Here are some of the awesome things about being a single mom in New York City:
Dating as a single mom in New York City
Nowhere in the world is there a higher concentration of interesting, successful, progressive men — many of them devoted dads. Men in NYC, more so than other parts of the country, I've found, are incredible daters. First dates are nearly always a nice dinner out, he pays. He just pays. Like a man. Theater tickets, concert reservations, invites to private media parties are not uncommon. The downside is that dating culture here can divulge into Sex And The City / Sienfeld antics — such an embarrassment of riches there is scant motivation to commit, a better offer surely around the corner, or with a single swipe-right.
Professional opportunities for single moms
If there were 400 hours in a day, I would still never be able to attend all the networking events, conferences, lunches, dinners, cocktail parties, breakfasts and other events designed to bring ambitious, successful people together with the goal of connecting and making money together. Also: NYC has an incredible energy of support and collaboration, especially among women, all of which makes building a great career and the surrounding tribe necessary all that easier to assemble.
Awesome single mom friends
See above. Many of them breadwinners, so many doing incredible things in the world, statistically far more progressive politically and socially than the mean in this country. Some are single, others married, and many are single moms. I find myself welcome in all circles.
Affordable travel near NYC
One of the best things about living in the city is getting OUT of the city. NYC is great for this — we are within an hour' drive of gorgeous beaches and the mountains.
Three major airports promise constant source of discounted flights.
Buses and trains and highways will take you to dozens of major cities within the day.
All of this single mom travel solo, with your kids, girlfriends or your lover.
This is what it is like to be a single mom in NYC …
I just passed my 10-year mark living in New York City. Throughout an entire decade in this city, one thing was constant: Whenever I caught a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline — while jogging along the East River near my home in Astoria, Queens, or driving along the New Jersey Turnpike — I always got a giddy shiver down my spine.
For as long as I could remember, this was the place of my dreams. The place I fantasized about moving when I felt stuck as a kid in my small, Midwestern hometown. That is where writers live, I knew. Where people were direct, brash even, just like me. It took me a few years of adulthood to get up the nerve to move here — until I had the comfort of a boyfriend to join me. We moved here with no jobs and little money. My writing career took off. I joined friends at fabulous restaurants. It was easy to network — everyone who could help me in my career was here. This, finally, was home. I was 26 years old.
Today my life looks entirely different. That boyfriend became a husband, father of our two children and now an ex. I achieved my dream of being a writer in New York, but instead of a Dorothy Parker-esque existence (no drunken lunches for me!), I spend my days in a sunny home office that doubles as my bedroom, overlooking a playground we frequent almost daily.
My children are ages 4 and 6, and maybe because it is universally true, or just because I am projecting my own childhood experience, I worry my children need a place to run. Green lawns and trees to climb. They don’t have that here. They are city kids.
And yet I don’t relocate to any of the lovely suburbs in New Jersey, Westchester County or Connecticut. I stay in Astoria, Queens, because it is my home. Our home.
When I feel my cheeks burn with fury at the litter blowing through the streets of this neighborhood or put in my ear plugs at night to block out the sirens, café chatter and horns outside, I am calmed by the comfort of the community I’ve amassed here.
My building alone — a 1926 six-storey co-op with about 90 units — is home to dozens of neighbors, ranging in age from chipper-if-struggling musicians in their twenties to the gorgeous Cuban sisters in their eighties who share a one bedroom on the second floor.
Some of these people have come to be close friends and confidants, there as neighbors are — through the joys of new babies and the horrors of family tragedy, sometimes bringing by bottles of wine or wrapped gifts for the kids. It is no small thing to go to sleep — blocking out the kooky upstairs neighbor’s stomping — knowing that should one of the kids awaken with a scary fever and need to be rushed to the hospital, there are countless doors on which I could knock.
This sense of community is what humans crave, but that pull is stronger in cities. I find there are so many people here who, like me, come from someplace else. Other states and towns. Other countries. Their ties to those places have been loosened by distance and time. So we make communities and connections with those who are in close proximity.
