How to Make a Profit
Services should be revamped. When you start off, most of the services will be an overkill when you unlock them. You get the hospital at what, 1k and they handle 100 people, which you don’t really need. Even in my local community of 5k people, I never see more than 30 people in it, it’s a major waste of money. Unlike in Tropico where service number is decided by the number of workers you have in that building, Cities Skylines doesn’t allow you to do that. Technically you can partially defund them but if you do it too much, your citizens start complaining.
Also, schools are really nuts, they start off with a capacity of 1000 and can be upgraded to 1500. My city of 10k population need a capacity of barely over 1000, oh and kids don’t go to schools if they are too far from their houses, so you will be wasting a lot of money on school capacity that no one will be using.
Once you unlock the production tab it will give you a good idea of where most of your loss outside of services is coming from. I would suggest starting with livestock since they don’t need fertile land, but if you have it grain and veg is a must. Making locally reduces costs significantly and also opens up exporting it to so you can make money on it.
Raise taxes. My suggestion is to keep high taxes in the -5 area (up to 20%) to start with, maybe favour specific areas within groups with lower taxes to promote more growth to specific areas. (Don’t forget taxes aren’t limited to sectors, I like to keep industry high but lower the food related ones to help promote local).
Drop a taxi depot and immediately upgrade it to have the dispatcher. Lower budget to 50% initially and you’ll find the fees cover the cost of the depot maintenance pretty much straight away.
From there it really comes down to micromanaging your other services. Do you really need two schools, or will upgrading the existing one suffice? Same with medical/police/fire. I would suggest making sure they serve multiple districts or not using districts too soon so they service large areas.
I’ve managed to get myself to a place where I am right on that line breaking even and the fluctuation is coming from food production, so my next step will be to add a few more farms to make sure I have continual surplus then I will venture into adding a bus system.
It is very much a micromanaging balancing act but it is doable. I’ll be honest I am not the best at city builders in general, but if I can at least break even most people should be able to.