From 2012 to 2014, for about two years in college, I lived in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in downtown Manhattan. Whenever the topic of my living situation came up in a casual conversation, people were always impressed. I lived in Nolita, a picturesque part of Little Italy bordering Chinatown and SoHo, where you can regularly spot TV actors filming and influencers preening for #OOTD Instagrams. And, without fail, people's jaws dropped when I told them how much I was paying in rent — just $400 a month.
Getting a good deal on an apartment in a great neighborhood is something New Yorkers talk about obsessively. People will go to great lengths to get a bargain in a trendy area — and I was one of those people. I managed to score an apartment in one of Manhattan's most coveted neighborhoods because I spoke Chinese and didn't mind elderly roommates.
I'm originally from Macau, China, and I grew up in a middle-class household, where my parents managed their finances carefully in order to support my American tuition on their joint income. For as long as I could remember, my mother drilled into my head the importance of living frugally: At least 30% of my income should always go directly into my savings, and my rent should be as low as humanly possible, so I'd have money to spare on dining out, school expenses, or summer travel. Being extremely careful with my money — and sensitive to how much I can be saving with different lifestyle sacrifices — was the only way I knew how to live when I left home at 17.
Going to school in New York City is expensive: In my freshman year, I was paying over $1,300 a month for a shared dorm room in Chelsea. It was a terrible deal in my book, so I moved off campus as soon as I possibly could. Two major factors guided my room hunting: Ideally, I wanted to live close to Chinatown — an area I loved to frequent for the food — for as little as money as I could manage.
As a Mandarin and Cantonese speaker, I'd heard of some live-in landlords who offered incredible deals. These rooms were rented out by senior Chinese immigrants who just wanted a low-key student or working professional they could communicate with in their native tongue. I pounded the pavement, responding to every single Chinese ad I came across, whether it was on discussion boards for foreign students or a physical notice taped to a lamp post. After answering a classified ad in a Chinese newspaper, I found a room offered by a retired couple — just above an aquarium on Elizabeth Street — for $400 a month. The security deposit was $400; I paid my rent month-to-month in cash.
Before you proclaim this as the best steal in the world, I should say that calling it a "room" is a generous description: This space was subdivided from a hallway via a sliding door. A huge shelving unit sat above my head, and that doubled as my closet and bookshelf. The window looked out to a brick wall in an alleyway. The length of my room provided just enough space to accommodate a single bed and a small dresser.
The conditions weren't ideal, but I was nonetheless stoked about moving in: The apartment was clean, and I'd be living in one of the most sought-after areas in Manhattan for a fraction of what other people were paying. Plus, I was going to be out and about all the time anyway. I'm only five-foot-one, how much space did I really need? On paper, the pros seemed to outshine the cons.
Very quickly, I discovered that living in such a confined space had a huge impact on my mood and social life. I had a space to sleep, but not much else: I carefully ate my meals sitting on the edge of the bed, and scrunched down into a ball to write my assignments. There was no living room, except for a tiny table and chair combo in the kitchen, which was only big enough to accommodate one person and was always occupied. The bathroom came with the tiniest square for showering.
In the two years I lived there, I never once invited my friends over. Living in this room made it difficult to have a romantic relationship, too. There just wasn't space for guests, and I was worried they would judge me for making this lifestyle decision as a penny-pinching effort. Even when my parents visited NYC for my graduation, I arranged an Airbnb for them and barred them from visiting my apartment.
Rather naively, I gave little thought about who I'd be living with when I committed to the room. There were three bedrooms in total, two of which were subdivided from the hallway. The owners lived in the master bedroom, and a revolving door of students, restaurant workers, and various personalities occupied the remaining room. Since I wasn't on the lease, I had no say whatsoever in who got to be the other tenant. My landlords never asked for my opinion anyway. There was one major scare when one of the tenants — a total stranger whom I'd spoken to on less than three occasions — accidentally started a fire in the kitchen.
The straw that broke the camel's back was when the couple decided to move to Boston and sublet the master bedroom to a friend — and his wife and three children. This couple, their two elementary school-aged children, and a six-month old baby were sleeping in a shared bunk bed in the room next to me. Additionally, there was another stranger living in the third bedroom. I finally made the decision to move out to another room in Chinatown. It was $600 a month — a pretty significant jump from what I was paying, but I had a lot more space to myself.
It's been four years since that living situation, but I still think about why I did it. As a young student, maybe I didn't know better. It was a really good deal, but there were so many downsides. In the winter, when the weather made it difficult to be out, I was often stuck within the confines of my dark and cramped room — with people I didn't have any common ground with. I envied my friends for simply being able to have people over to their apartments for Super Bowl viewing parties or Christmas gatherings.
Of course, I made the decision to sacrifice these fun communal life experiences for the tradeoff of saving money. Making this lifestyle compromise made me realize that, as much of a bargain as that room was, I didn't want to live somewhere I couldn't comfortably call home: A place with enough space to unwind with a magazine after a long day, and hopefully a roommate who's also a friend.
But, I don't regret the experience either: Looking back at my time living in a literal shoebox made me realize how far I've come since then. I now share a spacious two-bedroom apartment with someone I really get along with in a very cute part of London. And, let's be real: I probably got here a lot faster because I saved a huge chunk of money from living in the least expensive room in downtown Manhattan.