So you’re new to Chicago, starting to settle in your new home and neighborhood. You’re getting a feeling for what life will be like in Chicago; there’s so much to do, isn’t there? Unfortunately, doing all of these things are sometimes not within our means…but they can be. Simple things like planning a budget, keeping track of your expenses and saving are pieces of advice we hear all the time but don’t like to think about. I know I definitely don’t like having to worry about keeping within a budget. Sometimes I wish I could be a spending crazy savage, throwing my money at life’s most absurd luxuries like suit pajamas, but then realize that it could be better spent elsewhere. In this section, we’ll go over your finances as they relate to settling down in Chicago and tips to save some money. Let’s dive in.
First things first: bills. Knowing who supplies your heat, gas, electricity, water and garbage/recyclables disposal is the first thing you should take care of within the first few weeks. This can be as easy as asking your landlord or realtor. If you don’t live in an apt., ask your neighbors. Most of them wouldn’t mind helping, plus you can start establishing a relationship with the person right next door! Once you’ve figured out a list of who provides what, it’s time to set up accounts and most importantly, automation systems. Set up an automatic monthly payment to these companies on the same day so that you don’t have to worry or think about missing a bill. If you’re like most Chicagoans, your main suppliers and average costs per month (barring deposits and such) of all these necessities will be:
-ComEd: Electricity – Summer: $50 - $60 | Winter: $30 - $40
-People’s Gas: Cooking Gas – $30 | Heating – Summer: $30 | Winter: $150 - $200+ (depending on your gas company and size of home)
-Chicago Department of Water Management: Water and Sewage – $40 with a meter installed
-City of Chicago: Trash and Recyclables: This comes out of your property tax, but there may be a fee for this soon unfortunately
All of this information is ballpark and gives you a general idea of what to plan for. Do the heavy duty research when you get time as there are all sorts of plans to choose from.
Now that we have all of our first-world amenities taken care of, we can move on to another basic human necessity: food. Most cities seem to have a few major supermarket chains that dominate the industry and then a few smaller market type of stores. Chicago is no different as it offers a plethora of supermarkets to choose from. Whether you’re on a budget, vegan or all natural, you’ll find somewhere you love to shop at. The atmosphere, selection and deals are what we will be looking into for different chains unique to Chicago in this section.
Mariano’s is spread-out through the greater Chicago area, but mostly near downtown and the surrounding areas serving as a super market for younger professionals and people who dislike the typical Walmart vibe. You can find a wide variety of groceries here ranging from gluten free to organic and fresh meat, but beware, as it’s not always the cheapest option. The staff is always helpful and the layout of the store really goes along with what you would picture as a fresh market: It has a really unique and modern design. Like most grocery store chains, there is a rewards card available giving you access to making shopping lists, rack up points every time you shop and store a multitude of coupons available on their website onto your card. If you care for a younger atmosphere and whole/fresh foods, you would love Mariano’s.
Pete’s Fresh Market
You won’t see many of these downtown, but they are expanding slowly and may pop up in your neighborhood soon. Pete’s stays true to its name: fresh. Every store I’ve been into looks so clean and organized, sometimes I wonder if they renovate it every night. Similar to a Whole Foods except a bit cheaper, you’ll see a mostly 30’s-50’s age group shopping here. Similar to Mariano’s, the rewards program works like $1 = 1 point, but unlike Mariano’s, the system for coupons and their mobile app is disorganized and there is no coupon page on their website. Still, you can take advantage of their in-store coupons or printable online catalogs. This is a good choice if you’re looking for somewhere with a less hustle and bustle type of vibe while still looking to shop whole and fresh foods.
Jewel is yet another choice for Chicagoans and very well established. Being the oldest grocery store on our list, Jewel provides a budget shopping experience available pretty much everywhere in Chicago. Their stores are definitely not as ‘hip’ or fresh looking, with an old style look serving mostly…you guessed it: older people. But hey, there’s a reason this grocery store has been around for almost 120 years, right? Not as expensive, but also not as high quality food as the previous two, Jewel offers your basic grocery items at a very convenient price. The rewards program, or MyMixx, is basically the same as Mariano’s program except it comes with an app. It’s not the best, but gets the job done. Jewel is the best place to shop if you’re looking for low prices, unique to Chicago and if you’re older as they tend to have older staff members and an old school way of doing things.
