How to Live in San Francisco (or Any Expensive City) on a Budget

Whenever I tell people that I live in San Francisco, I usually get one of two comments. One is that the city is dirty, crowded, and too liberal, so how can I live there. The other is that the city is too expensive, so how can I live there.

I’ll admit that living in SF has its downsides, as does every city, but it has its perks too. After living in a few other US cities, I love what SF has to offer and have chosen to make my home here. If you’re thinking of moving to SF or any other expensive city, I’ve gathered some tips for how to manage living big city life on a budget.

First, I want to dispel some misperceptions about living in San Francisco. The median household income in San Francisco was $88,829 in January 2017 (compared to the median CA household income of $66,091). If a household has full-time two wage earners, each person would need to earn roughly $22 per hour to meet that mark.

Twenty-two dollars an hour is realistic and attainable in SF. With a job earning about $22/hr, you will struggle, but you can live and you’ll already be better off than 50% of the people in this area.

It’s easy to think that everyone in SF has a tech job and makes $100,000+ per year. If the median income is any indication, the city has its share of people who make do with much less. These people likely aren’t living up life the way urban millennial life is portrayed in the mainstream (e.g., shopping at trendy stores, eating at high-end restaurants, attending happy hours, visiting boutique yoga studios).

If you live here on a limited income and have to watch your nickels and dimes, you probably won’t be living it up that way either. People make do living in SF on much less than a tech worker’s salary and you can too.

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1)  Choose housing wisely

Housing is typically the most expensive part of anyone’s budget. It’s not unheard for people to pay more than 50% of their take-home income on rent. In January 2017, the average apartment rent in San Francisco was $3871. One-bedroom apartments averaged $3407 and two-bedroom apartments averaged $4631. Yikes!

One of the best ways to pay less is to live with roommates. I’ve heard some young adults say that they would not live with a roommate and others scoff at dating men or women who live with roommates, but it’s considered normal to have roommates in San Francisco.

You’ll find grown adults of all ages living with roommates because of high rent prices and because of a limited number of available apartments. The city has many older, large homes with lots of bedrooms and many buildings composed of large flats. It makes sense to share them with roommates in order to make better use of the space and to save on rent. You could pay $1500-2000 for a shared apartment instead of over $3000 for your own place.

Common expenses also become cheaper when you share them with a (frugal) roommate. You can divide utilities such as electricity and internet costs. If you have a pet, you might have an occasional dog walker or pet sitter in your roommate too. I know I’d be happy to take care of a roommate’s dog or cat for a few days.

Research neighborhoods you’d like to live in and then expand your list. While Pacific Heights and the Marina may sound nice, they are two of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. You’ll find lower rent in the more residential areas of the city such as the Outer Sunset or Outer Richmond districts.  The can be quieter, offer more living space, and sometimes come with a parking space.

If you’re willing to live outside of SF, you can live in a nearby city or suburb. It’s easy to access the city via BART and other transportation methods. This may be a good option if you only need to come to the city for work on Monday through Friday and you spend your weekends and off-time closer to home.

Some good friends of mine recently moved out of San Francisco when their landlord wanted to sell the condo that they were renting. They moved to Concord (about 30 miles away), where they now have a 3-bedroom place and access to a swimming pool.

Calculate how much time you will spend at home. If you’re work long hours or always out with friends, you may need the bare minimum in a home. You can forgo extra space or unnecessary home décor because you won’t be home to use it. So pick the smaller space with lower rent. A small, minimalist space will force you to cut back on buying unnecessary things because there is no space for anything extra.

Think about your long-term plans. San Francisco has rent control. If you plan on staying in SF for a few years, look for a place that you think you’ll be comfortable staying in for that time. Your place will be rent controlled, which means that there are restrictions on how much a landlord can increase rent every year. This can be a cheaper option than moving to a new place from year to year, where you’ll have to pay the current rental rate each time.

Bottom-line: Cut your housing costs as much as you can while still maintaining some standards such as a safe neighborhood, functioning appliances, and responsible roommates. If you’re a young adult in SF, your housing situation is likely not forever. You’ll find yourself changing jobs, getting a pay raise, or moving in with a partner or spouse, and you can upgrade your housing from there.


2)  Consider leaving the car behind for other forms of transportation

Having a car can be tough in San Francisco or any big city. If you have one, you’ll likely need to pay extra to rent a parking space if it’s offered by your landlord or you’ll spend lots of time scouring the neighborhood for a parking space the night before street cleaning.

