Keep The Receipts: The 30-Year-Old Photographer Moving From NYC To L.A.

In our series Keep The Receipts, we track the extravagant costs of everyday living, as well as the less-common expenses tied to other life moments.

We first spoke with a man who spent more than $700 on 14 dates over 30 days. Next, we talked to a woman who spent roughly one-third of that on dating in the same timeframe.

Today, we talk to a 30-year-old freelance photographer who recently moved across the country, from Brooklyn, NY, to Los Angeles, CA. She tells us how she saved up for the trip, how she spent that money, and how she made road-tripping fun on a tight budget.

The following interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

Why did you move — for work, or because you wanted to be in a new city?

"A little bit of both. I lost my job in Brooklyn in April, and after that happened, I was like, oh shit, what am I going to do? I spent the summer busting my ass working as a bartender and trying to get freelance work. I’d been wanting a change for a while, not because I don’t love New York, but because it felt like time to live in another city. It was a good opportunity to say, well, if I can bust my ass here and figure it out, I can bust my ass somewhere else. I’m going to be doing that regardless."

How long did you give yourself to save up?

"I decided to move in May or June but I didn’t have a specific timeline in mind. One day, I was out with a friend of mine who is now my current roommate in L.A., and had recently left Brooklyn. We talked about it, and it seemed like the perfect idea for me to move, and for us to be roommates. Once I decided that, it was a matter of figuring out the logistics and deciding when to leave. I was doing freelance work and bartending, so it wasn’t like I knew how much I would be making each week.

"After I officially decided to go, Eric*, the friend I drove out [to L.A.] with, said he couldn’t leave any earlier than the end of August because he’s in doctoral school. That gave me two and a half months to get my shit together and make as much money as humanly possible. I was hoping for $5,000 and I ended up with a lot more than that, which is great."

*Name has been changed.

"It's unbelievable that I saved $8,000 in three months, when I was never able to do that before."

How much did you end up saving?

"I had $8,000 in my savings account when I left, and $300 in cash that I used for a lot of the road trip spending. The first $1,500 or so was severance, which I got when I lost my job. I also opened a new credit card right before I left that has no interest for a year, so a lot of my expenses for the trip also went on that. I'll worry about paying it off when I have a job."

Why did you decide to open a new credit card?

"I wanted to be safe. I didn't want to run out of money because my savings account has a finite end, and I wanted as much of that as possible to go to rent. I know it’s not the most responsible thing to do, but I’m generally very responsible with money, so I thought, okay, if I just put stuff on here, it’ll extend the length of time I can pay rent with just savings; once I have a job or am making more income, I’ll be very diligent about paying it off. I don’t feel great about it, but it was the best I could do to have peace of mind, as far as getting my rent paid — which I can do now for four or five months."

What strategies did you use in order to save all that money? It sounds hard, because you’re trying to save as much as possible, but at the same time, you’re moving across the country and might want to see people before you leave.

"When I was working full-time, I barely had anything saved. I felt like I was struggling and living paycheck to paycheck, but during the summer, when I was bartending and freelancing, I wasn’t as paranoid about it for some reason. I felt a lot more comfortable financially, maybe because I was making more money. It's unbelievable that I was able to save $8,000 in three months, though, when I was never able to do that before.

"I was bartending four nights a week, which cut down on a lot of going out — and I could have people come in and visit me at work. Plus, when you lose your job and you’re moving across the country, a lot of people want to buy you drinks! I’ve always been a really frugal person, so it wasn’t that hard to not spend money, but it was interesting to see how much I saved.

"On average, I made about $100 a shift bartending. I worked four shifts a week, so all that went into saving except for 20 or 40 bucks, which I grabbed if I was meeting someone for a drink. But it was so easy to just put that cash in a wad in my room. That also makes it easier to save — when you see that much cash, it’s like, That looks great. I want to make that bigger."

Illustration by Abbie Winters.
It's technically not a moving-moving expense, but you got a leaving tattoo. How was it only $40?

"A good friend of mine from high school did it. He gave me a pretzel tattoo as a goodbye to New York and didn't charge me, so I just paid him a tip."

And this dinner at Concord Hill — how many people were there?

