A handful of dimes no longer buys you a meal. Not in this town anyway. With the onset of at least five (yep, at least) downtown condominium projects, the influx of the MTV generation from both coasts, and the invasion of extravagant retail compounds, the cost of living in Austin is increasing faster than Bush’s approval rating is sliding.
In this inaugural edition of Capital City Cheapo, I invite you to take advantage of this city in ways you never thought possible. Worry not, dear friends: Help is here. In fact, this column will offer you so many ways to save money, you’ll start to feel guilty. You’ll want to tip the free sample lady. You’ll want to pay the band at no-cover concerts. And you’ll want to write me a big, fat check.
I moved to Austin a month out of school, with a romantic send-off (my parents cut me off), $26,000 in student loans, and about $500 in savings. Which is why I’ve spent the past two years scouring the streets for buried bargains and best-kept secrets. In the spirit of Keeping Austin Weird, here are a few random tips to bring out the tightwad in you.
Believe it or not, becoming a social butterfly can actually keep cash in your wallet. Austin has an amazing capacity to entertain (check out our TOP Picks for weekly cheapo events). Not a weekend goes by without some kind of Central Texas festival, party, concert, or rally. So instead of downloading episodes of 24 on iTunes, hit the streets and you’ll find open admission to ice cream and hot sauce festivals, plenty of spectator space for protests, and live music on most every corner. Immerse yourself in the masses and your pockets will soon be full of free food and strange samples. Window shop in SoCo on First Thursdays or saunter down The Drag on Third Thursdays. If your black book is full on Thursdays, catch a jazz band on Central Market’s breezy patio on Friday, attend an occasionally free or heavily discounted screening at Austin Film Society, or spend the weekend indulging in wine and cheese at Grape Vine Market’s Saturday Open Tastings. Bottom line: You don’t have to be a hermit for low-priced living in Austin.
If you live in Austin and spend $49 a month on high-speed Internet or $125 on a cable bundle, you’re missing the big picture. Okay, maybe you have a big picture with your LCD flat-screen, but c’mon. We have the best coffee shops in Texas and all of them offer fast and free WiFi. Head to Hyde Park’s legendary Quack’s, Anderson Lane’s darling Genuine Joe, young and restless Progress Coffee, or the South First favorite Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse. For the price of a cup, you can stay all day. Even if this becomes a thrice weekly habit (which it’s likely to, given the strength of these coffee beans), you still haven’t spent as much as the cha-ching on your high-speed home connection.
Speaking of cha-ching, what’s with the cost of a haircut around here? This isn’t LA, yet Austin has more pricey (albeit less pretentious) salons than Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and West Hollywood put together. Try Baldwin Beauty Schools (458-4127) on Burnet Road or South Lamar for a non-scary, semi-professional $5 haircut.
A new haircut needs a new body. Thus, there has never been a better time to resist a costly gym membership. Recently re-named Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail is a 10-mile loop running through downtown with free trails, free parking, free people-watching, and free bird poop. Not only will you save on membership dues, but sweaty people look much hotter in sunlight than under those fluorescents.
On roommates, wine, and bicycles. Not necessarily in that order. Rent is on the rise, so wise up and split the monthly tariff. Living alone is no longer a reality for penny pinchers. There was a time when $425 was average rent for a CenTex singleton, but these days, that’s what the roaches pay. You’ll have to make sacrifices, but roommates are usually more than happy to give you one night alone to dance around naked.
As for the alcohol, Austin makes it easy to amass an inexpensive collection. Save money at the ever-popular Spec’s, with discounts on top shelf liquor, specialty beer and highly-rated wine. Buy six bottles at H-E-B and get 10% off your purchase. Or, pick any two identical wines at Twin Liquors to get 20% off at check-out. You sure won’t feel cheap when the clerk rings up your total.
And finally, invest in a bicycle… or two. Let’s be honest: It’s difficult to live in Austin without a car. The public transportation is just okay, and although we aren’t exactly Manhattan, walking can be time consuming and… well… sweaty. We are, however, bike friendly. Keep your car in the garage on weekends and bike to no-charge nooks like Mozart’s Coffee Roasters, Zilker Park, or the infamously cheesy (yet free) Mt. Bonnell. Your gas gauge and atrophying calf muscles will thank you.
Good luck carrying that six pack of wine on your bicycle. Stay tuned to Cheapo for future ideas on how to eat economically, dress on a dime, and live like a rock star on a rent-a-cop’s budget.