How do you support small businesses when your budget is even smaller?

Updated Feb 12 2018
Small business stickers from The Rensch Nook
I have a bit of a conundrum. I work at a small museum, in a tiny historic town, surrounded by privately owned small businesses. This is a dream come true for me; I enjoy using my lunch break to pop in to shops and say hello to the owners who are becoming friends and I truly believe in helping my small, local businesses as much as I can.

The kicker is, I also have a small budget.

And while my heart screams "Buy that $15 artisan sandwich!" my wallet says "If you want to make rent, go for the mass-produced sandwiches that are only $5."

My question is, what are some ways to help support my small business community, when my budget is even smaller? -AmeliaJane

  1. Firstly, speak well of them to others. Review them on TripAdvisor or the local equivalent.
    Is there space in the museum where they could put some flyers? You could offer that if it is within your remit.
    Perhaps there could be some "museum ticket+lunch sandwich" offer that would help both businesses.
    If the museum has a gift shop some of the business owners might like to have a shelf to display some of their wares. I have also been to museum-like places without proper gift shops where they have a table with a small selection of work for sale by local artists and business cards in case people want to know more.

  2. My advice? Make your own sandwich for $2 so you can afford a splurge or two a week. We're living on a tight budget, so we don't get to frequent pubs/restaurants/our cute local cinema nearly as much as we would like, but we don't really ever get mass-produced food so that we do have the money for it more often than we would. My husband only gets a bagel sandwich and coffee at a great local place on Fridays, and he finds it even more special because it's a once-a-week splurge instead of a daily expectation.
    Also, everything Pemcat said. Plus, I'm sure people often will ask you at a job like that if you have recommendations for places to eat or other things to see locally – that's your big chance to talk up your favorite places!

    • This is a great suggestion. We save so much money by packing our lunches and making tea in the office instead of buying coffee. Then I don't mind paying more for coffee at the independently owned shop, buying local honey, or eating in an independent restaurant instead of a chain. In my area at least, some of the independently-owned sandwich shops are the same price as a chain, so don't always assume that a chain will be cheaper!

    • This definitely. I'm a grad student so have a pretty small budget, but also live in a town with awesome locally owned places. I pack PB&J or leftovers for lunch, drink the shitty coffee from the office coffee maker, and on Fridays (!!) I go out to a local place. Maybe the cute Kenyan cafe across the street, or the local sushi place downtown, or or or….

      Also my husband and I extend this to dinners as well. We usually cook at home but once a month we go to a local place for date night. If its a more affordable place we'll eat a whole meal, but for some of the posh (and tasty as hell) local joints we will go for appetizers and a drink, and dessert and coffee.

  3. I am not sure what your job position is at the museum, but if you are interacting with visitors you can do a lot for businesses. I work at a restaurant and a retail store in a small town, and people are always asking for suggestions, whether it be a good sandwich or for something really specific. Sometimes it is just enough to keep in touch with store keepers and know what is available so you can readily tell someone where to get a nice new pot for a plant.

    You can also do other small things like buying things from stores that are on sale. Like say there is a jewelry store in town you like. If you buy a pair of earrings on sale, but wear them often. If a visitor comments about how cute they are, you can readily guide them to a local store.

    • Similar to this point, if you're senior enough, you could get the museum to add local businesses on a "Plan your trip" page on the museum site. Restaurants are the easy choice (and writing positive blurbs about each would obviously be good). And even other specialty shops could go under "After you visit the museum, you can check out (list of shops)" or a cheeky note about "If your partner/sister/mother/etc doesn't want to come to the museum, drop them off at (local shops)"

  4. I agree with the above posters: speak well of small businesses even if you can't buy from them every day yourself. Your recommendations to others will help to drive more affluent customers their way, hopefully.

    And at the end of the day, don't beat yourself up if you have to buy a sandwich at Subway or some towels at Target. Don't forget that these businesses employ a LOT of people who otherwise might not have jobs, and generally these big businesses bring a lot of tax revenue to their respective towns that otherwise might have to lay off police/fire/rescue/librarians etc when budget time rolls around. I was talking to a local consignment shop owner in our little down town, and she pointed out that she replies on bigger companies; people buy their clothes from the big expensive stores, and then turn around and consign said clothes in her shop. Without those big businesses, she wouldn't have her small business.

    Also, don't forget that you can keep your money local in other ways. Keep an eye out for yard sales, thrift stores, and stuff that people sell on the side of the road like fresh eggs and garden produce.

    • I just want to thank you for defending chain stores. My husband worked for a big box store for a number of years, and it was very frustrating to hear other people bash his place of work. I get it, there are a huge number of problems with chain stores…but those chain stores also pay the salaries of people that like to shop at independent retailers. There is a place for both big box chains and smaller indie retailers in this world.

      • I especially have a hard time with other Seattleites bashing Amazon, Starbucks, Microsoft, Boeing…etc…when I'm like DUDE THESE ARE LOCAL COMPANIES. Why do I want them to fail?

