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Living Frugally in Los Angeles (Or Anywhere Else)

In this life (so far), I have had a variety of experiences. That knowledge has been both professional and personal. I write from that basis.

How to live a frugal life in Los Angeles.

How to live a frugal life in Los Angeles.

Living Frugally in Los Angeles

Frugal: "Economical in Use or Spending"

Even though Los Angeles is not the most expensive place in the United States to live, it certainly isn't cheap. The expenses can be daunting with rent/mortgage, transportation, food, and utility bills. But I've learned a lot since moving here twelve years ago, and I want to share what I've learned.

To do that, I'll list the typical expenses here from highest to lowest, with possible solutions for each.

With luck, you'll find yourself here for quite a time and learn to love this place as much as I do.

A Roof Over Your Head

Housing: This, by far, is the biggest expense of living in Los Angeles. Rent on the west side of town is the most expensive, with rental rates dropping the farther East you go. With the median home price of almost half a million dollars and rents well over a thousand, this is the one expense that can be the hardest to manage.

But there are some things you can do with a bit of planning to control those costs or help reduce them as time goes by. Your biggest advantage is time.

Buying a home: The latest buzz is that one out of every eight homes in California is in foreclosure due to the subprime mortgage crisis. Banks and mortgage companies are naturally interested in getting these foreclosures off their books. The problem, of course, is that there is all manner of sites out there that want to charge you money to view foreclosure properties.

Renting: California is considered a "renter-friendly" state. This may be hard to believe when you start looking at deposits and rental agreements, but many municipalities, Los Angeles included, have rent control laws.

If you lived in Los Angeles in 2006, your rent could not go up more than 3% over the previous year's amount. In 2007 rent was allowed to go up 4% from the previous year due to the housing demand. In 2008 rent was allowed to go up by 5%. Of course, other conditions apply. If the landlord pays for water, gas, and electricity, those costs are also allowed to rise. Taking in a roommate (and letting your landlord know about it) might affect your rent by 10%.

This means that if you are moving here and plan to stay, you may well be paying more in rent the first year than seems realistic. However, if you plan for that year by budgeting for the higher rent in a year or two, you'll be paying well below market value for similar apartments in your chosen area.

For example, I live in a two-bedroom, one-bath apartment for less than I could rent a one-bedroom, one-bath for in the very same area. This wasn't the case when I moved here. In fact, a 1/1 is higher in rent than the 2/1 I now live in. Rent control is my friend!

Note that Los Angeles proper has its own renter laws, and other cities have their own (see below).

Rental Web Sites

There are quite a few out there, and almost every one of them wants to charge you to use them. The following website is free and lists rental properties and homes for sale.

  • Craigslist. This site does not require you to register or pay for services. Unlike AllOverLA, this site lists rentals, houses, roommate situations, house swaps, and sublets. As with any free site, scammers are more likely to post there. Do exercise caution when dealing with people you don't know.

Now that I've told you how to find apartments without paying for web-based help in your search, I do want to relate something I heard from an apartment owner.

I suggested that he use the two sites above to save himself the listing fees. His response?

He felt that he'd get better, more stable tenants if they had to pay a service to find his apartment building. In fact, a week after talking to him, I searched for his complex on the two sites above and couldn't find it.

Of course, I hadn't thought of this, but from the landlord's point of view renting in Los Angeles is a risky business. Why not spend some money listing your property on pay sites if it improves your odds of getting a stable tenant?

My take? Definitely save your money.

How Some Rental Sites Work

One of the most popular rental sites in Los Angeles, which will remain unnamed here, charges the renter for apartment or room searches.

Typically the renter is given the option of searching the database for $60, $70, or $360. Each search is limited to sixty days, after which you have to pay again. The $360 deal pays for setting up appointments, a hired car (for one day), and application assistance.

This may sound reasonable, but the property owner or manager pays this site nothing, and they even get free credit reports on potential renters. The property manager/owner typically charges the prospective renter for a credit report that costs them nothing to obtain.

Whose side is this site really on?


Likely you have your own car, but you are going to have to register the car when you get here. You have ten days to do that before you are in violation of state law. No kidding! You can quite literally get a ticket if your car is unregistered here after ten days. It's unlikely but true.

Part of that registration means a smog inspection of your vehicle. This is not required if your car was built before 1976, but for anything built after 1975, you must get the vehicle smog checked.

There are a lot of registered smog stations, but most of them do testing only, no repairs.

Vehicle registration goes by the value of the car, not its curb weight. So generally, the older the car, the lower the registration fee. To register your vehicle make an appointment with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). I've used this system, and it is definitely better than walking in and taking your chances.

Also, if you have any questions, do ask the DMV person. They may not think to enlighten you about some requirement or intricate little point of law. This could cost you.

