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Broke Millennial’s Guide to New York City for Cheap (ish)

   Posted On: May 8, 2013  |    Posted In: Saving  |     Posted by: Broke Millennial®

Updated 1/6/17

May contain affiliate links

New York City is expensive. If you live in Tokyo, Osaka, Oslo, Sydney, Melbourne, Paris, Caracas, Geneva, Zurich or Singapore, then fine, you can do New York City for cheap compared to living  your city. Otherwise, New York City is indeed the land where if you can make it here, you can (probably) make it anywhere. You can barely even catch a break living outside of Manhattan. If you consider the five boroughs independent cities, three of them still often still rank in the top 10 most expensive places in the United States.

First-time readers (welcome), I should tell you I live in New York City (Queens, to be precise). People have asked why I choose to live in such a pricey place. My youthful obsession with Friends aside, I always wanted to live in New York and started saving money in college to finance a move post-graduation. Luckily, I landed a job here three weeks after receiving my diploma in May of 2011. Sure, it is a really expensive place to live, but I’ve managed to thrive because I know how to handle my money and more importantly find a deal.

A few readers asked for me to share any inside knowledge about how to plan a trip to New York City for cheap (or finding cheap entertainment for those who live here). I found many of these ideas by reading The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to New York City (thanks, 妹妹).

A few of my favorites things to do for cheap include: Improv Everywhere’s MP3 Experiment, volunteering to usher shows and got to see them for free, tour of the New York Public Library, free movies in Bryant Part, free comedy shows (not even a drink minimum) and free hours at museums.

Please note, some of these suggestions require standing or waiting in lines for the free perk. If it comes down to a time vs. money value, you may not feel it’s worth your time. Clearly, I do.

My first tip, carry your university and/or military IDs. There are a lot of perks for college kids and military personnel.

FREE (some of which are seasonal):


  • Explore Grand Central Terminal (do it by yourself for free. If you’re a Mad Men fan then grab a drink at the Oyster Bar or Campbell Apartment)
  • Take the tour of the New York Public Library (a personal favorite)
  • Walk around Central Park (it’s obvious, but had to be mentioned)
  • Walk the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Walk the High Line
  • See the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island by riding the Staten Island Ferry


  • Exercise classes via Shape Up NYC (Zumba, Yoga, Bootcamp, Kickboxing etc)






  • Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
  • Seeing the b
    alloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day get inflated (night before) – one of my favorite holiday experiences in the city to date.
  • Visit Santa Land at Macy’s
  • Holiday markets
Ice skating at Bryant Park or Central Park – only free if you bring your own skates and don’t need a locker
  • Walk 5th Avenue to see the Christmas decorations
  • St. Patrick’s Day Parade
  • Halloween Parade (the Village)
  • Fourth of July hot dog eating contest – Coney Island
  • Fourth of July fireworks – be sure to check to see which river (Hudson or the East) gets the view


(Night before Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Growing up riding subways in Japan were the prep for this moment in my life. I can elbow my way through a crowd like you wouldn’t believe.)



  • American Museum of Natural History
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art
  • The 9/11 Memorial
  • P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center (MoMA’s sister museum)
  • Brooklyn Museum of Art
Queens Museum of Art
  • The Cloisters
  • Whitney Museum of American Art – Friday evenings 6:00 pm – 9:00 (pay as you wish)


  • The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Friday evenings from 4:00 pm – 8:00 pm
  • The Museum of Moving Image – Friday evenings 4:00 pm – 8:00 pm
  • Brooklyn Botanical Garden – Saturdays from 10 am – noon (I highly suggest going in late April/early May during cherry blossom season.)


Cheaper with ID’s or Standing in Lines

Optimized-yankee tix

Yes, the cost of living in New York is atrocious, but if you’re willing to stand in long lines, elbow through crowds and pack a PB&J in your fanny-pack instead of buying lunch, you’ll learn to love New York City for cheap (ish).

For those interested in restaurant options feel free to tweet/email me! Eating out isn’t high on my list of frugal activities in NYC, but for my NYC foodie readers, please leave your tips in the comment section!

Please share other entertainment/frugal finds in the comment section!

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50 responses to “Broke Millennial’s Guide to New York City for Cheap (ish)

    1. Ugh, forgot to include Highline! Even mentioned it a friend earlier during a free NYC talk. Throwing it in now!

      Crocodile Lounge is a great pizza deal. I didn’t bother with all the happy hour deals though. Just too many!!

  1. Than you so much for this! Will do a deeper reading in the morning.

    Also, I didn’t know Harlingen had the lowest cost of living in the country. I guess this means I’ve worked in the cities at both ends of that spectrum then 🙂 The only downsides to Harlingen: Stay away if you don’t like bats and medical care in the Valley is, randomly, among the most expensive in the country

  2. Great ideas. My brother and his girlfriend live in Manhattan and we love visiting them. We checked out the highline on one of our recent trips and that was really cool. We picniced in central park another time. There’s plenty to do in any of these big cities without spending a ton.

