I live in NYC and still save money—here’s the trick that helps me do it

Emmie Martin | CNBC

Living in New York City is undoubtedly expensive. But it's not New York's fault when I stumble into H&M and walk away with three new sweaters.

It's easy to lean on the fact that the city has such a high cost of living when my credit card bill clocks in higher than my budget allows. And while the realities of living in an expensive city certainly take their toll at times, after living here for three years, I've learned that the biggest factor in managing my budget comes down to something I can control: my priorities.

Going into every month, I know exactly how much my rent, MetroCard, utilities and other regular bills will cost, giving me a clear picture of what I have left to spend. I thought I was doing a pretty good job staying focused on only buying what matters, but after completing a savings challenge last September, I realized just how many things I buy out of impulse or convenience.

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Cruising down the aisles of Target, it's easy to throw in a bottle of shampoo here (I'll use it eventually) or a pack of cute stationery there (It's only $4!), but it all adds up. To combat this, I employ a simple trick: I make a list of exactly what I need before entering any store.

Prior to grocery shopping, I and list out every ingredient I need. The same goes for CVS runs.

Focusing on my list puts me on a mission. It makes me want to grab only what I need so I can check everything off, rather than leisurely perusing every aisle, casually tossing items in my cart as I go.

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If I stumble across a non-essential item I think I need, I make a note in my phone to buy it during my next trip. Chances are, I'll realize I didn't really need it after all.

Not every purchase is as concrete as "apples" or "toothpaste." But I still try to apply the strategy wherever I can.

When shopping for clothing, for example, I decide which "wants" have purposes — a dress for a friend's wedding, new boots to replace my salt-stained ones from last year — and make a list of what to prioritize.

If it's time to invest in a new winter coat, that's what I keep my eyes peeled for as I window shop. Having a game plan helps me focus my search in stores like H&M so I can avoid walking out with those sweaters while I still need new boots.

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I do the same with larger purchases to an extent. Each year, I set overarching goals for myself and do my best to use them as a lens through which to filter how I spend my time and money.

This year, for instance, I decided that seeing live music is important to me. So I'm willing to put more money toward concert tickets and I spend less on travel and dining out.

These goals may change month to month, but as long as I'm continually reevaluating my priorities, I'm able to keep a "list" of where to splurge and what to skip.

Living in New York is expensive, so since I likely have less disposable income here than I would elsewhere in the country, I do my best to be strategic about it.

Of course, it's hard to stay disciplined all the time — I have several receipts for impulsively purchased chocolate bars that can attest to that.

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