How to Live in San Francisco on a Budget

San Francisco is one of the top three most expensive cities in America. The cost of living is 63% higher than average, and the median home value is well over $750,000,[1] making it the most unaffordable city in the country as far as home ownership. According to a calculator from the Economic Policy Institute, it costs more than $87,000 for a family of four to live comfortably in the City by the Bay.[2]

That said, it is also a beautiful city teeming with opportunity in terms of the tech sector and the arts. It's a place that draws people from all over the country, to the westernmost edge of the continent, to live the adventure that is this great city. At the same time, it leaves many wondering how they can live in San Francisco on a budget.


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    Pick the right neighborhood. There is a very wide range of average rents across San Francisco neighborhoods. You will want to avoid most of the neighborhoods in the north to northeast section of the city: the Financial District, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, the Marina, North Beach, and so on. Your best bet are neighborhoods like Outer Sunset and Outer/Inner Richmond, Lakeshore, and Outer Mission/Excelsior. These are the only neighborhoods with average rents of less than $2000 for a 1-bedroom apartment.[3] Of course, these neighborhoods require a commute to downtown.
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    Live with roommates. Living by oneself in San Francisco is a very expensive proposition. The average price of a 1-bedroom apartment is $2800.[4] If you spend 33% of your income on rent, as most finance experts recommend, this would mean you need to be earning at least $100,000 per year to afford this rent. Splitting an apartment with roommates, however, quickly reduces the amount you will have to pay.
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    Exchange your car for a bike. More than 28% of San Francisco households do not own a car, the 14th highest percentage in the nation.[5] You will save several hundred dollars per month by eliminating your car payment each month--money which can be devoted to your rent, if need be. San Francisco has excellent public transportation, thanks to BART and Muni, and the city boasts the second-highest bike score in the country.[6] Additionally, the city has a number of services like Zipcar and City CarShare that allow residents to have a car when they need one. In recent years, on-demand transportation services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have grown significantly in San Francisco, offering yet another viable option to car ownership.
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    Take advantage of free fun. San Francisco is loaded with fun activities that won't drain your bank account, from Fleet Week to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass to Anchor Brewing Company tours to the Randall Museum simply hanging with friends in one of the cities many public parks. It seems that every weekend offers some kind of free--or at least affordable--event, if not a wide range of them. Pick up one of the local (free) weeklies to see what events are coming up soon.
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    Consider living outside of the city. Although the entire Bay Area is expensive compared to the rest of the country, you can save a lot of money by living outside of the city itself. If you work in San Francisco, this could add significantly to your daily commute, but transit systems like BART, CalTrain, and ferries make it possible to live in the East, South, or North Bay without spending a lot of time in traffic. Within a 50-mile radius of the city, rents drop by up to two-thirds.[7]


  • There are a number of lists of free things to do in San Francisco from National Geographic, Lonely Planet, SF Gate, and a number of small personal blogs. These are easy to find a quick internet search.
  • Try to find a current or recent resident of the city to speak with before you move. They can help you determine which party of the city fits you best, as each neighborhood has its own personality and benefits, as well as drawbacks.

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Categories: California | Budgeting