Friday, February 17, 2012

Providence Frugality Audit

With props to Annabelle over at Shopping Detox, I though it would be interesting to take a look at my fair city through the lens of frugality.

A little background: Providence was founded in 1636 by a man named Roger Williams.  Williams had been kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his radical views about religion i.e. that we should have freedom of it.  He wandered to then unsettled Rhode Island, which was inhabited by the Naragansett Indians, got along with them (there's some more history that I'm leaving out here), and fast forward almost 400 years, and we have the city I now call home.

Providence is a pretty compact city, and is kind of organized like a broken wheel--neighborhoods radiate out from a central downtown area (where there is very little parking, many people say).  This is good in that it makes for a more walkable city, this is bad in that it's in the top ten of worst cities to drive in in the United States, but I blame Rhode Islanders and their not knowing how four-way stops work.  Public transit is mediocre and getting worse by the day, but you can live here without a car, so it gets frugality points for that.

+1 Frugality Point for walkability

Winters are relatively mild here, with the average winter low being 30 degrees.  Winters feel colder, however, because the air is so damp and the houses are often from the colonial era and are poorly insulated.  I have to say though, in the grand scheme of things, Providence winters are really not bad.  It typically doesn't get super cold until late November, and warms up around March.  Coming from Fargo, ND where we have blizzards in May, I'll give the frugal weather points to Providence.  Also, the summers get hot, but aren't unbearable, so you can get away with minimal air conditioning.

+1 Frugality Point for weather

Rents in Providence are pretty high, I couldn't find an apartment in any neighborhood for less than $600/month, but you often get a lot of space and character for that money.  Compared to my apartment in Fargo, which was $300/month, but then an additional $250 per month to heat in the winter, I think Providence is doable.  It's certainly cheaper to live here than in Boston.
This is not my house, but is an example of a typical multi-family
home found in Providence.  Each apartment is usually a whole floor. 
+1 Frugality Point for reasonable rents BUT
-1 Frugality Point because for high unemployment 

Providence is also great for free or cheap things to do.  Having both the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University means that there is a lot of cheap theatre, a world-class art museum (that's free before 1pm every Sunday or free with a pass from the library), tons of educational talks, lots of community events and Providence's coup de grace: Waterfire.  
Waterfire is basically baskets on the river that people fill with cedar and set ablaze, then there's music and street food and other things going on.  Honestly, I don't really get it, and I once had someone (not from Providence) ask me if he was supposed to bring his own chickens or if they would be provided.  Waterfire is not a cookout.  Waterfire happens about every other week in the summer, and each week is a little bit difference, like one week, will be symphony week, etc.  I usually go to one or two a year just because it's a fun energetic way to spend the evening, and you can drink beer in the streets.  It attracts hordes of people from all over, and is totally free (beer costs extra).  You can also pay extra and ride in a goldola right next to the flaming baskets, but I don't know why you would want to do that because it gets awfully smoky.

+1 Frugality Point for free or cheap access to culture

Providence also has one of the highest rates restaurants per capita than any other US city.  We have a culinary arts school (that educated Emeril Lagasse), and Providence is where the diner was invented.  The nice thing is that there are tons of good restaurants here, but that is decidedly unfrugal.  when I first moved here, I was eating out sometimes three times a day--not frugal, and I gained a lot of weight meaning my clothes didn't fit.

-1 Frugality Point for having so many delicious restaurants that I want to eat at all the time

One thing that one has to mention when discussing Providence and frugality is the current budget crisis.  The state of Rhode Island is broke and the city of Providence is in a very bad way.  Last year, when Mayor Angel Tavares took office, he announced that Providence is facing a structural deficit of $110 million for the fiscal year.  Providence has not been frugal in the past, but will have to become frugal in the future, or else... I don't know what, I guess the city declares bankruptcy like nearby Central Falls did last year.

-2 Frugality Points for being in a budget crisis

That means that Providence comes out even as a frugal city.  For the people that live here, you can get by fairly cheaply, but with the looming deficit and the mayor's pronouncement that things are grim, taxes are going to continue to go up and retirees currently enjoying cushy pensions are going to have to sacrifice.  It's the new austerity!  

Verdict: Frugal Failure on the road to recovery


  1. In my case, I would have marked the restaurant frugality point as a +1. There are so many cheap ethnic food hole in the wall places that are so tasty! Good food, nice and cheap.

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