I have been lucky enough to live in a great city for the past five years, but I recently realized how much my views of the city were clouded by dollar signs. When I contemplated where to bring friends and family who were visiting from out of town, the first places to come to mind were restaurants and stores. But then I thought about what they would remember of their trip when they went home. Am I really doing my home city justice? I thought. No, I knew I could do better.
I know I’m not the only one guilty of this, either. When I look back on my earliest college outings with older students who knew the area better, here’s what I remember: California Pizza Kitchen, Sephora, and Urban Outfitters. How much character do these places really have? Yet even today, my mental map of Boston consists largely of my favorite places to shop and grab a quick but forgettable bite. That makes me sad. What have I missed out on while, yet again, searching through the sale racks of H&M?
So now that I’m here for the foreseeable future, I’m making a conscious effort to appreciate where I live while keeping spending to a minimum. Luckily, it’s easy to break out of the habit of defaulting to shopping to pass the time. This is how I did it.
1. Walk…Walk Everywhere
There are so many places you can see on foot that you’d never notice from a cab, bus, or subway. Although I know Boston is especially great to walk around in, I think this could apply anywhere. It all comes down to being present in the moment and observant to what’s around you. If you’re doing a mundane errand that you always do, try taking a different route. You’ll never know what you may stumble upon that you can return to later, or show your friends. The old architecture of Boston is really beautiful, and there’s tons of little green spaces hidden away in every neighborhood. I love seeing how the city changes with the different seasons, too (although winter, you could calm down a bit, jeez). One of the best things I saw on foot was street art by Shepard Fairey, which I would have missed completely if I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time. It has since been painted over, so I’m extra grateful I happened to see it. So grab your headphones and get out there! And as an added bonus: free exercise.
2. Practice Artful Browsing
If you already know you don’t want to spend any money, that opens up a whole world of opportunities for where you shop, right? It takes the sense of purpose away and gives you the freedom to just look. There is no pressure to find the perfect item with the right fit, and no feeling of guilt later. So when you leave the house, remind yourself of your spending limit (which can be zero) and set out in an unexpected direction. Think of the stores you visit as museums, and you’ll be surprised what you will find. A fashion or art fan can find lots of beautiful eye candy in the “upscale” part of town, or maybe you can browse an obscure specialty shop related to your interests. For instance, I know I’m not in the market for a 3D printer or a handcrafted musical instrument right now, but I still find them interesting to look at in the store. Not to mention, it’s easy strike up a conversation with knowledgeable employees, many of whom are happy to give you free demos of their products.
3. Invest in Uniqueness
When your friends suggest going out to the same old burger place, again, try steering them in a different direction. If you know you’re gonna spend a set amount, try to make an experience out of it. For that same amount, you could try something completely new. One of the greatest parts of living in a big city is that vast amount of foods from different parts of the world are readily available, all around you. Keeping it local and authentic doesn’t have to mean expensive, either! Some simple online searching can lead to your new favorite dish. Another way to look at it is: what can you make at home, and what can’t you? I know I don’t possess the knowledge to craft even the simplest Japanese cuisine at home, for example, so there’s a worthy investment right there.
This point is especially important when people are visiting you from out of town. If you really want to make a memorable impression, think about something your city has that you can’t find anywhere else, even if it’s as simple as something like an amazing view.
4. Be a Cheesy Tourist
I know, I know. Most of us twenty-somethings probably consider ourselves too cool to ride a Duck Boat, follow around the colonial-costumed tour guides, or do the equivalent in cities that aren’t Boston. But if it’s historical knowledge you seek, simply walking around and reading plaques on the sides of buildings probably gets old really fast, or leaves you gazing towards another glossy storefront. I’m showing my nerdery here, but I think it’s important to remember what’s special about your city, and to keep learning about it as you live there.
And as someone who doesn’t have the funds to travel very often, I have to appreciate seeking depth rather than breadth. You can find history nerds in every city, and most of them are happy to share their knowledge freely (or cheaply). And it’s not just history that you can learn about, although Boston does have an abundance of that. Look for the interesting crafts that are produced in your city, or the up and coming artists seeking audiences. Plans in my near future include brewery tours, a chocolate factory tour, and outdoor movie screenings, all for free or a small amount of money. Keep a set of fresh eyes and an openness to learn wherever you go, and you won’t be bored.
5. Use Social Media to your Advantage
You won’t be able to keep up with EVERYTHING going on in your city without help. Luckily, lots of people out there are interested in the same things you are, and want to share it with you. Think about all the best things you love about your city, and go on a liking and following spree. Go as crazy as a mom on Facebook — you can always delete the duds later. Museums, shops, bands, brands, restaurants and venues all like to share news, events and promotions that you’ll be clued in on just by doing something you probably do anyways. I never would have known about free organ concerts in a historic church and stargazing from an observatory atop a college otherwise. Keep the things you enjoy in your radar, and you’ll be rewarded, sometimes in unexpected ways.
6. Follow Your Interests
Extracurriculars shouldn’t end after graduation. I find that many people in my age group start to neglect really chasing after the things they love and falling into a complacent habit of work-gym-home-chores-sleep. When you aren’t being mentally stimulated and fulfilled, it’s easy to compensate with material items. Try to counteract that with actions and experiences instead of things. This requires a little more effort, but it’s worth a lot more than just college credit and networking connections. You’ll become more a part of your community and make meaningful memories and even accomplishments, and every city has a place waiting for you to do this with open arms. Whether it’s a book club, activist group, sports team, musical group, or volunteer opportunity, you’ll find a niche if you seek it, or you could carve out your own.
Jillian is a creative 25-year-old living in Boston who enjoys literature, music, art and traveling. She spends her days caring for children and trying not to be crushed under the weight of her student loan debt. She loves to write and pet stranger’s dogs.