How to Survive Sydney on a Budget

Live in one of the most expensive cities in the world and thrive on a dime.

Fifteen dollars for two pounds of bananas; twenty-four dollars for a Sunday afternoon movie; sixty dollars for a t-shirt. Living in Sydney, Australia: priceless. The cost of living in the Land Down Under will probably blow your mind, but the ease of obtaining a year work visa is worth it. Most people who apply for the country’s Working Holiday Visa get approved within days, if not hours. To apply, all you have to do is fill out a simple form proving sufficient funds to support yourself, spell your name correctly, and pay $300. While on this visa, you are eligible to hold any job you like, as long as you change occupation every six months.

The Economist ranked Sydney, Australia as the world’s third most expensive city to live in behind Osaka and Tokyo Japan, but there are simple ways to save those colorful Aussie dollars. After living here for almost a year, here are my suggestions:

Out on the Town

Optus Movie Rewards, $10 cinema vouchers: Usually a trip to the cinema here will cost you around $24 or more. If you have an Optus phone plan, then you are entitled to the company’s discount movie tickets, which can be used at 130 different cinemas country-wide, including the popular Hoyts. Just buy the tickets online at Optus Movie Rewards  prior to your screening.

If you’re not an Optus member, many cinemas offer cut-price Tuesdays. Or for a more unique date night experience, try Govindas. For $30 per person you get an all-you-can-eat Indian cuisine buffet and entrance to their theater downstairs, which is clad with cushy couches. The Domaine Theatre hosts free art house films, if that’s your jam.

Free Art Gallery Openings: lists daily goings-on in the art industry including free gallery openings, some of which involve free live music and booze.

Free City Tours: A free three-hour walking tour of Sydney? That’s right. I’m Free Tours is fun and entertaining. Tips are customary, so it’s not 100% free, but you can pay as you like. Interested in military history? Tour the Victoria Barracks for free on Thursday and Sunday.

Free Museums: If you’re an art buff, these will be worth your while.

Art Gallery of NSW
Museum of Contemporary Art
Australian National Maritime Museum

Free Live Music: In Sydney, venues upon venues upon venues host free live music. These are just some of my favorite places.

Frankies Pizza, CBD: Hardcore and classic rock
Black Sheep Bar, Newtown: Brass band, ska, jazz
That Cuban Place, CBD: Salsa ($10 mojitos)
The Sando, Newtown: various
Arcadia Liquors, Redfern: Blues, folk, bluegrass

Otherwise, the Sydney Concert Playground has a decent listing of live music.

Cheap and Quirky Inspiration: Bored with the usual date night? Here are some of my off-cuff delights.

Life Drawing on Mondays for $5: sketch nude models at an art-themed hotel.
Barefoot Bowling: shoeless bowling on the grass.
The Power House Museum: a converted electricity station that displays scientific and design experiments.

Cheap Drinks

Searock Bar: $5 happy hour (excellent location on the water)
The Manly Boardwalk: $5 Coronas available at various venues
Happy hour websites: Sydney Happy Hour; The Happiest Hour 


Since most cafés close around 5 p.m., if you pop in sometime before then, many places offer major discounts just to get rid of their baked goods. The same is true of any sushi place. Hand rolls for $3.00 each are popular here for grab and run grub. At the end of the day, they’ll sell off three for $5.

If you’re really broke, eat tuna. Grocery stores like Aldi and Coles sell a rainbow of tuna flavors from Panang Curry to Lemon Pepper, and they sell for only $0.75 each. Otherwise, if you’re feeling more civilized than that, opt for Thai food, which is always cheap. At lunch, a huge plate of Pad See Ew goes for around $6.50 to $8.00 depending on the restaurant. Around dinner, Thai usually costs $12.00 per plate. The funky Newtown neighborhood has Thai food stacked on top of Thai food, so you won’t have a problem getting Laksa there.

I’m otherwise still scouting restaurants that serve cheap and delicious meals.

Life Logistics 

Free international calls

When you arrive to Australia, the top two phone plans are Optus and Telstra. If you can pay a bit more, and plan to journey around Australia, choose Telstra because the coverage is much better when traveling around the country. If you are cheap like me and love freebie benefits, choose Optus. I love this company. My $30 a month pre-paid sim card includes unlimited use of Twitter and Facebook and, drum roll please, free international calls to 23 countries, including the USA (the time just counts toward your standard minutes). Calls to other Optus users and texts to any Australian mobile are also free.

Discount Groceries

The cheapest grocery store in town is Aldi, especially for wine. Just be prepared to buy things in bulk. They also don’t have a lot of specialty items. Click here for store locations.

Discount Clothing

I arrived to Australia on the back end of a tour through India, and I intended only to stay for three months max. Here I am almost nine months later. I of course left all of my valuables and everyday clothes back home and brought instead my summertime rough and tumble travel attire. A huge problem when you arrive in Australia without sufficient clothes: they’re f(*&$#*&* expensive here! Even Target’s “fashion selection” is through the roof.

This is going to sound ghetto, but trust me. People here love to thrift shop, or go op shopping as they call it. The most popular places, again trust me, are Salvos (the Salvation Army) and Vinnies. While in the US I wouldn’t even shop at the Salvation Army for pans, here, it’s another story. While yes you do have to do the usual hunt for treasure, it’s unbelievable the stuff you’ll find. I found a brand new pair of Nine West snake skin pumps for only $8. Worth the adventure.

Free Fitness

You’re in luck. Just because you’ll be throwing back sausage rolls and meat pies like crazy here, doesn’t mean you have to get fat. Not a fan of the gym? Try these options.

Free Pools
The Prince Alfred Park Pool, opened this year, will be free to all visitors until November 2013. Otherwise places like the Victoria Pool charge a nominal fee per visit. One of my favorite things in Australia is the number of oceanside lap pools, which filter in saltwater with the waves. There is one at Bronte, Maroubra, and Coogee.

If you can’t get to the nearby Royal National Park for a proper hike, then try one of these circuits in town.

The Bondi to Coogee Cliff Walk takes you five miles along the coastline and back with an incredible view along the way. The Spit Bridge to Manly Walk likewise takes you along the coast, but also through a woodland area. The Harbour Circle Walk takes you 59 kilometers around the entire Sydney Harbour.

The DIscount Yoga Circuit

I can’t say that I endorse this :). But … there are hundreds of yoga studios in Sydney, most of them offer a $25 unlimited two-week yoga special. I have heard that some expats work the circuit, hopping from one studio to the next to score the deal. Places like Life & Balance in the Central Business District even offer the first two weeks for free. If you’re not shady, then head over to Barefoot Yoga in Paddington, Sydney’s first studio run entirely by donation. They offer diverse styles of yoga and all of their classes are great. They even host weekend workshops that are usually by donation as well.

I am still here, which means I continue to scout great deals. In the comments section, please let me know if you have any suggestions.

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1 Comment

  • sophia says:

    Megan- very helpful blog. I had to print your blog out so I don’t forget to check 95% of the things you’ve recommended. I’ll be in sydney soon and these tips are super helpful. If you’re still in sydney, would be fun to connect. Either ways – i also enjoy traveling and live to travel as much as I can in this lifetime. 🙂 Will continue to visit your blog for other helpful tips. Keep writing!

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