"Just me and a close friend. My going-away party was that night, and a good friend and I had dinner there beforehand; it's my favorite restaurant! We split the bill, but I didn't pay for any drinks later since the going-away party was at the bar where I worked. Later that week, I had another goodbye dinner there with a friend I've known for a long time."

You booked a lot of the accomodations about two weeks before you left. How did you figure out which stops you and Eric would make along the way?

"I’m from Ohio, so I knew I wanted to stop in Cleveland or Cincinnati. I’ll be going home for the holidays in Cincinnati, and I have a lot of friends in Cleveland, so this was kind of my last chance to visit them before moving so far, and I knew it would be an easy trip to make. Chicago isn't far from there, and Eric and I both wanted to go to a Cubs game because we had never been to Wrigley Field and we’re both big baseball fans. I was very into music from Omaha when I was in high school, so going there fulfilled a weird high-school dream. Also, there isn't really a big city west of Chicago.

"After Omaha, we went to Colorado because I have friends in Denver, and Eric wanted to stay in the mountains there instead of going to another city. Driving from Omaha to Denver isn't so bad, but you can easily add one to two hours going into the mountains. After that was Arizona. In Omaha and Arizona, we stayed at Airbnbs; in Colorado, we stayed at a hostel; and in Cleveland and Chicago, we stayed with friends.

"I was on a tight budget and didn't want to spend too much on lodging — no more than $100 on anything. It was hard because we were driving over Labor Day weekend and everything was so expensive. The random hostel I found in Colorado cost $99 for a private room, and a friend of mine that lives in Denver gave us recommendations for a driving route. I went on Airbnb, zoomed in along that route, and looked for places in tiny towns in Arizona where we could stay. That ended up being a little shack on someone’s property and it was amazing.

"Overall, it was a matter of figuring out how we much we could drive per day and finding places to stay along the way. There was never too much driving, and every stop was very fun. I have to give myself props: it was a very well-planned road trip."
Illustration by Abbie Winters.
How did you get your stuff to L.A.?

"I got rid of everything I owned, and all of it fit in the trunk, except for my bike — which we put in the back seat."

Did you sell most of it or did you end up giving stuff away?

"I sold some of it, but I honestly didn’t have much of value. I sold my records and record player, which wasn't much, and I sold a nightstand and a TV stand, one for $75 and one for $20. When I had two weeks left, I started listing stuff for free on Craigslist. My desk was from Ikea and my bookshelf was an old one that my brother gave me.

"I did buy garbage bags because there was a TON of stuff to get rid of in my apartment, as it had been lived in for 10 years. My brother signed the lease and was there for eight or nine years; it's a rent-stabilized apartment in Williamsburg — and you don’t vacate that. After he moved out, I signed the lease and stayed there with a friend of his and another person, one of whom was also moving to California and didn’t want to take anything either. So, everything had to go."

You bought a wrench the same day you were leaving. Was that when you realized you'd have to take your bike apart?

"It was a dumb thing where I thought I was going to buy a bike rack. For two weeks, I said, 'I’m going to buy a bike rack. I’m definitely going to get a bike rack.' Then, the day before we left, I went to a bunch of bike shops in Williamsburg and nobody had a bike rack because they don’t sell them in a place where no one has cars. I was freaking out, but Eric was sure it would fit in the backseat. He didn't have one himself, but he bought one when he picked up the car. In hindsight, I don't know why I was so stressed out about it; it fit perfectly."
Illustration by Abbie Winters.
Dunkin' Donuts was your first food stop on the road, and you had dinner in Cleveland the same night. What was it like eating on the road that first day?

"Dunkin' Donuts was the LAST thing we wanted, but the options are limited driving through Pennsylvania, so we got desperate. It took eight or nine hours to get to Cleveland. We got in around 6:30, hung out at my friend’s house, and then had dinner with three of my friends at Plum Café, a kind of trendy place."

The next day, you headed into Chicago. What were the next few days like?

"We stopped for road snacks — trail mix and caffeine — in Indiana, and when we got to Chicago, we had fried fish at a local spot recommended by Eric's brother, and it was delicious! We split the bill there and went out for a couple of beers after, at a dive bar on the way to my friend's place. Later, we took a Lyft to the Cubs game, and that night, we stayed in my friend’s guest room. I knew our stop in Chicago would be a more expensive one because of the game and stadium beers, so I wanted to be more budget conscious."

