It is 100% possible to live frugally anywhere. Of this, I’m convinced. I often hear folks bemoan our high cost-of-living city as thwarting frugal endeavors, to which I say preposterous! For all of our post-college years, Mr. Frugalwoods and I have lived in notoriously expensive locales: New York City, Washington, DC, and Cambridge, MA (twice). And we’ve still managed to adhere to–and enjoy–an extreme frugality regime.
Lately, I’ve been pleasantly inundated with messages from fellow Boston-area frugal folks–thank you all for saying hi and especial thanks to those of you who’ve invited us over to your homes, we look forward to meeting you!
In an effort to give the people what they want, I’m devoting a few strokes of the pen (keyboard?) to detailing how Mr. FW and I frugal it up in one of the priciest zip codes in the country. What we’ve discovered is that high cost-of-living areas are actually secret boons for thrifty people. Hidden amongst the ritzy retailers and posh restaurants are havens of frugality sure to make even the most frugal among us leap with glee.
When the naysayers scoff at your undertaking of devout thriftiness in the big city, tell them nay! For as city-dwellers know, a large metropolitan area is home to the frugal weirdo’s greatest advantage: options. Much like frugality gives you options, options themselves yield frugality. It’s a virtuous cycle, my friends. From grocery stores to hamster wheels, there’s rarely a monopoly on any one good or service in the city, which serves to foster healthy competition for low prices. This glut of options–not to mention the sheer number of people living densely compacted in one area–facilitates a robust used market at thrift stores, garage sales, on Craigslist, the Buy Nothing Project, and of course, my personal favorite, the side of the road (aka the trash).
And as we find ourselves on the eve of perhaps the most epic trash find weekend in Cambridge–the annual September 1st move-out–I feel it’s only appropriate to humbly submit this guide to frugal living in our fair city of Boston, MA.
The Frugalwoods Guide To Frugal Boston Living
1) Epic Grocery Store Savings
Mr. Frugalwoods and spend a cool $300-$350 per month on groceries–and since we don’t eat out, this is every morsel of food we consume. We’ve judiciously price-compared our way around town in order to uncover the dirt cheapest deals on tasty, healthy food in our region. And there’s only one champion in these grocery store wars: Market Basket.*
I’ve lauded them before, but it bears repeating that Market Basket–a local New England chain of grocers–has the lowest prices of any store I’ve ever frequented. Their costs are comparable to Aldi’s, but I find their quality vastly superior. Especially in the produce department, Market Basket throws down top-notch organic veggies so fine (and so economical), they’ll bring a tear to your deal-seeking eyes. Might I also point out that Market Basket is a haven for local Boston flavor, replete with their sawdust-on-the-floor cleaning methodology and lengthy, colorful loudspeaker announcements ranging from Red Sox scores to employee birthdays to, you know, things actually happening inside the store like sales on charcoal and cat food.
We frequent the Somerville Market Basket (a mere 1.5 miles from our home) and apparently, so do many of you since we’ve actually been recognized there as Mr. and Mrs. Frugalwoods. So if you see a bearded guy and a pregnant lady with a cart full of veggies (and homemade tortillas–those things are amazing), please say howdy!
A crucial element of cunning frugal food procurement in the city is is to not fall victim to the nearest grocery option. Since there are so many stores in our region, it’s tempting to just trot to the closest one and stock up. But for Mr. FW and me, that would be the Whole Foods right down the street and I think we all know how quickly our meagre grocery budget would inflate if we went that route. Definitely worth it for us to travel a few extra miles to snare the bargain-basement deals of Market Basket.
*In the interest of full disclosure I will note that at 0.39/lb, Stop-and-Shop’s bananas are a full 0.10 cheaper per pound than Market Basket’s. Other than this glaring caveat, MB seems to have the lowest prices on every single item we buy.
2) Bulk Shopping For The Win
We have both a BJ’s and a Costco within a mere 15 minute drive of our house. How lucky are we, guys? Mr. FW and I are Costco people, but the ability to choose is, again, a wonderful thing.
