How I Lived in New York on $30,000 and Still Stayed Stylish

Before I even get started talking about how poor I was when I first moved to New York City from Alabama, I’d like to submit a disclaimer: I have never been truly poor. This essay is not about being truly poor, nor is it meant to be a mocking slight toward true poverty, which is something I have been fortunate enough to never experience.

Having said that, when I first moved to New York City, after I spent several months interning for free and then for $8 an hour, I had (relatively speaking) no money to my name. I was making $32,000 a year or about $27,000 after taxes, and my rent when I first moved to the city was a somewhat modest $890. Aside from the money I was putting down for rent, I was really living on about $16,000. A year. Technically, this put me below the poverty line, although I’m very thankful to have had a roof over my head.

My low income, my age (I was 22 at this time), and my lack of a credit history also made me ineligible for a credit card. (Trust me, I applied.) This means that I was literally living on the money I took home from my paychecks. It’s astonishing to me now to think about how little money I lived on during that first year in New York. Admittedly, I had a little help from my parents—they covered my cell phone bill, and I occasionally prostrated myself before them to beg for grocery money—but for the most part, I truly was on my own. How did I do it? By keeping a constant eye on my checking account, closely monitoring where my funds went, and utilising an impressive amount of self-restraint.

The real kicker here: I was working in fashion and making $30,000, meaning I had to go into the office looking as stylish as if I were able to drop two grand on a Céline bag. (Granted, this was in 2008, so Céline bags weren’t really a thing yet.) How did I do it? By shopping fast fashion, sales, and seriously off-brand labels.

Luckily, New York is the perfect place for this kind of stylish-on-a-budget lifestyle. I bought going-out dresses at random SoHo boutiques that didn’t carry a single designer label; I exclusively purchased sunglasses on St. Marks in the East Village, and always haggled my way down from a $10 asking price to about $7; and yes, I even purchased fake designer bags from the seriously shady backrooms on Canal Street in Chinatown. I did it, and though I’m ashamed, I cannot change my past.

While New York used to be the only place you could really live this sort of fashion lifestyle, now ripped-from-the-runway looks on a budget are available to everyone via this magical thing we call the World Wide Web. Inspired by my younger days wearing nothing but $30 dresses, $25 handbags, and $7 shades, I found 21 pieces all under $50 that look way more expensive than they really are.

Scroll down to shop 20 under-$50 pieces that will make you look like a million bucks!