Living in Boston on the cheap
January 21, 2014 7:01 PM   Subscribe

Living in Boston on $12,100 a year: is this doable? How can I make it work?

I'm considering an AmeriCorps position in Boston (Roxbury to be specific) for the next school year and am trying to figure out if I can live there on the stipend without going insane. I've read previous threads about this, but they're more focused on being a tourist, not on day to day living.

Things that help:
- I will get SNAP benefits
- I don't mind living in the sketchier areas of town, especially since I'll be working in one. I've lived in Baltimore and pre-gentrification Bushwick in Brooklyn for tolerance reference.
- I have a car, but am comfortable biking or walking to work.
- I actually prefer living with roommates and don't have any furniture to speak of, so don't need a lot of space.

Difficulty level:
- Max level of rent is about $700, bills included.
- I want to live close enough to work that I can bike or walk there.

- I don't want to constantly feel deprived. I currently live in Vermont where I have enough money for the semi-weekly trip to the fancy pub or concert. While I don't need $$$$ level restaurants, I don't want to live in a city with so many food / cultural opportunities and never be able to do any of them.

I feel like there are so many college kids around, there has to be a decent culture in Boston for people without a lot of money. What is it? What are the hacks that can make this work?
posted by youcancallmeal to Travel & Transportation around Boston, MA (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on when I come home, I can see about 10-15 Americorps kids (all in matching red jackets) on the T going to Jamaica Plain from Roxbury. I have no idea whether you in particular can make this work, but you will have LOTS of company if you do.

It's not a particularly sketchy area, and well served by public transport and bike paths.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:13 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think this is doable if you live in Roxbury or in neighboring Jamaica Plain in a large house with numerous roommates.

Going out can be expensive, even on the cheap, but if you do a group outing or split a bill on large shared items or go to a pub and order a couple of beers, you should be okay if you're only doing it once every few weeks and not say, every day.
posted by zizzle at 7:19 PM on January 21, 2014

Bearing in mind that my info is second hand, my impression is that this will be very unpleasant and you will not like it at all. Here are some reasons why.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 7:19 PM on January 21, 2014

Response by poster: A quick addendum:

One thing that I loved about living in Baltimore and Brooklyn is the low budget, DIY sort of music and art scene. Is there any equivalent to that in Boston? I love all kinds of music and culture, (really. from bluegrass to modern art to punk rock.) and would love to find people doing interesting things for not a lot of cash. Think aging hipsters without the trust funds. :)
posted by youcancallmeal at 7:26 PM on January 21, 2014

I think it's doable if you find roommates and don't live extravagantly. Get used to cooking. Do you have other debt to pay off? Cell phone bills? Do they give money for transportation? I don't think you have to worry about it being sketchy.
posted by the twistinside at 7:28 PM on January 21, 2014

The link StrikeTheViol linked to is clearly a relatively professional couple and not, say, a young unattached person and clearly had weird ideas about Boston or something. I mean, it's just....odd.....based on the comments, it seems those people were living in downtown. So, umm, is going to be expensive there.

It won't be nearly as expensive split multiple ways in say, Roxbury or Jamaica Plain, which are not that near downtown but not that far if you wanted to spend some time downtown.
posted by zizzle at 7:30 PM on January 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I think you can definitely get by on what you're looking at, particularly with roommates. If you weren't willing to live with a roommate I'd say you were out of luck. With roomies? Definitely. The extra bonus is that there are many students and people trying to make it on the cheap in this town, so finding a roommate shouldn't be too difficult. I'd bet you could find a room in JP for $700/mo and as long as you're not a terrible beer snob, enjoy shows in Jamaica Plain, Cambridge, Allston and Somerville from time to time with no problem. There is a vibrant music scene in this town - the art scene, maybe not quite so much, but it does exist. There's always something to do. You will be fine.

I have lots of friends who are in bands, or are artists, or are just eking out a living, and they pay rent at around your budget and I see them out at shows all of the time. They are drinking the cheap beer, sure, but they're enjoying the city, to be sure!

(Edited to refer to Jamaica Plain by its real name, instead of as "JP" - something only folks living in Boston already would probably understand. I'm a jerk!)
posted by pazazygeek at 7:32 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: nthing Jamaica Plain/JP. I think you're going to find what you're looking for there. The friends I have in Jamaica Plain are very community-centric folks who like bikes, local food, etc. JP also has a longer history of community diversity that includes activisty white folks than Bushwick, to my knowledge, though there are definitely hot-spots of transition and flipping. Also if you're coming from Bushwick you're probably used to walking a bit to subway stations -- that's a great asset here! My friends that live directly next to T (subway) stops are paying unnecessary $300+ premiums. Skip that if you don't mind a 15 minute walk.

