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Frugal Living in Chicago – Chicken Soup for the Broke Student’s Soul

I can say with absolute confidence that I am one of the cheapest most frugal people at ICO. I’m Canadian, so I don’t get those awesome subsidized and unsubsidized loans that most Americans can apply for. I also don’t get the option to defer payment until graduation. I do get something called OSAP. It pays $210 perweek of class… which added up to be between $7,500 and $10,000 each year. Any extra money comes from a line of credit from the bank, or savings, so every extra dollar of adds up for me.

I worked for a savings bank for two years before I got to attend ICO. There, I learned to be the best coupon-queen/penny-pincher there could be. No matter how much I save, I will probably never be able to make my debt load disappear while I’m still in school, but my goal is do reduce my debt by $20,000 to $30,000 (depending on how many pairs of shoes I buy by the time I graduate). I’ll share some of my savings secrets with you.

Note: If you’re financially capable of making it rain harder than the hurricanes in horror films like the guy below, this post might not apply to you. Kudos, I am jealous.

 1. I do as much work study as I can without sacrificing my grades. My number one priority is to be an optometry student. There are some awesome jobs on campus that allows us to study on the job. I realize that it means we don’t get paid as much as the other jobs that are busier, but for me, it’s a matter of balance. I didn’t want to sacrifice my grades for an extra $40 a month. I was a note-taker, and I also sat at the security desks in front of the RC and the school. I pretty much get paid to do what I’m supposed to do here: study. Every dollar of income = a dollar less I have to take out. I save about $500 a month, or $6,000 a year doing work study alone.

2. I don’t live in the fanciest part of Chicago.

I currently live on the seventh floor in a three bed/two bath apartment, with four people living in the house (including me). A couple lives in the master bedroom the size of our living room, while another second year and myself each have our own rooms. For rent/internet/electricity, I only pay about $400 per month. Everyone eats a different amount, but I find it difficult to imagine anyone gobbling up $600 of food per month. Don’t start feeling sorry for me, my room is bigger than the single rooms in the RC; it fits a desk, a large dresser, two drawer carts, and a full size bed, and I still have enough space to probably do yoga. I even get a skyline view with a little balcony. Our living room has enough space for someone to do three cartwheel spins in.

To do a proper calculation, I factored in the fact that I still had to get food for myself on weekend nights and holidays, and for the times I was hungry outside of the cafeteria’s business hours while I lived in the RC. After keeping track for two months, I can say that I consistently spend about $200 a month on food, which saves me at least $350 a month and $4,200 a year compared to living on campus, and even more if I compare to those people that live in fancier places or had a single room in the RC.

TIP: Don’t rush to sign the first lease you get your hands on. Shop around, and shop carefully. Google the place and see if it was ever on the internet for bed bug issues, crime, noisy neighbors or bad management. I used Every Block Chicago to find out about crime in the neighborhood, and Google was my best friend for those couple months. Ask the upper years where they lived, or ask a third year that’s moving out. If they lived in it and liked it enough to live there for two years, it’s probably a safer bet for you to live there too.

3. I plan out what to eat, and cook at home

It’s healthier, it’s cheaper, and if you do it right, it’ll taste amazing. I definitely think everyone deserves to order out and treat themselves once in a while, but if you’re serious about cutting your debt load, try to limit yourself to a number that’s comfortable.

4. I stick to my budget

I track all my spendings on a spreadsheet. It helps keep me on track so I can reach my savings goal of possibly reducing debt by $20,000. There will always be things that come up (Christmas, 50 percent off at Abercrombie, DSW shoe sales, Black Friday, etc) that make me spend more than usual, so it’s highly unlikely that I’ll graduate unscathed by the heavy debt load.  However, by applying just the above steps one and for this year, I am expecting to reduce my loan money spending by $10,000. That could very well go towards a down payment or a car when I graduate. Another good reason to track all your spendings is so that you can scare yourself out of spending more money if you spent too much and didn’t realize it. If you didn’t notice you spent $500 that you didn’t have on 50 pairs of cheap $10 jeans, cropped tops, and bracelets this month, you will be made aware of it, so you can hold back next month.

5. If you must splurge, do it right.

You have to treat yourself to something nice sometimes. That being said, you don’t always have to pay full price for it. eBay, Amazon, Groupon, Living Social, etc. probably have that exact thing you needed to buy for much cheaper. Before you head out the door to stop by your favorite store, Google coupons, sales and deals. Some bars in Chicago have coupons for free cover or drink specials sometimes if you pay attention to what they post on their Facebook group.

Bottom line is, optometry school is an expensive investment. The extra couple grand you save could end up being money for a car, or a wedding, or a home repair. Each individual $10 bill spent won’t change your debt load by much, but it will eventually add up (it happens faster than you’d think). At the end of the day, your savings habits aren’t likely to leave you once you graduate. How well you take care of your money now will likely translate to how well you manage your money later. For me, instead of paying for someone’s mortgage on their fancy house on a fancy street, I’d rather save my rent money to pay for my own mortgage on my fancy home someday.


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