Can you be middle class and live in Manhattan?
September 5, 2012 3:33 PM   Subscribe

Can you be middle-class and live in Manhattan? What is that like?

Looking for advice on what day-to-day living is like if you're in the middle class and living in Manhattan. I know, a lot of people will tell me to not bother and just consider Brooklyn, Queens or New Jersey, but if I really wanted to make it work on what I think is a middle class salary ($60,000-$70,000) how do you do that? Seeking tips, tricks, hacks, and practical advice from people who've lived in Manhattan without being a kazillionaire. Is it even possible as a normal person?
posted by aoleary to Work & Money (33 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
For what it's worth, the median income in Manhattan is about $64k, so the salary listed is, essentially, "middle class".

It's certainly possible to do what you're suggesting; the real question is if it's a good idea or not. You'll be facing a net marginal income tax rate of ~35% (25% federal, ~10% New York State and NYC combined) and will be paying on the order of $2000/mo if you want your own (tiny) studio, or somewhere between $800-$1200/mo on a shared room.

What are you looking for beyond "don't expect to save any money", "live in as small of a place as possible with as many roommates as possible", "don't expect to have a lot of spare money around", and "hope you can move in with someone with a rent-controlled apartment"?
posted by saeculorum at 3:54 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I know plenty of people who are in the price range and have crappy downtown studios for about 1600 or (far) Upper East Side 1-bedrooms for the same price, which is affordable on that salary. The further uptown you go (Harlem, Washington Heights) you can get even more space for that amount. It's totally doable to do Manhattan on that salary, but not if you want to save money over the long term. Lots of people with that salary still do the roommate thing just because it means they can save more money in the long-term.
posted by greta simone at 3:56 PM on September 5, 2012

Yeah $2000 for a downtown crappy studio is more likely.
posted by greta simone at 3:57 PM on September 5, 2012

I used to pay $1300 for a rent stabilized "crappy downtown studio" two blocks from Washington Square Park.

Yeah it's totally doable. The big expense will be rent. Most rentals will require you make 40x the monthly rent, so at $70,000 you could probably find a place for $1,750. The real secret is to be in a relationship, in which case living in Manhattan for $120,000-$140,000 is no problem at all.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:17 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

You can do it, but the lowdown on housing in my opinion has always been either far, inconvenient or least one of those three to get a reasonable deal. I think there is no way to really pay less than $1500 for your own place unless you stumble upon an amazing deal. If you are single, it's tough. Most of your money goes on housing and you are always a little bit behind the 8 ball. There are no hacks, you just have to spend less, either on clothing, transportation, food or your hobbies. I wear old clothes and never take cabs. There was some study that said your happiness or quality of life doesn't really go up after you make more than $75k. Apparently that amount was adjusted to $137k for Manhattan. Interpret that as you will.
posted by bquarters at 4:18 PM on September 5, 2012

I am not a kazillionaire. I live in Manhattan, way uptown. Beyond being an example that, yes, it is possible, I'm not really sure how to answer your question. There are a lot of variables. How many people are in your household? How much space do you want/need? Are you willing to live without City Luxuries like laundry, dishwasher, a parking space, etc? Are you crazy enough to think you need a car? What do you value spending your expendable cash on?
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:19 PM on September 5, 2012

do you have big student loan payments to make? if you don't (and don't have exorbitant spending habits): it's easy to live in manhattan as a single person with roommates in that price range or less. if you do, you'll have to find a lot of things to scrimp on: no eating every meal out, not buying every pair of shoes you want, not seeing every single movie in the theaters, etc. rent will be your biggest expense, by far, no matter where you live. but yes, it's totally doable as a normal person!
posted by lia at 4:19 PM on September 5, 2012

I have done this on quite a bit less than the range you're talking about (though some would consider Manhattan north of 110th street 'not Manhattan'.) This was 2004-2006; I am in Brooklyn now FWIW.

It would help to know your frame of reference. There are a lot of things that are considered normal to have if you are middle-class in the middle of the country (dishwasher, washer/dryer, a car) but are unusual to have in NYC; IMO you get used to living without them.