Dense neighborhoods lend plenty of proximity. Pretty much every service I need is accessible by foot: grocery stores, doctors and dentists, the post office, a hair salon, any variety of restaurant. And a Gap for crying out loud. I consider time my most valuable commodity, and city living wins for most efficient.
There are other practical reasons to live in a city. The monthly maintenance check I write to the co-op relieves me of any responsibilities for fixing broken boilers, leaky roofs, the garbage disposal or snow shoveling. Sure, if I lived in a single-family house, I could outsource those tasks, but in a city apartment I don’t even have to manage the third-party service. It’s all taken care of.
The cost of living in New York City as a single mom (and how to make it)
It’s also cheaper to live in New York City, versus the suburbs. Yes, the real estate prices are through the roof (no pun intended). But as this New York Times article found, families spend 18 percent less by living in the five boroughs, as they save on real estate taxes and transportation.
If you don’t believe me, think about your car expenses — loan note, insurance, gas and maintenance. In most parts of New York City you can replace those costs with a monthly subway pass of $112, or $2.75 per ride. I do own a 1999 Subaru Forester — a junker for weekend trips to the beach and mountains. If I moved to the suburbs and needed a reliable vehicle for daily errands and job commuting, I would be forced to invest in a new car.
Apartment living brings hidden joys — and cost savings. I am grateful for my home — a 1,300 square-foot two-bedroom, two-bathroom home with high ceilings and tons of natural light — a feat to afford after my divorce and considered spacious quarters in this expensive town. But these digs are small in comparison with what I would likely live in should I move to a more bucolic location. There are tradeoffs that come with small square footage: I am forced to live minimally. I must think critically about every purchase — and I believe that is a valuable exercise.
Here is my guide to having fun in NYC on a budget as a single mom — so many free or cheap things to do, alone, with friends, a date, or the kids!
I also appreciate how close quarters bring people together. I like that my children share a bedroom, at least now that they are small. Soon I imagine we may invest in a partial wall, but for now, I adore listening to my daughter singing lullabies to her little brother after I’ve tucked them in. And I remark at how when one of them happens to wake in the middle of the night and silently slip into my bed, the other systematically does the same, sensing the absence of the other.
As my children grow, I’m sure I will feel very differently about our living arrangement. Indeed, these days when I jog along the East River in the mornings, I do not get that jolt upon seeing the city skyline. The thrill of making my New York City dreams come true has faded.
But like many youthful thrills, that one has been replaced by something else: When the kids and I leave our our apartment each morning, we cannot walk a half-block without bumping into a familiar face, someone who at least nods hello, but often stops to remark at how big the kids have grown or at the recent chilly weather. These are the stitches that connect us to our neighbors, the threads of community and the making of home.
All about single mom city living
Many days, I hear the suburbs calling my name, but city living is fantastic for single moms.
My life illustrates this perfectly. I live in a pre-war co-op building in Queens, New York — a friendly place where everyone really does know my name. And my kids’ names, and much of our business. This is a place where death announcements of residents’ loved ones are posted in the first-floor bulletin board. The highlight of my holiday season is the annual Christmas party in the lobby — a potluck dinner attended by the whole building, a cross section of renters and owners, long-time residents and newcomers, all kinds of ethnicities and nationalities.
The community of this building wraps its arms around my family: there is the handful of older women who spoil my kids with gifts for all the holidays — even all the Hallmark ones. By some act of God, our downstairs neighbors, a 50-somethings couple working in media and theater who do not have children, find my kids’ early morning footsteps, jumping and squabbling charming. I occasional wake up to find a loaf of her banana bed hanging from a sack on our door knob, and recently, a hand-written invitation slipped under the door for Helena to spend an evening hanging out, baking and playing Barbies. There is the married mom of three teenagers who last month sat with my sleeping kids while I gave a radio interview, and once waited in the rain for the tardy laundry service guy with my dirty wash so I could make it to the day care on time.
These and many more folks create a precious web of community that gives my kids and me a sense of security. I take huge comfort in knowing that should one of my kids need to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night (every parent’s fear), there are no fewer than a dozen doors I could knock on — at any hour — and feel confident any would open, invite me in, and happily care for my other kid.
