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How to Save Money and Live in California's Top Destinations
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How to Save Money and Live in California's Top Destinations

When you live in California's big cities, saving cash can seem impossible. Here are some of the most creative ways to save money in the city


8 min read

December 14, 2019

When you live in (or near) the Golden State’s most popular destinations and big cities, saving money can seem impossible. Between gut-wrenching rent prices, soaring transportation costs, an endless number of visitors from out of town, and too many events to count, the majority of money-saving tips don’t actually help balance the realities of city living. 

After living in a house with five other people in Northern California, moving into a Bay Area studio by myself was pretty shocking, price-wise. While $600 was enough to pay for pretty much everything I needed for a month up north, it didn’t even cover half of my rent costs near San Francisco. Drastic changes like this can easily feel overwhelming, but I’ve discovered plenty of ways to save money since the initial move several years back. Now that I’ve figured out easy ways to save money, I consider the Bay Area to be one of the best places to live in California.

Though there are plenty of less expensive places to live in California and cheaper cities to rent an apartment in the Bay Area, feeling safe and having access to job opportunities led me to one of the more posh areas—with a higher cost of living. As I’ve transitioned from college to the professional world, several saving tips have emerged that don’t involve strictly frugal living. These are some of the most effective and creative ways to save money in the city.

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Learn How to Cook

Yes, it might take some time and feel like a drag more often than not, but figuring out how to cook is one of the absolute best ways to save money. Eating out can easily cost $20 per meal, and that money adds up really quickly. Whether you subscribe to a meal delivery service or find all of your recipes on Pinterest, cooking at home is hardly ever more expensive (per person) than ordering out. 

Figuring out how to cook the right proportions of each item, however, might take a bit of time, so invest in some glass storage containers, and get used to eating leftovers.

Invest in a Coffee Machine and a Reusable Coffee Cup

Coffee is one of life's necessities, but buying it from a coffee shop every day is an expensive habit. Investing in a coffee maker and a reusable cup can save you hundreds of dollars in the long run.

Seriously, if you drink coffee on a daily basis, you need your own coffee machine. Whether you prefer traditional drip coffee, espresso, French press, or pour overs, it’s simple to find a method that works for your space and your budget—especially if you’re used to spending $6 per day grabbing coffee on your way to work. As an added benefit, if you use a reusable cup from home, you’ll be saving hundreds of coffee cups from the landfill every year. Look at you saving the planet.

Buy Wardrobe Staples

While it can be tempting to keep up with all of the trends, when you're on a budget, it's important to stick to the staples that you'll get a lot of use out of.

Shopping can be a fun way to get out of the house and connect with friends, especially when you live by yourself, but it can also be a crazy-expensive (and wasteful) habit to have. Rather than opting for cheap and trendy items, save your money for core pieces that you will love for years to come and items that you’ll want to wear to work and on the weekends.

For special events, consider purchasing items second-hand or renting outfits rather than buying them. These creative ways to save money will make you look fashionable and create a positive impact on the environment. Win-win.

Stay in

Constantly going out gets expensive; between transportation, food, and entertainment, a single night can cost three figures in the city. Save some cash by inviting the crew over for a movie night or an old-fashioned sleepover.

While there can be a lot of pressure to go out all the time, there is nothing wrong with staying in. Invite your girls over for a Bachelor viewing party, have the whole gang over for pizza night, and enjoy a night in with a good book every now and then. 

And if you’re lucky enough to work from home, make it a point to actually work from home. Going out to local coffee shops can be an expensive habit and easily cost you upwards of $50 per week, so set a limit for yourself and stick to it. 

Set Up a Savings Account

It is infinitely more difficult to put away your hard-earned cash if you aren’t able to separate your funds. Ideally, you should have a different bank account for fun activities, savings, and everyday funds, plus another account dedicated to saving for a house if that’s one of your current goals. By keeping everything separate, it’s clear how much wiggle room you have with your budget. 

But it’s not enough to just set up an account—you actually have to funnel some cash into it to make it worthwhile. Define a percentage of your total earnings that you can reasonably stash away; even 5 percent makes a difference, so don’t skip out on this if you don’t have a ton of disposable income. Before you know it, you’ll have saved more money than ever, and your future self will thank you.

Workout Outside

Getting in shape doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg. Make the most of the outdoors by running, hiking, and cycling, then take your workout indoors with some grocery-bag curls.