I had roommates (as many as 3); in the range you're talking about it would be possible to have a small studio by yourself if it was important to you not to have a roommate.

I didn't have a car and commuted by subway; this would be easier these days now that Zipcar is everywhere.

I didn't have a washer/dryer and did my laundry at a laundromat. With a bit more money I would have used a wash and fold service (which is what I do these days when I am short on time).

You can't have a lot of the luxuries that some people associate with living in Manhattan-- A lot of people have an image of Manhattan that includes frequent taxi rides, manicures/pedicures, $100 haircuts, new wardrobes every season, nights out at expensive restaurants following (or followed by) a Broadway show-- but that's (I think you know) not what it's like to live middle-class in New York. Some of these things are definitely possible on a middle-class salary, but you have to pick and choose a bit. If theatre is a priority for you, you would probably be spending less money on dinners out; if vacations are a priority for you you're going to have to find somewhere else to save.

TL;DR: Doable, just don't expect to live like Sex and the City.
posted by matcha action at 4:24 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also keep in mind any reasonable person living in Manhattan doesn't have a car payment, doesn't pay for auto insurance, isn't paying for parking, gas, etc.

You net transportation budget should be only a little over $100 a month, even less if you can get transit check and buy Metrocards pretax through your work. Many people underestimate exactly how expensive it is own and maintain a car.
posted by 2bucksplus at 4:26 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been told by my NYC-resident sister that the Upper East Side is now more affordable than bargain hunting may involve considering such improbabilities as hipness being more expensive than superficial nice-ness.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:37 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

N.B. the reason the UES is now one of the more affordable NYC neighborhoods is because of the large-scale construction going on which will likely be happening until the end of the century.
posted by elizardbits at 4:41 PM on September 5, 2012

The longer you live in NYC, the harder it is.
The less money you have, the harder it is.
You can live there your whole life on minimum wage if you have the right kind of personality, though. On 60-70k you should be able to get a decent apartment and enjoy some of the amenities (nice restaurants, shows...).

Re: manhattan v brooklyn, it will make no difference at this stage. Much of brooklyn is way cooler than a lot of manhattan now anyway. It's not like it once was.
posted by mdn at 4:45 PM on September 5, 2012

If you are a working couple it makes things much easier. Using the 40x rent rule if you have a combined income of $100k then you can afford a $2500/mo place, which in Manhattan I think is around the low side for a 1-bedroom. That's two people making $50k working full-time or one person making $70 full-time and the other $30 part-time which is totally middle class. You'd be sacrificing on location, size, and/or general niceness of the apartment at $2500 but it'd be doable.

I'm middle class although I make more than what you quoted (and I suspect people who make twice as much as I do still feel middle class in this city...). I pay $2750 for a one bedroom w/ elevator, doorman, dishwasher, and AC in a modestly sized (think around 700sq ft) reno'd 1-bedroom. I think I got a good deal, but my building is in Chinatown, which I personally love, but it's not seen as "sexy" like Nolita or the Village, nor does it have the urban hipster cachet of the LES, which keeps the rents low despite being a 10-15 minute walk from any of the above.

If Manhattan really is for you then I would think long and hard before living in Brooklyn. Some people love it but it isn't for everyone. When I first moved to NYC I had heard so much about how great Brooklyn was that I didn't even look very hard in Manhattan and I ended up in an overpriced tower in downtown Brooklyn overlooking an ugly abandoned parking garage. There wasn't anything I liked in the area so I rode the subway to Manhattan every time I wanted to eat out or do anything, which meant a double commute on weekends. When I moved to Manhattan I was so happy to have tons of places I liked to go within walking distance. Of course some people live in patches of Brooklyn they are happy to spend lots of their time in so your mileage may very.
posted by pravit at 5:20 PM on September 5, 2012

Yup, my mother- in law -lives in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. She actually makes pretty good money now as a research nurse, but she is definitely not rich, at all. She moved to the city 10 years ago when she was really scraping by, but now I'd say she is solidly middle-class. Good job, decent apartment, likes to eat at nice restaurants from time to time, etc.
posted by Rocket26 at 5:35 PM on September 5, 2012

Kids is what makes being truly middle class in Manhattan very difficult. Rents are generally reflective of school quality. Its very doable if you are childless - just remember you need to be able to save and have the lifestyle you want.

