You don’t need to move to the suburbs to save money. (In fact, that usually doesn’t work, but more on that later). In my experience, there are ways to reduce the cost of almost any good or service you and your family enjoy as part of living in the city—it just takes a little creativity and moxie. I’ll get you going with some of my favorite money-saving tips for New York families, but once you start noodling it over, about I’m sure you’ll come up with some of your own.
1. Travel: New York is the country’s top tourist destination, so the next time you start planning a family trip, consider a home swap. For about $10 a month, websites like HomeExchange and Intervac can connect you with members in places you’d like to visit. You stay in their home (usually complete with washer/dryer, kitchen, lawn and sometimes even a pool and car) while they stay in yours. No additional money changes hands. Tip: some co-ops don’t allow swaps, so be sure to check with your building beforehand.
2. Neighborhood Goods And Services: The big lesson here is look farther afield. Take storage, for example. If you live in Manhattan, you’re likely to find it cheaper (and just as safe) to use a reputable storage facility in Queens or the Bronx. The same lesson works for birthday cakes, children’s clothing, car washes, dental work, groceries, manicures, kitchen cabinets and almost anything else you’re looking to save money on. Also, never assume that prices within your neighborhood are uniform. I recently was stunned to discover I could pay $19 for a pound of wild caught salmon at Fairway, $30 at Agata or $40 at the local fishmonger—all stores within a mile of one another. (And don’t even get me started on price differentials in overnight parking.) You never know.
3. Child Labor: Nowhere is it written that you need a 30-year-old CPR-certified, tax-paying professional for a babysitter. Especially if your children are somewhat self-sufficient, consider asking a responsible and smart younger teenager to watch the kids on date night. They can stick a frozen pizza in the oven, help the kids with their homework and be infinitely more entertaining and energetic than an adult who’s babysitting after a full day in the office. Expect to pay $8 to $10 an hour—did I just hear you gasp?—which is about half of what high school seniors, college students and professional sitters charge. If you’re queasy about leaving a 15-year-old in charge, remember who watched you on those Love Boat–Fantasy Island Saturday nights when your parents were out!
4. Teacher Tutors: This is New York, so even academic rock stars will need a private tutor at least once before they start going on the grand college tour or start applying for financial aid. If you can’t or don’t want to spend $150 an hour for established tutoring services, try connecting with one of your child’s former teachers (a good one, of course) or ask friends for recommendations. Many full-time instructors are already tutoring on the side—and guess what? They’re usually really good at it; they’re teachers! (Plus they’re often familiar with specific tests your child will be taking.) Since you’re enlisting just their expertise and with no middleman, expect to pay one-third to one-half of what established tutoring agencies bill.
5. Camps: Think outside the tent. Some of the more affordable day camps are sponsored by non-profits like the Brooklyn Arts Exchange, the Van Cortlandt House Museum, Mount Vernon Hotel Museum & Garden, YMCAs and other local community centers, New York Botanical Garden and Greenwich House. Likewise, many neighborhood churches offer week-long half-day programs where kids do crafts, sing and play outside with some Old and New Testament stories sprinkled in. A week-long program rarely tops $80 per child, and many churches offer discounts for sibs. Though technically not a non-profit, the Parks Department itself offers a $500/summer program through a lottery.
6. Student Practitioners: If you or your child needs a service like a haircut, dental work, ADHD or speech therapy or even a family portrait photography session, make a call to a local professional school. To get the practice they need, student apprentices will knead your muscles, snip your locks, address your lisp or drill your cavities under the watch of a veteran—at next to nothing. You can also call the school’s placement offices and ask about how to hire recent graduates. Believe it or not, I did this to find my most recent (OK, only) home decorator. She was young—but kept me from making some headache-inducing mistakes.
7. Oursource Parenting: If you can make it happen, ship the kids to the grands in a cheaper zip code for a week or two of intergenerational bonding over this summer. Even if you enroll the kids in camp, living expenses go down radically when you’re almost anywhere but here. And if you can’t accompany your kids on the drop-off or pick-up trip, consider the fact that you generally can pay only an extra $50 to $100 for an unaccompanied minor (aged 5 to 11) to fly solo on non-stop flights.
8. Negotiate: New York is full of mom-and-pop businesses, and just about everyone from dentists to the proprietors of kids activity and enrichment centers may lower their bills if you ask. One friend with three kids tried this for summer camp and was so stunned at the discount offered by the camp that he told the owner he didn’t expect that much of a break. Given the economy, even big businesses like hospitals may offer after-the-fact rebates if you receive a bill that’s higher than you expected.
9. School Auctions: To raise money, many local schools now feature some of the items from their annual benefit on their websites prior to the actual benefit. These are great ways to find big breaks on local children’s classes and birthday parties, among other things. And you don’t have to buy a ticket, dress up or go somewhere to participate; they just want your money. Also, check out biddingforgood.com, an online auction clearinghouse where schools, foundations, religious organizations and other charities across the country auction off summer camps, trips, memberships, jewelry, sports tickets and other donations all year round. This spring, I snagged a local museum membership, baseball class, professional consulting, dolphin watching and a chess camp for less than half the price that I had paid in the past.
10. Final Thought: In case you’re pondering a move to the land of lawn care and shopping malls to cut costs, you may want to reassess. Assuming you move close enough to the city to keep your day job, chances are your monthly outlay is likely to remain similar to whatever it was in the city, if not more. Soon enough, you’ll wonder where it all goes at the end of the month (much as you probably do now) thanks to paying for niceties like lawn care, garbage collection, snow removal, commuting, heating and cooling, lighting for an extra 2,000 square feet, a car (or two), insurance on those vehicles and higher real estate taxes. On the positive side, with your extra hour (at least) of commuting each day, you’ll have the plenty of time to figure it out.
Hillary Chura is a freelance writer, longtime business reporter and NYC mom of two. Look for her work on newyorkfamily.com, where she’ll soon be starting a blog about, yes, parenting money savers.