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Looking at the Hidden Costs of Living in New York

Posted on March 18, 2014 1:01 am

At RentHop we keep track of rents across the nation (and we’re building some great new tools to help you analyze them). To help you understand better some of the personal finance issues related to paying rent, we’re partnering with Moven and SmartAsset, two leaders in the personal finance field, to give you some helpful advice.

Today’s article is about some of the hidden costs of living in New York. We’ve looked at three key expenses – food, travel and entertainment – to see how they vary across the boroughs. While the numbers aren’t the same everywhere (New York is expensive!), the concept is; when you’re considering where to live, there are lots of variables that aren’t included in the rent.

For more info, go have a look at SmartAsset’s article on the diverse rental economies in four major cities – New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and at Moven’s infographic showing some of the key factors you should consider when making the rent vs. buy decision. Also, don’t forget to tune into the Breaking Banks radio show airing this Thursday at 3pm on VoiceAmerica.

By Kyla Marshell

When choosing an apartment, the first thing you have to ask is “How much is the rent?” Finding an apartment with a rent you can afford is the first step – but there’s a host of other “hidden fees” that factor into the total cost of living. That’s why we decided to take a closer look at the extra expenses that affect how much you ultimately have to pay using recent data from New York’s five boroughs. Though everyone’s expenses are different, there are three that are certain: food, travel, and entertainment.

First, some average monthly spending information (excluding rent and mortgage) developed using anonymized Visa and Mastercard transaction information by Bundle and data from the 2012 American Community Survey:

  Brooklyn Manhattan Queens*
Bronx Staten Island 
Typical HH Income(2012 Census)

$45,215

$68,370

$56,780

$34,300

$73,496

Monthly Non-Housing Related Spend

$1,793

$3,832

$1,906

$1,256

$2,012

% of Typical Income

48%

67%

40%

44%

33%

* No aggregate data for Queens is available; data in this table and all other tables in this post for Queens represents averages for Queens Village, NY.

Two things jump out. First, Manhattanites pay far more to eat, travel and play than do residents of any other borough – nearly twice as much as the next cheaper options. Second, residents of the Bronx pay far less than residents of other boroughs for the same activities.

I.  FOOD

  Bronx Staten Island  Queens*
Brooklyn Manhattan
Groceries  $179 $299 $295 $321 $555
Dining Out  $123 $201 $211 $216 $805
Total Food Spending $302 $500 $506 $537 $1,360

Food spending in NYC heavily depends on the borough you live in. Bronx residents spend the least, averaging $300 a month on groceries and dining out. Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island residents spend almost 70% more, averaging $500 a month. But Manhattanites literally take the cake, spending 250% to 450% more than other borough residents.

While you may think that this is a clear sign that you should live in the outer boroughs, be aware that the further out you get, the more likely it is that you will encounter a “food desert” where access and variety is limited to bodegas and small markets. Food deserts can cause many health issues within a community, but for someone moving to the area, the issue becomes the necessity to leave the neighborhood should you want a quality grocery store. Depending on how great that distance is, how often you go (or have cravings for things you can’t run out and get), and whether by train or cab, lack of access can be a tremendous issue.

The interactive map at foodcensus.org shows the kinds of stores available (grouped as small stores, specialty stores, and large stores), with names and addresses, for 30 Brooklyn neighborhoods. Though not exhaustive, the map makes it clear that some neighborhoods – the ones that are less expensive – aren’t close to significant food sources. There’s a less-detailed but still exhaustive nationwide map provided by the US Department of Agriculture that can help you compare both income levels and food deserts across the boroughs.

II.  TRAVEL

  Bronx Brooklyn Manhattan Queens*
Staten Island 
Getting Around  $272 $289 $295 $403 $509
MTA Subway Station per square mile 1.6 2.0 5.0 0.7 N/A

Say you find a great place you can actually afford, near a grocery store and laundromat – another place no one wants to haul bags to and from – but it’s far from the train. How does that factor into your everyday costs?

Unlike several other American cities, a one-way trip on the New York City subway is the same price no matter how far you’re going. So living in Brooklyn but working in the Bronx won’t cost you more in terms of transit fare. But if you live far from the train, time spent walking to and from the train must be factored in to your total commute time. If you’re 12 blocks from the subway, that’s at least 15 minutes added to every commute. With all that walking, especially come wintertime, most people are liable to take a cab. For a short distance (depending on who your driver is), a car service will charge you $7-8. It’s deceptively cheap. It’s the kind of thing that quickly adds up.

Here it’s interesting to compare the number of subway stations in the four boroughs that have them (the Staten Island Railway, Staten Island’s rail system, is not part of the MTA). The Bronx has 68 stations, Brooklyn 157 stations, Manhattan 118 stations and Queens 78 stations. Brooklyn seems well-resourced in this analysis. Compare in terms of square mileage, though, and a different picture emerges. Queens has 0.7 subway stations per square mile; the Bronx, 1.6 subway stations per square mile; Brooklyn, just under 2 subway stations per square mile; and Manhattan, 5 subway stations per square mile.

The numbers on the table bear this out: apart from Staten Island, Queens residents spend the most on getting around, and residents of Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan all spend roughly the same amount.

This also manifests itself in long commute times to work. A recent WNYC.org article shows average commute times nationwide, with particular emphasis on the New York metro area (which has some of the longest commutes in the US). The map confirms what anecdotes suggest: commutes are longest in Brooklyn and Queens, and shortest in Manhattan. And not by small amounts, either; the average commute length in Queens and the Bronx is almost 42 minutes, and just less for most of Brooklyn, while it’s a mere 30 minutes in Manhattan.

This often cuts heavily into time available for anything else but work. If you’ve got a tough commute, it may not matter whether you’re near a grocery store or laundromat, because you won’t have time to cook or do your laundry – you’ll eat out and send off to the wash-and-fold every single time. Laziness and exhaustion know no economic boundaries.

III.  ENTERTAINMENT

  Brooklyn Manhattan Queens*
Bronx Staten Island 
Shopping, Travel & Leisure  $958 $2,177 $997 $682 $1,003

When you do have spare time, you’ll want to have some fun. In New York, there are infinite options to enjoy yourself – and infinite ways to spend your money.

The most important thing to remember when hanging in New York is that however glamorous the city may seem, it’s still a place where you have to spend your own money. Having access to anything, anytime is what makes New York so appealing; but it can also make impulsive spending a daily habit. Instead of waiting to eat leftovers at home, you can go to a food truck. Forget your magazine? Buy it again at one of our city’s newsstands, located approximately everywhere.

You’ll also have to plan for a price boost for stuff you’d do elsewhere, like dinner and a movie. Here, the movies can cost as much as a copay at the doctor (yes, that’s $20 for IMAX; $13-14 regular). Restaurants are pricier too, once you factor in sales tax (9 percent), a properly cosmopolitan tip (18-20 percent), and all the ambiance you’ll be paying for (a lot). The average cost of a dinner in New York City in 2012 was $43.46, according to a recent Zagat survey. Again, unsurprisingly, Manhattanites pay the most, and it’s not close; they spend four times as much dining out, three times as much at leisure, and twice as much shopping as do residents of the other boroughs.

Even once you’ve lived here for a while, it can still feel like you’re on vacation: there’s so much to do, and oftentimes, you’ll happen upon entertainment with little effort. It might be wise to budget in the cash you’ll spend at pop-up shops, food festivals, and outdoor bazaars, which are plentiful, especially during the summer. It’s hard to resist these urban gems when you find them – so stay flexible with your pocket change, and with your budget overall. The city awaits!

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