"[The morning we left Chicago], we found an amazing local diner in Iowa for breakfast, and we stopped at the Mississippi River to take in the scenery and grab coffee at a tiny, family-owned shop. After we got into Omaha, we had a great time checking out a few bars. We drove into Nebraska the next day. We got breakfast from McDonald's, and ate lunch in Denver at City O'City, a vegetarian place recommended by a friend."

You also bought edibles in Denver. Was that something where you were like, We have to do this because we’re in Colorado?

"Yeah, sort of. I’m not much of a pot smoker or eater, and neither is Eric, but it was like, Okay, might as well while we’re here. Because we were staying in the mountains, it also gave us something to do at that hostel in the middle of nowhere."

"The hostel was adorable. We got there right after the sun went down because we had lunch and then went to get the edibles. Eric bought beers at a brewery near the hostel, we bought takeaway dinner at a Whole Foods in Frisco, ate our gummies after, got the giggles, and then went to the campsite."

How did you two determine how far you wanted to drive between each place? Based on getting there faster to spend less time — and money — on the road?

"Eight hours was a good amount of time because it’s not too long, and you still get some distance. I’ve driven between Cincinnati and New York 100 times, so I didn’t have any problems with long road days. Cleveland to Chicago was only five hours, and going through Indiana, Nebraska, and Iowa, you sort of want to make it quick — but once you get to the mountains, it’s so beautiful. Colorado to Arizona took about 10 or 11 hours of driving because we took the long way and stopped at scenic view spots a lot. We drove for a long time that day, but it didn’t feel like it at all. We got up and hit the road really early so we would have time to get dinner and do stuff."

Were you surprised by the cost of food on the road, or the options?

"I expected to find more regional foods, and places to sit and eat. We wouldn't have wanted to spend too much time doing that, though, so before we left, I definitely planned to stop at grocery stores and pick up snacks, and get bottles of water. We bought groceries for dinner in Arizona — veggies, dips, bread and cheese, stuff that wasn't too snacky but we didn't have to cook. We stopped for coffee in Utah, and more road snacks when we entered California. And when we got to L.A., I made my first move-in grocery store trip! I decided to only get what I could carry."
Illustration by Abbie Winters.
How was the last leg of the trip?

"When we got to L.A., Eric stayed for a few days to hang out. We didn't have a ton of chores to do, so we did stuff during the day. He got a different rental car for himself, and we went to Zuma Beach in Malibu (I paid $8 for parking), and a trip to a Dodgers game (I paid $18.94 for two tickets).

"Eric flew back to New York, and I bought new business cards since I changed my website URL and wanted a fresh design for my new city. He and I kept separate spreadsheets where we each put everything we spent.

"He booked the rental car because he actually has his own car, and we could use his insurance instead of paying additional money for that. It was only $443, which is pretty cheap for a week of driving across the country. He also got the gas and tolls, since I got the lodging and road snacks. Balanced out, I owe him $98 because gas made his portion a little more. There are also some toll costs we don’t know about yet, but those will come in the mail.

"The friend I'm moving in with let me use her car my first weekend in L.A., so I bought boxed wine, tampons, and paper towels ($34.94) — all the post-move necessities. I also bought her a tank of gas as a thank you. We sublet this incredible palace for a few days from another friend of mine and his girlfriend, who were in Italy. They day they got back, we moved into our own place — a great three-bedroom — with one of my friend's friends. It's scary to dive into something with no job, but here goes nothing."
Illustration by Abbie Winters.
You said earlier that you feel like you planned the trip well. How do you feel about what you spent? Anything you would have spent differently, or budgeted for differently?

"The grand total seems like so much. At first, I was like, Oh my god... But $2,000 of that was on rent, so whatever. I won’t stress about that.

"I definitely would have bought more snacks that we could have kept in the car, like almonds and apples, rather than stopping as much as we did. I did want to bring a big bag of groceries and snacks for the road, or go to a grocery store more along the way, at the same time, when you’re driving every eight hours, you need to stop every once in a while, and move your body. You can do that without spending money, but it gives you a reason [to take a break].

"There are so many ways you can do a cross-country move. I drove and took everything with me, but I do want to compare things with my roommate, who flew and shipped stuff on Amtrak. Either way, the road trip was so fun. If I knew someone who was moving cross-country, this is the way I would tell them to do it."

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