FIRE in London: How I am keeping expenses down in a big city

Shoreditch is one of my favourite wonderful areas, especially in summertime

I should probably start by saying that I have by no means figured my shit out. That is obvious, since I moved from a country with free education to willingly go into student debt in one of Europe’s most expensive cities. That being said, I love living here and I have gained a lot from taking the plunge and moving abroad – not just in terms of personal development, network and studies, but also the professional opportunities that have appeared because of my choice.

I am doing my best to keep my expenses low while living here. A lot of my peers receive money from their parents, but since I do not have that option, I have to be extra vigilant so I can contribute to my savings and investments. So here are some quick pointers for getting by in a big city such as London:

Rent is everything!
There is no doubt that rent is the biggest expense in many, many budgets around here, and most people live with flatmates to bring down costs. I spent my first year in (overpriced) student accommodation, which was a wooping $920 per month. Now I live in a privately owned flat with three friends and pay around $613 per month including bills, which definitely freed up a lot of space in my budget.
We were lucky, in the sense that we found an old and honest landlord and didn’t go through agencies or similar. He is happy that we are treating his old house nicely and we have avoided an inflated price. London’s housing market is very fast-paced and it is not too difficult to find a room somewhere to an OK price, but it is a good idea to get an idea of what areas you want to live in and what is on offer out there. I am glad I didn’t stay in the comfort of university accommodation and instead saved a shitton of money by doing some research.

Split and cut monthly expenses

Fixed expenses can eat away a lot and it is easy to just close your eyes and pay because, well, you need the insurance, the gas, the electricity and so on. I do have to remind myself to look for cheaper service providers every once in a while, and then I also try to share expenses such as Netflix with my family so I can at least minimise it, and use student discounts on Spotify and travel cards. I buy a monthly travelcard with a student discount, but I always think ahead. If I won’t be travelling a lot a given month, or I am going away, then I may only need a week long travel card or pay as you go. During the lockdown in London, I’ve actually saved $233 because I simply aren’t travelling, so I suppose that is one of the few upsides.

Thou shall cook thy own food
I hate cooking, but I love the results. London is invaded by Prets, itsu’s, McDonald’s, Wasabi’s and what not, which makes it convenient and tempting to get in a queue around lunchtime, and I have struggled a lot with this. During term time, I barely had any energy to cook dinner after a long day, let alone plan for next day. But you can really save a stupid amount of money by doing so – it is a tale old as time. So how do we make this as easy as possible?

  • (Pre-corona) I order groceries for delivery in a cheap time slot, which isn’t that difficult when you are a student. It saves me time, as I don’t have to go to the grocery shop, and I save money because my nearest stores are the local, overpriced versions. I just sit down a few days prior and make a meal plan, buy the items on the website, and wait for the delivery guy to arrive.
  • I meal prep on Saturdays. Why? I am dead on Sunday and I dread Monday, so I’d rather spend my time chilling and getting ready for the week. Getting shit done on Saturday still allows you to have fun in the evening and feel like you have a lot of weekend left.
  • I have an easily accessible list of quick, easy and cheap recipes. And some date night-worthy options too.
  • I freeze leftovers if I know I am going out to eat, so I can grab them on days where I am “just not feeling it”.
  • I’ve developed a close relationship with soups and sheet pan dinners. Stupid cheap, easy and does not create a lot of dish-washing. It basically takes care of itself while I get other things done.

Eating out done right

That being said, I am not a fanatic. I fucking wish. But no, I appreciate a filling meal, a hungover McDonald’s trip, and going out to eat with my boyfriend. I had a period where I bought a lot of food out because of convenience, but it takes away the special and exciting feeling of eating out. So I have a few tips to keep expenses low and stay sane while living that big city life.

  • Student discounts. Off-peak discounts. Happy hour. E-mail sign-up promotions. Research the shit out of it and use it to your advantage. If I (finally) succumb to an itsu meal, I flash my student card, and if I go to McDonald’s, I’ve made sure to have a previous receipt with a promotion code on it.
  • This one might mainly be for tourists, but – dear god, do not choose restaurants on the big streets. Or even the street right next to it. You will pay overprice for convenience. Also, I can recommend spending a few minutes exploring the options in, e.g. SoHo to find some good deals.
  • Off-peak and lunch discounts. While Saturday evening are nice and make sense, it can be cool to go out to eat at lunchtime or on Tuesdays instead sometimes.
  • Skip appetizers, desserts, soft drinks (most of the time). It brings the bill up – but I will say that those Wahaca cocktails are freakin’ worth it when it has been a long week.

I don’t have a close relationships with pubs. Sure, it is a good way to hang out with your friends and grab a bite, but I don’t feel the urge to spend on beer and drinks. I’d rather prioritise proper eating out. I feel the same way about fast fashion, knick knacks, clubbing, festivals and Marmite. That is why I am trying to be better at minimising or avoiding spending in these situations, and instead find free alternatives and save for experiences I thoroughly enjoy. It seems obvious, but it can be difficult when you are in a group and you are afraid of being judged for not ordering a pint and a pitcher every Wednesday evening. Usually, people don’t care that much unless you make a big deal out of it or try to make other people pay for you.

Increase income
I sometimes get a little frustrated when people in the FIRE community are preaching the whole “anyone can do it, just look at the value of your purchases, meal plan, skip the coffee!”. Surprise, motherfuckers, not everyone is working high-paid jobs and just need to be aware of their spending. You can only save so much without losing your mind, especially in cities with a high CoL, so it is worth looking into how you can increase your income. As a student, I’ve found a really good part time job and I also do different side hustles when I have some extra time available – which is everything from translations to selling my used clothes on eBay. Side hustles are not necessarily for everyone, especially with the work hours I’ve witnessed here in the UK, but it is important to see what the options are. Decreasing spending and increasing income is a deadly effective combination (which I am still working on).

Do you have any tips for FIRE’ing in a big city?

Photo by Tomas Anton Escobar on Unsplash

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