How to live in Chicago (or nearly any major American city) on $1000 a month

You don’t have to move to Thailand to live on $1000 a month. With some creativity and sacrifice, you can live that cheaply in ANY city in America. Here’s how I did it in Chicago.

life in Chicago

In the travel blog world, you’ll find lots of posts from people who say they moved to Asia or Latin America because it’s simply not possible to live cheaply in the U.S.

Wrong! It’s nice that you can move to Thailand and live on $1000 a month, but guess what? I spent a year living in Chicago on the same amount of money. And yes, that includes all bills, utilities, student loans, spending money and groceries.

I’d like to introduce you to the pauper budget, which I’ve put together based on my own experience.

This guide is not intended as a permanent solution – if you lived like this for years, you’d probably go nuts from a lack of comforts and become seriously unhealthy due to eating crappy cheap foods. This guide is meant to provide ideas for people enduring an unexpected financial emergency (or those trying to do some hardcore saving) by offering tips on how to get by in the short-term (a year or less) on the tightest, most-shoestring budget imaginable.

Not everyone will be able to apply every tip in this guide, as it’s intended for a childless, pet-less single individual who doesn’t mind biking to get around. And you’ll notice the “nearly” in the title of this article. That’s because this budget will be difficult for folks in NYC or the Bay Area, which have crazy-high rent costs. But hopefully everyone reading can take away something useful.

You can live cheaply anywhere if you really want to. Here’s how the pauper budget worked in Chicago.

live on 1000 chicago

(I finally have an excuse to post this silly pic of my puppy showing off his cash.)

Background

A couple years ago, I had just moved to Chicago – without a job, mind you – and was starting to work as an online freelance writer. My total monthly expenses came out to a mere $800 (including student loans!)

I’ve increased the budget here to $1000 to cover rising costs and price variations across different cities. Here’s a breakdown of suggested expenses by category.

And keep in mind the #1 rule about living on the pauper budget: You cannot be picky!

Rent: $350

This is the one that surprises most people when it comes to living in America. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard someone complain, “A one-bedroom in a big city costs more than $1000!” Then don’t live in a one-bedroom apartment! Get a larger place and find roommates.

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I stayed in a 3-BR with two roomies, and we each paid a paltry $275. The apartment wasn’t anything special, but it wasn’t bad either – just a standard third-floor three-bedroom apartment on a quiet side street. Though I paid only $275, I’m using $350 as the suggested figure for rent to account for inflation and rent increases over the past two years since I moved.

pilsen mural

(Pilsen is an artsy Chicago ‘hood where 3-BR apartments can be found for less than $1000.)

To find a room this cheap, let’s be honest, you’re not going to be living in the nicest part of town. But you also don’t have to live in the ghetto. Find that emerging, used-to-be-sketchy-but-is-starting-to-gentrify neighborhood. Every big city has one!

In Chicago, I lived in Humboldt Park, which has its bad parts, but my location in the eastern side of the neighborhood near Wicker Park was a fairly safe hipster haven.

Another option for Chicago folks is Pilsen, a predominantly-Mexican neighborhood that many young, artsy folks are moving into. A quick Craigslist search reveals that many rooms are available in the $350 range. Granted, these are small rooms in small apartments, but you can’t be picky when you’re dirt poor.

Years ago, when I spent a summer in NYC, I subletted a tiny bedroom in Greenwich Village for $750, which was super cheap for Manhattan. You can score affordable rent if you really want to – in any city in America. No excuses!

Utilities: $75

It’s amazing how cheap utilities are when you split them with two other people. Gas, electric and internet typically set us back about $75 per person, and never exceeded $90, even in the coldest months. We did not have cable tv. Nobody really needs cable these days, anyway. Just watch everything online.

Groceries: $125

You can fulfill your caloric requirements on a $100-125 grocery budget. Yes, that’s only $4 a day, but it’s doable. Become a coupon clipper and study the weekly grocery ads. Stock up on dry goods when they’re on sale. Keep meat consumption to a minimum. Wait for sales for more expensive items. With sales and coupons, you should never have to pay more than $1.25 for a box of cereal or $1 for a jar of spaghetti sauce, to cite just two examples.

The west side of Chicago has Mexican grocery stores with dirt-cheap produce. Even though I no longer have to adhere to this super-tight budget, I still shop at these stores because during peak season they often charge 39 cents for a bag of carrots and 59 cents for a pound of broccoli. If you have no such bargain stores, there’s always Aldi or the dollar store.

grocery produce

(One of the Mexican grocery stores with dirt-cheap produce.)

You will have to stock up on $3 twelve-packs of ramen noodles and $1 cans of Chef Boyardee to make this pauper budget work. Will eating low-quality processed foods suck? Yep. Will it sustain you for several months until you get your financial situation in order? Absolutely.

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Of course, food stamps are always an option if you are in a truly desperate situation.