California is known for its sunshine, so take advantage of it. Many affordable apartment buildings don’t have a gym, and memberships can be quite pricey, so try using public spaces and everyday items to aid your fitness regimen. Run along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, hike up to the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, or go surfing along the Central Coast to get an inexpensive workout in. Alternatively, buy a yoga mat and practice on your patio, on the beach, or in your living room to save money on studio memberships. 

One other tip: Filled grocery bags and reusable water bottles are great alternatives to free-weights if you’re on a tight budget, making it easy to fit in a few reps. 

Use Public Transportation

Public transportation can take some getting used to, but it's one of the best ways to save money while getting out. 

Getting around can be one of the most challenging parts of living near a big city. While it can be tempting to drive or take an Uber, parking and rideshare fees rack up quickly. I once had to pay $60 to park near a touristy part of town—never doing that again. While it’s not as glamorous, public transportation is cheaper and typically easier to deal with than trying to find parking. 

Find Inexpensive Hobbies

Inexpensive hobbies are a must when it comes to city living. Whether you enjoy walking around town, reading books, or taking photos, hobbies are the perfect way to fill your time without spending money.

Shopping, eating out, and going to clubs are popular pastimes, but they are definitely not the best ways to save money on a tight budget. Though it is important to do your favorite activities on occasion, finding inexpensive hobbies that you enjoy just as much can help fill your time and dissipate your FOMO. 

While adopting a new hobby can have some upfront costs, consider how often you will use the item; divide the price by the number of times per year you think you’ll enjoy it to find a per-use cost. If it makes sense for your budget and will save you money in the long-run, it’s likely worth the investment. 

Consider hobbies like reading, doing yoga, surfing, playing an instrument, photography, writing poetry, and painting. Many of these hobbies have the potential to turn into side-hustles, too, so invest in yourself and do what you love.

Only Buy What You Use

It might take some time to figure this out, but once you do, it’s one of the best money-saving tips out there. Only purchasing items you actually use applies to all aspects of life—from filling your wardrobe to buying groceries—and it ensures that everything surrounding you sparks joy. Do bananas always go bad when you get them? Consider buying fewer at the grocery store. Do you have clothes you never wear? Think twice before purchasing items that don’t fit in with the rest of your wardrobe or that are similar to the items you already own. By taking the extra time to consider your purchases, you’ll likely find that you don’t really need (or want) a lot of the items you may have impulsively bought in the past.

Treat Yourself 

Living on a tight budget can be exhausting, so it's important to treat yourself every once in a while. Set aside some cash to buy the oat milk you love and the ingredients to make cookies instead of being frugal all the time. 

But bear in mind: If you’re too frugal, you’ll likely end up splurging when you get the opportunity. Instead, set aside some “fun funds” for yourself each paycheck to buy coffee, go to a movie, or save up for that class you’ve been wanting to take. This way, treating yourself is already part of your budget and you’ll be less likely to overindulge in rebellion.  


If you have more things than you can comfortably fit in your closet-sized city apartment, consider downsizing. Donate old clothes that you never wear or sell them to earn a bit of extra cash, trade in the oversized furniture you inherited from old college roommates for appropriately sized furniture, and sell the old electronics you haven’t touched in years. By ridding your apartment of the extra junk you never use, you might find that you have more space than you thought, and you’ll probably find things you’ve been wanting but forgot you already had.

Take Advantage of Free Activities

Farmers markets are popping up everywhere and are a great way to connect with your community and pick up the freshest seasonal produce. Talk to the local artisans, and you might leave with a new recipe or spark of inspiration.

There are endless opportunities for attending free and inexpensive events in California’s cities. Many of the museums and art galleries throughout Los Angeles and San Francisco are free or offer free-admission days several times a year, making them perfect money-saving ideas for date night. The cities are also known for hosting craft fairs, farmers markets, and holiday festivals with free admission. 

Many California beaches are also free to visit, the national parks are relatively inexpensive to enter (with select fee-free days throughout the year), and there are plenty of hiking trails available.

It’s Okay to Say No

Living in or near California’s cities is a blessing and a curse; there is always something to do, but those things often cost a pretty penny. And with friends, family, and co-workers vying for your attention (and your pocket book), overspending can become a weekly thing. But it’s okay to say no, to suggest alternatives, and to tell your loved ones that you can’t afford their fancy plans. While your out-of-town visitors might want to pack everything in during their limited trip, the touristy activities are also typically the most expensive, so you don’t have to do everything together. Think about meeting up after they’re done with their pricey plans and doing something cheaper—like going on a walking tour of your favorite areas.

How do you save money in California’s most expensive regions? Let us know in the comments below.

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