FREE! Chicago: Beans and Brews

Intelligentsia Chicago CoffeePhoto Credit

Writing for UPchicago has made me a bit of a tourist in my own city. Eating in new restaurants and visiting new neighborhoods that will generate content are compelling reasons to get out of bed on my days off. A CTA pass in hand, the city is mine for the taking. Mostly.

You see, I found that in addition to my CTA pass I was also pulling out my debit card a lot. New restaurants, bookstores I’d stumble upon while investigating a new neighborhood, our unbelievably fun staff Bar Crawls… my frugal heart was torn. Could I experience Chicago and still contribute to my savings account? Was there a way to enjoy what my city had to offer by spending much less? My mind shifted to my first months in Chicago without a job, and other tight financial spells. I had felt so disconnected and disheartened during those times. Going out for sushi with friends? That seemed excessive in lean times. And a night of $9 cocktails? Forget it.

But I have learned that consciously forgoing the typical spending habits of my fellow urban enthusiasts has actually made me fall in love with my city all over again. And, it’s helped to have backup on the mission. Early this year, I met one of the most creative and fun-loving people on the planet. You know him as UPchicago staff writer Phil Kranyak, a lover of encased meats who is passionate about improv comedy and bookstores. I know him as my boyfriend, an urban adventurer and one hell of a cheap date. When Phil and I began dating, we were both working fairly low wage jobs. Fancy cocktail lounges and candlelit steakhouse dinners were reimagined as Scrabble night with a case of Wood Chuck Cider and a homemade meal of whatever meat was on sale at Jewel that week. I can honestly say though, now that we are both much more gainfully employed, we still usually opt for the less expensive option. Cooking at home, learning how to make good cocktails, and spending our days off exploring have made for some amazing memories that didn’t cost us much.

Over several articles, I will share some of our favorite cheap and free things to do in Chicago. This series is called “Free Chicago!” for a couple of reasons: first, most obviously, because I’m going to highlight free or cheap ways to experience our wonderful city. But secondly, on a more philosophical level, I want to separate the Chicago experience from big spending; to free it, if you will, from financial burden and excess so you can truly enjoy it. No more anxiously awaiting Chase to text your bank account balance. No more charging Chicago on plastic you can’t back up with real dollars. We can free Chicago from an experience we need to buy, and make it an experience we can savor every moment, no matter how far from payday we are.

FREE! Chicago: Beans and Brews

There is nothing quite like conversation over a warm caffeinated beverage or a cold beer. An easy way to catch up with an old friend or a new date, I’m sure the rest of Chicago spends a good portion of their disposable income on beverages. I do it, too. About a month ago when I decided to really see how much of Chicago I could do on the cheap, I tried to think of ways to handle a friendly request to meet for a beer or a latte.

Beans first, folks. I’m talking coffee. And I’m not just talking about coffee at your local 7-11, the origins and ethics of which are a bit dubious. I’m talking about local, Chicago coffee companies. Intelligentsia and Metropolis started right here in Chicago, and their popularity is creeping off the shores of Lake Michigan to the rest of the country. You can certainly visit their coffeehouses in the city, but you can also buy by the bag, brewing and indulging at home. Invite a friend over, ask them to stop at a local bakery on the way, and brew yourself a pot of Sweet Home Chicago goodness. Take it in a travel mug to the lakefront on a cold morning dog walk. Send a bag to your caffeine-addicted parents who live out of town. Curl up with a (free!) library book and indulge, Chicago-style. The savings here can be significant, too. Financial writer David Bach coined the term “the latte factor.” In helping people find places to cut costs, he targeted America’s addiction to Starbucks. Stop every day on your way to work for a $4 latte, and it adds up. Buy a bag of freshly ground coffee from a local Chicago coffeehouse, and your savings are exponential. You might be spending more than you would on a can of Folgers, but you’ll certainly beat the cost of stopping in a shop every time you need a pick-me-up.

Now, onto the booze. No matter how wonderful our coffee companies are, sometimes we don’t need a boost, but a glass of something cool and relaxing. Coffee might get us to work in the morning, but beer is going to get us home, making the transition from cubicle to L to sofa that much easier. Luckily, Chicago also has local brew options of which we should be extremely proud. We have Goose Island, for instance, with multiple city locations, and brewery tours. If you’re low on cash, skip the bar and pick up a six-pack at the grocery store for less. I know, I know. Drinking at home sounds depressing. But can I share something? One of my favorite Chicago moments was standing on my deck, a 312 in hand, laughing and enjoying a summer night with good friends who had come over for a game night. Another, you ask? Finding a store that let Phil and I mix and match six different beers, and trying a new one each night with dinner. Do this enough on the cheap at home, and the next time you’re out at a bar rattling off suggestions and pairings to the other patrons, you might just have a few bottles bought for ya.

Let’s break it down: good times are about connection with other people. The appeal of going out and spending money, for most of us, is to sit around a table with good friends, catching up, sharing stories, making one another laugh. It’s a shame when this becomes a burden. Skip the financial guilt without sacrificing your relationships, or what our wonderful city has to offer. Cheers.

Mary-Margaret McSweene

About Mary-Margaret McSweene

Mary-Margaret McSweene makes her home in the Edgewater neighborhood of Chicago with the love of her life, a pit bull/black lab mix, named Jake. Buying old things that no longer function but offer extreme aesthetic pleasure is her vice; typewriters and rotary phones are favorites. Mary-Margaret also believes that anything in life can be articulated by a Tom Petty song.

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