15 Frugal City-Living Tips To Save Your Budget

Frugalwoods_City_LivingLIVING IT UP ON A BUDGET

 

Living in the city isn’t for everyone—it’s hectic, expensive and not the most natural outlet for frugality. Or is it? I’ve found that city-living actually lends itself very well to the frugal life.

There are plenty of ways to extract value and reduce your expenses while living in traditionally high-cost locales.

Mr. Frugalwoods and I have done the city thing. Since graduating from college, we’ve lived in New York City, Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA (twice).

Why would we, as notorious frugal weirdos, live in some of the most expensive cities in the world? Well, to be honest, because we wanted to.

We were both raised primarily in the mid-western United States and had romanticized visions of the chic, cutting-edge, cultured cities of the fabled east coast. We wanted to prove we could make it, that we could succeed in these notoriously competitive job markets, and that we could maintain our frugal wits in these havens of lifestyle inflation. And we have.

The past 8 years have been an incredible experience for us. It has also been instrumental in teaching us what we really want out of life, which, as it turns out, is the exact opposite of what these cities offer.

Our plan now is to retire to a homestead in the woods at age 33, quit our jobs, and leave the trappings of our urban environs behind. I can honestly say that there’s no way I could have come to this realization without first living city life to the fullest.

While these locales boast a notoriously high cost of living, we found ways to not only frugalize urban life, but to mold it to our money-saving advantage.

I’ve shared before that I worked for Americorps in NYC and was able to save $2,000 of my $10,000 annual stipend. And while in Washington, DC and Cambridge, Mr. Frugalwoods and I finagled our urban environments to our advantage and found that city living facilitated our 65%-85% savings rate.

While we’re seeking to escape the high-stress rat race for the long-term, city-living has actually promoted our frugality. Just about anything can be done frugally, as Mr. Frugalwoods and I are always out to prove.

 

15 Tips For Frugal City-Living:

 

Salaries are higher

 

This isn’t exactly a tenet of frugal city living, but it is a gigantic component of how we’ve made it work. Our higher city salaries enabled us to buy a single-family house in the middle of Cambridge, MA, which is nearly unheard of for people our age (we were 28 at the time).

How did we do it? We kept all of our expenses, other than housing, as low as humanly possible. Housing is somewhat out of your control in the city (though there are more and less expensive options) and so we focused our efforts on every other part of our budgets.

That’s what we do to this day, and when I share our expenses every month, it’s rather eye-opening that our mortgage is quite a bit more than all of our other expenses combined.

Additionally, Mr. Frugalwoods and I (pre-Frugal Hound!) lived in a relatively dank, sunless basement apartment for the first three years of our marriage and socked away money.

We had our frugal sights set on buying real estate in Cambridge and knew we’d need a hefty down-payment in order to receive financing for a mortgage.

Since we bought this house with the intention of turning it into a rental property, which we’ll do once we’re on the homestead, we’ve been very pleased with the increases in rental prices in the city.

 

Cheap transportation

 

Our total cost for transportation in the city is pretty darn cheap. Unless you’re doing something truly funky with your commute, city living yields low transit costs. Principally, we don’t drive much.

Our intrepid 18-year-old minivan, the Frugalwoods-mobile, only gets driven about 5,000 miles a year. And we typically spend about $45 per month on gas. Not bad. We reply on walking, public transit, and biking for the majority of our transit needs.

And when we do drive, it’s usually a short distance. The shorter, less expensive commutes inherent to urban life are tremendously advantageous.

 

Walk-ability

 

In addition to the power of commuting via your legs, cities are fabulous places to simply stroll. We take walks with Frugal Hound almost daily and it always provides an interesting perspective.

The sheer size of people living in every square block makes for some entertaining action and we love checking out what’s happening in our ‘hood. Plus, it’s great exercise–the city is the original gym (in my opinion anyway).

 

Free sirens

 

Yep, that’s right, all those sirens that wake city denizens up in the middle of the night are completely free of charge! No need to pay for music when you can have the city’s natural soundtrack serenade you when you least expect it and without cost. What a bargain.

 

Free events and world-class culture

 

There’s basically no reason to ever pay for entertainment when you live in the city. Mr. Frugalwoods and I have a $0 entertainment budget and never feel deprived.

Between events at our incredible public library, street fairs, free days at museums, festivals, and just the generally fascinating things you see on walks (see #3) we’re covered. Experiencing a culturally robust life without spending a dime is a prime benefit of city living.