Our $55 annual membership at Costco is made entirely worth it by the savings we reap on Frugal Hound’s food alone. For you see, Costco stocks a generic version (Nature’s Domain) of the expensive, grain-free kibble we used to buy for Frugal Hound (Taste Of The Wild). Costco’s hound chow contains identical ingredients but for a fraction of the price. Win!
We also have a standard list of items that are cheaper at Costco than at Market Basket, thanks to Costco’s bulk offerings. Can’t beat Costco’s 0.10/serving oats! And of course there’s the gloriously low-priced toilet paper…
Although storage space for bulk products can be a challenge in cramped city quarters, if you can inventively find a way to squirrel away 45 rolls of toilet paper and 4 lb cans of garbanzo beans, it’s worth it! I recommend hiding products in the drawers of unsuspecting partners/roommates. Think of the fun they’ll have discovering the fruits of your frugal shopping alongside their socks!
3) A Stellar Used Market
Thanks to the large population, there’s a robust used market here in Boston (and in any big city). Lots of people = lots of used stuff! Additionally, there are many extremely wealthy people here who often give away/throw away their deluxe, nearly-new items. Capitalizing on this notoriously hot used market is a central strategy for Mr. FW and me and it’s how we outfit ourselves and our home for a nominal cash outlay. The used market takes many forms and woe betides the frugal weirdo who neglects one of the below listed options.
Thrift stores are a chief destination anytime we need, well, just about anything. Their principle utility is for clothing, which is a prime example of an item that can (and should) almost always be purchased used. What I’ve discovered is that the most noteworthy of thrift finds are at stores in uber-wealthy zip codes. Fortunately Boston has quite a few of those, which serve to supply us with a plethora of discount threads. And the sheer volume of used clothing in the region renders shopping new a nearly obsolete concept.
My fave Boston-area thrift joints:
Revolve: by far the absolute best in lovely, consigned garb for ladies. Much more expensive than Goodwill, much cheaper than any new store. With locations in Belmont, Lexington, and Winchester, this shop certainly ticks the box of posh zip code. The superlative clothes in my closet are sourced from none other.
- Keezer’s: our top source for second-hand men’s dress clothes. They boast a huge selection of tuxedos, suits, slacks, sport coats, ties, shoes, sweaters, and more–all at fabulous prices and served with a classic, old-school Boston touch. From the exterior, the building looks like it might be abandoned and doesn’t improve much after you enter. But, boy do they have superb threads! Located near Central Square in Cambridge.
- Buffalo Clothing Exchange: decent duds for men and women. Skews slightly younger and less professional, but I’ve found fantastic dresses here–including the periwinkle J Crew number I’m wearing in the photo above. Mr. FW has several casual button-down shirts from here as well. Locations in Somerville and Allston.
- Goodwill (especially the Central Square and Davis Square locations): you know, it’s Goodwill! Home to gigantic racks of the cheapest clothing in town! We’ve had the most luck with clothes for Mr. FW–can’t beat $2 shirts and $4 pants. Word to the wise: their baby clothes are vastly overpriced (in the opinion of moi)–you’re much better off going the hand-me-down or garage sale route for your kidlets.
- Boomerangs: not quite as prodigious a clothing selection, but Mr. FW and I have both found nice outfits for reasonable prices. Worth it to peruse their hilarious hipster housewares selection alone. Plus, they have a commendable mission.
Another upside to thrifting is the ability to sell or donate your cast-off garb back to any number of consignment shops around town. Just this month, Mr. FW and I donated a ton of clothing to Goodwill.
The Buy Nothing Project
One of my most beloved frugal discoveries, the Buy Nothing Project, was initially suggested to me by a reader (thank you, kind reader!) and I soon learned it’s an international organization with hyper-local chapters organized to enable neighbors to give and share their used things with each other.
