Aerial view of Central Park in New York City

What It’s Actually Like To Live In The Most Expensive City In America

Rachel Burris10-Minute Read
February 08, 2020

You’ve seen its iconic skyscrapers and overpopulated streets in movies and on TV. You’ve heard people talk about Central Park, Times Square and Greenwich Village so many times it feels like you’ve been there – even if you haven’t. But do you have a real sense of what it’s like to live in the Big Apple?

New York City is comprised of five different boroughs, but even New Yorkers mean only one thing when they mention “The City” … They mean Manhattan. Although Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens and Staten Island are all within the city limits, Manhattan is at the center of business and entertainment. It also happens to be the most expensive city in America.

Manhattan is known for its wealthy residents, glitzy apartments, Michelin-starred restaurants and designer boutiques. Still, not all Manhattanites are living the high life. To meet the financial demands, you have to be ready to join the rat race. However, public servants, who are paid by the government and work to improve the local community, notoriously struggle to make ends meet.

The borough’s wage gap is extreme, so how do those making under six figures actually afford to live in Manhattan? We sat down with two teachers who work and live in the borough to find out what it’s actually like to live in the most expensive city in America.

Meet Lauren And Alexa

They are two middle school teachers who work at the same public school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Lauren, 34, moved to the borough from Staten Island 7 years ago. Alexa, 28, was born on Long Island but lived in Tampa before moving to the city 3 years ago.

After meeting at work, Lauren and Alexa instantly clicked, which is not surprising given that they both possess a laidback vibe that’s endearingly coupled with perfectionist tendencies. A couple of years ago, they decided to move in together – along with Lauren’s ride-or-die Mini Golden Doodle – to make their Manhattan lifestyles feasible on their teacher salaries.

Teachers are said to make a livable wage, which enables them to afford the basic necessities of everyday life. But how much do teachers in NYC actually earn each year? We sat down with these two women to find out. Here’s what they had to say.

NYC Teacher Salary

Lauren and Alexa work for a large school that has three grades, 1,350 students and around 90 teachers. As public school teachers, both women are employed through the New York City Department of Education. The DOE pays its teachers based on the level of education they possess and the number of years they’ve been teaching.

Lauren has a master’s in education and has been working for the DOE for the last 13 years. Her current salary is $88,904 a year. Alexa also has a master’s but has only been working for the DOE for 3 years. As a result, her salary is $66,176.

These wages may seem high, but so is the city’s cost of living. According to the 2019 Quarter 2 research conducted by the Council of Community and Economic Research, the cost of living in Manhattan is 142.5% above the national average. Living in Manhattan is also 1.32 times more expensive than its neighbor, Brooklyn, the second-priciest borough in NYC.

Because living expenses are so high in Manhattan, purchasing power is low. When you adjust Lauren and Alexa’s income by the cost of living, you’re left with only $36,661 and $27,289, respectively. Since money doesn’t go as far in Manhattan as it would anywhere else in the country, it’s much more challenging to maintain a decent standard of living.

When asked if her salary is enough to make it in Manhattan, Alexa exclaims, “I work for the city, and I can’t live in the city! It’s the biggest oxymoron. Why can’t I just make enough money during my workday to live – not even extravagantly, just normally, comfortably?”

The Side Hustle

According to Lauren, most teachers need to have multiple jobs to pay the bills. Many teachers choose to tutor kids outside of work to supplement their income. While they can make a fair amount of money doing so, they have to be able to find the clients. Lauren and Alexa both have one student that they tutor for an hour and a half each week. For each session, they charge $150.

On top of their tutoring gigs, they both put in extra hours at the school. Alexa teaches an extra-curricular activity, and Lauren is in charge of hiring and scheduling substitute teachers. For this additional work, they get paid per session at a rate of $38 an hour. Although the work takes Lauren multiple hours a day to complete, she only gets paid for the one hour she’s in the administrative office each morning.

With their side hustles, lesson planning and grading, Lauren and Alexa typically work around 12 hours a day. The number of hours they put in only makes it more difficult for them to reconcile their earnings. “Everyone always told me, ‘Go to college. Be a teacher; be a lawyer; be a doctor. If you get those degrees, you’ll be able to afford things in life. You’ll be able to do X, Y and Z, and you won’t have to stress about money.’ But it doesn’t ever feel like that,” says Lauren.

