alternative.
#3. Avoid the freeways when possible. I’ll admit, LA can be a stressful city to drive in. People are much bolder in their willingness to squeeze past vehicles on small streets, and speed down roads. However, people also tend to be much better at defensive driving, and, considering the number of vehicles on the road everyday, the number of car wrecks is surprisingly low in comparison to other cities. However, if there’s one place in LA where people tend to drive more recklessly, and where getting into an accident is significantly more dangerous and terrifying, it’s the LA freeways. This is because the combination of speeding, high volume of cars, and too few exit options (meaning, if you miss your exit, it’s that much harder to get turned around and back track) results in a massive (pardon my french) shit show of cars weaving in and out of almost solid blocks of metal going 80-90 mph, attempting to get to their exit smoothly and at the fastest pace possible. If you want to save yourself the cost of taking your car into the shop after a wreck, avoid the freeways unless it’s like 6 am.
This one is tough, because nearly everything in LA costs money, even if it’s just for parking. And while I don’t think it’s wise for everyone to just stay home all the time and never socialize (you’ll wind up hating living here and never make any friends if you do that) it’s also not wise to say yes every time someone suggests you go see a movie, or go out to dinner. There are lots of things you can do for cheap around LA: class by donation yoga (where you can park your car in a garage for an hour and half for free), hiking, Griffith observatory, the Getty (though you do have to pay for parking), the beach (as long as you don’t mind a bit of a trek, if you’re lucky and savvy enough, you can find free street parking), going to a taping of a TV show, sometimes even improv or stand-up comedy shows. You just have to do your research. However, make sure to set aside some money (and be willing to spend it!) to do things with your friends that do cost money. Just remember to be smart about your spending: go out for drinks during happy hour, so you can get the best deal on what you want to eat and drink. Don’t buy fancy cocktails (mixed drinks are always the most expensive things on the menu–unless they sell high-end wine) unless you only want one drink and then you stop. If you want to go see a movie, choose wisely: remember this is the heart of the entertainment industry, so you can often get your hands on screeners of films vying for Oscar nominations. However, if you can’t, or if you just really want to see it on the big screen, keep your eyes peeled and your ears open for deals on special screenings, like AFI nights, or premiers. If you don’t even have access to those (either you have zero connections to the entertainment industry, or you just have no luck looking) shop around for the best movie theater deal. I’ve heard that–if you already have, or are willing to pay for the season pass to Universal Studios (it costs the same as a day pass, so might as well get the whole season) the AMC on the lot is a pretty good deal and validates parking.
- HOUSEHOLD FURNISHING/SHOPPING
There really isn’t a lot of this that you probably need to do. If, like me, you moved here from out of state, you probably didn’t bring a whole lot with you. Wait to purchase things until you find long-term housing. Often you will find roommates who are either from instate, or have lived here long enough to purchase things like couches and tables. Most apartments come with kitchen appliances, and once in a blue moon you can find furnished apartments. When you do need to purchase items, there really are pretty much three go-to sources that will help you find what you need at the cheapest price: Costco, Ikea, and Craigslist. Craigslist is a good place to start for things that can be cleaned up and you don’t have to worry about where they’ve been, like dressers, tables, and light fixtures. People are moving in and out of LA all the time and don’t want to spend money on moving items with them, so often you can find great deals on furniture here. Ikea is great for bigger furniture investments, like beds and couches, because, along with typically being a good deal and fair price, this furniture is also designed to be space-conserving, so if you wind up moving to a smaller apartment, you don’t have to worry about getting new furniture. Costco is great for those smaller things that you don’t think about right away but will wind up realizing you need, like kitchen utensils, cleaning appliances, and things like humidifiers. Just make sure to double check Amazon to get the best deals on pricing.
For fear that this post is already a novel, I’m going to stop there with the advice. That covers pretty much all of the basics of what spending tends to look like out here. I’m no coupon queen, and I haven’t researched stores for the best deals on everything. I’m sure there are lots of other secrets to living in LA cheaply that I haven’t come across yet. If you’re reading this and you have any suggestions, or if you’re curious to know about something I haven’t covered in this post, leave me a comment in the comments section and I’ll try to answer it, or feature your suggestion in a later post.