I love New York for many reasons, but having just moved here a few days ago, there's certainly a prevalent attitude that I dramatically underestimated:
Give us all of your money or leave.
Now, I wasn't completely naive. I knew that New York was expensive, and I knew that I'd end up paying more for everything. But I'm amazed at how often money leaves my wallet. It's not necessarily that you lose your money all at once - rather, you lose it slowly in everyday expenses.
New York has a massive transportation and utility infrastructure on a scale that's hard to imagine for most other cities, so it's understandable that they need to collect a lot of taxpayers' money to pay for it. Even the drinking water is brought from the beautiful mountains upstate.
I should mention now that "upstate" is a relative term - nobody in this state believes that the place they live is "upstate". Upstate begins at whatever region is north of them. People on the left half of the state, by Lake Erie, call their region "western" New York to avoid being called "upstate", since there's nothing above them except a bunch of water and a country full of hockey and beer and draconian CD-R taxes.
Anyway, the water is great. I don't know what it is, but it definitely tastes different from (and better than) water from Pennsylvania or Ohio. Every time I've visited New York, I've noticed that - even on Long Island or upstate (I can call it that because I don't live there, but the residents of that particular upstate region call it "the southern tier"). New York pizzerias joke that the New York water is what makes their pizza great and prevents anyone elsewhere from making "New York-style pizza" that even comes close to resembling it.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, the swift and steady departure of money from my wallet. Let me give you an overview of my experiences in the last few days.
When driving in New York, I had to pay tolls on most of the useful highways. This wasn't too bad until I got to the major New York bridges. It seems like the massive traffic on the New Jersey side is mostly caused by the toll booths themselves - without them, traffic would flow much more smoothly.
Bridges and tunnels only charge you when traveling into the city. New York doesn't want anyone else - they have too many people already. You can leave for free, but if you want to come in, that'll be 6 bucks. Maybe they're hoping that people will just give up and stay in New Jersey.
Assuming you make it into the city or its suburbs, you'll need a place to stay. The way this works is that you go through the regular free channels like Craigslist for a while, thinking that you'll find a great place without paying an agent's fee (if you're lucky enough to know what these are beforehand), which is usually between 1 and 2 months' rent up front. Then you go see the places without fees, see that they all suck, and realize that you're probably going to give a lot of money to an agent very soon.
I got my apartment in Larchmont through HarborView Properties (warning: awful website). While the transaction went smoothly and it's a great apartment, I can't help but think that I'm in the wrong business. My agent got almost $1600 for showing me two apartments in one building on one day in one hour, plus a few hours (maybe) of work afterward to get the lease and paperwork together. The apartments aren't even advertised individually - I had to call them to inquire. Why do I write software when jobs like this exist? I imagine this is why a lot of people go into real estate.
The first morning after moving in, I discovered that the village of Larchmont had left me a welcome present: a parking ticket. Even though there are no signs anywhere to indicate this, it's apparently common knowledge that you can't park on the street anywhere in the entire city overnight - not even in front of houses on suburban residential streets - without a paid night-parking permit.
But a night-parking permit doesn't allow me to leave my car anywhere during the day. For that luxury, I need to buy a second permit that will allow me to park in a handful of city lots - but there's a waiting list for those permits, and it might take months to get one.
The only daytime permit available without a waiting list is a parking-meter permit. This is truly amazing: I can pay $35 per year for the right to put more money into parking meters every day. Yes, for $35 per year and $3 per day, plus $175 per year for the night-parking permit, I can park my car in the town I live in - and if I forget to put the $3 into the meter one day, I'll get a $50 ticket.
None of this is clarified on any signs, of course. This is a common New York attitude: the residents all know how to get around and do things properly, so they don't feel the need to erect or maintain signs. Many signs to highway onramps have been obscured by foliage for years and the residents don't notice. (The visitors don't either - they just get lost and yell at the friend who gave them directions.)
Once I had moved my stuff to a New York suburb and received my first parking ticket, I had to arrange to get myself to my new job in Manhattan every day.
Most Manhattan commuters ride some combination of big commuter trains, the subway, and city buses. The commuter trains (e.g. Metro-North, Long Island Railroad, PATH) bring people from the distant suburbs into Grand Central or Penn Station in Manhattan, and then they can take subways or buses to whichever area of the city they need.
Having lucked out by getting a job within walking distance of Grand Central, I figured that if I also lived within walking distance of a Metro-North station, I could cut my commute considerably and never need to move my car during the week. Unfortunately, any area within walking distance of a commuter train station will be flooded with cars every day from commuters trying to escape high parking rates. The towns enact strict parking procedures around train stations to prevent this, hence the wonderful Larchmont parking requirements.
Once I manage to get myself to the train station, I need to buy a ticket for about $200 per month. Given the savings in time, gas, car mileage, aggravation, and Manhattan parking that the train provides me, this is a pretty good deal - but it's yet more money added to the cost of living in (or near) New York.
If I'd need to ride the subway or bus every day, I could pay another $76 per month for an unlimited card. Since I can walk the 14 streets between Grand Central and the office pretty easily in about 20 minutes, I'll probably only use the subway when the weather would make walking extremely uncomfortable. That will be $2 each way. More money. At least this money leaves my wallet more slowly.
Once I'm in the city, I should really eat something. This is an interesting marketplace: the middle has been almost entirely cut out. You can go into a store or restaurant and eat for $8 and up, or you can get a surprisingly good variety of decent food from street vendors for under $3.
My favorite at the moment is the $1 or $1.50 hot dog - even if I need to eat two or three to be full, it's still cheap, and I have the option to eat less food when I'm less hungry.
I could reasonably pack a lunch every day and save a few bucks, but that would require a level of motivation and discipline that I just don't have. Bringing lunch to work on a 10-minute car ride is easy. Bringing it to work after an hour-long combination of mass-transit vehicles in the hot summer, however, doesn't result in great food or convenience.
If you come to New York, bring more money than you think you'll need. Secure a job before you arrive if possible. (If you're a great web developer who knows or can learn PHP and Rails, let me know and I might be able to help you out in this regard.)
It's a great place. But being a great place doesn't come cheaply.
And don't park your car in Larchmont overnight.