Misc personal spending: $150

That’s $5 a day, which doesn’t sound like much. Because it’s not.

But large cities like Chicago have so many free activities that you can get by. Go to free outdoor music and arts festivals, enjoy the lake or the park, play frisbee, hang out with friends. Buy Groupons to maximize your savings when you do go out.

If you’re worried about your social life suffering, don’t be. It’s really not that hard to stay in during the week and save up those dollars to spend on the weekend. It just takes discipline.

Clothing also fits into this category. Silly you, did you think you’d be purchasing new clothes while on your shoestring budget? Nope, everything comes from thrift stores now.

Health insurance / student loans / credit card: $250

This is where your costs may vary. My student loans totaled $150. I had no credit card debt and a bare-bones $100/month health insurance plan, which added up to $250 of extra monthly charges. There’s a chance your costs here might be even lower than mine, in which case you can apply the extra funds to a different category.

Health insurance can be very expensive, but if you’re stuck on this super-tight budget, you probably have very limited income, in which case you can probably qualify for free or very cheap Obamacare coverage.

Phone: $50

To this day, I only pay $50/month for an AT&T pay as you go cell plan. The plan provides unlimited calls and texts and 2 GB of data, which is more than enough. Long-term monthly cell plans are for suckers (or families, who can benefit from a group plan.)

Car: $0

You’re not going to be able to get by on $1000 a month if you have a vehicle, because even if you have a clunker, gas and insurance costs will add up. No, my friend, you’ll be riding a bike around your fine city. Use public transportation when absolutely necessary, walk whenever your destination is less than 3 miles away (that’s a 45- to 60-minute walk), and use your bike the rest of the time.

biker downtown

(You’ll be riding your bike everywhere on this budget, so get used to it!)

People in every city in America love to complain about their public transportation, but it’s never as bad as people think. I’ve spent significant time in numerous cities without a vehicle, and getting around has not been a problem. New Orleans, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Houston, St. Louis, San Diego, Boston, Miami, Seattle, Louisville, Philadelphia… I’ve conquered all of them with only buses and trains.

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If you’re in a large American city, and you’re truly motivated, you can get by without a vehicle. Even in Los Angeles.

Yes, it may be inconvenient, but that’s just the sacrifice you’ll have to make to live on an ultra-tight budget. Plus, walking and biking provide exercise that you wouldn’t otherwise be getting.

TOTAL: $1000
And again, that includes $150 worth of student loans, which you may not have. Imagine that – if you have no student loans, you could live in Chicago for only $850 a month!

350 rent
75 utilities
250 misc student loans/health insurance
125 groceries
150 misc. spending ($5/day)
50 phone

Obviously, this lifestyle is not for everyone. If you can’t bear to have roommates, can’t live without cable TV, or can’t let go of your gas-guzzling SUV, this won’t work for you.

And I wouldn’t recommend living like this forever. Eventually, you’ll want to be able to go out to a nice restaurant, splurge for new clothes or buy some concert tickets. But in a pinch, if you become unemployed or find yourself struggling to make ends meet, embracing the pauper budget can help you get by for a while, and you don’t have to give up living in a big American city to do it.

Also, if you’re saving up for a round-the-world adventure, try living this way for a few months in order to maximize your savings – and to practice living in minimal conditions, which is what you’ll face while traveling anyway.

It’s true that your $1000 will go further in Asia or Latin America than it will in the U.S., but if you truly want to live cheaply, you can make it happen. Even in big cities in the United States. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

Do you have any tips for living on a pauper budget in a big city? Or just want to quibble with my math? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!

4 Comments

  1. Totally cool. I moved to Chicago last year . It is possible . Like you said you have to sacrifice quite a few things but it all depends on you. I gave up my car , which I was totally cool with that . I don’t even have a tv , I only get a free month of Netflix or Hulu for some time and watch it on my lap top . I deliver on my bike , walk to work , got some internet gigs for side jobs and I am a coupon freak . Minimalistic life in the middle of Lincoln Park . Me and the roommate are sharing a studio. Sometimes uncomfortable , we have overlapping schedules and sleep cycles are different so we have to be really quiet for each other . But it’s working for now until I save more . Great post .

    1. It’s good to know that others have found it possible to sacrifice and live cheaply in Chicago. Even in Lincoln Park! I did a lot of random internet side gigs too when I was in that position. It sounds like you are doing it right while you save up for later. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. This is really interesting! It’s true, so many bloggers say that it’s impossible to live in “the West” for under $1000, but you showed them! It still shocks me how expensive mobile phone packages are in North America compared with Europe, though. You’d probably pay half for the same thing in Germany or the UK! Anyway, good for you!

    1. Yeah, cell phones are the one area where people don’t seem to do comparison shopping. No one in the U.S. even considers the possibility of getting on a monthly plan rather than a full 2-year contract. I had to be persuaded myself by a friend who works for AT&T.

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