According to Esquire Magazine, the amount you’d have to make to, as they define it, “live well” is $350,000 a year. Well, dry your eyes ’cause almost 99% of us don’t live that way—an annual income of 350 large would put you in the top 1% of income earners. In fact, our fair city is one of the nation’s worst offenders for both income disparity and the gap between wages and cost of living. Chances are that when you’re starting out here, you are gonna be roughing it.
The silver lining of all this is that you don’t have to feel bad about it. You didn’t design the system and everyone you know is right there with you. The worst thing you can do is live beyond your means and charge it all to a credit card that you don’t have a plan for paying off.
Instead, try making little habits to your spending that save you money without cutting into the quality of your life. This lets you still enjoy what LA has to offer, like happy hour and sushi lunch specials, but shaves away the cost of the things that don’t add any real value.
As someone who spent a LOT of time barely scraping by, here are 20 ways I save money in LA.
20. Only using the A/C as a special treat.
It gets inhumanely hot here to the point where the cool blast of the AC is the only thing keeping you from human combustion. But keeping your AC as a last resort can do wonders for your utility bill. Drinking plenty of ice water, cooking things that make minimal use of the stove or oven, and opening the windows makes a huge difference. So does keeping your lotion and sanitizer in the fridge.
19. Never, ever use the heater.
Yes, it gets cold here, especially if you’re living on the Westside where the marine layer brings in a cold, wet fog. But while a heater is a great luxury, it’s a huge utility-drain and you can make it through the cold snaps without it. Splurge on some warm pajamas and socks, add extra blankets, and get a good selection of teas and coffees. And take a look at the Facebook photos of your friends that are living through a REAL winter cold.
18. Paying attention to gas prices.
It’s definitely possible for gas prices to fluctuate 10 cents or more depending on the store and location. I’ve found that USA, United and Arco stations have the best prices. Gas stations near high-traffic business areas have the worst. Make mental notes of gas prices along your commute and plan your pumps accordingly. (Hint: Download the app Gas Buddy. It will help you find the cheapest gas prices in LA.)
17. Overfilling parking meters.
Just put a few more quarters in than you think you’ll need. Paying an extra $1 beats getting a $60 ticket. I wish I would have figured that out before that one year that I dropped $900 on parking tickets. I’m not even kidding. And now you can even use a credit or debit card at most meters so there’s really no excuse.
16. Shopping second-hand first.
If you’re looking for basics, there’s no reason not to start at second-hand stores. Not only is it frugal, it’s eco-friendly, and in a lot of cases, you’ll wind up with something much nicer that you could swing at a box store. Don’t be afraid to buy slightly larger sizes if it’s a high quality piece– the cost of tailoring is usually between $10-$20.
15. Hosting dinners.
If you’re smart about meal planning and where you buy your groceries, it’s possible to host a meal for several people for less than the cost of one plate at a restaurant. Last week, I had three people over for eggplant lasagna. I made the food, they brought the wine. The total grocery costs were less than $20– that’s $5 a plate.
14. Letting people know what’s up.
Looking for a new couch? Trying to find a new job? Need an extra gig to make ends meet? Don’t be afraid to put it out there! You don’t have to beg; just put up a Facebook status like “apartment searching, wish me luck.” You never know when a friend of a friend might have just the thing you’ve been looking for.
13. Shopping at the dollar store first.
An incomplete list of things I pretty much exclusively buy at the dollar store: floor cleaner, glass cleaner, sponges, dish soap, Tupperware, shaving cream, toothpaste, bleach, dryer sheets, hand soap, nail polish remover, Q-tips, wrapping paper, note cards, pens, laundry detergent, coffee filters, sandwich bags, cotton balls, candles, tin foil, cling wrap, and dog chew toys. Nearly all of the items on this list would be twice as much at a box store. Sometimes even for the same brand. Dollar Tree reigns supreme, seconded by 99 Cents Only Stores.
