Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Livin' on the Cheap in 'Spensive places

SF writer and Real Cool Guy John Scalzi recently wrote a blog post about advice for New Writers, which deals with some practical things about trying to be a writer for a living. It's worth a read. I think it applies to anyone who's trying to do some creative thing on their own, like artists or musicians or even programmers. One thing he talks about is that unless you have a really good reason to be there, you should move the hell out of Los Angeles, Manhattan or San Francisco, which are the three most expensive places to live in the US, because you probably won't make very much money especially at first.

Now, I have two compelling reasons to live in LA. First, there's good work for artists here that pays quite well and that is rare anywhere else (especially in cheap places to live like Kansas, Idaho and Alabama), and second, I really like living here and don't really want to live anywhere else at the moment.

So, I posted a comment on the blog with some of my thoughts on how, if you do have to live in a very expensive place, you can save a crapload of cash and live on the cheap. The Girlfriend felt I should repost it on one of my blogs, so... here it is! :)

First, thanks John for another wonderful article. Just like your older “Advice for Writers” post from way back when, this one can be brought into Word and Find/Replaced “artist” for “writer” and it applies just as well.

I live in Los Angeles and really like it, and I used to live in northern New Jersey; a few tips for living inexpensively around LA and NYC:

1. Living Arrangements:

If you don’t have the great Significant Other with the steady income, one word: ROOMMATES. Yes, they can suck. Yes, you need to find the right ones. But you’ll save a crapton of cash on rent. (Best case is actually that you can stay at your family home - if you’re obviously making a herculean effort to sock cash in the bank and advance your career, you’d be surprised how little your family will mind.)

2. Transportation:

Near NYC (NJ, CT, Boros): There’s this amazing thing called mass transit permeating the Tri-State Area. When I lived in Parsippany, NJ and was under my record deal with BMG, I could get from my apartment into Manhattan and back for $10 (less than gas and tolls at the time) on the Rt. 46 express bus - and then walk to the BMG office building at Times Square.

In Los Angeles: mass transit isn’t so great, but the LA Metro system is, surprisingly, a hell of a lot better than most people think. You can get a transit pass for less than $60 a month that will get you to most places in the area from Long Beach up to Oxnard and east way out past Pomona. The downside can be looong trips, so you need to plan ahead, but $60 a month for transportation is ridiculously cheap.

If you are careful about where you choose to live (and hopefully do your day job), you can set things up so that you almost never need a car - even in Los Angeles. Just ask Harlan Ellison, he’ll tell you all about it. At length. With a great deal of commentary, emotion and gesticulation.

The few times you do need one, you can Rent-A-Wreck, ask a friend for help or a borrow.

On the other hand, if you absolutely need to get places fast in Southern California, there is only one single solution: ride a motorcycle. Spend the $200 for the AMA/MSF Ridercourse, get the M1 endorsement on your driver’s license, and get yourself a decent bike. For beginners, there are a number of brand new motorcycles that cost between $3,000 and $5,000. Wonderfully, these same bikes can usually be had used - and with pretty low mileage too, as people with “starter bikes” generally trade up within 3 years - for half that or less.

Most of the smaller bikes (400 - 600cc) get between 60 and 80 miles per gallon; your fuel cost will likely be less than $40 a month. Also, they’re pretty cheap to insure. You’ll pay something like $500 a year for full coverage on a non-”sportbike.” Add another $500 if you want the medical coverage included. But remember, you only paid $2000 or less for the bike, or maybe you bought it new and your payment is $99 a month or less. Trust me, you will spend a lot less on a bike.

Other major benefits: In California, it’s legal to “lane-split,” or ride in between the lanes of slow or stopped cars. This turns the freeway into a “zoom-zoom” experience, even in the worst rush-hour traffic. My commute is only 10 miles, from Hollywood to the West Side; in the car it takes an hour, sometimes more. On my bike, 20 minutes. This is NOT for the faint of heart, of course… but if you can master the skill and focus it takes to ride a bike safely, you can get a lot of hours of your life back.

It’s also legal to use the diamond carpool lanes on the freeways if you have a bike, and you don’t need the fancy sticker. So you can live a bit farther out and still keep a commute much shorter.

