Los Angeles resident Jackie Lam shares how she maintains a budget in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.

As a Los Angeles native, I’ve learned to gauge how I should feel about the City of Angels by the endless fresh crops of transplants. It really is a land of second chances, an urban playground with perennial sunshine. And to me, it’s just home.

L.A. is a great place to live: Stereotypes aside, you can be yourself, and there’s really something for everyone. Like an onion, there are many different layers to L.A., and as my interests and career paths have changed, I’ve found opportunities and resources to make my ever-evolving goals happen.
One thing’s for sure: Living in L.A. can be exciting, but it definitely ain’t cheap. And after living on my own for the past decade, I’ve fine-tuned my frugal sensibilities to live below my means.

Here’s how I’ve lived on a budget in L.A.:

Housing

In winter 2005, I moved into a reasonably priced studio apartment in Palms, a Westside neighborhood. After getting a paid subscription to Westside Rentals, I ended up finding my place through Craigslist. Sure, it was the size of a large closet, but I could call it my own.

After living in cramped quarters for five years, I yearned for larger digs. I found a cute bungalow-style junior bedroom in the same neighborhood for a little more, and I’ve been there ever since.

Live in a “starting out” area
I was making about $30,000 a year at my first full-time job (monthly take-home pay: $1,800). I made a point not to spend more than a third of my income (after taxes) on rent. L.A. arguably has the most unaffordable rental market nationwide; sadly, putting half your income toward rent is becoming commonplace.

I live in Palms because it’s affordable for folks “starting out” and still struggling. It’s a popular place for students attending nearby USC and UCLA universities, and it’s a chill, relatively unknown neighborhood. In recent years it’s been more “up and coming;” as a result, rents have spiked. Other somewhat affordable areas are West Adams, Hollywood, Inglewood, and Mid-City.

Look for rent-controlled units
If you’re on a budget, look for a rent-controlled apartment and stay put as long as you can. These are older apartment buildings built before 1978 (not the sleek, modern apartment units sprouting up across cities everywhere).

The beauty of rent-controlled units is your landlord or property manager cannot raise your rent more than 3 percent each year. Remember: Rent control laws differ for units in Los Angeles versus Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, or Eagle Rock—which are considered different cities—so you’ll have to do your homework first.

Negotiate
If you have a consistent employment history or stellar credit, talk those up during rent negotiations. One year, I received a minimal pay raise that barely covered inflation—and I knew I couldn’t afford a rent hike. So, I wrote my landlord a short letter about my current financial situation, and asked if she would consider not raising my rent for the time being. It totally worked!

Transportation

They say nobody walks in L.A. But with the recent expansion of L.A. Metro’s Expo and Gold lines, it’s a lot easier to use mass transit. There’s no denying L.A. is a massive urban sprawl, but in my personal experience, public transportation (especially the Metrolink trains) are fairly reliable. Of course, it does take longer to get somewhere on the bus or train, so factor that in.

  • The cost for a Metro bus or train ride is $1.75. If you use a TAP card, you get unlimited one-way transfers for two hours. A seven-day pass is $25; a 30-day pass is $100.
  • If you prefer not to own a vehicle, look into ZipCar or CommuteWise as lower-cost alternatives.
  • Biking in L.A. isn’t as scary as it sounds. Some areas are more bike-friendly than others, so check out a bike map to see where bike lanes and paths are beforehand. I use my bike as much as possible to get around, and the savings add up.

Entertainment

There’s no shortage of fun and cheap things to do in a cultural hub like Los Angeles:

  • As a former music blogger, I’ve enjoyed many free live music shows. Venues in Echo Park and Silverlake such as The Satellite, The Echo and Echoplex, and Bootleg Theater have monthly residencies with no cover. For Westside denizens, the indie radio station KXLU sponsors free shows at Time Warp record shop in Mar Vista.
  • For some history, L.A. Conservancy offers guided walking tours. They’re not free, but general tickets cost just $15.
  • There are a handful of free museums around town, such The Getty and the Getty Villa, The Broad, and the Hammer Museum. While the Hammer doesn’t require reservations, the others do. Many others offer a free museum day at least once a month or have a discounted rate in the evenings.
  • For cinephiles, the Cinefamily, Skirball Cultural Center, and Hammer have free screenings. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has special screenings, sometimes with restored prints and Q&As with directors and talent, for only $5.

Los Angeles is a pricey place to live, but you can definitely live within your means by being creative and resourceful.


Jackie Lam is the creator of Cheapsters,
where she helps freelancers get by in the gig economy.
She lives in L.A., where she is on the perpetual hunt
for the perfect breakfast burrito.

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