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How to live a cheaper life in Chicago

City life can be expensive, but there are some relatively easy ways to save money on entertainment, groceries and more.

Zach Long
Emma Krupp
Written by
Zach Long
&
Emma Krupp
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The costs of living in a city like Chicago add up quickly—the utility bills, rent payments and carts full of groceries are neverending. Thankfully, being on a budget doesn't mean that you have to give up on going to a show, visiting a Chicago museum or dining out. There are plenty of ways to live a cheaper life in Chicago, including deals on theatre tickets, money-saving public transportation passes and the opportunity to BYOB at some of the best restaurants in Chicago. We've consulted with our most frugal friends to round up a variety of ways to save some dough. While some of these tips may seem obvious, we think they're worth sharing. Here's how you can start living a cheaper life in Chicago.

How to live a cheaper life in Chicago

Pay attention to free museum days
Photograph: Courtesy the Field Museum

Pay attention to free museum days

Going to a museum in Chicago can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be. From the Art Institute to the Museum of Science and Industry, nearly all major museums in Chicago offer free museum days for Illinois residents—just hit the link for the latest list of dates. Plus, there are plenty of Chicago museums that always offer free admission, including the National Mexican Museum of Art, the Smart Museum of Art and the Clarke House Museum.

Keep an eye out for BYOB restaurants
Photograph: Shutterstock

Keep an eye out for BYOB restaurants

Don't want to shell out for cocktails, wine and beer when you dine out? Thanks to the city’s strenuous liquor licensing laws, Chicago is home to an unusually high number of BYOB restaurants compared to other urban centers, and taking advantage of that can lead to some serious savings on your restaurant bills. Bringing your own booze allows you to drink what you actually like, like your favorite affordable bottle of wine or a six pack of beer from the corner store. You’re best off seeking out family-owned neighborhood restaurants (spots like Irazu or Qing Xiang Yuan Dumplings), which are less likely to spring for expensive liquor licenses.

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Get a CTA pass
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Get a CTA pass

If you commute by CTA bus or train more than a couple of days each week, or you're anticipating taking more than two rides in the span of a day, you can probably save some money by purchasing a pass—paying for single rides can add up quickly. The price of CTA passes actually decreased in 2022, making them an even better deal. Frequent riders can get 30 days of unlimited rides for $75—that's just $2.50 per day, the price of a ride on the El. 7-, 3- and 1-day passes are also available. You load a pass on your Ventra card at CTA train stations or at various currency exchanges, grocery stores and Walgreens stores (here's the complete list). 

Borrow from the Chicago Tool Library
Photograph: Will Gosner

Borrow from the Chicago Tool Library

Have a home improvement project you’ve been neglecting because the equipment is too expensive? Put your money toward a membership at the Chicago Tool Library, a nonprofit that lets people borrow from its community library of more than 2,500 tools and gadgets. The library’s pay-what-you-can membership (starting at $10 a year) grants you the ability to rent everything from lawn mowers and sewing machines to cordless drills and KitchenAid stand mixers. Just be sure to treat the tools well and return them to the library’s Bridgeport space within a week!

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Find half-price theatre tickets
Photograph: Courtesy League of Chicago Theatres

Find half-price theatre tickets

You don't have to wait for Chicago Theatre Week to take advantage of major discounts on tickets to some of the city's most popular shows. The League of Chicago Theatres' Hot Tix service offers half-price tickets year-round, including touring Broadway shows and local productions at storefront theatres. Head to the Hot Tix website to browse available tickets, or visit in-person locations at 72 E Randolph Street (across from the Chicago Cultural Center) or 108 N State Street (inside Block 37 on the first floor).

Get free stuff from your neighbors
Photograph: Shutterstock

Get free stuff from your neighbors

Need some spare hangers? How about a couple moving boxes? Or a loveseat, or novelty mugs, or half a container of scented moisturizer? You’ll find all that stuff and more on hyperlocal Facebook groups (usually called “Buy Nothing” or “free box” groups) created for folks to give—and receive—a huge array of household items and groceries for free. To get started, visit the Buy Nothing Project’s website for a list of participating Facebook groups broken up by state, city and neighborhood. Don’t see your neighborhood on the list? Try searching Facebook to find other groups unaffiliated with the Buy Nothing Project. And if you don’t have social media, you can always download the Buy Nothing app.

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Start riding a bike
Photograph: Shutterstock

Start riding a bike

It's no Amsterdam, but Chicago is a relatively bike-friendly city—and deciding to travel by bike is much cheaper than CTA fares, rideshare fees or gas money. Of course, you'll need to make the initial investment in a bike; places like Working Bikes, West Town Bikes and the Recyclery can set you up with a used and functional bicycle for a relatively affordable price. You can also opt for a Divvy membership ($108/year) if you'd rather rely on the city's bike-sharing program and it's sleek new e-bikes. Once you have a set of wheels, get acquainted with the city's bike lanes and find a trail for a long ride.

Get free ebooks and audiobooks from the library
Photograph: Shutterstock

Get free ebooks and audiobooks from the library

As you’re probably aware, borrowing from the library is an excellent way to pursue a reading habit without racking up bills at the bookstore. But did you know your library card comes with access to ebooks and audiobooks, too? Ditch your Audible subscription and download the Libby app on your phone to reserve titles from Chicago Public Library’s vast collection of digital books and magazines. It’s a super convenient way of accessing new reading materials—and if you don’t like reading on your phone, many eBooks can be sent directly to your Kindle or e-reader.

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Apply for a Chicago CityKey
Photograph: Zach Long

Apply for a Chicago CityKey

The Chicago CityKey municipal ID program launched in 2018, giving every Chicago resident an opportunity to obtain a government-issued ID. You'll have to make an appointment and take a trip to City Hall to obtain your card, but once you get it, you'll unlock money-saving benefits at variety of local businesses. The complete list of perks is extensive, but highlights include discounted Chicago Fire tickets, discounted Museum of Science and Industry admission and a variety of discounts at local restaurants and shops.

Shop at independent grocery stores
Photograph: Martha Williams

Shop at independent grocery stores

If you’re angling to cut back on grocery bills, skip the big-name grocery chains and head to your local independent grocer: places like Joong Boo Market, HarvesTime Foods and Cermak Fresh Market. This isn’t an exact science—and to get the best deals, you really have to shop around at multiple stores—but these spots often offer sales and bargain prices, especially on produce and other perishable goods.

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Keep an eye on Chicago's summer calendar
Photograph: Courtesy Chicago DCASE

Keep an eye on Chicago's summer calendar

Summer in Chicago is one of the best times to rein in your entertainment budget, because there's no shortage of free things to do throughout the city. You can watch free screenings during Movies in the Parks, show up for a gratis concert (or festival) in Millennium Park or take a free tango less during Chicago SummerDance. You'll also find street festivals that grant admission with a suggested donation—pay what you can, and you'll enjoy access to live music, local vendors and more. Plus, the warmer months are the best time to take advantage of the great outdoors, including Chicago beaches and Chicago parks—no admission fees required.

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