How to Live in a Big City on a Small-Town Budget

Many young professionals and recent college grads dream of moving to the big city. Big cities offer excitement, culture, and activities that are hard to match in smaller locales. Plus, there are oodles of other young people to meet for the single set. But big cities are also known for their high cost of living, and if you don't have an equally high salary (something that is hard to come by in the current economy), you may have a hard time living your dreams. However, even with higher prices, you can get by in a big city with these helpful tips:

Choose your city wisely

You may dream of New York, L.A., or San Francisco, but there are many other big cities that offer the culture and entertainment benefits of these metropolises for less — especially if you are willing to venture away from the coasts. Chicago is a great example. As the third-largest city in America, it offers the amenities of its rivals at a fraction of the living expenses. (See also: City Shopping: Finding Your New Frugal Home)

Get a roommate (or two or three)

You’ll save a ton on rent and utilities. Also, 2+ bedroom rentals are much less in demand in many big cities, since young singles often opt for their own places. You’ll get a bigger, nicer place and for much less. Plus, it can be fun to hang out with roommates — just make sure you live with like-minded people.

Pick an inexpensive neighborhood

Some neighborhoods that are a bit off the beaten path can be great places to live and save. Look for where the artistic/creative set is flocking to, and follow. However, make sure you feel safe in the neighborhood. You don’t want to end up somewhere you are afraid to leave your apartment.

Ditch the car

You don't need a car in most cities. Use public transit, bike, or walk. If you have to have a car, remember to get something older, since you will likely need to park on the street, and dents and scratches are common. Or, look into car share services like ZipCar for short trips and shopping.

Save on restaurants and events

Restaurants and events are one of the big appeals of living in a large city, and while budgeting is great, sometimes you need to splurge. Save on dinners out by using sites like or Groupon to buy gift certificates. Also, consider BYOBs that allow you to bring your own drinks and save. Groupon and Living Social can also be great places to save on tickets to shows and sporting events or other activities like yoga and rock climbing.

Share the groceries

Consider ethnic stands for buying produce and organize trips to the "burbs" to stock up on non-perishables with your friends. Split the cost of a warehouse membership, buy in bulk, and divide essentials to help save.

Host your own parties and get-togethers

Stay away from expensive social gatherings at bars and restaurants by hosting your own parties and get-togethers. Ask friends to bring their own refreshments or food. Plus, you’ll be known as a planner/connector, a great way to boost your social life.

Shop at thrift stores

This is a no-brainer, but a lot of big cities have great thrift stores where you can find clothes, appliances, and furniture. With large populations, these stores frequently get new items. Plus, the retro look is in, and you'll look cool in your young hipster neighborhood.

Forget the gym

Big city gyms can be expensive. Take advantage of city parks and limited urban sprawl. Walking or biking to work and errands can keep you in as good shape as a gym. Or check out the Y, which offers discounted memberships, and consider splitting a membership with a roommate or significant other.

Use the library

Most big cities have extensive library networks to rent movies, books, and even music. They also generally offer free Wi-Fi to help you save on Internet.

These are just some ways to help you fulfill your dreams of the bright lights in the big city without bankrupting your future. Saving money is important, but so is living your life.

This is a guest post by Jesse Lynch. Jesse is a Chicago-based marketing professional and freelance writer. When not plotting ways to save money, he writes for his food blog Fast Food Reviewed and his personal blog. Read more by Jesse:

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Guest's picture

This is a great post, thank you for writing it! I grew up in a small town but live in thriving, dense, bustling, downtown Toronto. I don't need car, am in better shape for walking and cycling far more, and enjoy my life despite living on a modest income.

Guest's picture

We recently (a year ago) moved from the 'burbs to San Francisco and I honestly think our living expenses have gone down. Our living space is smaller, but we pay almost nothing in utilities, I only fill the gas tank 1-2 times a month and spend little on public transit choosing to walk more. Everything I need is within a 10 block radius so I waste less. As for a gym, 24hour fitness is the same price everywhere, so we can still afford that and there must be 8 or 10 in the city. Lots of free entertainment here also, so we don't spend on movies or shows (why would you when you can see a movie for free in the park?).

I can't see myself returning to the suburbs.

Guest's picture

Thanks Brenda. San Francisco is a very cool city. I've spent a lot of time there. The rent can be a little high, but there's tons to do, especially outside, something I miss living in Chicago 4 or 5 months out of the year.

Guest's picture

For the gym, I'd also see if your employer or health plan offers a discounted membership. While my gym isn't the greatest ever, I'm paying significantly less than market rate for it via a long standing agreement between the gym and my employer. Plus it's on my way to work (walking, naturally) and 2 blocks from my job.

Another option is Planet Fitness - though the ones near me are inaccessible without a car. They start at $10/month for memberships.

And I don't know what I'd do without Zipcar. They are running a promotion through early next year where you can rent a car from 6 pm to 8:30 am Monday through Thursday for only $34. I've been doing that every two weeks to take care of groceries, laundry, and any other errands that aren't convenient via public transit.

Guest's picture

Ha! I loved this article and am pretty pleased that I'm doing most of what's on your list (I must be frugal to survive!)

I'm new to Chicago from California- I pay $310 a month rent with 2 roomies, close to the train (I use a U-pass to get around) and I make frequent use of the libraries, thrift stores and free days at the museums! Groupon is also a good fave.

My local public library offers free passes to the museums if you can snatch 'em up, and what's great about the thrift stores is that some allow you to trade in other clothes for credit.

OH, one thing I'd like to add- if you live in the city, take advantage of the schools! You can get discounted haircuts, massages, spa treatments, etc. if you go to an institute with students who need to clock hours! I got a great haircut for $16 from the Aveda Institute. Oh, there are also lots of fun cooking classes around here to try out too.

Yelp has been tremendously helpful- but the great thing about the city is just walking around to explore! My tip is to have comfy shoes, bring water and snacks (so you're not tempted to spend $$ on a bottle of water/tea and save it for a better meal). Great article! ;)

Guest's picture

These are great tips. I also saw useful and really funny stuff on