How I Lived In Chicago On $700 A Month

When I was 17, the only thing I wanted to do was move out of my small town. I had a graduating class of a very non-diverse set of <90 students. It took half an hour to drive to a grocery store with the best prices. I spent over an hour on the school bus every morning just getting to school. I was done with the isolation.

At 17, I found an apartment in Chicago (with roommates) on my own. Fortunately for me, I had gotten an incredible job as a wedding album designer for the local photographer, something that allowed me to work and learn, doing something I loved, all while saving money. I saved up for my first camera and the security deposit on my first apartment.

For most of my college life, the only money I earned was through work-study jobs. At my first college for my associates in photography, I worked in facilities; I mopped floors, changed lightbulbs, rearranged classrooms, whatever was needed. For my bachelor’s degree, I got an amazing job in the library — it was probably the best college job I could have had.

Due to the nature of work-study jobs, I was unable to work more than 20 hours a week. At minimum wage with only 20 hours a week, with full time work and very…unique homework assignments that required a lot of time, I had a lot of difficulty finding a second job. Put simply, every month I made a little under $700 to pay for my living expenses. This was for everything: rent, utilities, phone bill, food, etc. I had to get extremely creative.

Rent

To start off, I was specifically looking for an inexpensive apartment that wasn’t in a terrifying neighborhood, and I couldn’t pay more than $400 a month in rent. Yes, you read that right. $366. For anyone in a major US city, you know how bananas that is. (It was.)

I found a three-bedroom apartment on the far, far north-west side of Chicago where I had to take a bus to get to the train to get me to school. It took an hour and a half on average to get to class/work. It was rough, but the entire apartment was only $1,100 a month. It was a nice apartment — the only thing it was lacking in was laundry (I had to go to a laundromat) and, of course, the location. Otherwise, I seriously lucked out.

Total: $366

Utilities

This was the biggest stress factor for my college experience. In the summer, my roommates liked having the air conditioning on, which could make my bill to be over $120 in one summer. That was a panic, but I always made sure I had at least $85 in my account to cover just the electric bill. If the electric bill was only $20, I’d have more to spend elsewhere. (Hopefully.)

The scariest situation ever was during the 2013 polar vortex. With wind chill, in Chicago it got below -40. In some areas, -64 degrees. (For those that use Celsius, -40 in Fahrenheit and Celsius is the same number.) That year we got a gas bill for our heating that was over $600. I genuinely cried. I called our gas provider to see if there was some sort of mistake. We kept our apartment at 64 degrees in the winter, but I guess going from -30 degrees to 64 is really expensive. I sold a piece of camera equipment to pay for this bill, along with getting a little bit of help from my family. Utilities in total included, gas, electric, and the AT&T bill.

Average: $80

Phone Bill

This was my biggest “splurge” category. Prior to moving to Chicago, I had a cell phone, but not a smart phone. Everyone and their mother seemed to have a smart phone, but they were expensive and the data overages were ridiculous. I got my first smart phone when I was in Chicago. I got the free iPhone with Verizon and spent $60 a month.

Total: $60

Food:

Here is where, when I look back, it is 100% obvious how my weight got completely out of hand. I ate 100% crap food. I had a $40 a month food budget. Occasionally, my mother would send some money in the form of a gift card to Target (as I could walk to a target from my apartment), or my father would deposit some money into my bank account, but in general, I had about $40 a month for groceries. I ate a lot of $1 Mcdonald’s cheeseburgers. It was an inexpensive way for me to get out of my apartment; I spent a lot of time in my room, as I knew that if I left, I would want to spend money. I ate a lot of peanut butter, and I had a quesadilla maker, so I ate a lot of canned refried beans and tortillas. At one point, I so desperately wanted a dessert, I fried cut-up pieces of tortilla in a pan with oil and covered them in cinnamon sugar. I was really, really broke. Ramen and rice made me sick to my stomach. I also wasn’t great at cooking at the time, and was generally depressed. (I 110% blame my diet on me being depressed, and then being depressed made me not want to cook, so I ate crappier.)