    1. I’d be interested to hear what their tips are. You really have to take advantage of the unique free/cheap opportunities (especially in the summer) in order to negate the high cost of living.

  3. Bank of America has a “Museums on us” program where you can get free admission to select museums on the 1st Saturday of the month if you show your BOA card. The Met is on this list along with several other museums across the US:

    1. I was going to suggest this! The Met is always “free” but other museums like The Whitney, The Guggenheim, the NY Historical Society, etc are not. And it’s not just the first Saturday–it’s the whole weekend!

  4. NYC (especially Manhattan) is one of my must-visit places to see on my travel bucket list. I love knowing that you live in NYC but are still thriving because you are smart with your finances! Way to go Erin 🙂
    Those are all great ideas for free, almost free, and frugal activities to try in the Big Apple. I live in the City 😉 as well and even though it’s freaking expensive to even just breathe here, J and I always try to find wallet-friendly activities to try.

    1. Hope you come visit soon! Cities really do have some great free/cheap activities. You just have to know where to look. I always love hearing about a new deal.

    1. Thanks! There really are a bunch of events/free admissions to take advantage of. You just have to know where to look.

  5. I’ve never been to NYC, but it is definitely a city I really want to visit. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to go to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 🙂

    1. “Real” New Yorkers can talk smack about going all they want, but I actually really enjoyed it. You have to go in mentally prepared for awful crowds. My family and I lucked out by finding a side street that wasn’t too bad. Plus, most people bail before Santa arrives. Seeing the balloons get inflated is incredibly cool. Still terribly crowded, but I highly recommend it.

      1. The only NYC parade I’ve ever been to in ten years is the Halloween Parade in the Village. And only once, the first year I lived here….

          1. My family never watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV when I was a kid so it doesn’t really do much for me as an adult. Just seems boring and crowded and cold. I’d rather be inside at the end of the November with food and wine. 🙂

            I’d go to the St Patrick’s Day parade, I just never have. I’ll probably go back to Halloween one of these years and check out the Mermaid Parade eventually. Haha.

  6. These are some great ideas! I’ve only been to NYC once and that was years ago when I was in college. My wife and I want to make it there some time soon as there are so many things we want to see & do.

    1. When you plan to visit, shoot me an email ahead of time. I’d be happy to help with any itinerary making!

  7. That “10 most expensive places to live in the US” reads as basically the 10 places I’d be willing to live in this country….haha. Well, if you sub “San Diego” for Orange County and leave out Connecticut. I tend to think that “high cost of living” has a high correlation with “places worth living.”

  8. In some cases, I’d tend to agree, but city living certainly isn’t for everyone. I have zero interested in West Coast living, so none of the Cali based cities speak to me. Boston and D.C. are the only other two on the list I’d consider. I do want to live in about 80% of the most expensive cities in the world though.

    1. I tend to avoid Midtown like the plague, but I would suggest checking out Artichoke Pizza in Union Square, Lombardi’s (a bit touristy, but you’re a tourist so it’s a-okay) on Spring St or Two Boots Pizza in Hell’s Kitchen (that will be closest to you in Midtown).

      1. Thanks! I know Midtown is touristy, in fact i’ve been to NYC 10+ and I have never even been out of Manhattan! I probably should branch out, but I visited mostly as a kid and only went where my parents went.

  9. You’re great proof that you can live in the most expensive city (here, of course!) and still thrive and have fun – and all on a tight budget. Really, as you showed, it boils down to being creative and patient. New York is an amazing city and should definitely experienced by everyone.

    1. I’m trying to live the life. It can be tough at times though. Finding frugal things to do has become a bit of a game!

  10. bookmarked for a future trip! I was there last year and we had a blast just walking around and exploring neighborhoods, we got free tickets for a concert in Central Park too. When I was a teen we used to go to Julliard or NYU, there were free concerts at lunch time almost every day, I don’t know if they still do those.

    1. The NY Philharmonic has a great concert in Central Park during the summer. I’ll have to look into Julliard/NYC. I’ve heard about seeing shows there, but hadn’t considered concerts!

  11. What a great resource for any NY traveler! That’s kind of funny about the hot dog eating contest – I get so grossed out watching, but can’t seem to look away if it’s on!

    1. I may have dry-heaved once or twice while watching the hot dog eating contest, but it just screams AMERICA! Plus, walking the boardwalk of Coney Island afterwards and people watching (for free) is delightful.

  12. I definitely need to take a trip to the city. I haven’t been there in years. Probably since my friends who had attended Iona graduated college (around 2006). I drive through it all the time to get back to Rhode Island though. I hate the GW bridge more than anything.

    You’re probably going to generate a ton of traffic with this post. Amazing job Erin!

    1. Thanks, JM! Y’all should come visit soon and I can help craft a frugal itinerary.

      Fun fact, Peach’s older brother played football at Iona.