 

Grocery store options

 

The multitude of grocery stores in a 5 mile radius of our home is staggering. Since they’re all in easy walking distance, we can comparison shop, buy produce in small quantities (to cut food waste), and sniff out the best deals. Of course we were once mistaken for through-hikers at the grocery store, but we wear that as a badge of frugal honor.

 

Easy comparison shopping

 

In addition to the wonders of multiple grocery stores, we can comparison shop for just about anything: car mechanics, veterinarians, doctors, etc! We could easily call 10 different plumbers to get quotes where in smaller, more rural areas, there are simply fewer folks to query. All of this competition serves to increase quality and drive prices down.

Another key element of comparison shopping are customer reviews. Yelp and similar user-generated review websites provide profound insight. Mr. Frugalwoods and I use Yelp for just about everything–nothing beats analyzing businesses based on 500+ customer reviews.

 

Free parallel parking lessons

 

Since we don’t have a garage, which is par for the course in urban homes, we’ve come to rely on our mad parallel parking skills. Lessons are often proffered by yelling, gesturing, and otherwise frenetic maneuvers by other drivers.

Or, if you happen to be as lucky as we are, they’ll be offered by your eccentric neighbor who goes around shirtless all summer shouting out parking “advice.” It’s a real plus folks, let me tell you.

 

Great trash finds

 

Do not, under any circumstance, underestimate the power of the Great Trash Finds a city has to offer. Mr. Frugalwoods and I regularly tote home stellar items we’ve scavenged from the side of the road.

A sampling of our greatest hits: a down-filled Land’s End ladies’ coat; a brand-new J Crew men’s dress shirt; a circular saw; a camera tripod; sundry kitchen utensils (a fondue pot, wine glasses, coffee mugs, glass Tupperware, an apple peeler/corer); a dresser and bookcases. Our notorious trash finds make us more smug than Frugal Hound when she encounters a plus-sized urban rat.

It’s amazing the stuff people toss out in the city, yet it’s not surprising. Folks move frequently in our region and many don’t own cars, which makes donating used items considerably more challenging. But what I don’t understand is why more people don’t just sell their stuff via Craigslist…

 

A+ Craigslist

 

The Boston-area Craigslist is a straight-up treasure trove. Anything you want, it’s got it. Our entire house is furnished via Craigslist and we got some sweet deals. This will also work in the other direction if I ever get my act together enough to list some of our cast-offs (which are currently clogging up our basement storage area…).

 

Smaller dwellings

 

Residences are generally smaller in the city, given how densely packed the populace is, and small living is frugal living. Utilities are cheaper, plus, it’s less house to maintain, clean, repair, and furnish.

 

The natural gas grid

 

Many cities offer residents the ability to connect to the natural gas grid, which is usually vastly less expensive than propane or oil deliveries (which are more common in less densely populated ares).

 

Free tuba concerts (seasonal)

 

The Frugalwoods neighborhood is home to “the tuba guy”–a dude who marches up and down the street listening to a Walkman and playing a sousaphone.

I probably don’t need to point out that sousaphones have one volume: loud. Yet, as quickly as he arrives, he departs with the faint sound of deep brass notes lingering in the breeze. Who are you, oh ephemeral and enigmatic tuba guy?

 

Escape route (aka the airport)

 

Living 15 minutes from Boston Logan Airport has been a huge boon for us. We can take either public transit or a fairly inexpensive cab ride and then not pay to park our car at the airport–score! Flights are also typically cheaper and more direct from a large city.

 

Low property taxes

 

If you live in an affluent city, your property taxes might be very low. Ours are here in Cambridge thanks to the presence of two major research universities (Harvard and MIT) as well as a substantial number of corporate entities (particularly in the biotech, bioengineering, and software fields).

The hefty taxes that these behemoth institutions pay Cambridge make the city wealthy and cut property taxes, which is great for the little guy (and hound)!

Conventional wisdom would have you believe that cities are money-sapping traps and, while there are certainly pitfalls, it’s entirely possible and really quite easy to live an uber frugal life in the city.

Mr. Frugalwoods and I have heartily enjoyed our “city-living years” and I’m so thankful for the opportunities we’ve had. We threw ourselves into it with very little knowledge and no experience, but it was a blast! If you’ve always wanted to try urban life but are afraid of how the finances will shake out, don’t be! Do it and do it frugally.

Do you live in a high cost of living area? What’s your experience with urban vs. rural. vs. suburban living?

Post Contribution: Mrs. Frugalwoods blogs at www.frugalwoods.com about her journey towards financial independence and a rural homestead, which she hopes to reach in three years at the ripe ol’ age of 33. Until then, she documents adventures in frugal city living in Cambridge, MA with her husband, Mr. Frugalwoods, and their greyhound, Frugal Hound.

