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24 Hours in NYC for Less Than $30

A Budget Guide to Visiting the Big Apple

Guest contributor, Tiina Treasure, is back. We originally shared the story of how she and her husband, Danny, bought their first home in New York City. Then, Tiina kindly gave us a peek into the ups and downs of budgeted life in the Big Apple—namely, home renovation and style. And now she’s back. This time, Tiina’s invited us to join her for a day out in the city …

The Joy of New York in the Fall

Nowhere does autumn quite like New York. As summer’s oppressive heat and bog-like conditions fade into memory, that’s when we finally hit the sweet spot on the Fahrenheit scale—perfect weather for the holy trilogy of sweaters, light jackets and open-toed shoes. I imagine this is what Northern California feels like all of the time. And it’s the best time of year for a tour! Join me?

YNAB-Approved Fun for Everyone

A day out in New York can add up pretty quickly. It doesn’t matter if you’re visiting, or a full-time resident, it seems like the second you hit the pavement, dollars start falling out of your pocket. Not on my budget. To avoid unnecessary expenditures, it’s important to plan your day/night on the town. All those Ubers add up.

Luckily, planning is right up there with budgeting, as one of my favorite ways to spend solo Friday nights at home. If you’re considering a visit, I went ahead and planned the biggest (and cheapest!) day in the city that I could—full of food, sights, culture and adventure—all for under $26. I’d be a pretty great travel agent, IMHO, if that job still existed.

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors!

First thing first, if you’re visiting the city and plan to take more than 13 subway trips in a week, do yourself a favor and get a seven-day, unlimited pass ($32). The subway is nothing to be afraid of and, if you have an unlimited, you don’t have to panic if you jump on a train going in the wrong direction. (Accidental adventures to Jamaica Queens are much more fun with unlimited swipes.) If you live here, I’m going to assume you have a monthly, unlimited pass or have otherwise budgeted for your swipes, like a good YNABer.

Alright, this is no time for wing tips or kitten heels. Put on your best walking shoes because it’s time to do three boroughs, in 24 hours, for $26. Game on.

Let’s Start With the Essentials

First, I always grab a bagel and coffee. I believe the term is “carb-loading” and it’s basically a religion in NYC. It doesn’t matter where you buy it, except that the word “bagel” must be in the name of the store: Hot Bagel, Fresh Bagel, Hot and Fresh Bagel, Bagel World, Bagel + Neighborhood, and so on. (Whatever you do, just don’t go to a “deli”. Delis are great, but we’re not buying toilet paper. You deserve a bagel-bagel, not a deli bagel.)

Grab your breakfast, and go—there’s no time to waste. You’re about to experience the joy of navigating a crowded, moving subway, while simultaneously eating a bagel and holding a coffee (like a real New Yorker). Or, eat at the shop. Whatever you’re into. Four dollars.

How ‘Bout Some Culture?

Head towards Brooklyn Museum. The nearest stop is Eastern Parkway Brooklyn Museum on the 2/4. It’s one of the city’s lesser-known museums, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means that New York has too many museums (is that possible?). It also means admission isn’t an arm and a leg—and that you’ll actually have space to move those appendages! Trust me.

Inside, you’ll find something for everyone, and it’s the sliding scale of museums: pay what you wish! Generally, I would tell you to be as generous as you can (support the arts!), but for today’s purposes, we’re going to be a bit miserly. Slap down a Sacajawea for your entry free. Maybe, down the road, consider doing some holiday shopping from them online, for karma. One dollar.

The Great Outdoors

Once you’ve gotten your fill of ancient Egypt, decorative furnishings, and the feminist icon, The Dinner Party, head into Prospect Park, located directly behind the museum. Take in what us New Yorkers call “nature” and try your hand at our favorite sport: people watching.

If people aren’t really your thing, you’ll be happy to know there’s a variety of adorable canines to gaze fondly at. If it’s Sunday, you’ve hit the goldmine—head over to Smorgasburg in the Breeze Hill section of the park for a taste of New York’s second-favorite sport: waiting in line.

