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!).

Tips on how to save some moneyWhile 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 isn't the cheapest city to live inBeing 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

Track your spendingI 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

Weekly meal prep is an easy way to save moneyWe 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.

Groceries to prep your mealsWe 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!

Fresh fruitIn 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

Make your coffee at home to save time and moneyWe 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!

Morning coffee outsideIf 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

Bridget enjoying fall in ChicagoIt’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!

There's plenty of free, fun in a big cityJust 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

Walk whenever you canI 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

Utilize public transportationBut 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

Forgo a car whenever possibleWhen 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

Sell old itemsBecause 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

Entertain in your home whenever possibleGoing 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!)

Be thrifty- Amazon Prime is our best friendI’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 CableDrop cable and stream where you can

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!


The Year of Casey

Hey there!

I’m Casey Finn, the voice behind The DIY Playbook. I’m married to Finn & mom to Rory and Ellis. Together we’re creating our dream home in Chicago, one DIY project at a time.