Its still doable with kids, it just takes a lot more strategy.

And yes, its possible to feel very middle class on 500k a year in this town, which is of course utterly preposterous I admit.
posted by JPD at 5:38 PM on September 5, 2012

I've been told by my NYC-resident sister that the Upper East Side is now more affordable than Williamsburg

North of the 70's and East of Third Avenue there are relative bargains to be found, yes. Bit of a hike to the 4/5/6 and some of the streets are frat boy infested.
posted by mlis at 5:55 PM on September 5, 2012

We live on the UWS. Our combined salary is about 110,000. We are very careful with eating out, don't buy a lot of clothes or extra stuff, and don't have kids.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:13 PM on September 5, 2012

I think that depends on what we're talking about when we're talking about "middle class".

Is it possible to live on 60-70K per year in Manhattan? Yeah, if you're really desperate to. That said, I think it's a lot harder to do if you have kids. Also, if your main criteria is "Manhattan" and you don't have any particular neighborhood in mind.

You would also probably have to spend more than the quarter or third of your income on housing, something which goes against the conventional wisdom for living a middle class lifestyle.

Property ownership would probably be out of the question.

Other aspects of "middle class" life would also be impossible. For instance kiss your car goodbye unless it's completely paid off already and you plan to almost never drive it and be ultra-vigilant about parking. In order to afford your apartment, you'll have to be extremely frugal on things like eating out, entertainment, and shopping. No taxis. No drinking/clubs/nightlife. Very limited sampling of the cultural life of the city.

Keep in mind, too, that "middle class" means very different things in New York than it does in other places. This makes it really complicated to say whether you could have a "middle class lifestyle" here, because your version of a middle class lifestyle might be a millionaire lifestyle here. For example having a car here is a bit of a luxury, whereas not having a car anywhere else would mean you are a hair's breadth from the poorhouse.

My advice to someone wanting to move to New York on that kind of income, and wanting the most creature comforts possible, would be to move to Queens.
posted by Sara C. at 6:39 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

My husband and I, pre-kid, and during his residency lived in the UES on a combined income of around 90K. This was around 6 or 7 years ago. We felt like we had a little extra but were by no stretch rich. (Paying back med school loans took up any of the extra we had after the occasional dinner out.)
posted by gaspode at 6:40 PM on September 5, 2012

North of the 70's and East of Third Avenue there are relative bargains to be found, yes. Bit of a hike to the 4/5/6 and some of the streets are frat boy infested.

I've worked for years in the low 80's and all the way east - yes that hike to the 4/5/6 is a pain, but - thats a tradeoff that's more comfortable to make than some other potential compromises - living WAY, WAY uptown, etc. And there's always the M79 and whatever bus crosses 86th to get you to a subway line. Not a big deal.

I now make considerably more than your salary range but when I did, living in Murray Hill was very doable. Times have changed a bit for sure, but you can definitely find somewhere if you're dead set on it - its just a matter of what things you're willing to compromise on or go without.
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:43 PM on September 5, 2012

Sorry, for some reason I didn't glean that we're talking about $60K for one person. That should be doable, and will require a little less scrounging than I mentioned. For instance, you could probably stay within the "third of your monthly income" thing on rent, which would make it possible to eat out sometimes, party a little, have cable, take a taxi home late at night if you really want to, etc.

I stand by the rest of my answer and the general tone, though.
posted by Sara C. at 6:44 PM on September 5, 2012

I would not recommend the way Upper way East Side, not because of the transit situation, but because it's really douchey. Also there's no good coffee. I once walked twenty blocks up Second Avenue looking for a place to get coffee besides Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, and there was literally nothing.

