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How to Budget Your Salary in an Expensive City

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As a Texas native, I grew up accustomed to a very cheap cost of living, but realized that if I wanted to have my dream career that I would have to look beyond the Lone Star State. My basic philosophy is that if you’re going to live in an expensive city, the money you invest there should yield you future opportunities for career growth and happiness. So far, my moves to more expensive cities have been worth every penny.

I will say that not all people should move to improve their careers, but if you do, there’s a way to make it work without breaking your wallet. I want to share my story of how I moved to increasingly expensive cities, advanced my career, and tackled the higher costs of living head-on.

What are the job prospects like in your city?

After I graduated from UT Austin, I had the desire to explore career opportunities in Washington, DC, which was an expensive transition from living in Texas. But DC offered more job opportunities, so I made the plunge based on the career options available to me in the industries of communications, public affairs, and public relations.

As a result, I ended up doing communications work for a think tank, but I could have done communications work for an office at Capitol Hill or for another non-profit. The diversity of industries in the city gave me a lot exposure to other careers and helped me think more clearly about where exactly I wanted to take my career, despite the high cost of living.

All that exposure directed me to a new job in San Francisco, where I currently work helping Millennials search for scholarships and improve their financial literacy. Had I not worked in DC, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to realize that I wanted to pursue opportunities in San Francisco, an even more expensive city. The upside to my transition is that I’m in a startup environment—an experience I’ve always wanted in my career.

Can you realistically make the cost of living work?

It’s always hard when you’re trying to move forward with your career and at the same time deal with expensive rent and basic living costs. But if you’re aware of what the cost of living is, you can form a game plan to make your move to a more expensive city work. I didn’t have the luxury of using a cost of living tool, but I wish I had. So I’m letting you take advantage of it now.

According to NerdWallet’s cost of living tool, my housing costs went up 210 percent from Austin to DC, and 12 percent from DC to San Francisco. Being aware of how much your housing costs will increase can help you make a plan as you transition into a new job in a new city. You will also have to make sure that you can pay your rent with the job you have. Don’t forget to also factor in the cost of food, transportation, and leisure.

Match the cost of living in your city to your budget.

It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that living in an expensive city means spending more money to live, so it’s important to fit your budget to that expectation. When I moved to DC, I landed a somewhat affordable housing situation with a roommate and tried to set specific parameters in regards to how much I could spend going out (given the lively nightlife in DC) and how much I could spend eating out. Do the same and let your budget evolve without being too hard on yourself. If you want to feel comforted by budgeting challenges in your 20s, check out Nerd Girls Who Budget. We are Millennials with money on the mind, but we want to have fun too.

The bottom line is that I had to set a budget and stick to it because I had student loans and a high rent to pay every month. The upside, however, was that I got to work at a place that helped me grow professionally, and now I’m better positioned to leverage the skills I gained in my future work.

Factor in the cost of living when negotiating your salary.

Finally, it’s important to remember that you should factor in the cost of living when you’re negotiating your salary. Be aware of how much more expensive it will be to live in the city where your job is located, and keep that in mind. Be sure that your negotiation is centered around why you deserve the salary you do as the amazing employee you are, but do your research to find out how much a person in your position typically makes in your city. All you have to do is ask.

Overall, moving to progressively more expensive cities has improved my career and increased my quality of life, even if I do pay more rent. When you feel frustrated that the high cost of living in New York or San Francisco or anywhere else might derail your budget, think about how it might actually help your career grow. If you don’t have the opportunities in the city that you live in now, consider moving and adapting your budget. You’ll only learn more from it!

How have you learned to budget in a more expensive city? Share your tips in the comments!


Career Path #New Job #Negotiating Lifestyle
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Elana Gross
Elana Gross

Thank you for writing about money - I think it is so important to learn from one another instead of treating it as a taboo topic. I recommend Learn Vest for learning more about money and budgeting and the Mint application for making managing your budget less time consuming!

Love this article! I am still in college but trying to figure out what I want to do after- I always figured I would go to NY after school for a job and now I know how expensive it is! Will definitely keep these ideas and tools in mind when looking for a job.

Carly Heitlinger
Carly Heitlinger

I know a bunch of my friends are subsidized by their parents to make living in the city affordable. But- I know others (myself included) who take on two jobs. Working at a restaurant or retail store on weekends is a good way to supplement your salaried income from the real job. Right now there's a lot of criticism for Gen Y feeling entitled, but sometimes we really do just need to roll up our sleeves and get the job (or two) done.

Great tips! I just moved from Dallas to DC and am having to come to grips with the change in cost of living.

I had to come to terms with certain things to make living in a city manageable. A lot of it is cost vs benefit. I could live by myself or I could save a lot of money and have more flexibility when going out with friends. I've always been pretty cost conscious(even as a kid) but I think having to rationalize most purchases at the start of my career has helped me make better financial decisions as my salary increased.

Agree on the two jobs! When I first moved to Boston with my first job out of school it was a given that I would work a second job and luckily I had a connection to a serving job. Second jobs are great if you can find one you can balance and it's always nice to have that take home cash from serving to help support your social life.


No matter what your salary is I think it is an awesome thing to learn how to cut down on costs for routine items. I used to be a huge beauty/hair junkie and purchased the most expensive products thinking they would perform miracles! I quickly realized they do not. For most of my hair and beauty routine, I now use products that you can find in the home! I use coconut & olive oil for cooking, and now have incorporated them into my beauty routine as well. Experiment!

Thank you for highlighting specific budgeting tools! It's great to say "budget and figure out cost of living" but I would not have had any idea where to start! Mint is another great tool for budgeting too


Thanks for sharing the tools! I wish there was a tool for worldwide cities. I'm currently based in Singapore but definitely want to explore other places that may (or may not) be more expensive than it is here.

Budgeting is incredibly difficult to do, especially when you're in an expensive city like New York. Great article.

I really appreciate your point about factoring in cost of living when negotiating. If you made $30,000 in a small city and you're moving to NYC, you'll need to make triple that to live a similar lifestyle (and maybe even more). Companies in more expensive cities know this, and they should be more willing to take you on at a higher rate.

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