“So no one told you….” rent was gonna be this high.
New York City is one of the most expensive housing markets in the United States, fending off challengers from other US cities like Los Angeles and Miami. Not only that, it has recently been locked in a race with Singapore as the most expensive city internationally to buy or rent a home in. Bottom line is, finding an affordable apartment in New York City is difficult depending on a variety of factors, but it’s easier to find when you’re with Friends.
Friends, the seminal sitcom about six twenty-somethings navigating the world of 90s New York City, is credited with inventing “The Rachel” (which is back in style as of 2022), and of course, who could forget Ross’ iconic plea “we were on a break!”
But the housing market in New York has never gone on break. Since the early 90s, rents around the city began to trend upward noticeably, continuing through the 2000s. In 2022 it’s estimated that a minimum-wage worker would have to work over 100 hours weekly to afford a one-bedroom apartment.
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So were the 90s really that different? How did Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe, Monica, and Joey afford their places when they were broke, their jobs were jokes, and of course, their love lives were DOA?
What did the Friends do for work?
One of the most important factors when determining the affordability of a housing situation is the jobs the tenants have and how much of their paychecks they’re able to fork over each month. The Friends had an odd array of jobs that, by today’s metrics, make it difficult to believe they could afford to live in New York at all, let alone with the luxuries afforded to them by their admittedly modest apartments.
Rachel, for instance, worked as a waitress at Central Perk (now a real-life location) from the first season until “The One Where Rachel Quits” in season 3. She eventually entered the fashion industry, landing a position as a fashion executive at Ralph Lauren while courting another offer from Gucci in Paris in the final season; quite the come-up.
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Monica was a chef throughout the series, working her way up through the kitchen until reaching head-chef status. She ended the series as a respected food critic and owner of two prestigious NYC eateries.
Joey Tribbiani is an actor who, more often than not, is out of work, minus a brief stint playing opposite a robot for the sitcom “Mac and C.H.E.E.S.E.”
Phoebe is similarly in the arts, being a musician and songwriter. She’s also a masseuse and has at times, even resorted to mugging to make a quick buck.
Chandler and Ross represent the corporate and academic spheres, respectively. Chandler worked as a copywriter for an ad company, while Ross found work as a professor of paleontology, a notoriously controversial and boring profession.
Some of these jobs make it easier to believe their lives in Greenwich Village, where the show is set, were feasible. Professors in the 90s, for example, were earning, on average, anywhere from $42,000 to $50,000 per year in New York. Adjusted for inflation this would see Ross easily raking in more than $120,000 today, more than enough for a single-bedroom apartment where he lived. As a chef, Monica’s pay would’ve received modest increases throughout the series as she worked her way up the chef ladder from line cook to sous chef to executive. But at the beginning of the show, she was likely not making much more than $10,000 (or $23,000 by today’s standards) yearly.
Phoebe, who also doesn’t live with any of the other friends throughout the show, has a uniquely affordable living situation. After living with and taking care of her grandmother, (played by the late Audra Lindley), it can be assumed that Phoebe inherited her apartment, and life insurance possibly afforded her additional funds to continue living there.
How much rent is too much rent?
When deciding the affordability of a living situation, how much rent is too much to pay? Well, it’s entirely based on your job and salary and desires.
There are a couple of rules that make calculating affordability easy, such as the 40x rule or the 30% rule. Many landlords require that your annual gross income be at least 40 times your monthly rent. For example, to afford a $3000 apartment, you’d have to make approximately $120,000 per year. This may sound like a lot of money, but it helps to account for unforeseen expenses and the cost of other amenities such as gyms.
Another similar rule is the 30% rule which is exactly what it sounds like; allowing for 30% of one’s gross annual income to be paid toward rent. For instance, if one makes $90,000 yearly, following this rule, they should be prepared to spend no more than $27,000 a year, or $2,250 monthly. In Friends, Joey Tribiani spent some time starring in “Days of Our Lives” in a recurring role as Dr. Drake Ramorey, where he would’ve been making something close to $400 to $900 an episode, translating to approximately $230,000 at the end of a 260 episode season. If he was making this amount consistently, Joey could’ve narrowed down his options during “The One Where Joey Moves Out” to apartments with rents at or below $5,750 per month. However, tragically, Dr. Drake Ramorey spent most of his time on the show in a coma following an unfortunate tumble down an elevator shaft.
Additional expenses such as utilities, food, and transportation can be a major drain on funds as well. The cast of friends, for instance, spent somewhere close to $2100 on Central Perk coffee alone throughout the course of the show. These additional funds account for up to 20% of one’s annual income on average. This means that between these additional expenses and rent payments, one could see 50% of their paycheck vanish; spent entirely on the necessities of city living. These percentages are subject to change, and things such as inflation and a volatile economy can cause the percentages paid toward such expenses to skyrocket.