It wasn’t until I realized that I qualified for food stamps that I started eating better. When you make such a small amount and are a full-time student, you will generally qualify for food stamps. I went from a $40 a month budget to an almost $200 a month food budget. Honestly, the minute I got that $400 ($200 for the month going forward, $200 prorated from the prior month), I cried and went to Whole Foods. I got food I hadn’t eaten in a while. I got into eating some better things, and the food stamps genuinely were my saving grace. The $40 went to treating myself to dinner with friends on occasion. Just places like Potbelly and Chipotle — but still a treat compared to a spoonful of peanut butter as a meal.

Total: $40

Laundry:

Doing laundry when you don’t have a washer and dryer in the building is awful. I had plenty of clothes, though, so I only did laundry once a month. Towels were used twice, jeans worn multiple times, but I had plenty of unmentionables, and my mother equipped me with multiple sets of sheets. I had a folding cart that was my “laundry basket.” That would be dragged through the stairs twice a month (once up, once down), and I would go for a walk to the laundromat. It would cost me about $15 to wash and dry absolutely everything I had.

$15

Remaining Funds

This is where some wiggle room happened. Sometimes bills would be higher, sometimes I had to buy materials for class such as printer paper, filters, etc. Mostly, I put a little bit of money into savings for school break. When you are on break from a school term, you are not allowed to work. (Note: my first work-study job allowed me to work over break, as we were facilities, so I actually made more money, but my library job did not.) I had to anticipate not getting a paycheck between breaks in the middle of the school year. I was able to work full time over the summer, as I lived in an apartment and not a dorm, so rent never stopped, and to keep my job, I had to be a student.

Misc/Savings: $139

This accounted for my entire budget.

My saving graces were my tax refunds every year, and when I got to a point with my photography where I could do headshots to help add a little extra for replacing clothes, toiletries, cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, etc. There were many times where my bank account was less than $3 the day before my direct deposit hit.

In retrospect, I am still amazed that I pulled this all off. I didn’t destroy my credit, I didn’t go into (more) debt by living on campus vs. living in an apartment, and really, I wouldn’t change a thing.

I learned how to manage my money. I learned what it took to manage my entire lifestyle and what I wanted going forward. I really gained an appreciation for money, and I would do it all again. Living this way was hard — it was extremely hard — and I don’t recommend eating the way I did, but you live and you learn.

Taryn Goodge is a Chicago resident who likes photography, comedy, terrible license plates, and any type of math with a dollar sign in front. She is currently studying for the CPA exams and hopes that the effects of sleep deprivation aren’t permanent. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Vivian

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    I saved up money and moved to Chicago (from Los Angeles) a year after I graduated college. While my experience with Chicago is different from yours, it’s inspiring/sobering to know that it is possible to survive with way less. I recently renewed my studio lease because I decided living alone & in a more expensive neighborhood, was more important to me than saving money by getting roommates & moving to a less desirable neighborhood.

    • Taryn

      People have different things that are more important! My parents couldn’t help me out financially in this aspect so my options were to either fully support myself (and drown in student debt to finish college…) or move back home. I did my damdest to not have to move back home.
      Fortunately, now with my full time job I make more in a week than I made in a month and a half during the time I wrote about in this piece.

  • I’m not sure if this is an intentional series, but I’ve been really enjoying these “this is how I made it work in a major city on shoestring budget” pieces. I’ve done something similar in two major cities out of necessity earlier in my career and it is a good reminder that it can be done. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Holly Trantham

      Thank you, Amani!

    • Taryn

      Honestly the other pieces are what inspired me to write this. Especially as I was looking through my old tax documents and realized “Wait, I made less than $8,500 in 2012?? Good grief.”

  • Maria S

    You mentioned how far out your apartment was from everything but nothing about the actual cost of transportation that impacted your finances.

    • Court E. Thompson

      The city transportation provides free or severely discounted public transportation rates to students – guessing the impact on her budget was probably minimal. Though she should have mentioned it since it saves her up to $100 per month.

      • Mary Harman

        Chicago native here! *waves* Almost every university in Chicago includes an unlimited public transit card, or U-Pass (yep, they gave college students a product that is spelled ‘up ass’). So anyway, I can guarantee that’s why it wasn’t included in her budget.

