You know how many people will openly admit they don’t like Americans? More than a few. We’re loud. We’re boisterous. Our food has roughly the same caloric content as beluga whale milk and our health care system is patently designed to offend as many people as possible. Everybody can find something to hate about us. And while they’ll probably be vocal in letting us know what that is, they certainly don’t shy away from seeing it at the source. We’re the second most visited country on Earth. Maybe it’s like a train wreck in slow motion: you just need to push to the front of the crowd and watch that car go tumbling.
Luckily, it’s affordable. The American dollar has been pretty volatile lately, so getting an accurate list of exchange rates is really going to be a matter of looking it up yourself. For the record, here they are, current to May 2015:
$1 USD = $1.22 CAD
$1 USD = $1.26 AUD
$1 USD = £0.63 GBP
$1 USD = €0.89 EUR
An all-inclusive budget guide to America is impossible to write regardless of spending habits, because the most popular cities are all so different in terms of layout and culture – New Orleans is nothing like Las Vegas is nothing like San Francisco. This budget guide will take place in New York City, which, while generally more expensive than the rest of the country, is diverse enough to give you a sense of options.
The Cheap Day
- When you first arrive in town, you’re not going to care where you stay. You just wanna drop your bags and hit the city, and you don’t even care if there’s a crack addict making a home of the space under your bunk bed. Luckily, there are some incredibly cheap hostels in America, and you can find a dorm room for around $16 USD, even in New York. Of course, you’re not going to be all that close to where you’ll want to be, but you won’t be in the room much anyway, right?
- Food in New York can be expensive, and if you’re just trying to subsist while you spend your money in other ways. You can get the standard backpacker breakfast of cheesy beans and toast at any grocery store for a total of around $4 USD, which is also roughly the same cost as a breakfast sandwich form a street vendor. Although, you can also dumpster dive for free. I think food in New York is worth the extra cost.
- You could spend the day in bed hungover, or you could suck it up and hit the streets. If you’re just strolling, as you often do, then you can skip the subway and check out some of the best parts of New York -`qaqa11q Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, Chinatown, the Museums. They’re all free of charge. Get lunch along the way: street food in New York is amazing, and about the same price as food anywhere else in America. Stop by a hot dog stand or ice cream stand in New York, and you can grab some filling for for about $9 USD.
- Spend the rest of the day learning how to despise your fellow tourists – seriously, it’s so easy to become a New Yorker at heart – before returning to your hostel tired and broke. It’s generally not possible to go the whole day exploring without taking at least one subway, so let’s tack on the $2.75 USD one way subway fee and then call it a day.
Most cheap days in an American city will look something like this, except for Los Angeles, where you’re not getting anywhere without at least $20 USD in cab/uber/bus/piggybacking a homeless guy fares. Regardless, unlike Europe, we don’t charge just to use the goddamn bathrooms, the wifi is widespread and free as an eagle, and you’ve finally realized that we don’t really eat deep fried butter on a stick. You can do it cheaply.
[alert type=”info”]A note on tipping: in America, you’re expected to tip after any service – cab drivers, waiters, barbers, bellboys… they’ll all have a hand sticking out waiting. Expect to tip around 18% for good service, though you can find a more comprehensive list of expected amounts here.[/alert]
Total: $31.75 USD
The Average Day
- If you’re actually reading into hostels, instead of simply booking the cheapest option on Hostelbookers and praying it doesn’t come with cockroaches, then you’ll probably wind up booking something around $33 USD. That seems to be the magic number for dorms before you start hitting the luxe benefits. Once you hit this tier, the hostels are generally in a good (enough) location and fulfill any basic needs you have. Going more expensive is really just for show.
- You’ll still want to eat a relatively cheap breakfast, because this is an average day and you’re an average person. Maybe throw some eggs in there, some toast, some avocado… go crazy. Maybe even put the eggs in the avocado, you little daredevil you. It’s still not going to crack $4 USD for the meal, and that’s even if you buy everything that day.
- Since you’ve had a cheap day, I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’ve seen literally every free thing there is to do in New York, and you definitely can’t do anything else without spending money. You poor thing. Anyway, once you make peace with the fact that some things require tickets, you’ll start to find that they’re anywhere between $10-15 USD. You’ll probably only do one or two of these types of things per day, especially if you go to something a little more expensive, like a show, which can be around $20-30 USD. It depends on what you’re doing, but since you’re average, and I refuse to define average as boring, then you’re going to be doing something.
- Food in New York is too good to pass up. A place like Jacob’s Pickles runs pretty cheap, especially compared to the quality of the food. Problem is, and you’ll see this anywhere, is that as soon as you start eating out, you start spending more. Especially if you have a beer with your meal. So while everything is pretty reasonably priced at around $8-12 USD, expect to spend around $15 USD for the meal just as a good buffer in your planning.
- The only people that come to New York to spend the entire time walking through it are the masochistic marathon runners that flock in every year. For the regular guys out there, who get winded walking to the Piggly Wiggly down the street, you’ll probably take at least two subway rides a day. At $2.75 USD/trip, that comes to at least $5.50 USD. This is assuming you don’t take cabs, because it’s 2015, why would you?