If you really love corporate bland fratty stuff, you might really like it there, though. It's also a bit of a meat market for young single Manhattanites of a certain stripe. Which is one of the things I hate about it, but you might really like that.
posted by Sara C. at 6:47 PM on September 5, 2012

And thus we get the explanation for why the UES east of Lex is cheaper than Williamsburg, It is dreadfully uncool.
posted by JPD at 6:57 PM on September 5, 2012

And I'm not telling you not to live there. Take a train to go out. Its actually very comfortable, if a bit bland.
posted by JPD at 7:00 PM on September 5, 2012

UES east of Lex is awesome. I used to live there and would never live in Williamaburg. :))
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:03 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

In the past I had lots of young associates working for me earning about that. They had roommates in convenient but not cool places (Murray Hill, for example) and didn't go to fancy restaurants or Broadway shows often, but they had a blast and enjoyed a lot of nice things.
posted by MattD at 7:36 PM on September 5, 2012

I would not recommend the way Upper way East Side, not because of the transit situation, but because it's really douchey. Also there's no good coffee. I once walked twenty blocks up Second Avenue looking for a place to get coffee besides Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts, and there was literally nothing.

The lack of a fancy coffee shop strikes me as an insanely silly thing and an easy thing to give up if it makes living in Manhattan doable. Hell, I'd be happy just to have a Dunkin Donuts close to work, but its not likely to be a deterrent when trying to source a place to live. After all, they DO have these things called "coffee makers"... Or perhaps these are just young people problems, who knows.

I will say though, that my friends can colleagues who live on 2nd Ave are not enjoying it at the moment and probably won't be for a while. I sure as heck wouldn't want to live there. That said, if you can deal with the disruption, I'm willing theres a deal to be had somewhere in the construction zone.
posted by blaneyphoto at 7:54 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Probably the #4 most important reason to live in New York is the ubiquity of independently owned local businesses. I would have no interest in living in this city if it weren't for that. Well, that and maybe art museums and probably avant garde theatre. But still.

Going back to answering the OP's question and not just bickering, there seem to be two schools of thought on neighborhood choice if one is not insanely wealthy.

The first is to pick the neighborhood that is most convenient to get to the places you want to go. You're willing to live in whatever outrageous hellscape as long as it's close enough to a subway line that will jet you directly into Midtown or Chelsea or the Financial District or wherever you spend the bulk of your time (both work and play). A lot of the Manhattan neighborhoods that are still affordable are places that cater to this school of thought. Happy to have nothing but Dunkin Donuts and dry cleaners if the tradeoff is an easy walk to the 4/5/6 which'll jet you right downtown to where you want to be.

The second approach is to pick the neighborhood that you most want to be in, even if that makes it slightly less convenient to get to X or Y other place. You're willing to spend an hour on the train if it means you're a five minute walk from a park or your favorite place for coffee or the best Bosnian restaurant in the city. A lot of the popular areas in Brooklyn and Queens cater to this school of thought. Sure, you take a bus and two subway lines to work, but you can run in the park or get the best takeout in the world delivered to your door.

The key to living in New York as a non-wealthy person is to figure out which of those approaches makes the most sense to you. Maybe you live on the UES and use the 4/5/6 to zip downtown for all meaningful experiences. Maybe you live in Crown Heights and love the fact that you can basically fall off your front stoop and into a quirky locally owned coffeeshop. The choice is yours, but if you want to live in New York on any kind of budget, you're going to have to recognize it and make it.
posted by Sara C. at 8:21 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Lord, I can't imagine. Not with a family. As of the 2010 census, 18.2% of Manhattan households include at least one minor. Compare to a national average of 33.4%. It ain't just the nightlife.

If you don't have kids, you can live quite adequately on $60,000 in Manhattan. Not luxuriously. With kids? Frankly, even in the Bronx that isn't much to support a family on, particularly with housing prices being what they are. (Even in the Bronx.)

