From behind the cafe counter, I was eyeing the piece of cake on the woman’s plate. She’d only taken one bite. I’d just found out how much it would cost me to continue living in New York next month, and I felt ill. I couldn’t spend money on a meal–I saw numbers everywhere. After she left, I put the cake straight into my apron pocket. I devoured the sugary slab from behind a baguette oven–no shame. I’d eat more when I got home.
But I couldn’t get home that night. After work, I discovered that during my shift a disgruntled janitor had gone on a stealing spree through the baristas’ lockers and had taken the most expensive thing in my bag–my Metrocard. I had no way to get to my apartment. I struggled between two options: trying to find 10 quarters to get back to my top bunk and almost-empty fridge, or paying $500 for a one-way ticket back to Colorado and never worrying about “making it in the city” again.
I moved to Manhattan at 18, having no idea how much it would cost. I was the oldest of five homeschooled kids in Colorado, and I was determined to move to The Big City, unaware of all the shiny price tags.
My parents knew 100 ways to save money in any given scenario. We raised chickens and sold eggs at $4 a dozen, which paid for a tank of gas per month. We kept old toothbrushes for the future purpose of cleaning the bathroom floors. We all shared bedrooms, cellphones, and cars when we were older. We did nothing alone–or at full price.
When it came time for college, my parents pushed me toward cheaper, in-state schools. Instead, I earned a scholarship to a Big-Apple university, assumed the price was now paid, and dove into a liberal arts education at a private Christian college housed in the basement of the Empire State Building.
I got a sleepy, emotional, six-person send-off for my 5 AM flight. I was on my way. Free at last. All I wanted was complete independence and my own room.
Now, in my last month on campus, I realized that I’d soon have to start paying off my loans. I had to move away from midtown and the $1,700 monthly student housing fee fueling my student debt. Since I was working at the bakery (for minimum wage) and interning at an indie-movie news website (for no wage), I could afford to spend $400 a month on housing.
I expressed my anxiety to my friend Carly over old pastries I’d taken home from the bakery. Worried that I’d move home in a panic, she helped me collect five other gals (some from Craigslist) willing to live in an apartment the size of a two-car garage in Washington Heights. There were five micro-bedrooms. If I shared one with Carly, I’d hit my target expense. It felt like 2 Broke Girls. Except there were seven of us.
By this time, I’d reduced my necessary expenses via the cheapest toilet paper, Ajax dish soap, dollar pizza, and unashamedly picking up every coin on the street. I could deal with minimized square footage, I thought. Even if seven people shared it.
Our habitat was shared, but our habits were distinct. Carly was that student who studied for all her tests. Leah was a picky eater who loved kale. Meghan was the wild child. Gaby was the actual child. Elizabeth was the awkward one who wouldn’t join us in watching New Girl, but could talk for hours about her ceramic gnome collection. Erin was the “mom.” As the oldest, she went to bed at a decent hour, enforcing the quiet-by-10 rule. We came to her with all complaints, including but not limited to dirty dishes, late night noise, and that time Gaby broke the shower faucet shotgunning a PBR and made the curtain smell like beer.
Struggling to be independent adults on budgets, our clashing ideas of how to operate at home took a toll. Crossed communications led to a pigeon in the kitchen, a hole in the ceiling, un-introduced guests on the couch, and uninvited bugs in left-out food. Sometimes unwarranted “borrowing” occurred. There was an evening I shook Gaby awake, yelling, “Did you drink my six-pack AND spill it all over my bed? Did you?”
One night, I groggily came out at 2 AM for a glass of water to find Gaby sitting crisscross on the counter, eating my chia seed pudding. When she saw me she said, “What is love, Tay? I can’t figure it out.”
I struggled right then to forget the rising price of chia seed pudding and how much I’d spend on a new one. But I realized that if we worked out our roomie-to-roomie rapport, I wouldn’t have to worry about things like doing extra laundry when my bed got messed up, or buying more chia pudding. So I said, “I don’t know either. Let’s talk about it.”
A few months in we felt like more than seven college girls sharing a lease. Erin stayed a week with Meghan in the hospital. Leah shared her food. Elizabeth bought everyone Christmas presents. We all sympathized when any of us told a particularly upsetting catcalling story. By the time we finally had a family (drinking) game night, we were better at being less angry when Gaby broke four pieces of furniture.
We helped each other spend less too. We doubled up on seamless orders. We carried our new Craigslist couch 30 blocks together. The last day of our lease was the biggest save of the year. In the midst of moving out, a storm caused a flood in our building. My roommates stood knee-deep in water, holding my boxes and bags overhead in the lobby for 30 minutes. Refusing to let me try to rough it on the subway as planned, Carly called me a cab.
Once more, I was on my way out. As I took in this new six-person send-off, I realized I’d swapped my original seven-person family for another one. My second set of sisters had just saved all my possessions from drowning, (there were a few casualties, like a box of envelopes that had all self-sealed). We went on to be friends for years. If I’d spent that first year without them, I’d have been crazy lonely–and totally moneyless.
My income now stems from a steadier job, and I still pay less than $1,700 for an apartment in Brooklyn, which I share with Carly, who still always does her homework. My penchant for saving came from my original relatives–my city survival from the second clan I was lucky enough to create in New York. They saved me emotionally–and financially. A haven is happier (and cheaper) when you love the people you live with.