The social aspect of city living is perhaps the greatest asset for a single mom — especially one like me who works from the isolation of her home office. There are dinner and brunch invitations, and I am constantly short of coffee mugs and wine glasses, a small price to pay for the welcomed drop-ins who casually walk off with their beverages. In the past week, no fewer than three neighbors spontaneously hung out — one stopped in to retrieve the spare keys I keep, another borrowed my vacuum, while a third brought the color copies he printed for me. I enjoy a stream of adult conversations that I doubt would happen so frequently or organically if I lived in my fantasy’s tidy cottage surrounded by peony bushes and a yard separating me from my neighbors.
It is the physical proximity that city life forces that also brings closeness. My kids are known and adored by these people who have known them since before they were born. A team of older women gather on warm afternoons outside the cafe located in the street level of our building. They let the kids walk their small dogs up and down the block and notice haircuts and new shoes. It’s the casual hellos, and it’s-so-hot-out-theres, and oh-my-you-kids-are-getting-so-bigs! that my children and I exchange a dozen times each day with neighbors in elevators and hallways that collectively create a true home. In the city we live on top of one another, and in the city we know each other and we know each other’s business.
There is always a downside to every situation, and that is that in the city we live on top of one another, and in the city we know each other and we know each other’s business. My life is not 100 percent about being home and with my children and neighbors. Sometimes — especially weekends, when they are with their dad — I have a life outside of this building. And sometimes, when that life comes inside this building, my date and I can find ourselves in the elevator next to an otherwise friendly neighbor, all three of us staring awkwardly at the digital floor numbers click- click- clicking up until one or the other party is relived by opening doors.
Last Saturday I came downstairs to meet my date, all 6’3″ of his broad shoulders in a slim-fitting T-shirt standing next to his black Harley glittering in the late-afternoon sun. As he kissed me hello and fastened a helmet on my head, I could feel a half-dozen familiar eyeballs watching us from 10 feet away. The weight of my city life was upon me as I joined him on the loud, purring bike, placed my heeled sandals on the foot pegs and he wrapped my arms around his trim waist. And without looking back, we rode off into the the rest of the world.
How to make it in NYC as a single mom on a budget
Studies about women and money often find that we prioritize spending on our kids. That is certainly true for me. Although I loathe acquiring stuff for my children (I stop at H&M or Old Navy two or three times per year to stock up on kids’ clothes, and there is no such thing as randomly had gifts — those are saved for holidays and birthdays), I rarely hesitate when it comes to family fun.
A trip to the circus? What childhood is complete without the annual event — even if it sets me back more than $300, including popcorn and parking? Sure, movie theater tickets have gotten so expensive, but what is $50 for some family bonding over Pixar? And how about museum visits — which can cost as much as a semester’s worth of college tuition if we go often — but are one of the reasons we choose to live in New York City?
Until a couple months ago, I thought little of forking over this kind of money each and every weekend. A glance at my bank accounts made it clear I was spending a lot of cash entertaining my kids. On one hand, I felt OK about this money spent. After all, this is cash paid for experiences, and studies show that experiences are what give us pleasure, not objects. Plus, as a single parent, I only have my kids for half the weekend, so our Saturdays together seem extra precious, and I feel the urge to make them extra special. I also recognize that since I am single, as well as a self-employed writer who works from home, I can feel isolated. All these weekend outings are at least as much about my own urge to be out in the world as they are about creating family memories.
But the fact is: Some months these experiences and fun were difficult to afford. Something had to give. So I began challenging my impulses to spend big bucks on family activities and replacing them with lower-cost outings. Here’s what I did.
Affordable family NYC activities
Instead of this: Trip to the zoo
Growing up we went to the zoo once per year. It was an hour’s drive from where I grew up, we spent the whole day there and it was a really big deal. In New York City where I live, there are four zoos within an hour’s drive from my home — a couple of them within 20 minutes. But the reason we tend to visit the zoo so often is that we have all come to expect special things all the time. So shelling out $84 for “Total Experience” tickets at the Bronx Zoo, plus parking and overpriced tourist food would have set me back close to $150.