“I feel like I did what I was supposed to do,” she adds. “I went to a good college. I got a scholarship for my master’s. I got a career that’s extremely safe in terms of job security and benefits. And yet, financially, as a teacher, I have to work three different jobs to afford to be close to where I work. It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Manhattan Apartments

While the Upper East Side is known for its proximity to Central Park and abundance of white-glove apartment buildings, Lauren and Alexa’s building is farther east, where it’s much more affordable. The two women live in a small walk-up, nestled on a side street. They share a modest two-bedroom apartment that’s about a 5 – 10-minute walk from the school.

Their monthly rent is $3,950, of which Lauren pays $150 more for the larger bedroom with the en suite bath. Lauren’s net bi-weekly pay is $2,190, and Alexa’s is $1,754. That means they respectively spend 47% and 54% of their after-tax income just to put a roof over their heads.

Although frustrated by their salaries, these women aren’t discouraged by the rental market. They view high rent as the price you pay for the conveniences of a Manhattan lifestyle. “We chose to live together because we knew that separately we’d get horrible studios and pay the same,” says Alexa.

Alexa is all too aware of the alternative, having spent her first year in Manhattan living alone on a first-year teacher salary. She paid $1,900 a month for a 250-square-foot studio and maxed out her credit cards to make ends meet. “I know I’m not going to find an apartment in Manhattan for less than $1,900, and $1,900 is truly the maximum I can pay per month for rent,” she says. “Yes, it hurts, but there’s nothing you can do about it.”

As Manhattan rentals go, Lauren and Alexa did well for themselves. According to C2ER, the average cost to rent an unfurnished, 950-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan is $5,133. That’s 5.2 times more than the national average. It’s also 1.8 times more expensive than Queens and 1.5 times more than Brooklyn.

But the prices in these outer boroughs aren’t enough to entice Alexa right now. “The cost of commuting would make up the difference of what I’d be saving in rent,” she explains. “Why make a longer commute? Why make it more difficult and more stressful for myself? It’s about being close to work, but it’s also about having access to the rest of Manhattan and everything it offers – the social life, the restaurants, etc.”

Living In New York City On A Budget

With such a considerable portion of their income spent on housing, Lauren and Alexa have to plan out their spending very carefully. Although they’re roommates, they live much like a family, splitting all expenses and responsibilities while also looking out for each other. It’s their close bond that enables them to make Manhattan living viable.

Each month, they spend $100 on electric, $56 on internet and $13 on Netflix. Since they live within walking distance of work, they save on transportation costs. When they go out, they typically take the subway and only call Ubers when they’re traveling with three or four people.

They’re able to save most of their money by cooking at home. “Alexa and I – I mean Alexa – has been really good at planning our meals. She’ll tell me what she needs from the butcher, and I’ll go get the meat. She orders all the groceries, and she’ll make all of our food for the week,” says Lauren.

They usually spend around $170 on groceries. However, as they get closer to the end of their pay period, Alexa often struggles with the cost of food. “I live paycheck to paycheck with no ability to save. I still have weeks where I eat instant ramen every night for dinner,” she says. “It’s always the week leading up to getting paid. I always run out. We’re getting paid tomorrow, and I have negative $145 in my bank account.”

Savings And Debt

For Alexa, the emotional stress of living paycheck to paycheck keeps her up at night. “Thinking about my financial situation wakes me up almost every morning at 4 a.m. I’m woken up to the worrying about having no savings and no money,” she says. Beyond a lack of savings, Alexa is also carrying around $10,000 of credit card debt, the result of living alone her first year in the city.

Lauren’s circumstances are slightly different. “I’m carrying healthy debt right now. I probably have $2,000 on my credit card and $11,000 of student loans that I’ll pay back over the next 5 years of my life. I have a little over $10,000 in savings. But I worry about it just because it’s not enough, and I’m aware that it’s not enough.”

While both women are nervous about the future, Lauren has more of a cushion to fall back on in times of crisis. Alexa, on the other hand, has struggled to maintain her current lifestyle when the unexpected arises.

