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Budgeting Tips to Help You Thrive in a High-Cost City like Los Angeles

Written By Elan Carson | Oct 6, 2015

Weekends spent apartment hunting in Los Angeles quickly turned into drafting budget list after budget list, when I realized that a 400-square-foot apartment would cost me half a month’s pay. Did I really need cable for the sake of watching “The Real Housewives of Orange County?” I’m sure I could learn how to make my own sushi, if I tried. Maybe I could work as an Uber driver during my off time, and network while making extra money?

Tallying the costs to live in a major U.S. city like Los Angeles is straight up heart attack inducing. This coastal metropolis is cited as the 10th most expensive city in the world to live, and the 7th most expensive city for renters—a one-bedroom costs an average of $1760 per month.

So, how you can thrive financially in a competitive jungle of professionals while bearing the costs to live in a cosmopolitan city? Here are some budgeting tips from local creative professionals, and myself, to help you make it.

Pick up some freelance work

On top of a regular 9-5 job, bring in extra cash with freelance opportunities. I make it a point to look for smaller tasks through Fiverr, TaskRabbit, Craigslist, and even my LinkedIn feed, as that’s where recruiters will typically post job openings. I specifically select projects that won’t take too much time out of an already full schedule, but will still leave me with some decent pocket change. I also keep in touch with a network of recruiters at creative staffing agencies.

Freelancing is especially helpful not only for earning extra cash (which comes in handy when a beer on tap in Los Angeles can run you $7), but for networking with other talented artists, and diversifying your portfolio.

Break down costs in an Excel sheet or mobile app

Finding ways to stretch your money is crucial to living in any expensive city. From student loans, to hosting guests from out of town, going back home/visiting family out-of-state, or even paying for an unexpected vet bill, sometimes it feels like you’re operating in sink-or-swim mode, financially speaking. Breaking down costs in an Excel sheet or a mobile app to help monitor your expenses can lower anxiety and ensure that you keep your head above water.

“I have an Excel spreadsheet that I enter all my bills in, and how much money I bring in every month,” said Heather Smith, a full-time social media producer who currently builds Twitter integrations for the “Dr. Phil” show. “Then I just do the math to see how much spending money I have. I recently heard about an app called Mint, which does all this for you, so I need to check that out!”

Ask for a commuting stipend

In Los Angeles, a city notorious for overcrowded freeways and an absence of good public transportation, some companies will compensate you for longer commutes. Sitting in traffic can tack on four extra hours to your day! If you find a role on the outskirts of the city that other people aren’t willing to drive to, ask to be compensated for your time on the road, which can help cover the cost of gas and earn you more money.

Return to the nest, but pay your share

Living at home can be an ideal way to save the big bucks. If you have the opportunity, and your parents understand, postpone leaving the nest for a little longer. Offer to pay rent in the meantime to still feel independent.

“It helps a lot that I live at home with my mom, but that doesn’t mean I don’t pay rent!” said Sapphire Shiohwan, a full-time copywriter and freelance bridal illustrator. She found a resourceful way to do this and build equity at the same time.

“I actually help my mom pay the monthly mortgage on our house, and I pay a larger amount since I make more than her at my 9-to-5,” she explained. “I’m a legit co-owner of our house, my name is actually on the papers, so I feel responsible to help out.”

Keep careful track of what you charge to credit

Splitting bills between credit cards can be a smart idea, especially when taking advantage of reward systems like points and cash back. The trick is carefully deciding what’s an absolute necessity, and what can wait for another few weeks.

“As a freelancer I never really know when I will work, and my pay rate can fluctuate as much as $100/day from job to job,” said production coordinator Sarah Barson. “My budget is basically a list of what I have to pay for versus what I want to pay for—so things like rent, car insurance, utilities, etc…versus my gym membership, entertainment, and clothing budgets. I have to fill up the things in the first category before I can put money into the other things.”

Sarah builds credit by charging necessities to a credit card, but very carefully tracks what she’s spending.

“I pay for things almost exclusively with my credit card, and then go through my statement every month to see what I spent in each budget category,” she said. “That way I can tell if I need to adjust my budget in the future, or if I need to cut back my spending somewhere.”


Los Angeles’ reputation as both a fashion and entertainment capital, combined with it being the headquarters for mega-successful startups like Snapchat, The Honest Company, and DAQRI, sets living costs sky high. As the city continues to attract top talent, rents will inevitably rise in correlation with demand.

With the above strategies, surviving financially in the big city can be easier to maneuver than the 405 freeway at rush hour. With practice, and finding out which strategy works for you, you’ll be on your way to living more comfortably and enjoying those $7 beers.

Elan Carson is a creative writer, public speaker and social media fanatic who produces copy and social strategies on a freelance basis. Her portfolio includes work in the fields of fashion, architecture and web development.

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