What Detroit Has Taught Me About Saving Money

Can you imagine living in a city without a single chain grocery store? Can you imagine living without a Target, a Walmart, a Home Depot, or Best Buy? No TJ Maxx or Marshall’s or Bed Bath and Beyond? Or without a Costco to buy things in bulk?

I know it might be hard to picture. Big chain retailers have permeated our culture so much that the thought of living in a place without them is hard to imagine.

But I do live in a place without them. And I’m more grateful every day that I do.


Because, by living in a city that is completely unique from most of the country, I’ve learned some amazing things that have not only helped me save money, but also live a better life. First, I want to start with my story and experiences living in Detroit. Then I’m going to discuss some ways my own lessons can be applied to your life.

My Story

Detroit’s Lack of Chains

I live in Detroit. Not in the suburbs, but right downtown. And one question I get asked over and over by some of my suburban friends is, “Where do you shop?”

Detroit is an incredibly large city, larger than most people realize. It can fit Boston, Manhattan, and San Francisco in its city limits and still have room left over. And yet in this city of over one million people, there’s not a single chain grocery store. And most of the big retail stores that can be seen in any city, anywhere else in the country, aren’t here either.

But here’s the rub. I don’t miss them. Not one little bit. And I’m getting by just fine without them.

At first glance, you might think living without a chain grocery store would be a real pain. But it’s astonishing to me how much money I’m saving by not having access to big chain stores.

Here’s What Normally Happens In a Chain

Stop and think about what happens when you walk into Target. In a normal store, you might have quickly run in to grab some detergent and some cereal. But when you walk into that brightly lit, warehouse-sized space full of, well, cool things, what happens?

You slow down to look. You linger and admire all this stuff that you could buy. And inevitably, you pick up one or two more things that you originally intended. Sometimes, you pick up significantly more than that.

The original intention of an $8 cheap food shopping trip can easily turn into $30 or $60 or more when you walk into those places. And this can happen every time you walk into a big retailer. You’re given a million choices, and so of course, you choose more.

Having previously not lived in downtown Detroit, I never quite understood how much I was spending on “extras” shopping at those big places. But since I’ve moved here, my spending¬†has gone way down.

Quality of Life

But the most amazing thing is that my quality of life hasn’t gone down. In fact, I’d say it has dramatically improved since I moved.

What Detroit¬†does have, what makes this city so unique, are the little Mom and Pop stores. These little stores and restaurants are independently owned. And because the local population simply can’t afford inflated suburban prices, many food and goods cost quite a bit less here in the city than it would out in the ‘burbs.

Also, since these little stores are so small, they can’t stock as much. I’m still getting healthy, high-quality food, but I’m no longer assaulted with 20 different brands of gourmet coffee, or 30 different kinds of bread. I have a few choices and that’s it. And I’m spending less as a result.

I’ve come to realize that, for me, having a lack of choices is actually a really great thing. I was a “do-it-yourselfer” before, but I’ve become one even more so now.

For example, my local market, HoneyBee, is amazing. But they don’t sell sliced bread. So, I make my own now and slice it myself. We needed a new sofa when we moved, but instead of driving all the way out to the IKEA furniture store and renting a truck to get it home, I’m building one out of wood pallets that were left behind an abandoned building. And it looks way cooler than anything I could have bought in the store.

Another Way I’m Saving: My Perception Has Changed

It’s hard to think about going out to buy a new outfit when there’s a homeless man right outside your building, picking through the dumpster looking for something to eat every day.

In fact, it’s impossible.

Living in a city with just under 50% unemployment and 30% of residents on food stamps changes the way you look at spending money. It changes it a lot. The homeless and needy are everywhere here. Seeing the hardships they go through, and hearing their stories, makes spending money on stuff I don’t need seem incredibly wasteful.

This has really altered what I choose to spend money on.

How You Can Apply This To Your Life

I wracked my brain to come up with strategies that you can use to apply these lessons in your own life. And, I came up with two. They won’t be easy, but I think trying them could change the way you spend money:

1. Try to Avoid Big Chain Stores For a Month

I know they’re everywhere. But try to imagine where you’d shop if you didn’t have any chain stores at all. Go visit these independent places. Talk to the owners. See what they offer.

Chances are you can get by just fine shopping at those places. And your grocery store bills will probably be dramatically reduced as a result. My advice? Try it for a month and see what happens. You might be surprised at how your perception changes when your choices are limited.

Another big advantage to shopping at small retailers is that your purchases help support a family, not a large conglomerate corporation. The money you spend here makes a real difference to someone.

2. Visit Your Nearest Big City

It’s funny how comfortable we can get in the suburbs. Everything is safe, and many of us are protected from the sight of real suffering and hardship.

Living in Detroit has forced me to look that suffering and hardship in the face. The experience has been sobering, and it’s one I’m grateful for. Every day I’m reminded how great I have it, and how much I can do to help others who really need it.

I invite you to visit your local big city. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Talk to the people living out on the street. Hearing their tales might dramatically alter the way you look at your needs and wants. I know it sure has for me.

(Photo credit: Bob Jagendorf)

  • http://toughmoneylove.com Mr. ToughMoneyLove

    You live in Detroit (sorry about that) so you do the best you can with what you have available. I like Mom and Pop stores too. Almost every town – large and small – has them. They are not unique to Detroit. But chain stores + shopping discipline = more choices + lower prices. You can’t beat economies of scale.

    • Dirac

      Just curious since you put in your snide remark against Detroit, what do you really know about it? Just the negative on the national news? Have you gone down there and seen the amazing architecture? The Heidelberg Project? Fox district? Underground music scene?

      Just a typical negative cheap shot by someone who needs to build up themselves and their locale by tearing down others. You should get out of your bubble and see things for yourself before you comment like that…then again you probably could not survive without a Starbucks on every corner and a Shaws on every block.

      • Heather Levin

        @Dirac- Like I said to Mr. ToughMoney, the news has definitely “cherry picked” when it comes to reporting what’s going on here. But you’re right; Detroit has so much to offer and many people only get to see the bad because that’s what’s shown on TV. But this city is like a treasure that not many people know about. :)

    • Heather Levin

      @Mr. ToughMoneyLove,

      I know Detroit has a bad reputation. But it’s largely undeserved. I love living in this city, and have learned so much since I moved here about the power of the human spirit and the ability to survive incredibly tough circumstances. The people here are amazing and many are doing incredible things to help improve things, like starting community gardens (some even with chickens) and donating food they grow to the homeless.

      There’s no doubt that Mom and Pop stores are thriving here. And although I can definitely see your point about discipline, I think many people find it hard to stick to that when they’re faced with tons of cool options. I know I have been there too!

  • Karmella

    This is a really, really good exercise for me to think through – and I want to give it a try (combined with figuring out a way not to sabotage it with online shopping).
    I’m having a lot of trouble thinking of grocery stores out here in suburbia that aren’t in some way a chain – i think I’ll start with the natural market that has only two locations and see where I can go from there.

    • Heather Levin

      @Karmella, natural markets are a great way to go! Visiting your local farmer’s market or Co-Op is also a great option (if it’s available). Good luck!

  • Christine

    Amen Heather! Your story reminds me of something Henry David Thoreau said and I’ll always remember: “I love to go to the marketplace and look at all the things that I don’t need.” Thank you for a great article!

    • Heather Levin

      Christine, thank you for that lovely quote! I’ve never heard it before, and it made me smile. I love it!