Your Local Mom n’ Pop Grocery Stores/Deli’s
If you notice small grocery stores or deli’s around you, don’t hesitate to stop in and check it out. Although there is no way they can offer the super low prices of the bigger chain stores for most products, what they can offer is a personal vibe and superb customer service. Some items, especially meat, may be cheaper here than the bigger chain stores so definitely don’t rule this out. If you don’t mind supporting these stores, eating fresh and having regular conversations at the grocery store, don’t discount this as an option.
Chicago’s Farmers Market
Between May and October, this unique to Chicago event happens every day in different areas of Chicago. Offering mass quantity and variety, you can buy in super bulk here if needed and save some money. It’s not the cheapest, but you can find all types of fresh fruit and vegetables here that are often not at other places.
National Chain Stores
Lastly, huge chain stores like Walmart, Costco, Target and Aldi are options readily available to those of you who don’t really care about atmosphere or superb quality. You won’t find Walmart superstores in the city, more like mini-sized, clustered stores. There are two types of Walmart’s downtown: fresh produce and home goods so be aware which one you need to go to. If you’re on a tight budget and a tight schedule, check these out.
Ways to Save
Knowing all your options, you can now decide where and how to allocate your money. The best way to do this is to have a plan. Modern technology has made it easier and less time consuming to budget your expenses. Apps like Mint, LearnVest and TurboTax Budget, are programs that collect transactions you’ve made off your debit and credit cards and then automatically sort them according to categories. You can monitor all types of spending accurately and see where you need to cut down. I highly recommend using these apps.
As mentioned in the preceding section, if you’re shopping at the same stores for groceries, clothes, etc., sign up for their rewards cards. It only makes sense to have these and take advantage of their discounts. Similarly, if you’re buying the same items time and time again, look into coupons for those items.
Lastly, here are some general tips to save in Chicago:
1) Drive as little as possible. Traffic tickets, parking tickets, parking payments, car maintenance, car repairs and gas are expenses that can cost thousands of dollars. Walk, bike and use public transportation! An option to those of you who want to ride a bike but either don’t use a bike often enough to buy one or have no place to store it, is Divvy. Divvy is a ride-sharing company that has bike stations all over the city streets you can rent and ride for an hour or for the whole day either using their app or paying at the station. You can even buy a yearly pass if needed as well. Check out more info here for Divvy. If you have to drive, try to fill up your tank outside of the city in the suburbs as it’s cheaper there.
2) If you are able to, buy what you need in the suburbs. Taxes are lower there and you’ll probably end up saving hundreds over time.
3) Don’t narrow your store selections to just chain stores, explore small stores and establish a relationship with the staff and owners. By doing this, you not only can find deals on specialty items, but also the relationship you form can benefit you in finding better deals and also help your community.
4) Check out BYOB restaurants. Bring Your Own Beverage places first started due to difficulty in getting alcohol licensing and tax issues, but over time owners realized that this could actually be an asset as it makes them unique. For example, there’s a great sushi place down the road from my place that’s BYOB and is always packed on weekdays. Drinks can be half the cost of a bill sometimes!
5) Instead of purchasing tickets to a music festival, see if you can help them out by volunteering. Lollapalooza is the biggest concert that takes place in Chicago and they’re always looking for helpful volunteers. One of my buddies spent a whole week at Bonaroo helping set up and clean up while getting to see everything. For free!
6) Check out Groupon or LiveSocial to save huge amounts on restaurants, events, hotels and pretty much anything! This is very useful if you’re planning something with a large group of people or if you’re buying something expensive.
There you have it, a very basic and rough guide to settling your finances in Chicago. Although a lot of this may seem like common sense, sometimes it just needs to be drilled in people’s heads till they start implementing them. Hope I’ve helped some newcomers out there with some of this, I understand how your mind can be in a frenzy trying to sort everything out at once!
Dolla dolla bills ya’ll,