I can’t tell you the number of times friends and co-workers have received parking tickets or had their car towed because they parked on the wrong street on street-cleaning day or were questionably in a house’s driveway and the tenant of the house had their car towed.

Try to make the most of other forms of transportation by using the bus, biking, walking, car-share programs like Getaround and Zipcar, and car-pool services like Uber and Lyft. If you do have a car, try to find a place that comes with parking or live in a more residential area where parking is easier to come by.


3)  Cook at home

One of the easiest ways to get ahead or even further ahead financially is to meal plan and cook for yourself. This is a good tip for saving money no matter what your income is or where you live. San Francisco has lots of restaurants and it seems new ones are popping up every day. It can be tempting to eat out when you read reviews of a great spot or hear people talking about a delicious dinner they had.

I consider myself a decent cook and even I sometimes feel disappointed that I can’t replicate some of the Indian dishes or modern Californian cuisine that are offered in restaurants around here. Instead of looking at it as a disappointment, I try to make eating out a special event such as for a birthday or holiday.

For your everyday meals, try to meal plan to make large batches of food and then save them for later. Keep leftovers for future dinners or bring them to work for lunch. Similarly, stock up on supermarket breakfast items and keep them in your space at work so you can skip the morning pastry and coffee run. The $5 Meal Plan is an easy and inexpensive way to get started meal planning if you’re having a hard time going about it.


4)  Find free and low-cost entertainment

As someone who loves the performing arts, I’m always on the lookout for discounted tickets to all the shows and events I want to see. A quick browse through Goldstar, Meetup, Eventbrite, Groupon, Funcheap SF, and other event websites will give you a good list of free or low-cost things do to in and around the city.  

You can also take advantage of Bay Area hiking and biking trails, summer street fairs, free admissions days at local museums, college campus events, picnics with friends, and matinee movies.

Even with all the free and low-cost events around, there are events you’ll want to attend and there’s no other way to do that but to shell out the dough. When you do come across that event you just have to attend, budget for it to make it happen.


5)  Become a savvy shopper

Whether food or clothes shopping, it pays be a savvy shopper, meaning looking for deals and waiting for the right time to make purchases. Often living in a big city means having a job that requires a certain look.

If you have to buy business and work clothes, invest in well-made classic pieces that you’ll use more often and instead of trendy or seasonal pieces. Shop at end-of-season or pre-season sales. There’s not much variation in temperature in SF throughout the year so a certain items such as sweaters can work as well in the winter as they can in the spring or summer.

When you do shop, use discount sites like Ebates and Ibotta to save you even more money. On Ebates, you can shop thousands of mainstream retailers through the Ebates site, using the Ebates browser extension, or on the app and get cashback on your purchases. Ibotta is electronic couponing, which is easy to use with grocery shopping. These two apps have quickly become my favorite ways to shop.

Often big cities often have lots of shopping options at your finger-tips. If you work in the Financial District, it’s easy to step out of the office and find yourself surrounded by retail shops just a few blocks away. Avoid stepping into those shops for leisurely browsing to reduce the temptation to spend on nice, but unnecessary things. Always shop with a purpose.


6)  Increase your income with a side job

With most jobs, there’s a limit to the amount of money you can earn, whether salaried or hourly. If you want to make things easier on yourself to live in an expensive city, you can lower your expenditures but only so much before you’re eating beans for dinner every night and considering living out of a tent. The alternative to that is to earn more income and really, the sky is the limit.

If you don’t feel like your day job is paying you enough to live comfortably or get ahead financially, ask for a raise, get a new job, or pick up a side job. Here are some side jobs that you can mostly do from home. Keep in mind that there are many, many more side jobs out there.

  • Pet sit and dog walk

  • Blog & do freelance work writing for websites or using your other skills

  • Answer surveys on survey sites & participate in focus group studies

  • Run social media campaigns for individuals or small businesses

  • Become a virtual assistant

Do you know the old saying, “Where there is a will, there is a way”? I definitely think that’s true for living in San Francisco. Will you be able to fulfill all your dreams of buying a home and padding your retirement fund while living here on a limited income? Maybe not. With good financial sense, hard work, and a frugal lifestyle though, you can live in San Francisco or any other city of your dreams.

 Related posts:

If you live in San Francisco or the Bay Area, what made you choose here? What are your tips for living in an expensive city? 

How to Live in San Francisco (or Any Expensive City) on a Budget