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Mr. CBB
Mr. CBB was born and raised in the United Kingdom who then moved to Canada where he is a permanent resident. He recently became a father to a very busy toddler who allows him to be a kid at heart. He bought his first house at the age of 21 after University and his second at the age of 24. Both Mr.CBB and his wife are Debt and Mortgage Free and they did it all in under 5 years using a Budget. Canadian Budget Binder is a place where he shares their financial experiences with his readers and hopes to learn about theirs. Welcome to CBB!
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Comments

  1. Your website is wonderful, and content materials are remarkable!

  2. I grew up in suburbia just outside big cities. I had a romantic view of small town life and when we moved we did so to a smallish town that at the time had 12K residents. That was 1995 and there was 2 stop lights and a few 4 way stop signs. Now there are 55K residents and stop lights everywhere. Still it is a small town feel and we have walk-ability in the historic downtown. I wouldn’t move back to a city if I had the choice. We are over 60 miles away from the airport but I don’t fly as much anymore so its no big deal. When I work like I am now on my early retirement side hustle I do have to commute about 20 miles over a mountain which can suck in winter but all in all small town life is the best life. Living the dream in Castle Rock CO.

  3. It’s nice to know that it’s possible to live frugally anywhere, as long as you’re willing to do a little legwork (walking and biking) and research. Positively Perfect Post! 🙂

  4. I’m thinking it’s pretty pricey where we live but it’s all relative. The midwest would be cheaper and Seattle would be more expensive. Fortunately, we have the benefit of living just a half hour from Seattle. We love to go spend the day up there and then we love to come home where life is a little slower;0)

  5. Living in Staten Island, which is just a 25 min ferry ride to Manhattan has afforded us to live in NYC but not pay crazy Manhattan rental prices. Frugal living can definitely be had in major cities. In our case, we are looking to move to a lower cost of living state in order to purchase a home (hopefully in cash) in the next couple of years.

  6. I would rather live in the cheap Midwest. I’ve just gotten used to it. I remember how expensive everything was when Greg lived in Chicago. Never again!

  7. Yes, salaries are higher, but so is the general cost of living. I live in a smaller city outside a metro area – if you’d take my home and plop it in the middle of NYC….yikes, I’d never be able to afford it!

  8. I live just outside of Toronto and pay a fortune to live so close to the big city (not my choice, since I work from home and could work anywhere in the world, but my hubby is in Toronto). I have friends that live in Toronto and they all say that one of the best parts about living in the city is that you don’t need to own a vehicle. You can get around just fine with public transportation and save yourself a heap of money by doing so.

    I laughed at the “free parallel parking lessons” bit, because this is so true in Toronto (if you drive there!). It’s rare that I can find a spot to park that DOESN’T require parallel parking!

    • Parallel parking is a requirement here in Cambridge too! Impossible to get around it (parking pun!). But, the best really is just not using our car too often. It’s a great savings and I prefer other modes of transit most of the time (cheaper and less stressful).

  9. I live in Baltimore, just up the road from DC. I *completely* agree with this list 100% except for the property taxes! Taxes in the city here are high even for Maryland, which is already a high tax state 🙁 but I love being able to walk everywhere!

    • Oh pesky taxes! We luck out in Cambridge on that front–just happens to be a great side benefit of having so many universities and large companies based here. But walking everywhere really is living the dream as far as I’m concerned :)!

  10. You’re right on all points, the city is a good way to make money if you’re willing to put in the work and live frugally. I’m a country girl that moved to the big city to study and work for many years and I took advantage of many of those things.

    On the other hand, I moved back recently to have more space and less noise. Granted, I have a bit more commuting to do, but I save in other areas compared to the city like heating and taxes, and the decreased stress is worth it. I’m willing to put up with more years of work to live somewhere I enjoy right away.

  11. Christine Weadick says:

    We live in a small town, not cheap by any means but we manage. Our grocery store is across the street and I do go into town every so often to stock up on things I can get cheaper there. A nice thing about the smaller towns is that everyone knows everyone else to a fair degree. Our mechanics parents lived two doors down from us, we get pretty good service there.Our bank is up the street, actually the entire down town area is a couple of blocks away. So many things are walking distance here.
    What you said about picking up things in the trash reminded me of my sister-in-law…..and the time she took their dog for a walk and came home with a wicker shelving unit. Her hubby saw the shelving unit walking up the street towards the house with the dog walking in front …he knew to get the door for her. She painted it white and used it for ages!!!
    There are ways to be frugal no matter where you live…it just means you may have to be a little more creative with things to get by. Good article by the way!!!!