        • Taryn

          Ha you’re 100% right! I used a Upass during the year and part of that tiny amount of money not going towards a budget was used for a bus pass between terms. The Upasses turn off when classes aren’t in session. Kind of forced me to do full time summer classes every year 😂

      • Taryn

        Honestly it wasn’t included because it wasn’t something I ever factored into my budget while I was in class. It didn’t really save me money as I was taking out a stupid amount of loans to pay for school, but I didn’t pay for us using the money I made monthly. I neglected to add it to my budget above because there was only about 6 weeks out of the year, where I didn’t have a student bus pass paid for by my tuition.

        • Court E. Thompson

          Right. It’s just a huge benefit that would have severely impacted your budget had it not been provided by your school. Your commute was already rough but adding on the $3 per trip or monthly pass would have made your living so far from campus a lot more costly. I live and work in Chicago and chose a higher rent so I could walk to work and save on the unlimited pass.

          • Taryn

            I probably would have found a dirt cheap bike on craigslist and biked to and from campus/work. 16 miles round trip and I would have made myself sick doing it, but I would have forced myself to save money any way possible. I couldn’t afford to spend more, so I would have found a way to not pay. I’m so thankful I am in a better financial position now.

  • Savanna Swain

    This is SO helpful! I’m looking to move out of my hometown and into a larger city next year, but I’ve felt anxious about how I’m going to make it work. Admittedly, in the past I was fairly codependent on others – whether it be rooming with a college friend for the familiarity, or living with a boyfriend for finances. In my mind, living alone in a city seemed a near impossible thing to do, but reading this makes me feel much more confident! Thank you!!
    I hope someone form New York/The North East shares a piece like this, too!

  • gracesface

    Good for you, girl. This was motivating as hell.

  • HL

    Great piece! It’d be interesting to see a follow up about how this differs from the expenses and budget of your life in Chicago once you were no longer a student.

    • Taryn

      So— You’re making me really tempted to write a follow-up, but I’ve gotten into some really bad habits that I’m a bit embarrassed to admit. Writing this piece of how I did it a few years ago was partly motivated by my need to get back to paying next to nothing for my living expenses. My rent since has doubled (But my living situation has gotten 300% better), I have a car and student debt I pay into, as well as tuition towards CPA courses (All tax deductible!) but I’ve spent more on stupid things that I am going to cut and maybe I’ll write an updated piece in the new year.

      • HL

        I get it! This piece actually reminds me a lot of how I lived when I was in Americorps. Now that I’m years removed from that, in the same city but with a job and a much different living situation, it amazes me looking back how different things are even though life doesn’t “feel” that different. I have a pretty modest salary at my job, and even though expenses also rose with income, the Americorps me would be floored at how much disposable income I have. It’s so fascinating how much things change without us realizing it.

  • Shannon F

    Breathed a sigh of relief when I got to the part about food stamps. There are these “safety nets” for a reason, and more people need to share their stories about using them in tough times so they don’t get cut by the current administration. I’m so glad you were able to eat healthier when you were on them. I live in Chicago, and during my time struggling on a smaller paycheck I did a lot of the same things, but I was able to become a recipe tester and get groceries paid for! I wish that gig was sill around, honestly. It was a saving grace. I also volunteered cleaning mats at a yoga studio for unlimited free classes. There are plenty of ways to hustle in this great city of ours!

    • Vivian

      The recipe tester sounds like such a unique experience. I have heard similar gigs offered by gyms — work the reception for a few shifts a week and get free membership!

      • Taryn

        I did this for a comedy club! I “Interned” twice a week, one day doing office work, one day doing cleaning during/after a show and got free Improv classes and got to see as many shows as I wanted for free.

    • Taryn

      Oh man a Recipe tester sounds awesome. The Food Stamps were really a saving grace, and in IL if you are a student, you get to postpone re-applying and only have to reapply every 6 months, and just send in your transcripts/class schedule to prove that you were still a full time student. I went into an office once during the 3 years I was on food stamps. Everything else was mailed in.

  • LynnP2

    I loved this article. I feel like I’ve read so many articles about how people made it on tiny salaries and eventually they bring up some HUGE loophole like living with parents (not knocking people who live with their parents AT ALL, but not everyone has the option). By contrast, this was so real and we really see the sacrifices you made in order to make this salary work. Thank you so much for sharing, and I’m so glad you found food stamps! That’s a really crucial lesson for others in similar situations.