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August 13th, 2008 COREY PEIN | News Stories
 

How to Live Cheap in Portland

Throwing too much money away on food and shelter? here’s WW’s Recession Survival Guide.

     
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Officially, it’s not a recession. But according to a recent WW poll of several barflies, everybody’s broke.

You probably know how to cope with hard times. Pack a lunch. Ride a bike. Find a fourth roommate. Shave with soap lather. Dress as though you’re colorblind. Adjust your tobacco-to-weed ratio. Participate in a “tasteful” photo shoot. Start forgetting the birthdays of people close to you. Improve your video poker skills. Join a hunger strike. Carry a metal detector everywhere.

If all else fails, swear to God you have absolutely no idea how that steak got down your pants.

After consulting the cheapest people we could find—college students, hippies and a full-time blogger—we’re here to report there’s much more you can do in the pursuit of thrift. With a little pluck and cunning, you can live pretty well in this town on about $700 a month. You won’t even have to eat Top Ramen, give up beer, break any (important) laws or sacrifice (much) dignity.

TRICK YOUR BOSSES INTO GIVING YOU A RAISE: Your employers really want to pay for your TriMet passes. They just don’t know it yet.

Most Portland employers don’t realize it’s cheaper to subsidize transit passes than to hand out raises. Some have. Cogan Owens Cogan LLC a local consulting firm that employs about a dozen people, recently bought $2,700 worth of TriMet passes for its staff. Thanks to the magic of tax incentives (specifically, Oregon’s “business energy tax credit”), the passes only cost the firm $1,700.

In your best “boss” voice, leave a message on the TriMet employer programs line (962-7670, trimet.org/employers)

HASSLE: Next to unionizing, it’s a breeze.

DEBASE-O-METER: More dignified than sprinting from the fare inspector.

THE PUBLIC TROUGH: As if learning about local improvement districts, combined sewer overflows and Robert’s Rules of Order weren’t enticing enough, there’s another reason to attend public meetings: the taxpayer-funded refreshments.

Between neighborhood groups and volunteer boards—from the Golf Advisory Committee to the Floating Structures Board of Appeal—you could eat on the city’s dime every day if you wanted.

On first Wednesdays, the Housing and Community Development Commission usually serves Elephants Deli. On second Wednesdays, the Noise Review Board picks up treats from Grand Central Bakery.

WW’s pick is the Citizen Campaign Commission, which meets at dinnertime on the second Monday of each month on the first floor of City Hall. City Auditor Gary Blackmer provides several large Hot Lips pizzas, plus soft drinks.

For stiffer refreshments, try First Thursdays at City Hall. There’s free wine and finger food on the second floor, and Commissioner Sam Adams taps a keg in his office. Throw back a few and let him know how you really feel about utility license fees.

The Office of Neighborhood Involvement keeps a handy online meeting calendar. Go to portlandonline.com/oni and click on “News & Events.” Find a meeting nearby and duck your head in. Don’t see food? Pretend you got lost.

HASSLE: Harder than buying the $3 bag of day-old bagels at Kettleman’s.

DEBASE-O-METER: Far less shameful than piling jojos on top of your chicken strips in a laxly managed hospital cafeteria and then paying only for the jojos.

IT’S NOT STEALING IF YOU ASK: A few weeks ago, Katy Kolker quit her job with the Portland Parks Bureau to attend to a nonprofit she founded with a friend, the Portland Fruit Tree Project. The project keeps about 140 privately owned fruit trees in a database, and the property owners give permission for Kolker’s volunteers to pick the goodies. Half goes to food banks; volunteers keep “what they can eat.” It’s a pickathon without the patchouli.

“Our biggest challenge has been our capacity to harvest all the trees,” says Kolker.

Last year, volunteers averaged 300 pounds of fruit with every harvest—more than enough for everyone. This year, Kolker expects to pick more. Check out portlandfruit.org or call 284-6106.

HASSLE: More fun than waiting until closing time at the farmers market and begging for leftover roughage.

DEBASE-O-METER: More satisfying than joining the 54,000 Portland households who claimed food-stamp benefits in June.

YOUR LAWN = WASTE OF SPACE: Even on a small city lot, you can grow enough food to put a big dent in your weekly expenses. “Green witch” Connie Van Dyke is a master of urban self-sufficiency. The self-taught botanist lives in a modest yellow house on Southeast 61st Avenue. Her yard is part Eden, part anarchy. There are more than 50 small trees bearing nuts or fruit, including plums, pears, mulberries—even kiwis. There are patches of lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, onions and native corn, plus herbs and edible flowers.

A reformed Nordstrom addict, Van Dyke, 56, now teaches “permaculture”—which, practically speaking, means forgoing the lawn in favor of a big, messy garden. You can find her through Portland Community College (tuition is $89; visit pcc.edu).

A garden like Van Dyke’s takes at least three years to “pop,” she says, but it’s clearly a smart investment. Her grocery budget averages only $20 to $50 a month.

She also raises rabbits for meat. The law allows Portlanders up to three ducks, chickens, rabbits or pygmy goats without a permit—but people often get away with more.

HASSLE: Steep learning curve, but if you grow enough food, you can quit your job.

DEBASE-O-METER: If you live another 50 years, and spend an hour a week at grocery shopping, that’ll be 108 days of your precious life spent under supermarket fluorescents. Would you rather do that, or play in the dirt?