    2. I’ve been to over 40 states, but New York isn’t one of them. Soon.

      Question for Erin: Have you been to Grimaldi’s for pizza? I keep hearing people rave about this place. If so, how is it?

      1. I’ve been to Grimaldi’s twice. It’s overrated, in my humble opinion, but a good food option after walking the Brooklyn Bridge. I would say Lombardi’s (another tourist trap) has better pizza. I do like the heavy sauce with chunks of cheese style of the New York slice, which Grimaldi’s and Lombardi’s both do.

  13. Honestly, I don’t think New York City is much more expensive to live in than other places. RENT IS EXPENSIVE but most other things are the same price or cheaper.

    Lots of happy hour deals, lots of free open bars if you get to a party early, free covers before midnight, tons of free public lectures/book signings/q+a’s/etc, free movie screenings — and all these things are available in multiple different options every single day!

    Aside from cheap entertainment, eating out here is considerably cheaper than in other places I’ve lived. (Chipotle won’t be but hole-in-the-wall deli’s are)

  14. This is a great post! I’ve been wanting to post about all the free/cheap stuff to do here in the city for a while now. I love the idea of seeing a live taping of a show or volunteering as an usher to catch a Broadway performance. Great tips!

  15. Two weeks after moving to nyc for grad school a couple of my new found friends and I went to Shakespeare in central park (mid summer night’s dream maybe? can’t remember now). We had to wait several hours in line, but it was so worth it. We went home, took a nap then went back that night to watch the performance. It was lovely. We brought our own snacks and had a whole evening out for free! Gotta love NYC

  16. Great list of free things to do. I love NYC in the spring (though it doesn’t feel like it yet). I also live in expensive city #6 and just read that they might build a Highline in Queens. That would be awesome…
    I think there’s a petition somewhere online if you want to sign it. It’s not Manhattan, so I don’t know if it’s in the budget.

  17. I also wanted to add to this: if you’re a resident who wants to have fun, volunteer at festivals of your liking to go for free! I volunteer at beer festivals, wine festivals, food festivals, and even concerts (volunteering at the upcoming Governor’s Ball). Yes, you do put in some time and often have to get up early to do so, but you get to go to these events for free as a result. I volunteered at Meatopia last year on Randall’s Island, an event that was $140 a pop. Because my shift was the early one, by the time the event started, my volunteering was over and I got to enjoy the entire event for free.

    If you have an interest in something, find a festival that fits the bill, and in a city like NY, there are plenty. Then see if they mention on their website about needing volunteers. If they don’t, send them an email asking. That’s how I got picked for Meatopia and that still is one of my favorite events I’ve worked at. Plus, you also get to volunteer with people and make new friends in the process. 🙂

  18. Great suggestions! My wife and I haven’t visited NYC for over 10 years, and when we did visit we were both in college, so NYC on the Cheap was imperative.

    I don’t think we paid for hardly anything other than some evening meals or snacks and transit tickets.

    We saw a number of museums for free including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA (sooo glad we didn’t pay to get in there, modern art is garbage, sometimes literally, IMHO), and Cloisters.

    It’s amazing how much you can do for free in NYC. We decided to skip broadway shows entirely, and instead enjoy the bright lights of broadway and Times Square and the people watching.

    For meals, we had a great free breakfast at our hotel, and then packed a small lunch of sandwiches from the breakfast bar at the hotel (yeah, we broke the rules there, we were college students). Then dinner was the only thing we paid for, and it wasn’t ever more than $10-25 (local places mostly, and pizza a few times).

    Hotel and flights were free due to Mrs. RootofGood’s frequent flyer/hotel points.

    I think there are even some budget hotels in Manhattan. My mom used to visit frequently and stayed at a place near chinatown that wasn’t a complete dump. I recall something like $100/nt. Not bad in a city where hotels can easily run $200-300+/nt.

  19. Your list will come in handy since we’re going back to New York City this summer. It’s impossible to experience everything New York has to offer in one visit. From world-class museums to iconic landmarks, there are more than enough reasons to visit NYC. It was such a fun trip even though we were on a tight budget, so we’re definitely going back. We already visited some museums, Time Square, Rockefeller and Statue of Liberty. We also watched free concerts at Central Park after checking out the NYC Parks website. By the way, I found a website listing free events in New York which is great because I didn’t have much of a budget. I think might be useful to people also visiting New York who are looking for free things to do.

  20. We went to NYC on a budget last year and we saved a lot on accommodation since we stayed in a hostel. We also had city pass so we were able to see a lot of attractions. NYC may be known as one of the most expensive cities in USA, but there’s also no shortage of free things to do. We already visited some museums, Time Square and Statue of Liberty. We also went to a lot of diners and clubs and watched free concerts at Central Park after checking out the NYC Parks website. By the way, I found a website listing free events in New York which is great because I didn’t have much of a budget. I think might be useful to people also visiting New York who are looking for free things to do.

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