These numbers are in many ways themselves less-than-realistic, as currently, over half of New York renters spend more than 30% of their paychecks paying rent.
Where did the Friends Live?
Friends is set in Greenwich Village in downtown Manhattan. Like many television sets, the apartment does not actually exist. In actuality, the show was largely shot in Burbank, California. Monica’s apartment is what fans commonly refer to as the “Friends” apartment, although there was a season 4 stretch where Chandler and Joey temporarily swapped apartments with her after winning a bet in “The one with the Embryos”. Its exterior shots can be traced back to 90 Bedford Street, a common tourist attraction; however, the apartment’s actual address is different. In the episode “The One With The Invitations”, a wedding invitation is shown which reveals the apartment’s in-world address to be 495 Grove Street, Greenwich.
Greenwich is currently a relatively expensive neighborhood to rent in, a 2-bedroom averaging around $5,500 monthly. This is similarly a good guess at what the price of the Friends’ condo would cost today.
The Friends Apartment Building
The building was a pre-war walkup, meaning there’s no elevator, which would have come in handy in “The One With The Cop” and its pivotal couch-moving sequence. The apartment and its affordability actually come up as issues in the plot of the show in an episode called “The One with the Ballroom Dancing”. In the episode, it is revealed that the apartment actually originally belonged to Monica and Ross’ grandmother, who lived there before rent regulation in the 1940s. The episode’s plot surrounds Monica attempting to trick or otherwise convince her landlord to let her sublet the apartment from her very-much-deceased grandmother, keeping her stabilized rent payments. This resulted in Monica being able to afford the apartment by keeping payments astronomically low. How low were these payments? According to the show, about $200 a month! Adjusted for inflation, this means that she was only paying about $450 a month by today’s standards!
This arrangement means that the Friends apartment, despite its size and location, was uniquely affordable for Monica and the gang, even if it was only possible through some shady backroom dealings (or shady Ballroom dealings if you know the episode.) Rachel, as a recently estranged daughter of a wealthy family, is likely not paying rent for the majority of the time she’s staying with Monica, which wouldn’t be a problem if payments were so low. Chandler and Joey live in a significantly smaller space, which is possibly similarly rent-controlled. However, Chandler’s relatively non-descript corporate job seems capable of paying the bills, even when Joey is enduring one of the (many) dry spells in his acting career.
Is the Friends Apartment Realistic?
Yes and No. Under the circumstances of the show, Monica’s grandmother dying and the subsequent finessing of their landlord would allow them to live there indefinitely. Chandler and Joey’s apartment is similarly affordable, while Ross and Phoebe’s arrangements are also feasible. But is the apartment is “realistic,” as in, does it exist in real life? In this case, the short answer is no. Even if the apartment existed, it would likely not be as large and spacious as the one featured in the show.
Looking at Greenwich Village now, we can find some similar listings, such as this 2 Bedroom 2 bathroom at 231 Sullivan Street, which is newly renovated and features an open kitchen and floor plan, something similar to Monica’s iconic pad. The floor plan, however is still significantly smaller than the Friends apartment, but a lot of this can be attributed to it being a television set over an actual building.
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Production designer John Shaffner designed and helped to build the set along with his partner, Joe Stewart. The two sought to create a set that would “feel as comforting to the viewer as their own home.” Greg Grande, another designer of the set, said of the space that he wanted “a whole new kind of eclectic taste with a flea-market, whimsical, anything-goes style”, which resulted in the creative mish-mash of decor which appears on the screen.
The point is the apartments on Friends weren’t built for people to live in, they were designed to be visually and aesthetically pleasing while remaining functional for television filming. Most television and film sets are just that, sets, superficial facsimiles of actual or imagined locations. There’s no ‘fourth wall’ behind where the cameras sat most of the time, and therefore the apartment’s design and dimensions are largely inflated, something that’s more obvious when viewing behind-the-scenes images of the set. But Friends was never about being realistic. In many ways, it’s a fantasy about city living in the same vein as Sex and The City or Seinfeld. So while in some ways, Monica, Joey, Ross, Rachel, Phoebe, and Joey’s lives in the early 90s were absolutely possible, they weren’t realistic by any standards.
Josiah Thomas Turner is writer and musician based out of Washington Heights, New York. Turner received his undergraduate degree in Drama from the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point before earning an M.F.A. in Playwriting from The University of Texas at Austin. Born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Turner trained as a multi-instrumentalist from a young age and spent much of his early years creating and performing music. Josiah’s current interest include animation, video-games and French-Canadian prog-rock.