I’m a member of the Cambridge group and I cannot tell you how appreciative I am for this community! In addition to receiving an incredible slew of items for Babywoods’ $0 nursery, we’ve been able to give away quite a few unneeded things to the group (a picture frame, a window screen, a chip-and-dip, a cheese plate, a shoe rack, and throw pillows in the last few weeks alone!).
The Buy Nothing Project serves as my constant motivator to clean out our clutter and give away things we no longer need. I love finding folks who can use our old stuff and I also love receiving their old stuff! Such a fabulous group for recycling, building community, and shunning the traditional consumer economy.
Garage Sales and Craigslist
Here again we Boston-area folk benefit tremendously from our densely populated urban area. Both the garage sale and Craigslist markets are saturated with high-quality used goods and I defy you not to find a deal on what you need. Our entire home is furnished courtesy of the Boston Craigslist and we couldn’t be happier (check out my tips for how to Craigslist like a boss).
Garage sales are a terrific source as well and usually yield lower prices than either Craigslist or thrift stores. The hitch is that it’s more time consuming to travel around to different sales since you never know what they’ll be offering. We like to stroll to nearby sales early on weekend mornings–that way, it’s an enjoyable outing whether we find anything or not. Plus, arriving early ensures you’ll have your pick of the choicest items.
4) Landmark Trash Finds
Nowhere have I experienced trash finds so illustrious, so momentous as on the streets of Cambridge, Somerville, and sundry surrounding regions. Cantabrigians (and Bostonians) tend to move frequently and the side of the road is often the recipient of anything they can’t/won’t take with them to their new abode. And never are the pickings better than circa the move-out day of all move-out days: September 1.
As today is August 29, I can barely type for the excitement coursing through my frugal fingers as I anticipate what riches might await us this weekend! We kicked off this season right by snaring a working mini-fridge last night, which I spotted on my way home from yoga (don’t worry, there’s a future post in the works on why we need a mini-fridge… ).
Over the years, Mr. FW and I have netted everything from furniture to baby goods to clothing from the streets of Cambridge and Somerville. To peruse our highlights, check out our Great Trash Finds section. And if you’re a newbie to the trash finding cult, you might enjoy my tutorial: Our 12 Tips For Finding Roadside Treasures (aka Great Trash Finds).
5) Endless Free Entertainment
Beyond the astounding people watching opportunities our fair city proffers, big cities are goldmines of free entertainment. Mr. FW and I have no problem adhering to our $0 entertainment budget thanks to the wide array of gratis fun things around here. From street festivals to free days at museums, one need look no further than outside one’s front door to stumble upon free entertainment.
Our top free entertainment haunts in Cambridge:
The Harvard Art Museums: always free for Cambridge residents and free for Massachusetts residents on Saturdays from 10am–noon. Mr. FW and I can spend hours browsing these gorgeous galleries. And, the view from the top floor is spectacular. A perfect indoor frugal activity–one of our wintertime favorites.
- The Harvard Peabody Museum Of Archaeology And Ethnology: free to Massachusetts residents every Sunday morning (year-round) from 9am–noon and on Wednesdays from 3pm–5pm (September through May).
- The Cambridge Public Library: we are devotees of the main branch, which if you’ve never been, is an architectural destination in its own right with a sprawling lawn and playground out front. Added bonus: the tennis courts next to the library are free to use, which we’ve done (and I’m pretty sure people gathered to laugh at our abominable tennis “skills”). In addition to books, which you can request online, the library offers free and discounted passes to local museums and attractions, which you can borrow just like books!
Another wonderful thing about Boston is its proximity to countless regional historic sites and attractions. Mr. FW and I recently took a very frugal day trip to Salem, MA and there are dozens of other quaint destinations within striking distance. The best part about visiting these towns is usually just walking around–which is totally free!
The region is also home to a number of excellent spots to revel in the great outdoors. Although our preferred hiking destinations are in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, there’s a bevy of lovely locales closer to home.
Our favorite places to experience the outdoors:
- The Blue Hills: boasts hiking trails that we traverse when we’re not able to drive the 3+ hours to the mountains. A brilliant in-town option for getting your nature on.