With a bike, you will never have trouble finding a parking space. Never, ever. There’s always a “paint triangle” nearby, and many of the paid garages don’t charge for motorcycles. Even if you have to pay, you’ll be able to park right by the door - and usually right by where the security guard is, for extra security. I love parking right in front of any bar or club I go to and having the door security guys say “hey, nice bike, we’ll keep an eye on it for ya.”

For some reason, certain types of bikes are somewhat invisible to law enforcement. If you’re not riding a crotch-rocket or a big loud hog, and you’re wearing proper riding gear, the cops (in LA anyway) seem to assume that you know what you’re doing, and they leave you alone. Also, the small size of bikes makes them difficult to get on radar when there are also cars near them, as the radar gun only gives the speed of the strongest signal return; if you’re doing 80 passing an SUV that’s doing 65, the gun will almost always get the SUV - you are like a B-2 bomber. :)

Lastly, bikes are much more environmentally sound than cars.

In my case, I have a 900cc Honda bike. I bought it brand new in 2002 for $8,000 even. My payments were $176 a month for 48 months, my insurance was and still is about $500 a year (I have over 20 years of riding experience, YMMV), and even with gas at $3.20 for regular, my fuel bill is about $30 a month. (As an added bonus to me, the thing performs like a jet fighter. 0-60 in 2.9 seconds. Yes you read that right.) It currently has 36,000 miles on it, and I expect to get at least 60,000 more out of it over the next 10 years.

Alternatively to all the above, you can learn the value and become the master of the $500 Car. There are a lot of $500 Cars out there (maybe with inflation that’s an $800 Car now), and although they are usually on their last legs, if you get a Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, Mazda (it used to be Chevys, sigh) you’re likely to get quite a bit of use out of it before it blows up. Sometimes you get lucky; I had a ‘77 Chevy Malibu that I bought for $500 and drove for five years before it blew up in a way that wasn’t worth fixing.

See, that’s the key with a $500 Car. If something breaks on it that will cost more than $500 to fix, it’s time to buy another $500 Car. You can stretch that car out a long way if you learn to do the regular maintenance and various repair work on your own.

My car here in LA was a 1982 Honda Accord Hatchback. I bought it for $500 with 160,000 miles on it. I put about 30K on it over 6 years before someone hit it while it was parked and totaled it. It got 29 MPG and I did all the work myself. It cost $600 a year to insure. What a great car that was… but now I just have the bike, and access to my girlfriend’s 1992 Honda Civic sedan (thanks hunny), which is also an awesome and inexpensive car on which I can do much of the maintenance.

3. Food:

PB&J. Ramen. Mac n Cheese. Hamburger Helper. Canned or frozen vegetables. Beans, rice, tortillas. These things will keep you alive, very very cheaply.

Happily, for just a little more money, you can eat a lot healthier than that! You just have to learn to cook. It’s not hard; if I can do it believe me so can you.

Make your own salads, don’t buy the bag ones. Get a big tupperware to put it in, so you have salad for a week (Good tupperware is very important to a food budget). Pasta is cheap, and you can learn to make your own sauce in bulk - it keeps pretty well. Use frozen vegetables still, but get some fresh ones here and there. Potatoes are nice and cook in 10 minutes in the microwave.

I wound up learning to cook in a wok that I got from IKEA, of all places. You can make a lot of food very fast and put most of it in the tupperware; you cook on Sunday night and you’ve got leftovers for the rest of the week. When I was struggling, my food budget was $125 a month, and I stuck to it.

OK I’ve gone on way too long. The point is that if you use a little thought (and perhaps a bit of teeth-gritting) you can live in NYC or LA or SF on a very small amount of money. Not saying you’ll live well, but you’re chasing your dream, right? A little bit of Spartan-ness will do you good.

I used all the above to help dig out of around $40,000 in credit card debt that I ran up trying (and failing, for many of the reasons John alludes to above) to be a freelance artist. I found a decent day job and sent more than half my income away for 5 years until I was debt-free.

I don’t recommend you do it that way… wish I’d had this to read before I tried that! :)


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