- At night, you’ll probably want to go for drinks. At least meet with some people. Nobody wants to be the guy who went on vacation with a bedtime. Drinks in the heartland of America can be ridiculous and it all depends on the bar you go to – expect to pay anywhere between $6-20 USD for a single beer or cocktail. Rather than operating on a “number of drinks” limit, you should plan on just bringing out $50 USD for the evening. Add another $10 for some food and another subway ride and you have yourself fan evening.
So it’s not a perfect average day. America is a huge and varied place, and New York City is more expensive than much of it. You will probably only go out once or twice a week (especially with a cost like that), so feel free to take that off the bill. Call the tickets a maybe as well. The rest will be nigh unavoidable. But hey, at least it’s got public transportation.
Total: $55.50-$135.50 USD
The Splurge Day
- Once you hit that $33/day level of a hostel, you’re gonna start seeing a law of diminishing returns, especially as a backpacker just trying to make your way. The only reason to really splurge beyond that is if you’ve managed to find a lucky, consenting partner to take home and make a mess for the cleaners, and it’s rude to do that in a dorm. Finding a private room will usually run around $80-120 USD a night, but if you’re splitting it between two people, then halve it, then have some fun.
- And because all strenuous physical activity requires a nice, balanced breakfast, strut your fine self down the block and eat a breakfast out. Like the meals mentioned during the average day, you can expect to spend around $8-12 for a meal, and because it’s a great morning, go ahead and throw in a $13 USD Bloody Mary. It’s before three, so nobody will judge. Do it again for lunch.
- We called a ticketed event a maybe during the average day, but if you’re splurging it’s a must. Whether that be a show at Terminal 5 or a visit to the Statue of Liberty, you can expect to pay $20-30 for the pleasure of attending. Don’t worry, it’s worth it.
- And because the only way to deal with spending this much money is to drink until your wallet feels bottomless… well, drink until your wallet feels bottomless. On a big night out, it’s very easy to spend up to $100 USD on drinks, whether that be through drinking it all yourself our buying rounds for the entire bar. Save yourself a headache, and never bring more money than that out with you.
- As for transportation: sure, you’ll probably wind up taking a subway or two again for a total of $5.50 USD. But on a night out, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up saying “fuck it,” and ordering an Uber straight to the bar. These should be relatively affordable, but if you’re going across the bridge after the subways have stopped for the night, expect to pay around $35 USD before you stumble off to bed.
Sometimes, after a big day, I will wake up and check my bank statement, then promptly go to the kitchen and blanche my head in a pot of boiling water, because I’m an idiot and that’s what idiots deserve. It can hurt, guys. A lot. So if you wind up spending a day like this, don’t be surprised if you enjoy an entire week or two of cheap days in a row.
Total: $208-$300 USD
Weekly & Monthly Budgeting
Obviously, you’re not going to spend your entire time in New York City. America is huge, and you’ll want to bounce through the entire country, spending only a week or two max in each location. The prices will fluctuate, but as a general rule, you can look forward to spending this amount on everything.
- Rent: $180-250/week (in a larger city, much cheaper in a less desirable location like the Midwest), depending on the hostels you stay in and what kind of discounts you can swing.
- Groceries: $40/week, if you’re splitting between friends and eating conservatively (that means no lobsters, Mr. Moneybags).
- Phone: $29/month will get you some good, basic phone plans with a decent amount of data. It won’t get you the cute barista’s phone number, but it’s a start.
- Travel: $300/month will let you hit a few cities over the course of that time. If you’re traveling slow and only doing small jumps, then you can get away with spending way less.
- Drinking: $300/month is a pretty conservative estimate since nights out in America can get costly. You’ll need to determine your own habits.
- Tours: $500/month will let you do basically one cool thing every couple of weeks – a spontaneous trip to Vegas or a music festival during the Summer.
- Food: $150/month is another conservative estimate, but maybe you have better self-control when it comes to eating out than I do.
- Assorted Costs: $100/month. Shit happens, and you’ll probably lose some money at one point or another.
Total: $1599-$1800 USD/Month
Again, this can fluctuate entirely based on how you spend your money, how many nights per week you go out, and how many big events you try to go to. Obviously, going to Coachella will throw off your budgeting by a fair amount. Use this guide to form a basis for your plans, and build off it.
Cost of Transportation
- Intracity Bus/Subway: $2.75-$5 USD/trip
- Intracity Taxi: Easily $30-50 if going across town.
- Intercity Bus: Megabus operates in the US, and you can get intercity buses for as cheap as $5. However, you need to book well in advance to get these fares, and you can expect to pay around $40 for a shorter trip (say, between Chicago and New York) if you’re booking fairly late.
- Intercity Airline: $115-$300, depending on the airline and how far you’re traveling.
- Gas: It’s almost impossible to predict right now with how quickly prices have been changing, but expect to pay between $2.50-$4.50/gallon.