Keep in mind that JP can feel somewhat cut off from places like Somerville and Cambridge, mostly because it supports its own homegrown, slightly insular vibe. If you from the get-go commit to bike commuting to Central Square some nights and jumping on the orange line into Chinatown and other similar moves, you'll have easy access to the whole city.

I'm not the best with econo hacks, but my big suggestion would be (1) bike commute and (2) put effort into finding a happy little housing community with a few 'mates so that you can regularly host your friends. This saves so much money in comparison to bar culture. I hope you end up picking here -- it's fun! (bias.) (but really!)
posted by elephantsvanish at 8:10 PM on January 21, 2014

I see tons of those red-coated Americorps kids taking the T from the Jackson Square T, which means they're probably living around there.

Who knows if they have secret funds coming in from parents or trusts.
posted by barnone at 8:11 PM on January 21, 2014

Best answer: Oh and there's definitely a thriving DIY thing in Boston. There are deep punk roots, and that kind of sets the stage. Some starting points:
posted by elephantsvanish at 8:14 PM on January 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you felt deprived, could you get a part time second job waiting tables or delivering pizza?
posted by mazienh at 8:42 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty sure the red-coated kids are not regular AmeriCorps folks but like actual kid kids who are in City Year, no?
posted by threeants at 9:32 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah, redcoats on the Orange Line are doing City Year.

I won't say what you're trying to do is impossible, but I'm having a hard time figuring out any way to do this without your day-to-day life feeling like you were penny-pinching all the time. Assuming you're going to pay no tax on your $12,100 (and recall that the standard deduction is less than $8K, so you're probably going to be paying something nominal on the remaining $4K), $700 in rent will leave you with $300/month in discretionary income. That's $75/week for insurance copays, entertainment, transportation, and unplanned expenses. Is your T pass subsidized? If not, that's a quarter of your budget. You don't have to spend $8/pint on craft beer, but sub-$5-drinks at a bar are becoming a rare sight these days, even in shitty neighborhood dives (which by the way are not a staple in Roxbury--I live on the Roxbury/JP border, and I have to shlep over to Doyle's or Centre Street in the Very Much Gentrified Part Of JP to find a watering hole). If you ever want to go out with friends, you're going to have to navigate a minefield of $4 coffee drinks and $8 lunches everywhere you go. Movies are $12 downtown, and while you can avoid paying full price for most anything around here, you do at the cost of time and convenience. (The MFA is free!.. Mondays during business hours. Etc. etc.)

I guess what I'm saying is, you would need to be committed to this lifestyle as a Thing You Put Up With In Order To Do What You Love. If you don't mind living an ascetic lifestyle, you can probably manage it if you eat a lot of rice and beans and never go out. I'm having trouble figuring out why you would want to do that, though.
I am also having a hard time figuring out where AmeriCorps gets off providing a stipend that is well below poverty wages, and expects you to rely on SNAP benefits to work there

However, if you do decide to go for this, either post a follow-up question or message me privately, and I can talk to you a little bit about neighborhoods. I actually know people living in Somerville who are paying less than $700/month in rent, and I'm guessing Davis Square will be much more up your alley than Roxbury.
posted by Mayor West at 6:36 AM on January 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

I would leave the car behind. Insuring a car in Boston is insanely expensive. In. Sane.
posted by Marit at 7:38 AM on January 22, 2014

Parking a car in Boston is also insanely expensive and/or stressful. Between your bike and public transportation, the only time you would need the car is if you want to drive out of the city, like to visit Worcester or Vermont or something. I'm totally agreed that you should leave the vehicle behind while you're living in the city.

I lived in Boston as a college student on a very tight budget for 4 years, and there are tons of free or cheap, entertaining things to do. They just might be different from what you're looking for. Wandering around the city on foot, for one, never got boring for me. Read a book or people-watch in the Common, or the Public Gardens. In Harvard Square there will be tons of street performers, and as someone who has probably less income than they do, I don't think you would have to feel bad for contributing minimally (if at all) to the hat or guitar case. Go jogging or walking on the esplanade along the Charles River, or through the Emerald Necklace chain of parks. Explore the gigantic, old public library. Check out the reflecting pool outside the Christian Science church. Make friends with the harbor seals in the tank outside the aquarium, if you can't afford to go in. Wander the Faneuil Hall market area. Appreciate the buskers playing music in the T stations. Wander through Copley Square to see if there's some kind of event going on during the weekend. Check out the architecture on Beacon Hill, and imagine the lives of the people who live there. None of these require that you figure out the schedule of free museum admission on the 2nd Tuesday of the month kind of schedules, but those are out there too.