SAFER THAN JUGGLING KNIVES: Take a tip from a recent college grad and learn to juggle bills. “I would put off the cell phone first, and then gas, then electric,” says 23-year-old Laurent Nickell, who makes $1,000-plus a month as a part-time TV installer, for-hire cellist and intern to a local investment manager.

Utilities are the safest gamble. You can put off paying the gas or electric bill and make partial payments with few immediate consequences. The late fees are tiny, and your credit doesn’t suffer much unless the bill goes to collections, which probably won’t happen until after they shut off service. (Which you want to avoid, anyway.)

“If you are making a real effort to pay your bill and you’re in communication with them, you’ll probably be OK,” says Jeff Bissonnette of the Citizens’ Utility Board of Oregon. Remember, “real effort” is a subjective concept.

The utilities are sketchy about what they report to the credit bureaus. They are also ambiguous about when they start playing hardball with delinquents. NW Natural claims to give customers “approximately six weeks” to pay up, according to spokeswoman Kim Heiting.

“We don’t want to shut people off, because it can be pretty costly,” says Heiting. “The best solution for us and the customer is to work out a payment plan.”

Bissonnette suggests setting up an equal-pay plan before you go delinquent. The utility will average out your expected annual gas bill, so that you might pay $50 a month all year, instead of $20 in July and $250 in January.

(Bonus tip: Never, ever sign up for automatic bill-pay. It’s like folding before you know your hand.)

HASSLE: Not paying bills gets easier once the phone company shuts off your land line.

DEBASE-O-METER: Roughly equivalent to cutting your garbage service to once a month.

GET WI-FI WITHOUT BUYING COFFEE: On the roof of Michael Weinberg’s Southeast Portland home is an antenna that broadcasts a wi-fi signal to anyone nearby. About 15 or 20 people a day log on to Weinberg’s home network, and he doesn’t charge a dime. He even shares his iTunes library.

Weinberg, who heads up the nonprofit Personal Telco Project, is Portland’s chief free Internet evangelist. “If you have Internet, share it. If you don’t, and your neighbors do, maybe talk about how you can share the cost,” he says.

Split with nine neighbors, you could get Internet for $5 a month. (Then, if you make your phone calls on a voice-over-Internet service like Skype.com, you’re all set.)

The technical details will vary with every location, but you’ll have better luck if you and your neighbors have facing windows. It won’t take more than off-the-shelf equipment—maybe $50 worth. Contact Personal Telco (via personaltelco.net) and they’ll dispatch a volunteer nerd to help with setup.

FYI: Sharing connections may violate some fine print in Comcast and Qwest’s service contracts. “We’re not lawyers,” Weinberg says.

Sweet. Neither are we.

HASSLE: Less time-intensive than putting in 24 volunteer hours at Free Geek in exchange for a free computer (1731 SE 10th Ave., 232-9350).

DEBASE-O-METER: More ethically defensible than stealing MP3s.

KEEPING UP THE BUZZ: Last year, Oregonians drank the equivalent of 733,000 barrels of draft beer, according to the Oregon Brewers Guild. That’s a pony keg a year for every adult in the state. Obviously, though, some of us are drinking more than others. For many Oregonians, not drinking is not an option—especially when money is tight.

If you drink more than one beer a day, the smart move is to buy beer like you buy toilet paper—in bulk. A full-size keg contains 15.5 gallons, or about 165 12-ounce glasses of beer. At $72 for a keg of cheap domestic, that works out to about 44 cents a glass—versus $3, plus tip, in most bars.

There are two problems—getting the beer out of the keg, and keeping it cool. You can solve both for about $600 with a basic kegerator. (For half that much, you could build your own with a used fridge. This requires some skill.)

If you can’t front the cash for a kegerator, go frathouse style and keep the keg in a big garbage can filled with ice. If you tap the keg with a simple hand pump, the beer will go flat in a few days. You’ll need a carbon-dioxide tap that fits your keg. Score one from one of Portland’s many restaurant-supply stores, or online, for about $150.

Remember, even if you drink only two beers a day, you’ll still save $2,000 in the first year. Over time, this could pay for your liver transplant.

What about the beer? John’s Market (3535 SW Multnomah Blvd., 244-2617) has a good selection. Or just ask at your local pub.

You can save a few more bucks by calling your favorite brewery to ask about its next “dock sale.” The Mount Hood Beverage Company (soon to be CoHo Distributing) has one every weekday from 1 to 5 pm at its ginormous warehouse (3601 NW Yeon St., 417-5001). Walk around the back and look for the “dock sale” sign on the door.

A few recent spot prices on kegs: PBR or Rainier, $72; assorted Rogues, $131-$175; Guinness, $143. There’s a $30 deposit.

Ask about specials. Wine’s available, too; four cases minimum. Bring ID. You’ll have to sign an Oregon Liquor Control Commission form and promise not to open a speakeasy.

HASSLE: Less painful than getting bathtub gin pumped out of your stomach.

DEBASE-O-METER: Just the opposite—your new roommates will love you.


Clackamas County resident J.D. Roth writes getrichslowly.org, which [i]Money[/i] magazine calls the “most inspirational” money blog on the Web. His only qualification? For most of his life, Roth, who recently scrimped his way out of $35,000 worth of debt, “was really dumb with money.”

Evan Siroky, a University of Washington grad student, figured out how to take local buses from Portland to Seattle for just $9.75. For another $11, you can get to Vancouver, B.C. For schedules, visit evansiroky.com/regionaltransit.html.

Many single people find that milk, much like lettuce, goes bad before you can drink it all. Did you know you can freeze milk for later? Thaw completely, and shake well.

 
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