Facing Emergencies On A Budget

The Department of Ed does provide teachers with free health insurance options. However, Alexa has found that it takes more than healthcare to be truly covered in the event of emergencies.

Last year, she had to have emergency surgery to remove her appendix. The doctor told her that she was to be out of work for 6 weeks. But Alexa was adamant that she couldn’t do it; she only had 3 weeks of sick days saved up. Still, the doctor was insistent.

While she recovered, Alexa remained in constant contact with the school’s payroll secretary. The secretary sent her the DOE guidelines and a list of things she had to do to remain out of work. As the weeks passed, the school contacted her repeatedly to remind her that her allotted days were dwindling. Sore and extremely stressed, Alexa went back to the doctor and insisted that he clear her for work.

As concerned as the doctor was, he agreed. After leaving the doctor’s office, Alexa went straight to the school to inform them that she would be at work first thing Monday morning. For Alexa, the problem wasn’t her medical bills; it was the time off. Even though she was facing a medical emergency, Alexa was aware there would be consequences for taking too much time.

“I wasn’t worried about losing my job,” she explains. “I was worried about being paid only a percentage of my income because I wouldn’t have been able to survive.” Alexa knew she needed every cent of her salary to afford her monthly living expenses and decided that she had to put her health aside if she was going to get by.

How Do The Other Half Live?

Money may be tight for Lauren and Alexa. Still, Manhattan’s exorbitant prices don’t bother them as much as the extreme wage gap, which is all the more apparent due to the hundreds of thousands of millionaires that live within the borough’s 23 square miles.

“Most of the jobs in NYC make enough money where costs aren’t really an issue,” says Alexa. “Teachers are really at the bottom here.”

What they find extremely challenging to understand is why their friends, working in other industries, are getting extravagant benefits while they’re the ones giving back to the community. Lauren has a friend who works as a recruiter for a company that has recently taken off. Apparently, this friend, who’s around the same age, makes six figures and also receives $40 a day for lunch. Any portion of her food allowance that isn’t spent is added to her paycheck.

“People are like, ‘I save so much money at my job because they cater us lunch or give us snacks.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, so you make more money than me, and you don’t have to pay for groceries either… And you get a free gym membership.’ It’s just absurd,” says Lauren. “They’re contributing zero to society, and they get all these perks.”

Both Lauren and Alexa feel strongly that the government should provide subsidized housing for public servants. While there is subsidized housing in the city, teachers usually don’t qualify. Before living with Alexa, Lauren had tried to apply with another teacher but was turned away because their projected income was $2,000 over the limit. It’s this lack of consideration for the individuals educating the city’s future generations that makes scraping by feel so frustrating for Lauren and Alexa.

Is Living In NYC Worth It?

For now, Lauren and Alexa both feel that NYC is worth it. “Cost feels like a necessary evil to reap the benefits of living in the city,” says Alexa.

They love their jobs, their neighborhood and the youth and vibrancy of Manhattan. They also feel blessed to have each other – in the city, finding a good roommate can be more difficult than finding a good date.

“Alexa and I are very fortunate that we’ve found each other and are extremely compatible, roommate-wise. And, we are good friends, so we can live in a smaller space and not feel uncomfortable in our surroundings,” says Lauren. “But it’s only a matter of time before our lives evolve.”

When speaking to them, it’s clear that Lauren and Alexa feel their current lifestyle has an expiration date. Although neither one wants to move out of the borough, they’re aware that they can’t save for their futures and afford Manhattan prices at the same time. Until then, they’re making the most of their surroundings.

While living in the most expensive city in America may be financially stressful, the amenities Manhattan offers its residents are incomparable. However, the borough is not for everyone. If you’re interested in big-city life without the drain on your bank account, check out our list of the most affordable big cities in the country.


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    Rachel Burris

    Rachel Burris is a writer covering topics of interest to present and future homeowners, as well as industry insiders. Prior to joining Quicken Loans, she worked as an English teacher for the New York City Department of Education and a licensed real estate agent for Brown Harris Stevens. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Bucknell University, a postbaccalaureate certificate in psychology from Columbia University and a master's degree in English education from Teachers College, Columbia University.