Big-box bargains

Capital City Cheapo
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photo / Nick Starr Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 When you’re high at 4 am and, dammit, you just want some gravy 

No one would complain if we had better Dim Sum, if the weather could be more predictable, and it would be nice if the highway system wasn’t such a clusterfuck, but all in all, Austin is an amazing town. As is true in most amazing towns, life ain’t cheap. When you fly by the financial seat of your pants, the non-stop live-work-play runs like a constant cha-ching soundtrack in your already crazed head.

There is only one way for your budget to survive having first-rate food, diverse retail, and endless social opportunity at your fingertips. You must shop at big-box chains (gasp!). Floating in the clean air of this local-loving community, chain is a dirty word. However, for the benefit of our city’s vast collection of tightwads, it must be said. Chains help the cheapo survive. So before you put up a fight, consider these steals.

Let’s start slowly, just like you like it. Whataburger began over 50 years ago in Corpus Christi with a no-nonsense foodie stand and a brilliant cowboy mentality: All you need in life is 100% All-American beef. Today, the 16 Austin stores are lickety-split lunch stops with fiscally responsible menus, huge buns, and a laundry list of fried goodness. Just like you like it.

Similar to Whataburger, Taco Cabana is another homegrown hero that has expanded beyond its humble San Antonio roots. The taco shack is owned by one of the largest restaurant corporations in the world, but you won’t mind when you hand over two bucks for excellent breakfast tacos or a super-cheap three-pack of flautas-on-the-go. Try the salsa verde.

If you’re more caffeine addict than salsa devotee, I have a secret for you. About two years ago I was on Highway 183 heading into Austin. I was with a friend – a New Jersey native – and as we passed a Dunkin’ Donuts, I thought I might have to physically restrain her. Most Northeasterners, at some point in their lives, develop a serious dependency on this ultra-rich cake shop. Seeing as we have so many East Coast immigrants, I feel duty-bound to inform you of the one and only Dunkin’ Donuts in Austin. It’s a tragedy, I know. Even worse? Its location –- 12200 Research Blvd. However, if you’re ever in the neighborhood, a few munchkins and a large coffee go a long way.

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photo / OiMax Creative Commons licensed: Attribution Would you like some herring with that end table? 

I could fill this column with bargain-counter fast food chains, but before I resort to mentioning McDonald’s, I’ll move on to addressing your big-box retail needs. First in line is larger-than-life IKEA. The Round Rock emporium needs no introduction, but for the benefit of the oblivious, it’s a Swedish home furnishings and accessories warehouse. It’s also one of the best places in the world to find inexpensive goods for all 380 square feet of your studio. Not only will you gleefully encounter $1.99 candles, kitchen tools, and wall décor, but IKEA is also home of the 99 cent breakfast, the 99 cent hot dog, and yes, the 99 cent ice cream cone.

What you can’t find at IKEA, you’re guaranteed to find at one of Austin’s two Garden Ridge Nurseries. Road trip up to Round Rock or hike down to Monterey Oaks Boulevard to find dog-cheap wine glasses, pillow cases, patio furniture, bar stools, and fake floral arrangements. Even budget-hounds need faux plants, right? Garden Ridge’s tacky orange signage will make you cringe, but their price tags will cut your credit card bill down by at least a page. A word of warning about Garden Ridge: The fluorescent lights and endless aisles can suck you in for hours.

Several days and a bed-in-a-bag later, concentrate on your clothing needs at Savers. This thrifty national stockroom (alias: Value Village) carries a rather random assortment of new and used merchandise. Avoid the clutter and go for deals on name-brand jeans, casual attire, and interior décor. Like many corporate discount havens, Savers is hit or miss, but both Austin locations (Burnet Road and South Lamar) run specials and replace stock on a frequent basis.

There are thousands of chainy stores for the wardrobe, but only Ross possesses the unforgettable (albeit annoying) Dress for Less tagline. This off-price retail giant has plenty of presence in Austin, with six area garment barns. If you can tolerate screaming toddlers and impatient parents, Ross is a penny pincher’s nirvana. Just avoid going on a Saturday.

Another throwback to rugged individualism (followed by a seemingly consequential corporate transition) is the lovable Half Price Books. Started in Dallas in an old converted laundromat, Half Price is down with keeping Austin weird, but the paperback-happy chain is – by today’s standards – a rather hefty conglomerate. Some of their voluminous supply of literature has transferred into the five Travis County stores, so stop in for 50 cent non-fiction and two-buck novellas.

A last-minute token of advice. When you’re hurting for birthday gifts, Christmas presents, or new baby congrats, there is no better place to find two-for deals in all of Austin than Walgreen’s. Shopping at pharmacies is not a great move for the money-conscious, but they have an uncanny ability to sell Texas paraphernalia just when you need it. You won’t have to look hard to find one of the two dozen Austin locations, and hit up their website for coupons.

Economics is not my forte, but it seems that chains are a fact-of-life necessity, like toilet paper and chicken noodle soup. And so, the world’s financial woes continue. While the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, try this sampling of mega-stores and find yourself (un)comfortably complacent somewhere in the middle.

Teaser image by I am K.E.B