Chicago, home to 2.7 million people, is a major tourist hub because it has so much to offer. Amazing architecture, a breathtaking skyline and lake view, delicious and diverse food, historical landmarks, and great sporting arenas — it’s city living at its best. But the cost of living in Chicago is also among the highest in the country. Here, rent, food, taxes, and even parking take a big chunk out of your budget.
Yet there are residents — like my friend Ava, an elementary school teacher for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) — who do well within the confines of their limited incomes. Here are Ava’s insights into how she budgets and deals with the high cost of living in Chicago:
Get Realistic About the Cost of Living in Chicago
Public school teachers in Chicago generally earn between $50,964 and $67,396 a year.
“Some of the highest expenses I’ve endured that cannot be avoided include the cost of my gas bill and the cost of a city sticker for vehicles [about $200 annually], along with the city’s new tax on sugared beverages and alcohol,” Ava says. The beverage tax is new in Cook County, which includes Chicago and some of the surrounding suburbs.
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Sticking with a budget is essential, regardless of where you live; and for Ava, budgeting for the cost of her $200 city parking sticker is much easier than paying hundreds of dollars in parking tickets.
To save money on your commute, she recommends using public transportation. Ava does own a car, but she tries “to shop for groceries in bulk every two weeks to avoid wasting gas on small trips to grab an item or two.”
And there are other small expenses that add to the cost of living in Chicago, too. “Chicago has a shopping-bag tax, which is seven cents per bag if you shop at grocery or retail stores,” she says.
Ava uses coupons when buying food for herself or her cats, and she brings her lunch to work most days. She even keeps a stash of plastic bags in her car whenever she goes grocery shopping because she feels that every penny counts. “I’ve always been a major proponent of making and maintaining a budget,” Ava says.
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How to Cut the Cost of Living in Chicago
The average studio apartment in Chicago rents for $1,078 a month, while a one-bedroom will cost you $1,341 and a two-bedroom will set you back $1,744.
Ava chose to live in Brighton Park, a safe, but more affordable working-class neighborhood in the city. She rents a one-bedroom for only $610 a month, not including utilities.
“To make living affordable, it’s important to be disciplined and have realistic expectations about the higher cost of certain items,” Ava says.
“Things that people consider daily necessities in the suburbs, like a Big Gulp soda, a Starbucks coffee, and gas for your car, are simply going to cost more.”
Pro Tip: Get a Side Hustle
Ava encourages anyone who’s living on a tight budget in a big city to get a side hustle to bring in more money. This can help offset the cost of living in Chicago.
For instance, Ava used her teaching skills to work on the side as a tutor for homebound students with medical problems. She has also worked as a part-time ACT prep tutor. And since high school, she has been picking up hours as a gymnastics coach and program instructor at a local park district.
Benefits of Living in Chicago
Ava doesn’t deprive herself of the many entertainment options that Chicago offers just because she’s on a budget. What’s the point in living in a great city if you don’t enjoy it occasionally?
“I do allow myself one or two cheat days a week to go out with friends for lunch and dinner, and I usually take advantage of the special deal of the day or happy hour,” she says.
When she’s tight on money, Ava looks for free things to do and places to go. Among her favorites are the Chicago Public Library; swimming at a recreational facility; free-admission days at Chicago’s many museums, including Shedd Aquarium, the Art Institute, and the Field Museum; and festivals at Millennium Park, where Chicagoans can ice-skate for free. If you need to rent skates, they’re only $10.
Located in the heart of downtown Chicago’s Loop area, Millennium Park is home to many events, including free concerts at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, and an award-winning art show.
When the weather is nice, a walk along 3,300-foot Navy Pier toward the beach, where you can admire the city’s downtown architecture, is quite an inspiration.
One of Ava’s favorite things to do is travel, and her frugal lifestyle allows her to save diligently for new and exciting opportunities. “I live pretty close to Midway Airport, which is just another reason why city living is convenient,” she says. “I always plan one long vacation with my former college roommate each year.”
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The cost of living in Chicago is more expensive than that in the suburbs, but it’s also much more rewarding. With the right budget and frugal-living tips, you can still get the best out of the Windy City.