9 purchases under $30 that helped me survive while I was unhoused in New York City

  • I moved to New York City without a job or apartment lined up.
  • I was squatting in an artist’s studio space for four months until I could afford to move into my own apartment.
  • I had very little money, but I spent it on nine things under $30 that helped me survive while I was unhoused.
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I moved to New York City without any concrete plans. I picked up my best friend from Chicago, packed up all of our belongings in my tiny Fiat, and drove all night until we got to Queens, New York.

At first, my friend let me stay in the spare room in the attic of her family’s house. In a few weeks, I found an artist in Long Island City who needed 10 to 20 hours of administrative help in exchange for an industrial studio space.

The studio space was a small room with one window and no furniture, meant for an artist or designer to make messy work. It had no heat, no kitchen, no bathroom to shower in, and the artist explicitly told me that this was a workspace only.

Because I was desperate, I bought a yellow couch and put it in the studio space. At night, I would sneak in and sleep there, making sure I woke up before 7 a.m. so no one would catch me. I lived there for four months until I finally found a full-time job and could afford to move into my own apartment with my name on the lease.

Here are 10 purchases under $30 that helped me survive when I lived in New York City.

1. Gym membership ($14.99)

I opted for a gym membership with multiple locations so I could use their shower whenever I needed to. I chose the membership tier that allowed me to use showers in Brooklyn and Queens locations, but there was a more expensive membership that would have allowed me to go to the Manhattan locations, too.

2. Sample-size toiletries ($10)

Each month, I stocked up on sample-size toiletries like mouthwash, deodorant, body wash, shampoo, and conditioner that I could easily stash in my backpack.

3. Tampons ($7 to $16)

I’d run out of tampons all the time, but some days, I’d have $9 left in my bank account and I’d wonder if it was worth it to spend $7 on a 12-pack of tampons. I also splurged on organic cotton tampons some days because they were less irritating.

This experience inspired me to drop off boxes of tampons at homeless shelters and food banks whenever I can, because people with periods are often underserved by those organizations.

4. Tinder dates (free)

When I ran out of cash, I would start going on Tinder dates just so I could eat. Of course, I wouldn’t tell my dates about my financial situation. I even played it cool by throwing my card into the billfold at the end of the date, but the other person usually insisted on paying. Sometimes, it was the only meal I’d eat in the day.

5. Ramen noodles and Pringles ($5)

My go-to cheap meal was microwavable ramen noodles and a can of Pringles. Pringles are usually on sale at Walgreens or CVS at three for $4. The shape of the can also made them really easy to stash in the studio space, or in my backpack.

6. Metrocard ($14)

A three-day unlimited Metrocard helped me get around while I was looking for work. When I couldn’t afford a Metrocard, I’d pretend to buy one at the kiosk, wait for a train to arrive, then sneak in through the emergency exit door.

7. Printing my resume ($0.10 per page)

I was primarily looking for a job in the fashion or art industry, but I also dropped off resumes at restaurants and retail stores.

Also, I signed up for LinkedIn Premium to help me with my job search, and it was a colossal waste of money. Every time that money came out of my account, I thought about how $29.99 is the cost of six or seven bodega sandwiches that could feed me for days.

At the end, I found my full-time job on Craigslist and I wish I didn’t waste so much money on LinkedIn Premium.

8. Coffee and a pastry ($11)

To maintain the illusion that I was simply working in the studio space, I had to spend some time elsewhere. I used the wi-fi at coffee shops to apply for jobs during the day. On the days I splurged on a pastry, that was usually the only thing I ate all day.

9. Boots ($26)

Because I was walking around New York City all day, I needed a pair of shoes that were comfortable enough to walk around in while still looking professional for interviews or dropping my resume off somewhere. I bought a plain pair of boots at Target that fit the bill.

I acknowledge that my experience as an unhoused person in New York City is layered with both light-skinned privilege and class privilege. I have a bachelor’s degree from a prestigious art school, many professional connections, and family members to fall back on when I need extra financial support.

Not everyone who is unhoused or experiencing homelessness has the same resources. I chose to share my story so that anyone who’s going through a hard time financially, especially artists, can feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Today, I get to write full-time and work on creative projects on the side, living in my own one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles.