How to Save Money When you Live in a Big City

Every February, Finn & I partake in what we lovingly refer to as “Frugal February.” After the craziness of the holidays and the overspending that usually takes place on gifts, we like a month in the new year to reset and save money for the year ahead. For the past few years we’ve participated in our own Frugal February and the goal is to try to save as much money as possible during the shortest month of the year.

What is Frugal February?

For us it means no dinners out, no bar tabs, no morning coffee runs, no clothing shopping, no cab or Uber rides, etc. I’m not gonna lie…we’re certainly not perfect and we have spent money on a few of these things over the past 20 days. But it’s all about being aware, mindful, and intentional with our spending and every year we end up saving a lot of money. I’m talking big bucks people (a few years ago our Frugal February savings paid for our honeymoon!).

Coins-Money-Blog-FinancesWhile not spending money on any of the aforementioned items may sound like a big bore to you, it’s actually kinda fun. We get REALLY creative and try our best to spend as little as possible. We’ll typically spend random gift cards we have floating around our wallets, we plan movie nights in, and we get creative in the kitchen with what we have going on in our pantry (side note: we do buy groceries during February and any necessities! But we do try to be smart about it, so no impulse buys).

Chicago Wall Art Bridget Casey RookiesBeing in the midst of Frugal Feb has got me thinking about the little things we do all year round to save money. Because let’s be honest, Chicago isn’t exactly the cheapest place to live and it can be easy to spend up every last penny of our paychecks. However, we’ve gotten pretty good at saving while living in a big city and I want to share some of our tried & true tips with you today!

Track your Spending

computer laptop blog weekI do feel spoiled because my husband actually enjoys budgeting and reviewing all of our finances on a regular basis. As a finance manager, tracking our spending is just an extension of his day job. He uses excel to track everything, but back before we were married (& combined our accounts) I used and really loved it. No matter what you use, find something that works for you. Because the only way to save money and budget is to know where your money goes each & every month.

Meal Plan & Be Smart about Groceries

finn-kitchen-cookingWe probably spend the most amount of our monthly budget on groceries, which seems crazy because I often feel like our fridge isn’t even that full! While we’re trying to be better at meal planning during the week, we are pretty good at Sunday food prep. You can read more about what that entails in this post. We have a membership to Costco that we share with my mom and buy all of our pantry staples & frozen foods in bulk from there. This saves us a ton of money over the course of the year, as we always have healthy staples on-hand.

food-prep-suppliesWe also use the app called “My Groceries” to keep a running tab of what we need from the store. This app is great because we can both add items on there when we run out of something and it will be reflected on both of our phones. Before heading to the grocery store, we’ll often take a look at the fridge & pantry and add items we need onto the list. Then, while at the store we stick to the list and try our best to only buy exactly what we need!

08-fruit-bowl-kitchen-subway-tileIn the summertime, we try to save money on produce and hit up local farmer’s markets. This is a great option if you’re a city dweller as you can stock up on fresh produce on a budget.

Make Coffee at Home

coffeeWe have a Keurig and every morning I brew my own cup of coffee before heading to work. I used to fall victim to buying expensive lattes a few times a week, and it added up really quickly. I’ll occasionally splurge on the weekends and head to one of the 3 or 4 adorable coffee shops in our neighborhood, but I try to make coffee at home as much as possible!

coffee mug outdoorIf you’re a coffee addict like me, then I suggest getting a coffee pot and buying coffee or K-cups in bulk so you’re always ready for a fresh cup!

Bring your Lunch to Work

lunch-food-prepWith 2 working adults in our household, we could easily fall victim to daily lunches out which could quickly add up to $400 a month just for lunch! Instead, Finn makes lunches for the week and brings food everyday. We’re actually provided a catered lunch everyday at work (I know…I’m spoiled) so I never ever spend money on lunch. This ends up saving us thousands of dollars per year! Even if you live in a city and have access to great lunch spots near your office, I suggest bringing your own. You’ll save lots of calories and lots of dollars! And when it’s warm out, take your meal outside. I’ll often take my lunch to a bench and people watch near the river to get some Vitamin D and much-needed time away from my desk.

Find Free (or nearly free!) Activities

chicago_bridget_fashion_fall-sweater-michigan-ave-sweaterIt’s crazy how many awesome things there are going on in Chicago every single weekend. The summertime is always chock full of festivals, movies in the park, and free activities in just about every neighborhood. The colder months are a little more difficult, but I often check out the website Thrillist or Time Out Chicago to find free or inexpensive activities near us.

I also just learned about a website called Sofar Sounds. They’re in 310 cities worldwide and offer secret concerts on a budget (I’m talking like $10 a ticket!) You have to sign up for various days and then if you’re chosen they tell you the secret address for the concert. It’s always a small, intimate venue and is often BYOB. We have yet to go, but I can’t wait to try it out!

Chicago Bean WinterJust goes to show that you can have a fun & activity filled weekend without spending too much money. Take advantage of your amazing city and all it has to offer.

Walk When Possible

casey-athleisure-13I walk everywhere that I possibly can and try to avoid Ubers and cabs at all costs. Not only is this great for me physically, but it’s great on the pocket-book. I also love that walking allows me to explore new neighborhoods and see various parts of the city.

Use Public Transportation

bridget_Chicago_instaBut I can’t possibly walk all over the city, so when a destination is a bit too far I’ll use public transportation. We’re fortunate to have a great bus and train system (what we call the “El” here in Chicago) and I use it every single day. We always take the El when going to the airport for trips, and both my husband and I ride the train every single day to work. It is a huge money saver and is our favorite way to commute. In the summer we’ll also use our city bike system (Divvy) and ride around to various neighborhoods on the weekends.

Get Rid of your Car if you Can

keys bowlWhen we moved to Chicago, we each had a vehicle. After living here a few months, we quickly realized that we definitely do not need 2 cars and in fact could probably get rid of both. We ended up keeping 1 car (so we can get to and from the suburbs to see our parents), and sold the other one. We’re lucky that our condo comes with a garage to store it because parking can be a hot commodity here in Chicago. Paring down the number of vehicles in your household (& potentially even getting rid of your cars altogether) could be a great way to save money if you live in a big city! No car payment, no car insurance, no parking fees…

Sell Old Items

pillows-couch-tulips-flowersBecause we live in the city, we don’t have a ton of room in our condo. That means that anything we don’t absolutely love or need is either donated or sold. We’ve had tremendous success selling furniture on Craigslist (like our white couch for $700!), making hundreds of dollars over the last few years. I’ve also heard good things about the website Thred Up where you can sell your old clothing fairly easily. Might be something I look into next!

Have Friends Over

2-red-wine-diy-coastersGoing out to dinner with a group of friends, or even just heading to a local bar, can get pretty pricey. Instead, we enjoy having people over. It’s easy to pick up some snacks & drinks and most guests will BYOB, so it’s a win-win! Entertaining doesn’t need to be expensive, in fact it’s much more cost-effective than heading to a bar or restaurant for a night out!

Use Amazon Prime (if it works for you!)

mattress-new-boxI’m sure our neighbors think we are addicted to online shopping, because there is an Amazon box at our door just about every single day. We’re Amazon Prime members and find that it’s so much easier to buy random items and toiletries directly online than it is to go to the store. That way we can shop around for the best price, and we’re not tempted to buy things you don’t need (which often happens whenever I make a trip to Target!) Amazon Prime is a big moneysaver for our household and we love how efficient it makes shopping.

Ditch Cablefamily-room-built-ins-shelving-couch

This is actually something we’re starting next month, and I’m excited that we’re finally getting rid of our cable. We asked for an Apple TV for Christmas and have been loving it so far. Between that and Netflix, that’s about all we watch when it comes to entertainment at night. After reviewing our finances for the year, we both agreed that spending hundreds of dollars on cable just wasn’t worth it anymore. So we’re ditching cable for good!

How to Save Money in a Big CityWow, that turned into quite a lengthy post! Who knew chatting about budgeting could be so interesting?! Ha! For another look at how both Bridget & I save money on a daily basis, be sure to check out this post.

And other city dwellers…please share your tips! We are always eager to learn more and be better with our finances, so I’d love to hear how you save!


P.S. If you’re looking to save big on any upcoming purchases check out some of these amazing President’s Day sales!

  • West Elm (20% off entire purchase with SAVE20….including furniture!)
  • Target (Up to 30% off home items + additional 10% off with code PRESIDENT)
  • Nordstrom (Up to 40% off everything)
  • Overstock (Up to 70% off home items)
  • Anthropologie (Extra 40% off sale items!)

  • Love these tips Casey! We totally incorporate almost all of them! We prep meals for the week on Sundays, make coffee at home, walk everywhere, and haven’t had cable for years (but we’re not big TV people, so that might not work for everyone lol). You’ll have to let me know how you like the Netflix/Apple TV situation! And I can’t wait to check out Sofar Sounds. Thanks for sharing!

    Kira |

    • Sounds like you’ve got it figured out Kira! We are actually doing a Sofar Sounds concert this Saturday night, so I’ll report back with how it goes.

    • Ooooh yes can’t wait to hear about it!

  • Elaine

    I hadn’t had cable for about 8 years and only have it now because it’s included with my condo’s assessments. The hardest thing about ditching it is sports. Sure there’s over the air (which works AMAZINGLY well. Free HD! Yay!) but as Bulls fans, you can’t get those games (and the playoffs aren’t over the air until the finals). Pretty much everything else can be had sans cable. But the sports part was a pain. (Hockey has the same problem.)

    • My husband says the exact same thing Elaine! And we would always spring for the super expensive sports package so he could watch every NFL game on Sundays. So this will certainly be a change!

    • Caitlin

      May I suggest looking into Sling TV. We got rid of cable last year and got the $20 Sling package so that I could watch live HGTV (can’t miss a Fixer Upper) and my husband could watch live sports. They obviously don’t have every game, but they have ESPN 1, 2 and 3. It has saved us hundreds of dollars and I honestly don’t feel like I have missed out on anything! Totally don’t work for Sling or anything, it just changed my life, so I thought I’d share 🙂

    • I’ve heard of that before…but didn’t know if it was “legit”! Definitely looking into that immediately. Thanks so much for the suggestion Caitlin.

  • Maggie

    This was a really great post! I do much of the same: meal prep, no cable (I have an Apple TV as well), etc.. The only thing I would like for you to consider is getting a reusable filter for your Keurig. K-Cups are terrible for the environment. I have 2 resuable filters and rotate them and just buy the coffee I love to fill them with 🙂

    • Thanks Maggie! You’re so right about the K-cups. I’ve seen those reusable ones before…so smart!

    • I also love K cups, but l felt so guilty about throwing them into the garbage. Taking them apart to recycle is a pain, but then I found this cool gadget that separates everything for you. It’s called recycle a cup, and guess what, you can get it on amazon! What is even better is that I found a brand of coffee that makes compostible k cups! When I discovered these gems I heard angels singing! Not only are they good for the environment, they are reasonably priced and taste great! Sadly it is a Canadian brand (presidents choice for any of you Canadian readers) but I imagine you can find something similar in your neck of the woods!

    • That is so great to know! Thanks for sharing Kerri!

    • Teran

      I would second this, but with Amazon purchases! I’ve tried to be more environmentally conscious about the boxes, packaging materials, and even transportation costs. I’ve been able to cut some Amazon purchases (Target and Staples both price match to Amazon, and that takes care of a lot of my purchases), but when I can’t cut them, we try to only order once a week if we can wait for our purchase.

