For those who live on a budget, Austin's growth can be a source of stress. It's hard to imagine living on $1,000 a month, but if I can do it, then anyone can.
While in college at Texas State University in San Marcos, I held a few jobs, ranging from unpaid intern to retail cashier to newspaper editor, none of which paid more than peanuts. From 2017-2019, I had a $9 an hour retail job, and I raked in a little less than $1,000 per month.
With a little bit of creativity and budgeting talent, here's how I would make $1,000 per month work in Austin:
When you're only working with $1,000 per month, most likely you will end up spending close to 70% of your income on rent and the rest on other necessities, with little leftover.
While I lived in San Marcos, I was able to split a two-bedroom apartment with just one other person, slashing the $850/month rent and roughly $100 utilities in half. Rent at $850 for a two-bedroom might be hard to find in Austin, so consider moving outside the Austin metro area if you have reliable transportation to the city (I'll address transportation further down). Otherwise, a breakdown of cheaper neighborhoods to apartment shop at in Austin can be found here.
Tips for low-cost living:
- Find a roommate—or two or three—to cut the cost of rent.
- Avoid rent-by-the-room leases as they tend to favor the landlord. Instead, you'll want to sign a joint-lease agreement, so rent is split 50/50.
- Try not to sign a lease during the summer—that's the busiest moving season and you're more likely to get a better deal in fall or winter.
- Don't use electricity if you're not in the room and try to keep your water usage down.
If you conserve, you preserve valuable cash. A breakdown of essential costs: water at an average of $35 per month, electricity averaging at $65-100 depending on the season, internet can be found for as cheap as $30 per month and cell phone service as cheap as $15. If you can find a living situation that will pay one or more of your utilities, like I did, it will put that much more money back in your pocket.
A car payment is simply not doable under this budget. So you'll need to make do with the car that was gifted to you or you paid off in full, especially if you're planning on living just outside the city. If you're a biker, that's also a cost-efficent way to get around—especially with Austin being a bike-friendly city. Otherwise, there's always public transportation to get you around.
I paid off my 2009 Chevrolet Cobalt when I bought it and tried to drive as little as possible to avoid having to pay for yet another tank of gas. If you choose to drive, insurance can be as low as $65 per month and a single tank of gas costs around $25.
Austin's Capital Metro offers bus and rail services from Downtown to Leander with various routes and stops. A 31-day bus pass will cost $41.25 at the most reduced rate, which equates to how much one might spend on car fuel.
With only between $35-105 left for food, you will need to maximize how you shop. Buy what is on sale and try to limit your perishables to what you can consume before they spoil. It seems self-explanatory but 30-40% of food is wasted in the U.S., which equates to about a pound per person, per day.
I buy foods I know I like so that money doesn't go to waste. I'm a firm believer in eating breakfast every day, so my mornings usually started with some tea and something light. I'm not much of a cook so quick and easy food is my go-to. I buy food that can be enjoyed in a variety of ways so I never have to get tired of them—if you keep anything in stock, make sure it is spices and sauces.
Rice is incredibly cheap, versatile, can be eaten for every meal and it isn't uncommon for me to do so. And for protein, a bag of frozen chicken thighs can be found at your local grocery store for less than $5, and it'll last you days with various ways to cook it.
Unfortunately, eating out isn't something that can be done often so when I do, I enjoy it!
Buying other essentials: clothes, furniture and more
Don't buy anything new. And that means anything. From clothes to furniture to cars to moving boxes, you can get nearly everything pre-loved. However, just because it is used doesn't mean it has to look cheap or junky; the goal is to appear as if your items are brand new without having to spend huge sums of cash.
Consignment stores, Facebook Marketplace and Goodwill are excellent locations to find discounted or sometimes even free goods. Amazon Warehouse has a section on its website that sells open-box items, though most often they are still brand new. There is simply no reason to pay full price for anything, plus it's better for the planet!
The hard reality is that when you're working with a tight budget, spending money is usually the first to go. Set up a rainy day fund for a splurge and enjoy all the free (or close to free) activities Austin has to offer. Become a Zilker Park explorer extraordinaire or tour some of the many museums around the city like The Blanton, which is free on the first Thursday of every month, or the Mexic-Arte museum, which is free on Sundays. The Umlauf Sculpture Garden is only $5 per person and never ceases to delight with its uniquely structured art. Don't neglect your wants but don't let them be the source of your monetary stress.
Now go get that coin!
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Last month, native Austinite Mark Debs completed a rite of passage synonymous with the American dream: buying his first home.
But for the 32-year-old civil engineer, it wasn't just a joyful culmination of years of hard work. Instead, Debs said the moment was bittersweet after a grueling and time-consuming search for affordable housing in a metro that has seen a 22% increase in the median home price in just a year.
"I was thinking, 'I'm a civil engineer, and I can barely even afford a home,'" Debs said. "It's insane."
Debs and other first-time homebuyers are entering the Austin market as home prices soar and bidding wars ensue across the metro. Debs said living inside "Austin's City Limits" has become little more than a music festival title for many first-time homebuyers and soon found himself home shopping outside of the city's center.
"Probably the biggest upset was (realizing) if I really want to buy a house, I have to go to the outskirts," Debs said. "So my expectations of that got dashed out pretty quick, but it was a little discouraging."
Debs then embarked on a jam-packed journey for his dream home and was surprised to see dozens of bidders doing the same, often offering up to $100,000 over asking price. Downtrodden and left with a chip on his shoulder, Debs finally won out on a three-bedroom home in Del Valle near Tesla's new headquarters.
Debs bought the two-story townhome in Del Valle near Tesla's new headquarters. (Mark Debs)
But Debs said the stress didn't end there.
"No one really tells you this before, but you have all this paperwork you have to process, all this money you have to put upfront," Debs said. "It's a rollercoaster."
The process was enough for Debs to consider uprooting and leaving his hometown for good.
"I was telling (my friends), 'I think I may have to move to San Antonio,'" Debs said. "It's personal to me because I was born and raised here, and I was thinking I couldn't even find a home to stay in my city... so I did have that tipping point, but then funny enough, five days later I won a bid on the house."
If median home prices continue to rise, Debs said he thinks many native Austinites may be forced to reach that tipping point as well.
"A lot of locals can't afford to live here anymore... I think it's going to start pushing more people out," Debs said. "(And) the longer you wait, the more expensive things are getting."
Still, Debs is grateful he didn't pack his bags for San Antonio. And no matter the changes in home prices or newcomers, Debs said he likes the distinct quirks of his hometown as he continues to build the city he was raised in.
"I would definitely do it again," Debs said. "It's a city where I feel a good vibe and a good energy... Even though we get a lot of new people moving in, change is good."
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Downtown feels like itself these days as more Austinites are back in the office. But other cities can't say the same.
According to data from office security firm Kastle Systems, Austin offices are 59% occupied based on card swipes into corporate offices and campuses. Not far behind, Dallas is at 49% occupied, while the largest 10 markets, including New York and Los Angeles, are around 40% occupied.
While some might think fancy buildings and a fun downtown could be the reason for Austin's successful return to the office, the Wall Street Journal reports it is likely due to multiple reasons.
- Austin drawing young professionals in office roles of sales, marketing and business development.
- About a third of Austin residents being millennials.
- The average Austin commute isn't as bad as other major cities.