- The Middlesex Fells: ditto to what I said about The Blue Hills. The Fells has a plethora of beautifully wooded trails and you can lose yourself in the forest just a few minutes outside of Boston. Check out my hike review here.
- North Point Park: a bucolic and surprisingly spacious park tucked next to the Charles River and across from the Museum of Science. Perfect for picnics, dog romps, and general breathing of fresh air.
- Cambridge Common: a delightful grassy knoll near Harvard Square well suited for roaming or cycling.
- Boston Common: ideal for strolling hand-in-hand while taking in the sights of downtown Boston. Wander past the swan boats, the frog pond, and through the Boston Public Garden.
- Prospect Hill Park: just a few steps from Union Square in Somerville, this adorable park offers panoramic city views and fun history to boot.
- Walden Pond: Thoreau’s famed stomping ground from 1845-1847. A scenic and historic body of water to waltz around.
6) Transportation Choices
Since we can bike, walk, take the T, or drive to get where we need to go, we find we’re able to get by on about one tank of gas per month for ol’ Frugalwoods-mobile. This gas savings is also offset by the fact that when we do need to drive somewhere in town, we usually don’t have to go terribly far.
Taking advantage of the multiple modes of transit available in the city is an ideal money-saver. And, plenty of frugal folks don’t even own a car at all! Plus, transportation becomes entertainment when you discover…
7) The Joy Of Walking
This is perhaps our absolute favorite thing about city life, and probably what we’ll miss the most once we’re out on the homestead. The ability to walk out our front door and essentially get anywhere we need to go is a phenomenal luxury of living in Cambridge. This is a relatively small town geographically speaking, and we’ve walked from our house to Fenway Park, to the Cambridge Common, to the Museum of Science, and all points in between.
For us, strolling the city is equal parts entertainment, exercise, and mode of transportation. The world looks different when you take it in on foot and we love the vibrancy and culture we absorb on our jaunts. Plus, Frugal Hound is a fan.
8) Hack Your Housing
No post about city living would be complete without a mention of the white whale of urban life: housing. Our greatest hack for housing is pretty simple: don’t live directly adjacent to a transit line. We were able to buy a single-family home in Cambridge, but it’s about a 20 minute walk to the nearest Red Line stop. We wouldn’t have been able to afford a place closer than that. And as a result, we find that we T less and bike or walk more–thus saving even more money in the process!
There’s a huge difference to be had in prices over the course of just a few blocks. For more on how we managed to buy our Cambridge house, check out Why Did We Buy Our House? and Our 12 Tips For Visiting Open Houses: We’ve Been To Over 270.
9) High Paying Jobs/Commensurate Benefits
This is the crux of why we live here in the first place. Although Mr. FW and I certainly don’t make investment banker salaries, we’re able to earn more thanks to working in the city. If you’re living in Boston but aren’t being aggressive with your career, it’s sort of like getting a brain freeze without being able to taste the ice cream.
At the end of the day, the high cost-of-living is worth it if you’re reaping the commensurate benefits–such as a respectable salary or a world class education (hello Harvard and MIT). Use the city to its fullest potential and leverage a higher salary or a terrific education or an amazing experience. If you’re not netting a significant benefit from living here, it’s not going to be worth it.
The crowning glory of living in a large city are the immense number of options we have in where to spend our rarely-spent dough. The myth that cities are inherently anti-frugal is utter hogwash–and I’d wager there are more opportunities for free and inexpensive endeavors inside the city than out.
Leveraging this multitude of choices to your advantage saves a tremendous amount of money and, it’s also a wonderful way to live. By opening ourselves up to the diversity of experiences that the Boston area offers, we’ve been able to enjoy all the benefits of a world-class city on a budget that saw us spend a mere $13,000 (other than our mortgage) in all of 2014. It can be done, and it can be done well. Beyond just surviving in cities, frugal people can thrive in the urban corridor.