    • You guys are amazing! Saving the planet one box at a time. Loving all of these tips.

  • Such great tips and I love Frugal February! One additional tip I wanted to share with you guys – and this may no longer be a “thing” but it’s worth checking out. Even though I am a Canadian gal and now live in Vancouver, we spent a glorious almost 2 years living in Chicago and our son was born there. When he was a baby (12 years ago) I spent lots of time in the local library, and back then, you could “check out” passes to all of the local attractions like the Shed Aquarium, museums etc. so you could visit these places for free! This would only apply to locals, but I took full advantage of it and it was a great money saver! I wish we had something similar here!

    • Yes they still do this and I need to take advantage of it! Great reminder Kerri.

  • Erin

    I used to lament about meal planning/prepping but now I’m all about it. it definitely helps us stay in our budget….I basically have a budget for every category and we try our best to stay within those expenses — and if there’s any money leftover — it goes into savings for the future within that category. that helps us when say — our dog’s vet appointment comes up & that’s way out of budget, but because we don’t spend all $80 each month, i put the remainder in savings, so when her vet appointment comes up, the money’s there!

    and cable, UGH. here’s the issue — we either have comcast or fios. with either one, if we drop cable and keep internet — internet is MORE expensive than cable. UGH. we are on the struggle bus with this one! trying to battle it out with them. so frustrating!

    • Erin I totally feel you on the internet & cable! We were locked into a price for 12 months when we moved…and then once that was over it was like BAM, so expensive! And it’s not like you can go without internet haha

  • I love the idea of frugal February! We typically give up extra spending during lent which is a great way to reset my consumerism impulses. Love all your advice!

    • Love the idea to do it for Lent. That’s genius!

  • Steven Oliver

    Hey nice post. I’m from Chicago lived there for ten years. took me a year until I sold my car and dropped cable (kept wifi and neflix). Always had a small cooler in my back pack with food and beverage. In Chicago you leave your house for 12 hours or more. Lunch I dine at this wonderful place call Grant Park. (by the way did you know that there is a statue of grant in Lincoln park and a statue of Abraham Lincoln in grant park. what is up with that lol) I skip the EL a lot if I’m not in a hurry. Walk from south side to Wrigley no problem.
    Coupon clipping is essential! Printing out manufacture coupons, always get a card of the store, buy items on sale to stock pantry. NEVER shop for just that nights dinner. Have a plan. I’m a chef I make excellent meals in my kitchen that cost me only $2 to $3 dollars a dish. If you want to maybe have a date night cheap. Go to Bank of America theater. Get there before 5pm. You put your name in a bowl and one of you have to present at drawing and you get $25 tickets that others paid $250 for months earlier. Go early in the week Tuesday everyone in my drawing took up the front row. lol Lady behind us was not happy when she found out how much she paid . Also remember to have a Chicago ID. doesn’t have to be a drivers license just a Chicago ID gets you 20% of a lot of touristy stuff. Also sorry sears tower but John Hancock has you beat! Free elevator ride to the top floor. Hit the lounge and only order a pop. Best view of the city! Don’t go to the signature room. It is an incredible restaurant fantastic food but we are talking about saving money Also the water taxi is great. Can take from the observatory to navy pier I believe for $3 same with the Chicago river. You just don’t have a person talking history of the buildings and land. Also don’t forget the beach! Picnics on the beach how cheap is that! The museums have free days also to Chicagoans. Also if you have a bike bring if you visiting but please stay on the boardwalk not on the streets. Can be dangerous street biking. You can take the boardwalk along the lake front and safe. Hollywood beach is a free party on Sunday lots of fun then restaurant Big Chicks has a evening cheap menu. I have more tips of living in a big city with a budget. Frugal is HOT right now! Its a conversation at every table to get deals. Have a great day!

    • Wow! Thanks for all of this insight Steven. Such great ideas for things to do here!