12. Getting a caffeine fix at a local donut shop.
I’m not going to say swear off Starbucks forever, but if you’re making it part of your morning routine, it’s easy to drop $20 a week without even realizing it. Obviously, brewing a pot at home and taking a travel mug is the most economic, but if you’re running short on time (or you just aren’t an early riser), swing by your local donut shop instead. They’ve got fresh pots of coffee, fresh pastries, and you can get a venti-size hot brew for $2. As a bonus, you’ll be in and out of there in less than 2 minutes.
If you can carpool to work, you can hop on the carpool lane and save not only time, but gas money. (Stop-and-go traffic is the worst thing for your gas mileage and ideally, your carpool buddy is chipping in for gas. If you’re joining a group of friends to go out downtown, Hollywood, Koreatown, or Santa Monica, giving a friend a lift lets you at least split the parking fees.
10. Uber pooling.
Since this became an option, I’ve done Uber pool every time. It saves money, doesn’t add much extra time, and if it’s a short ride, you might not even pick up extra passengers. And, of course, it’s good for the environment and good karma all around.
9. Checking Craigslist’s free section.
If you’re looking for something specific and you’re willing to take on a fixer-upper, Craigslist’s free section can surprise you. I wanted a file cabinet, but it wasn’t urgent and spending $100 at an office supply store seemed ridiculous. I checked the free section every day for about two weeks before scoring an old school metal cabinet from a business clearing their inventory. A little decorative contact paper and some 409, and it was ready for service.
8. Using Groupon smartly.
Groupon is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are great deals to be had for the savvy shopper. On the other hand, it’s easy to throw money away on things you don’t really need because the deal’s so good. After learning my lesson (by racking up a hoard of expired Groupons for things I think I could do in theory, but don’t, like wax and go to cardio-based workouts), I check Groupon for the really boring things I need, like oil changes, tax consulting, and chiropractic adjustments.
7. Looking for free and discounted movies.
Gofobo, Laemmle’s and USA Audiences send emails when I’m eligible for a free movie screening. The $3 theaters in North Hollywood and Pasadena will often be playing films during their first run, so it’s worth it to check there first.
6. Being realistic with memberships.
Nearly all memberships will work with you if you know you won’t be using their service for a month. A little foresight can really do you right– if you know you have a busy month or you’re going to be traveling, ask yourself how often you’ll really be using that Hulu subscription or gym membership. It’s often just a quick phone call or email to put it on hold so you’re not paying for something you can’t use.
5. Being my own sous chef.
Crunch a few numbers on those pre-packaged grocery store and lunch items and you’ll realize you’re paying exorbitant amounts just to avoid chopping your own food. Instead of buying pre-made salads, hit up the farmer’s market. With a couple Tupperware containers and about 15 minutes, you can create your own lunch salads and sandwiches. You can save almost $100 a month this way.
4. Sharing subscriptions.
I guess you’re technically not supposed to do this, but I don’t know anybody who’s been arrested by the Netflix police yet. I’m convinced all of Los Angeles is using the same HBO Go account.
3. Paying attention at grocery stores.
I honestly don’t know how Gelsons stays in business. Why is it so expensive there? I think there’s some merit to places like Whole Foods and Trader Joes, but stay alert on what you’re spending. I’ve found that the local places like Jons, El Super, Superior, and Vallarta are all exponentially cheaper and often the same quality, especially for meats, cheeses, and produce. Strategizing your shopping between different places takes a little extra time, but making a habit of it could save you lots in the end.
2. Filling weekends with free and cheap activities.
Saving money doesn’t mean being a shut-in. Instead of defaulting to brunch or drinks to catch up with friends, suggest going for a hike at Griffith Park or hanging out at the beach. At night, some of the city’s best comedy, theater, music, and culture is free of charge. Do a little homework ahead of time and you’ll find all sorts of great free events.
1. Paying it forward.
It’s really easy to just keep scrolling when you see requests for help from a friend looking for help moving, needing a lift, helping on a video shoot, looking for job leads, etc. But it’s worth it to take pause and consider the value of paying it forward. You will someday be in a similar situation and it’s far more likely to get help yourself if you’ve helped others in the past.