Living in Boston, it’s easy to feel the financial pinch. Fiscally, the odds are stacked against you. We are living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, with a cost of living index hovering around 50% higher than the average American city. If you have visited friends in flyover country, you likely marveled at the affordable abundance of their grocery stores, the great bargains on housing, and noticed the low cost of nightlife in other towns. It’s enough to make even the most dedicated Boston hipster consider a move to other trendy yet less expensive towns like Austin, Texas, Denver, Colo. or Charlotte, N.C.
But take heart, gentle Hipstonians. It is possible to live well in Boston on a budget. I know this because I do it myself. Before you assume I have some magical financial mojo that you don’t, please consider my story—How I went from being broke to not only having my finances under control, but being able to enjoy frugal living.Before you assume I have some magical financial mojo that you don’t, please consider my story—How I went from being broke to not only having my finances under control, but being able to enjoy frugal living.
Once upon a time in college, I believed I would get an “amazing job” right out of school and racked up debt with abandon. Luckily, I lived in the inexpensive college town of Columbus, Ohio, where my rent was $355 a month for a one bedroom and a cover charge at the club was rarely above $5. After college, I moved in with family on the west coast where I learned that “amazing jobs” right out of college are few and far between—after much searching, I was lucky to find an internship that paid $14.75 per hour. When my internship ended, I moved to Boston to live with my boyfriend (now husband). Shortly after I moved here, I was offered a job that paid over $50,000 per year. Finally, I thought, I was getting paid “what I deserved.”
As I had about $30,000 in student loan debt and several thousand in credit card debt, I probably ought to have started paying it off. Instead, I began spending every weekend going shopping. I didn’t know many people locally, so the most accessible form of human contact was to walk into a store and make it clear that I had money to spend. I filled my free time with massages, hair appointments, and expensive nights out, usually including a three course meal (plus alcohol), a concert or play, then a late-night snack at the South Street Diner, followed by a cab ride home. My boyfriend was a broke grad student who had been raised frugally, so if we were going out, I usually ended up footing the bill. I had no idea what else we would do.
Of course, it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The company I was working for at the time went through a reorg. I was demoted to a job that was paid just over $30,000—a number my organization felt was commensurate with my experience, but couldn’t come close to sustaining the lifestyle I was living. I was 25, broke, and lonely in a fairly new and very expensive city.
I can’t say that frugal living came naturally to me, or that the transition was at all easy. The first things that went were the obvious excesses- no more shopping trips. No more expensive dinners. But much of the transition was easier said than done—I didn’t have the skills needed to live frugally. Over the next few years, I learned how to cook, how to get clothes mended inexpensively, what’s worth spending money on and what isn’t. I slowly paid off all of my credit card debt over a period of three years, and, while I still have student loan debt, I am proud to say it is down to a manageable amount. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned to combat the emotional causes of overspending, including boredom, loneliness and low self-esteem, breaking the unhealthy shopping cycle I had in college and my early professional days.
In the coming weeks, this column will examine different components of living a frugal lifestyle in a major, expensive city like Boston. The topics I plan to address in forthcoming issues include:
Ways to cut costs on any budget
Managing money for the hip- Just because you’re fabulous doesn’t mean you don’t need a budget!
Frugal entertaining- How to impress friends and live the good life on a shoestring budget
Life pro tips and things you should know that can save you money
Why we spend- The emotional causes for spending and more frugal ways to cope
Free (or cheap) stuff in Boston- What’s going on around town that will be fun and won’t break the bank