If you can't get the vehicle smogged before registration but must drive it, make an appointment at the above link and ask for a temporary permit when you get there. A temporary permit is free and good for one month. It can also be extended. There's no guarantee that you'll get one, but everyone I've spoken with about this had no problem getting a temporary permit.

You'll also want to get your driver's license while there. Of all the states in the United States, California driving laws seem to be the most logical. A quick study of the driver's handbook, and you should be able to pass relatively easily. They will also test your vision, so if you wear glasses, be sure to take them or have your contacts in.

Be sure to register to vote while you are there too.

You can also use bus services around L.A., which are reliable, inexpensive (compared to a car), and clean. MetroLink Los Angeles has some of the cleanest rail cars around and travels to nearly every corner of Los Angeles. Rates are reasonable, and there is ready parking around most stations though I would not recommend parking at Union Station.

You should visit the terminal, though, for the stunning architecture and ready familiarity you'll feel there. It has been featured in countless movies and is beautifully maintained.

Other excellent mass transportation systems can be found in Culver City (adjoining Marina del Rey) and Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus. Santa Monica's bus line has won numerous awards for being both clean and environmentally friendly. Both systems share stops with Los Angeles Metro.

Getting Around

One of the cheapest things you can do is figure out how to avoid gridlock and parking lots like freeways. We definitely have them here. Two come to mind. One is a five, and the other is a four-o-five (405). As you can tell from the last number, these are both North/South flowing freeways.

Certainly, other freeways here have their moments, but these two are notorious. Around here, we affectionately call the 405 "the parking lot." Well...somewhat affectionately.

My advice? Use Internet map services that allow you to avoid freeways.

  • Google maps. Type in the address in the box at the top. Using the zip code instead of the city and state works best. Select to here or from here, click that, fill in the address and click "Go". When the map comes up, look at the left-hand side of the screen near the top of the turn-by-turn directions. Look for a check-box marked "avoid freeways." Clicking that will reroute the turn-by-turn and map to avoid freeways.
  • MapQuest. Type in the address in the upper left box and click search. You won't see an option for destination till you do this. At the top of the screen, click on "directions to" and type in the destination. Once again, you can avoid typing in the city and state if you know the zip code. To the right of the turn-by-turn directions, you'll see some option boxes. One of them says "avoid highways", "tolls", etc. Check mark one of these and click "Update Directions."

Public Transit

Though L.A. is still lacking in this area, some parts of town still do not have adequate transportation, but it is getting better. Metro rail covers vast areas, and the cars run every twenty minutes, are clean and comfortable, and rarely experience delays. The fare is $1,50 per line. Metro bus also runs every twenty minutes, and the buses are clean, comfortable and reliable.

Santa Monica and Culver City have their own transit services but accept transfers from L.A. Metro. Check out travel on these lines at the links below.

You've Gotta Eat as Well as Sleep!!!

Me, Myself and I: If it's just you and you alone, saving money on food and supplies is more a function of your disposable income than anything else. In fact, it might just be cheaper to go to restaurants.

Chain Grocery and Drug stores typically want you to apply for a shopper discount card, and these do save you money. There are also coupons, and you'll see these for the major chains on a weekly basis. But the shopper card also keeps track of what you spend and on what for marketing research purposes, and the coupons might save you money, but some items in the store that aren't on sale will likely cost you more.

So what to do? Please read on.

Mi Familia: If there is more than one of you, saving money on food is a little easier to do but might involve buying larger quantities of things: a six-month supply of toilet paper or paper towels, a gallon of mayonnaise, and so on. Many of these types of purchases involve clubs which also carry office supplies, computers, clothing, and furniture.

Joining a club. Clubs also require a membership card, and these are not free (with one exception), but the savings can offset that membership fee in a big hurry. The following are clubs and fees in Los Angeles. Each link below has membership areas and/or store locators.

  • Sam's Club. Business $100 annual, Individual $40 annual.
  • CostCo. Business $100 annual, Individual $50 annual.
  • Smart & Final. Free membership. You do save money with membership too.

Non-Membership Stores: There are a few, and they are good ones.

  • Trader Joe's. No membership is required, there is a straight markup on food, and most of it is organic. A good wine selection, milk, free-range organic eggs, and fresh vegetables. Trader Joe's has come a long way from its dry goods days.
  • Farmer's Markets. There are farmer's markets in Venice, Santa Monica, Culver City, and so on. If you aren't sure, ask a neighbor. These are great places to buy fresh local produce at reduced prices.

Furniture: Unless you get a furnished place (unlikely here) you'll need furniture. The two least expensive (not cheap) places I've found for furniture are Ikea and Craigslist furniture and garage sales. Oh, and it never hurts to hunt through Craigslist Free.

If you have a Yahoo account, you might also consider LAReUseIt, formerly known as FreeCycle. You have to subscribe to this via your Yahoo account, but it's well worth it. No spam, and everything mentioned is FREE. Once you sign up, you will instantly start getting email listings of wanted items, offered items, and item status...including furniture.