We did this: Nature hike I quenched my urge to spend time with animals by visiting a bird sanctuary in Westchester County. We hiked around the preserve, chatted with some fisherman about the day’s catch (blue fish), spotted a couple sandpipers and a horseshoe crab and ate a snack of homemade PB&J sandwiches, cheese and carrots while overlooking the sound, choppy with wind. We also created a memory when I decided to off-road.
While walking around the perfectly safe path, Indiana Mom landed the three of us in a thorny thicket — from which our escape would have been made easier with a machete — that required me to take enormously high steps with my riding boots to stomp down the prickly growth. For this experience we gave a $10 donation. This was followed by a trip to the town where we strolled through the cute shops and lunched at the local pizza parlor.
Spendy activity price: $150
Budget activity price: $22
Verdict: Sure it can be scary — in a fun way! — to see snakes behind a glass wall. But it is even more scary — in a questionable way — to wonder if your children will be ensnared in thistles. Plus, time in a quiet, unpopulated preserve on a beautiful fall day was far more refreshing than battling weekend crowds at one of the biggest zoos in the country. Exploring the underside of upturned logs and the rocky beach at low tide did far more to connect us as a family than pointing at encaged animals.
Free family NYC stuff to do
Instead of this: Recently some friends from out of town invited us to join them on a tour to the top of the Empire State Building. I initially thought that my kids must experience this landmark New York City experience! What mother would deprive them?! Then I checked the prices: nearly $70 for the basic viewing deck experience. Cue sound of tires squealing to a stop.
We did this: Every month or two my kids and I repeat one of our favorite adventures: We drive from our home in Astoria, Queens, to Roosevelt Island — a sliver of land in the East River between Queens and Manhattan — and use a Metrocard to take the tram to the city, drinking in the gorgeous views for $2.75 per trip (kids under 44” tall ride free). From there, we walk two blocks to Dylan’s Candy Bar, a mammoth purveyor of all things sweet and delicious, and get a treat, the kids opting for a variety of gummy animals priced by the pound. I suggested our friends join on this outing, which few tourists know about. They were thrilled to get an insider’s look at the city and joined along.
Spendy activity price: $70
Budget activity price: $12
Verdict: I believe strongly in trying new things. But it is perhaps even more important to embrace ritual. My kids are far more likely to remember our tram tradition as adults since they will have done it dozens of times. Added bonus when we can share our special experience with people we care for. Plus, it’s way cheaper.
Make expensive family activities affordable (and just as fun)
Instead of this: On the subject of tradition, I find apple picking to be pretty awesome. It’s fun, it takes us out of the city, it has the agro-education element and it reminds me of my rural Midwestern childhood. But even this quaint ritual can comes at a steep price if you go to a farm anywhere near New York City. There the experience can come with the temptation to spend multiple Andrew Jacksons on bouncy houses, corn mazes, pony rides and pumpkin painting.
We did this: We still went apple picking. The outfit charged a flat $25 for a half-bushel bag, which we were invited to fill to the brim. The kids and I tried to hunt down as many varieties as we could find. We plucked a gigantic Macintosh — seriously, the largest I’ve ever seen — and wondered if it was delicious. We munched on cider doughnuts — 75 cents each — because they were right out of the fryer and only a miser would say no. Same for two corn dogs, which were steep at $4 each, but really our only lunch option. But I did say no to the bouncy house and instead focused the kids’ attention on the bluegrass band playing. Then we visited the chickens in their coop. Because, as I said before, pointing at caged animals is a family bonding experience.
Spendy activity price: If I’d agree to all the activities on offer, my wallet would be $100 lighter
Budget activity price: $35
Verdict: When we came home, my kids told their friends, “We went apple picking.” That was a big deal for children ages 3 and 5. Why would it have been better if their answer was, “We went on a hayride and bouncy house and corn maze and ate kettle corn and a giant barbequed turkey leg that cost $10 and, oh yea, we also picked some apples”? Sometimes, less is more. And when I couldn’t figure out what to do with all those apples, I filled little sacks and sent the kids around to neighbors in our apartment building to give them away. And so the experience grew far beyond our Saturday afternoon. It grew into a memory which we shared with each other and those around us.
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.