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City Living on a Budget – One City Where Your Dollar Stretches and Your Gas Bill Disappears

Updated on June 22, 2008

How many times will gas prices reach a new high this year? What about next year?

Every time it inches past another 10 cent mark, I get on the telephone and ponder this very question with my friends who live way out in the suburbs. The ones with the big SUV's, and the daily hour-long commutes.

You see I don't drive. I abandoned the ‘manicured lawn, white picket fence' lifestyle 5 years ago, to chase my dream of living in the bright lights of the big city. In that time frame I've lived in 3 major cities - in 3 different countries.

My friends used to chide me about my obsession with city living. "Your daughter needs a backyard!" they'd squeal with the delight of a newly converted Stepford wife. Now as they watch their weekend money being hungrily devoured by a gas tank as big as the Pacific Ocean, they openly admit that I may have been on the right path all along.

Living in the city means considerably less driving. I'm able to walk to restaurants, shopping, bars and clubs, parks, the movies, museums, libraries, and whatever else I can dig up on Yelp.

And even children find the big city to be a source of constant excitement. (I mean kids do like other things besides a backyard.) My daughter loves museums, and the hip-hop dance classes she attends twice a week (a mere 3 blocks from my apartment). She goes to ju jitsu on Saturday's, and that's a lovely 15-minute stroll.

She rides her scooter around the park, which we live right across the street from. She goes to story hour at the bookstore once a week, which we also live right across the street from.

Needless to say I think backyards and SUV's are nice, but a wee bit overrated. Being able to get out and enjoy ones community without being tethered to gas guzzler is wonderfully old school. It creates experiences that are far more memorable than the hours upon hours most kids spend in a car watching DVDs.

The Big Problem with City Living – and My Solution

Living in most metropolitan US cities is an expensive proposition. Living in a US city where public transportation and extensive amenities are within walking distance, is often earth shattering.

You've won the lottery if you can find a studio apartment in New York City for $2,000. Washington DC isn't much better, but at least you can get a 1-bedroom for that price. Yippee - I think.

But I know a city where you can live without a car, and get to nearly everything on foot, bus or train. Even a taxi ride from one end of the city to the next will only set you back $11.

That city is Philadelphia.

"Philadelphia!" my step-mom squawked when I told her we were moving there in April 2008. "What the heck is in Philadelphia???"

I can't speak for all of Philly, but I do know about Center City (downtown) which is where I currently live. It's historical... there are tons of restaurants... you've got an awesome bar scene... a good public transportation system including trains and buses and the Amtrak... a thriving arts community... and you have the infamous Rittenhouse Park (which I overlook) if you like your nature mixed with a superb level people watching.

Philly is often considered the 6th borough of New York as it's only an hour away from midtown Manhattan on the Amtrak. And yes... there are people who commute from Philadelphia to New York City. Going 90 minutes south of Philly you'll hit Union Square in Washington DC. A mere 30 minutes on the Amtrak will also take you to Atlantic City.

And if you're wondering if Center City is kid-friendly, let's just say there are so many kids at Rittenhouse Park in the evenings that we might as well set up camp a formal camp around the goat statue. There's a free after school program at the library. And you have lots of different classes in the immediate area - none of which requires the use of a car.

But if you do need a car, you can always rent one by the hour through Philly Car Share. The best thing about Philly Car Share is that they've got cars all over the city. And you don't have to pay for gas. If you need to fill up, you'll use their fleet gas card.

How Cheap is it to Live There?

The Art Museum area probably has the best deals around. You can find 2-bedrooms there for under $1,500. Because of the lower prices, and the possibility of backyard space, lots of families move here instead of the suburbs.

The Art Museum isn't as centrally located as other parts of city. It's kind off-the-beaten path, and you don't have as many amenities as other parts of Center City. But if you want to be within the city limits, with access to more space, it's definitely worth a peek.

The Pearl condominiums in Chinatown, often rents 2-bedrooms for $1,500-$1,600 a month - and this is a brand new complex. Philadelphia's Chinatown consists of maybe 6-blocks, and The Pearl is close to the Reading Terminal, which is one of the best multi-restaurant eateries in Center City. Tourists from around the world flock there.

You can find spacious spilt-level 2-bedrooms in Washington Square West for $1,400-$1,500 a month. Much of Washington Square West is considered to be a gay-borhood. It's very liberal, and it's very inexpensive for the space you get.

Apartments in the Rittenhouse Square area start at $900 a month for studios and can quickly escalate to $1,600+ for a 2-bedroom. It's the most expensive area in Center City, and you'll find lots of doorman buildings mixed with character-filled row homes. The size of the apartments here tends to be a lot smaller than other parts of city. It's like a smallish replica of Soho in New York City.

If you go a few blocks south of Rittenhouse Square you'll hit the Graduate Hospital area, where you can find 2-bedrooms starting at $1,275. This area is predominantly residential, but you'll only have to walk a few blocks before you're in the heart of the action again.

If I had to choose between living in the Art Museum area and the Graduate Hospital area, I'd choose Graduate Hospital because of its proximity to Rittenhouse Square.

Olde City faces the Delaware River and is considered to be a nice "hanging out" part of town. There are a lot of bars and restaurants there, so it's not considered to be extremely family-friendly. Large 1-bedrooms range from $1,100-$1,300 a month.

And finally there's Society Hill, which is close to the Delaware River, but less expensive than Olde City. You can find a spacious 2-bedroom apartment there for around $1,400, and it is family-friendly.


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