Haul It Yourself

If you decide to haul your furniture with you via UHaul, Penske, or one of the other truck rental places, be darned sure you know where the return center is and return it by the time specified. Be sure to clean the vehicle and put gas in it. These three things, turning it in late, dirty, or low on gas, will cost more than it's worth.

Saving on Electricity

Generally, electricity costs here aren't that bad. If you have central heat and air, this is likely the most expensive use of power, and as you already know, making small setting changes in the thermostat makes a big difference. Living near the ocean or up in the hills helps manage the temperatures.

I would like to recommend another move that few think about. Compact fluorescent lights (CFL). You will get used to the quality of light they produce, and quite a few now have a warmer light. They consume about one-fifth the power of a regular bulb and last five years or longer. They will even work reasonably well in a brownout.

To save money on CFLs, consider purchasing them in bulk from stores like Costco or Ikea (Ikea sells them quite cheaply) or better yet attend a festival (there are many all year long in L.A.) and look for Southern California Edison or the Department of Water and Power kiosks. The kiosks often give away CFLs at these events to encourage prudent power usage.

Finally: I hope all this information helps. I wish I had known it when I got here.

LADWP Programs to Save You Money


Nicholas McDonough from Los Angeles on March 29, 2016:

Sure Liam,

They're similar to CL. It's just another option people may not be aware of. Thanks for the consideration.

LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on March 28, 2016:

nmcdonoug: HubPages is pretty strict about "for profit" links in articles or comments. Let me check it out. If is passes, I'll put it in the article and credit you for it. Is that cool?

Jennifer Kessner from Pennsylvania on December 17, 2011:

I'm considering moving to LA, and this is definitely a great help! Bookmarking this for later. Great hub. Voted up and useful!

cordbailey on June 30, 2011:

Great article for those considering relocating to LA. Good tips on where to access resources.

LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on February 20, 2011:

Thanks joseph.c. It's an acquired taste financially, but the weather and scenery are amazing.

joseph.c from the University of California, Riverside on February 20, 2011:

LA is definitely manageable for those with limited means. Not everybody out here rides in a limo and lives on the beach.

Nan Mynatt from Illinois on January 31, 2011:

On Friday after work we would go to the Marina del Ray and go from restaurant to restaurant. To live there is expensive and the salaries are not that much higher than other parts of the country. I returned to Chicago, and it was cheaper. I lived in the Los Angeles area many years ago for four years. I don't know if it's easier to get ahead now than before. Beautiful place to live!

LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on January 11, 2011:

melbel: You'll love the weather. Best of luck to you. Be sure to use Google maps or another Internet map system while here. The "traffic" feature will save you headaches and hours on the road.

Melanie Palen from Midwest, USA on January 10, 2011:

This is a really informative hub! I appreciate it as I will be moving to LA in a few months.

bellabelle from California on August 14, 2010:

i love this article. so informative.

LiamBean (author) from Los Angeles, Calilfornia on September 22, 2009:

RaRe: If this hub helps you save money, time, and headaches then I've done my job.

I certainly do remember "Downtown" and "Bus Stop."

Married life is bliss. Thanks for asking.

SimPly RaRe from California USA on September 22, 2009:

Hello LiamBean- I certainly was so at-home while reading ths presented it in such a way beyond the postcard-glitter, very helpful to someone or families who are aiming to relocate to LA...ever wondered where the song "Downtown" was based..?.I'd like to think it's in LA, even the song "Bus Stop"- now both songs will be in my head the rest of the day- maybe you are too young to know those songs- hahaha--

but great hubbbsss...keep it up-how's married life? must be heavenly!!!

johann on February 03, 2009:

mannnnnn, thank you soooooo much. this is the most helpful website about los angeles i have read!

livelovecoffee from Georgia on January 19, 2009:

This is a grea Hub, and one that is needed now more than ever!

nancydodds1 from Houston, Texas on October 21, 2008:

Its an excellent information. Good tips and informative. You can check out my hub about mortgage calculator feel free to visit this hub.

desert blondie from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen on September 28, 2008:

Interesting information! As someone who's lived in San Francisco and Palm Springs AND also Alabama, Oklahoma, and Washington...the people "out there" beyond CA's borders certainly have it cheaper...but Los Angeles is a great metropolis, the kind missing in so many states.

DarleneMarie from USA on August 25, 2008:

Nice article! I like your tips...doing things yourself is the key to saving a lot of money, since labor is the bulk of any service bill.

jimcrowthers from Port Charlotte on May 22, 2008:

Great advice, and very informative.

I've learned in economics classes that rent control situations can become bad for everyone. It looks like, according to your post, LA has figured out how to manage this.

Thanks for posting this hub!