Of course, wages aren't everything. My next-door neighbor, an immigrant, bought her house in 1981 for $80,000. Her mortgage payment is $550 a month, and her house gained over $500,000 in value since then. She is retired and lives mostly off the equity in the house. In Manhattan this would be even more pronounced. By income standards she's probably in the bottom quintile, but in fact lives quite comfortably, drives a car, etc.

For somebody starting out today, you can pretty much forget about traditional "middle class" signifiers like home ownership, cars, retirement, college, etc., at $60K household income, with kids.

Say you make $60K household: Figure 2 kids in bunk beds in the crappiest market-rate 2-bedroom in Manhattan ($25K/yr), electric and gas ($1500), taxes ($8700), medical insurance premiums ($2K with a great job), 2 Metrocards ($2520), some sort of phone ($400), food ($10K per USDA averages, which are pretty stingy for NY). If you get dirt-cheap Internet ($400), $9,500 remains for childcare costs, minimal entertainment (hope you like the park!), school supplies, forget meals out (man, this isn't feeling very middle-class...), no debt I hope, gotta pay subway fare for the kids all the damn time, NOBODY needs significant medical care... and you don't even have furniture yet.

I would suspect that the people raising kids in Manhattan on that salary are exclusively (a) homeowners or (b) occupying the ever-diminishing supply of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized housing.
posted by zvs at 9:44 PM on September 5, 2012

Yes, it is possible. Two of my best friends live on the UES. One of them makes 70k and one makes between 30-45k (she's a freelancer). They each live in small apartments, don't eat out a lot, and make some sacrifices like having to go to the laundromat because there's no laundry in their buildings, but it's absolutely doable.
posted by bedhead at 10:20 PM on September 5, 2012

Most of my friends starting out of college that lived in NYC made less than 60k, and they ALL lived in Manhattan (that's 10+ people).

I have a friend who's lived on acting/nannying income (which can't be more than 40k a year) in a shared apartment in Harlem-- his rent, is $600/month.
posted by sandmanwv at 7:47 AM on September 6, 2012

I recently got a raise, but before that, I was making at the low end of your range. While I initially had a roommate, I've had my own place since October 2009 and don't pay anywhere near the $2K figure floated above.

When I moved into the place I'm moving out of now It was $1150 for a 2nd floor walk up pre-war 1BR in the east 80s between 2nd & 3rd. Until the current bump that has me moving out, it was $1250. Not huge, but perfectly big enough for one person. I'm now moving into a larger 1BR for $1400. It's a 5th floor walk up between 1st & York.

I'm not a big partier, drinker so that doesn't take my income - but I have enough to enjoy sporting events, museums and dinners out with friends so long as I'm practical. I can take the occasional cab home, but I can't commute via cab, nor would I want to. I work long hours so the convenience in being in Manhattan outweighs small savings in the boroughs - and having recently looked at closer parts of Queens and Brooklyn, it certainly is a small savings. Neither borough is that cheap any longer.
posted by TravellingCari at 7:05 AM on September 10, 2012

Seeking tips, tricks, hacks, and practical advice from people who've lived in Manhattan without being a kazillionaire.

Many Broadway shows, off-Broadway shows and the Metropolitan Opera offer at least some of rush, lottery, student and standing room tickets.

This summer I saw free rock shows in Central Park, Times Square and Prospect Park (in Brooklyn, but accessible) and there were many more I missed. Central Park also sees operas from New York Grand Opera, concerts from New York Philharmonic and Shakespeare in the Park's productions.

Throughout the year there are many cheap (and sometimes free) performances of new plays, modern classical music and chamber operas that I never would have had access to before I moved to Manhattan.

American Museum of National History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other museums have recommended donations but no actual entrance fee. Many other museums have free days/afternoons, etc.

I guess my real tip here is that if you don't mind waiting, are lucky, don't mind not sitting in the good seats and wiling to brave crowds, or (often) several of these then you can see great culture in Manhattan, cheaply.
posted by mountmccabe at 12:31 PM on September 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

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