Chances are you’ve heard of a little city called Austin, TX. No, scratch that: chances are– at least, if you know anything about anything–you want to live in said little city. Austin has been making the rounds on the net topping out top-ten lists for quite a few years now, garnering grand accolades such as the #1 City of the Next Decade from Kipling Magazine, the Best City for Young Adults from Forbes, and the #1 Place to Live in the US from Marketwatch. Among its most commonly cited boons profiled in such gold medal blurbs are Austin’s vibrant economy, its music scene, its offbeat culture, and its affordability. That last might surprise some Austinites: while Austin might seem affordable to those dishing out such awards from Forbes’ offices in New York and Chicago, locals know that such gold medals are often paid for in gold. That’s right: Austin’s famed creature comforts can truly wreak havoc on one’s wallet, unless one knows what they’re doing.
And, as it turns out, we do.
Culled from collective minds experienced with living in Austin on a budget, I now present to you our local’s guide to living on the cheap in Austin. TX:
Caloric intake is more than just a biological necessity in this wacky city: its an art form as open to experimentation as the tunes emanating out of Red River Street. From upscale restaurants to hole-in-the-wall BBQ pits, from adventurous food trucks to grocery shopping at Whole Foods, eating well in Austin is mandatory, but can come at a price. Our advice:
Tacos. Tacos are cheap, tacos are everywhere, and tacos come in a near-infinite variety. Stands selling $1 tacos abound downtown (anyone dispensing La Lengua is about as authentic as they get– and no, your Spanish isn’t failing you: that’s beef tongue) or stuff your face with Juan in a Million’s Don Juan ($3.95) and curb hunger for a whole day. And if you’d like some strange on your taco, seek out Chi’ Lantro Korean BBQ’s truck for kimchi-covered tacos, burgers and fries.
For more ostensibly-traditional fast food fare, try P. Terry’s Burger Stand, where all-natural (as in grass fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free) angus beef burgers can be found for a jaw-dropping-and-drooling price of just $2.
Finally, the ultimate budget snack routine can be accomplished with a sweep through the Whole Foods Market sample section, where exquisite hors d’oeuvres are catered up to shoppers (and hungry, wandering passersby) for free.
It’s happy hour every hour somewhere in Austin– the trick is timing your trip right. Some general advice: $1 Lonestar Mondays, High Life Tuesdays, and Keystone Wednesdays, along with $3.25 wells any time before 7:00pm all week at Barton Springs Saloon are about as cheap as it gets.
When Downtown head off 6th Street to avoid breaking your budget. 7th and 8th Streets, just a short walk to the north, offer slightly-subdued prices to accompany their slightly-subdued atmospheres.
And if you’d like to add a bit of simulated entrepreneurial adventure to your budget boozing, find the Brew Exchange on West 6th St. A stock ticker scrolling atop the bar documents price fluctuations between their huge selection of craft beers, with Market Crashes plunging prices on some of Austin’s best, locally-made brews to as low as $3.
Austin trumps so many top-ten lists namely because this here category is nearly limitless. But with famous attractions like Austin City Limits Festival now charging a whopping $200, those living on a budget might have to look a little harder for their fun. Never fear: there are still plenty of thrifty thrills around the city, day or night.
Hot Texan days are best beat in one of Austin’s parks– oh, by the way, the city has one of the highest ratios of green space per resident in the nation. Zilker Park is a vast oasis of green with an excellent view of Austin’s growing skyline and is only a short trip from Downtown. Fly kites, ride bikes, stroll the free Botanical Garden, or pack a picnic, all for absolutely free on weekdays (parking is $3 on weekends, or you can take the bus and get in free). The nearby Barton Creek Greenbelt offers nearly 8 miles of superb hiking complete with densely-wooded preserves, rock formations, waterfalls and cool swimming holes. Rent a kayak from the Rowing Dock for just $10 (for two hours with this coupon) and find unbelievably-tranquil peace on Lady Bird Lake, right in the leafy heart of the city. Finally, the spring-fed Barton Springs Pool stays a cool 71.6 °F even at the height of the summer heat. Admission is just $3, or free from 5-8:00AM and 9-10:00PM.
If it’s music you’re after, Central Presbyterian Church offers free concerts every Thursday at noon. On the first Thursday of every month the whole of South Congress Ave explodes into one big block party complete with live music, shopping, and food. While bargain deals are sure to be found, the event’s greatest draw–people watching–is, of course, completely free.
Austin’s own distinctive culture often overshadows the fact that the city is capital of one of the USA’s most distinctive states. Immerse yourself in Texas history with a free, guided tour of the State Capitol–which, you should know, is taller than the US Capitol (take that, D.C.). Should that pique your interest, $15 will get you both admission and an IMAX ticket at the extravagant Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum. Finally, if you like your history ancient, the UT Natural Science Center offers phenomenal (and free) exhibits on prehistoric Texas life.
And finally there’s the ultimate free Austin event: the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. Every day at dusk from March to November 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from under the Congress Ave Bridge to black out the sky.
Take the bus. The Capital Metro offers local rides for only $1, day passes for $2, and monthly passes for $40. The service is extensive and digitally connected– just scan the QR code with your smartphone to find when the next bus is expected to arrive.
Or take the train. There’s only one long line that extends from Downtown all the way to Leander (more to come in the future, we hope) but it’s fast, efficient, and convenient. Plus it’s open till 12:00AM, meaning that an expensive cab ride to-and-from 6th Street on Friday night can now be accomplished for $5.50 round trip.
Budget opportunities pop up all the time in Austin– the trick is staying informed. Consult Austin360, Austin on the Cheap, FunEmployed, and Do512 for the latest events, and keep frugal in this fun and funky city.
Brian Shreckengast is a writer at Self Storage Deals.