For live music, in addition to the street and subway performers, you can often find a bar that won't mind you nursing one solitary drink for an evening as you listen to their musicians. It'll be some random jazz trio or Berklee college band, not a group you've ever heard of, but it can still be really enjoyable.

All those lovely suggestions aside, the truth is you can have fun and avoid boredom but still feel like you're missing out on the city. It's really hard to walk by so many great restaurants, museums, etc. knowing that your time in the city is limited, but still feel like you can't afford to patronize them while you're there. On your budget it's going to be really hard to pay for concert tickets, movies, or restaurant meals. It's one of my biggest regrets about my 4 years in the city, that I didn't just loosen up a little and maybe even take on a smidge of credit card debt to get a fuller experience. I had a ton of fun there, but there are opportunities that would have been worth much more to me than the cash I saved by avoiding them; I just couldn't see that at the time.

One thing I will say, is definitely get a T pass. When you're in a penny-pinching mindset, springing even a dollar (or whatever it costs these days for a ride) to go visit a new neighborhood can seem too extravagant. Then you end up sitting at home all the time being miserable and bored. If the pass is part of your monthly expenses, then every train ride feels free. Heck, you could just get on the red line and spend your Saturday getting off at every stop for half an hour to see what's there. That would cost a ton if you were paying for every ride individually.
posted by vytae at 8:09 AM on January 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oops, sorry about the City Year / Americorps thing.

I think it is technically possible but leaves absolutely everything to the bare minimum. The link from StriketheViol is a derail - that's a professional couple living in a very expensive part of the city, shopping exclusively with online delivery and Whole Foods. That's not most people's experience in Boston.

Here are some sample rents, for example.

$600 - Looking for roommate for 2BR apartment-walk to orange line in JP

Co-op living: Fun JP co-op house (The Fort) seeking new housemates sublet June 1st ! -- something like this would give you more flexibility in your budget and might be up your alley. It would also help with food costs.

$600 - House Share in JP (great for couples) (no utilities)

$550 - room in a charming JP house!


These were found with a super quick search, and I know folks in JP who have a room for more like $500/month with heat but no cable/internet.

Are you expected to have a part-time job on top of this, like working in a restaurant or bar once a week? I'd also ask to talk to Americorps folks who have been in Boston to hear their direct experience. You could do this for a year but there isn't much room for error.
posted by barnone at 8:44 AM on January 22, 2014

Coops are a great option for this, if you can find one. The Fort in JP is one good example; Millstone in Davis would be another. The BCN mailing list would be a good place to ask this question.

Advantages: Coops offer cheap rent by fitting a lot of people in a large house, usually have a small monthly food and utilities payment that will let you eat well cheap, come with a built-in community of cool people doing cool free things, and won't find it weird if you can't spend much money. I can't swear to it but I wouldn't be surprised if $700 would cover rent and your monthly utilities and food share.

Disadvantages: 50 people apply for each open spot. Even if it's the right option for you, to some extent you just have to get lucky (or start your own).
posted by jhc at 9:40 AM on January 22, 2014

Hi! I live on the Jamaica Plain/Roxbury line. $700 all-in for a room is possible, but difficult. I pay $1350 for my 500 square foot 2-bedroom condo, and that does not include utilities. I searched for months to find this apartment at this price.

Even if you do keep your expenses down to $700, $75 a week isn't a lot to live on. Groceries here are really expensive, though hopefully your SNAP will cover some of that expense. I regularly spend $20 on a meal out--that's dinner and a beer and a tip, someplace cheap. And that isn't including your (necessary) T pass. You won't be able to bring your car on that salary, for sure. The fancy pub meal is going to run you $40 or $50. (It's delicious, but maybe not 3/4 of your spending cash delicious.)

You can get away with this, I suppose, but you won't have many luxuries at all. You'll be able to catch some $5 cover shows and things like that. Karaoke is free on Thursdays at the Midway :) But I'm more worried about your ability to cover emergencies or buy some snow shoes or a winter coat. There are quite a few thrift stores around here, but... think on that. Do you have any savings? I would start trying to save some money now for things like that.

If you do end up here, send me a message... I'll buy you dinner some evening.
posted by woodvine at 11:51 AM on January 22, 2014

Two other Boston AmeriCorps alumni resources for you:

Blog and other info: AmeriCorps Alums: Boston Chapter

Facebook Group: AmeriCorps Alums: Boston Chapter
posted by barnone at 12:33 PM on January 22, 2014

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