Here, you’ll find everything from Shanghai street food to baked raclette, and more types of artisanal coffee than you could drink in a lifetime. Take in the scene, and then pick your poison. Thirteen dollars.

Look, Don’t Touch. But Do Look.

Clear eyes, full belly, can’t lose. We’re off to the races, again. Pick yourself up from whatever tree you ended up napping under, and head towards DUMBO (a.k.a. Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

Get there via the F to York Street, or take A/C to High Street. The waterfront parks in this neighborhood are another great people-watching space, with couples taking post-wedding photos and fancy folks being “everyday” fancy. Look, but don’t touch, unless you’ve budgeted for it.

If your “souvenir” category is fully loaded, there’s a plethora of shops to choose from, with merchandise that you’ll be much more likely to keep than a Big Apple keychain. If you’re like me, and haven’t budgeted hundreds of dollars for the next big splurge, step away from the storefronts!

There’s still enough time to hop on Jane’s Carousel. Grab a few carefree moments that will transport you, instantly, back to your childhood—when grown-ups constantly reminded you that money doesn’t grow on trees. Still a bit disappointed about that, but isn’t it wonderful to sit for a moment? Two dollars.

A Slice of Scenery, Plus a Slice

Gym memberships are expensive, time for more walking! Hoof it over the Brooklyn Bridge to take in the sights. Yes, it’s a touristy thing to do, but that’s because it’s amazing, free, and the bridge, itself, is a thing of wonder. Grab as many selfies in this showstopping spot, as possible, and thank yourself for saving the money that you would’ve spend on a single tour of the Empire State Building (a nausea-inducing $34 dollars—more than the cost of our entire tour in just one location!). You’re welcome.

Once you hit the Manhattan side of the bridge, head down to South Street Seaport, which has near-daily events and, more importantly, plenty of benches, chairs and astroturf. If you’re feeling splurgy, there’s a ton of great food and drink nearby. If not, head to one of the many nearby New York pie shops for your first slice of New York’s famous.

With your last bit of cash, grab yourself two slices and a can of soda. Bonus tip: New Yorkers call a piece of cheese pizza just “a slice” (because who has time for words). Eat your slices at the shop, or find a spot at the Seaport, and take in some of the oldest architecture in Downtown Manhattan. Six dollars.

This city is pretty great, if I do say so myself.

Almost Forgot! The Forgotten Borough.

By now you’re probably thoroughly exhausted but, if you’ve got the muster for one more adventure, I have a boat trip … and one more borough.

Head towards Battery Park and the Staten Island Ferry. Here, you’ll find a huge corral of folks waiting for the ferry to Staten Island, which comes every thirty minutes. From the ferry, you’ll get some phenomenal views of lower Manhattan and, most importantly, it’s the closest you can get to the Statue of Liberty without dropping a pretty penny. In fact, the ferry itself is free, which is a thing of joy and mystery to me.

Once you get to Staten Island, congratulate yourself. You’ve visited three boroughs in one day, including the one everyone forgets about! Staten Island actually has some great Sri Lankan food but that’s an adventure for another day. Wait in the ferry terminal for your return trip home, and grab whatever snaps of Lady Liberty that you missed on the first try.

That’s a Wrap

With that, you’re back to Manhattan, the land of civilization and public transportation. Head home, elevate your feet, and know that you deserve an expert-level New Yorker badge. (I promise it’s in the mail.)

If that wasn’t enough for you (are you never satisfied?), also check out The Skint and Brokelyn for weekly guides of cheap/free events in the city. I hope you enjoyed this dizzying tour of New York City on a budget, where we rode a literal merry-go-round and have enough cash in our pockets left for a Chinatown foot massage, tomorrow.

Want More Tiina?

If you liked this story, you can read more about Tiina and her husband, Danny, over at Layers and Layers of Paint.

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24 Hours in NYC for Less Than $30