    • Your small town sounds wonderful to me! We hope to be part of a community like that when we move out to the country. And, you’re absolutely right that you can be frugal anywhere. Kudos to your sister for scavenging the shelving unit–that’s a great trash find!

  12. People always complain about the cost of city living, but as you shared, even though some things are more expensive, there are more options and with more options, that means more ways to save. You just have to have your eyes open and look out for those savings. Despite the fact that you can save, I am still REALLY impressed with how you were able to live when you lived in NYC.

    • Thanks! It was definitely a fairly unusual year for me in NYC, but it was frugal. The number of options in the city certainly can lead to savings–it’s all about comparing prices and being patient.

  13. Here in Calgary home prices seem to have gone up every year for the past 5-6 years, especially inner city. We have avoided the costs of an expensive inner city home by purchasing in the suburbs. Commuting costs need to be factored in but you can still save big and it all depends on how much you value your time since commuting is much longer in the suburbs

  14. I agree that Craigslist is much more effective and better when you’re living in the city. I suppose higher population means better Craigslist ads. When we lived in Vancouver proper we’d often hear a guy singing operas while walking down the street…he was very good and a great entertainer. 🙂

  15. That’s great that you’ve been able to make city living work for you. We hope to move to a larger city soon, so we might have a chance to try these out.

  16. Craigslist is much more popular here in the city than in the suburbs so I’ve been able to sell more things in a shorter amount of time. I once met up with a buyer and deleted my ad within an hour of posting it! There’s also more variety too I find.

  17. We are definitely not city-folks. I think I would get tired of it in about a month, whereas Mr. Maroon would last about a second. We are country folks and will move out farther as soon as we hit FIRE. Mr. Maroon currently commutes about an hour each day. It is a price we were willing to pay to have room to spread out at home. His sanity, and the subsequent benefit to our marriage, is well worth it to us.

    You do give some great ideas and advice for the tons of folks that are cut out for the urban life. Glad it has worked so well for y’all!

  18. Small living is frugal living- truth. I’m convinced it’s been my ten years of NYC living that turned me into a minimalist.

  19. We’re a suburban family and Simple Cheap Dad commutes to work by bus. We’ve considered moving into the city to be near family, but the housing costs have held us back. We’re not as walkable as in the city, but we still can walk to a discount grocery store, library, schools, restaurants, and sports center. But it’s not the nicest walk past houses without a sidewalk then through parking lots.

    Sometimes I think about the costs we’d have if we moved out to the country. We’d have cheaper housing, but groceries, gas, travel costs and lots of other things would be more expensive, so I’m not sure that’s worth it either.

    • That’s wonderful that your husband can commute by bus. What a great advantage! And, it’s nice that you’re able to walk at least some places. It’s definitely a trade-off with country living–I think some of our expenses will be higher, some lower. Hopefully it’ll sort of even out 🙂

  20. $45 on gas per month is great!! I work from home and still I spend on average $100. I have expensive rent since I live in LA but offset that with renting out my garage (shh, don’t tell my landlord) and I have very low utilities. It makes it bearable. I love movies too much though to have a no entertainment budget. I do try to do netflix and red box as often as possible though and having so many red boxes around, it makes it very easy and convenient!

    • Thanks! We love our gas bill :). Good call on renting out your garage–nice! Low utilities is awesome too and a great benefit of your more clement weather out there. Our winters can get expensive, even though we keep the heat low.

  21. Age 33? That’s phenomenal and very motivating.

  22. I am going to pass along this info to my brother, who is a recent transplant to Boston and has very expensive taste! Unfortunately, until his residency is over, he is not making bank or living large. I think he’ll benefit from these tips!

  23. I think it’s important to distinguish between “urban” and “suburban” living. I live in the suburbs, but it’s a first-ring suburb and we live very close to both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Housing costs are expensive in the entire metro area here, especially if you want to live in the city (which many people do, including my sister). I think it’s much more affordable to live in the suburbs, though, and commute in. It really varies by urban area, though, as NYC is different than DC is different than MPLS-St,. Paul, etc. But I think the biggest thing is the higher salaries. There are thousands of finance jobs in the metro area here and they are probably all higher paying than finance roles in smaller cities. I don’t anticipate ever moving away from an urban area unless my wife gets her dream job as a professor and the school happens to be a college town.

    • That’s a great point about inner-ring suburbs! Definitely varies by region and is wise to consider all of those factors you mentioned–commuting, salaries, and home prices. We looked at homes in the suburbs here, but, they were nearly as expensive as our city house and would’ve lengthened our commute considerably. Sounds like you’ve got a good deal going on too!

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