  5. I'll agree as well. Promote them as best you can. That has to be number one whether you are able to be a patron or not. Word of mouth keeps indies afloat.

    As for how to be a patron, that always hard. I'm a single mother on a very tight budget but it is very important to me to directly support those businesses. Not to mention that they generally are superior to the big name competition. Pack lunch four days a week and splurge once. Make the most of the big name stores when they have sales and spend the rest on better things. Find a few dollars for fun in the budget you already have, even if it's just a small amount. There are ways.

  6. I used to live in a neighborhood full of amazing locally owned small businesses. My husband and I worked as bartenders at the local tavern. We loved the community so much that we also wanted to spend our money there. Here is how we did it:

    1. we tweeted and instagramed everything. We became local business advocates. We'd tweet everything from the pretty dress we saw at the boutique to the happy hour special at the tavern. Let the people know that the community exists.
    2. we shopped sales. I can't normally afford the artisinal market/ butcher but we would go early Sunday morning and buy up what ever meat they put on sale. They are closed on Monday so they put a lot of cuts of meat on sale sunday morning- they sell quick so I'd get their at 8am when they opened to shop.
    3. I can't swing the hand crafted lattes but I can afford an iced coffee.
    4. Trunk sale, art walk, Blues in the Alley. All events that have marked down items and even free tastings.
    5. Happy hour. We couldn't swing $12 cocktails and $18 dollar burgers but we can swing 1 half priced locally brewed beer and sliders.

  7. As a small business owner I can tell you that the above comments are straight on…. word of mouth is HUGE and how I get most of my business, so talking them up – in person or on social media is huge… also if they have a facebook page – liking and especially sharing their posts are a great way to get them seen…. buying stuff, even on sale, is a huge encouragement.

    And if nothing else, mail them a card or note telling them how much you appreciate having them there… it will be a huge encouragement to them just knowing that someone out there knows they exists (especially if they are having a hard day)

  8. Such an excellent suggestion, making own and enjoying the local business once a week/fortnight/month, I wouldn't have thought of that! Also love the local info sharing, yay communities

  9. I feel this so much! What I try to do is prioritize the small-biz shopping & make those purchases count to me & the biz. What matters most to you? Locally sourced, pesticide/GMO-free food, crafted with care? Then patronize that small sandwich shop, but buy mass-produced clothing, for example. But if custom-fit clothes made by people earning a fair wage matters more to you, buy clothes from a small biz & eat fast food or bring your own lunch from the cheapest grocery store. We all have to make trade offs; few of us can afford to live 100% perfect, ethically pristine & all that. Figure out what really counts to you, & go with it.

    And at different times, different things may matter — for example, I love to give gifts made by independent artisans, things that are hand-crafted & have a story behind them. For holidays & b-days, I try very hard to shop at small businesses. But for many everyday occasions, I'm more concerned with my budget.

  10. I always advise that you'll be surprised how far your money will go in a local business if you look hard.
    Maybe the restaurant's signature $15 sandwich is out of your budget today, but their $3 cup of soup might be more in line with your wallet. The local coffee joint's $5 latte may be tough to swing every day, but they probably offer a $1 cup of plain coffee that you can doctor up. A store that offers very pricey handcrafted goods also probably sells smaller, less expensive pieces that would make great gifts for friends. Local artists and artisans may only display pieces out of your price range (gallery and consignment space can be pricey!), but they may be willing to do small commission pieces that can be tailored to your budget.

    For the bold, I suggest making friends with a local store owner. First of all, they tend to be incredibly fascinating people. They'll certainly let you know how you can best help getting the word out about their business. And your friendship might have perks, like free meals or awesome holiday gifts (but you're not in it for that, of course.) You may also be able to suggest that you'd like to see less expensive offerings alongside the business's best sellers.

  11. Think beyond the value of the good to the value of the service as well. We have a neighborhood hardware store that is about 15% more than the big-box hardware stores. But their staff KNOW what they are talking about. I took a thermostat in there (that I didn't even buy from them) for advice and they give it freely and it was correct. That has real value to me. So I buy my hardware there whenever I can. They don't stock everything the big-box places do, but I always look to the local place first because of their service. It is worth the mark-up!

    • So much this! The people at the box hardware store in my town are either college students who don't know a crescent wrench from socket wrench or are hyper-masculine douches who call you little lady and expect you not to know the difference. But the people at the local hardware store are older ladies who know more about construction than the hyper-masculine douches and also kinda remind you of your grandma.

      Also, I work in a small independent garden center and I have lost count of the people who tell me that the employees at said box store don't actually know a damn thing about plants. My shop is more expensive, yeah, but we can also actually help you.

      • I've had this both ways actually. At the local Home Depot, I've never gotten a condescending remark or disparaging look, only extremely friendly and helpful employees…while at small single-store hardware stores I've gotten the "boys club" vibe (you know…like you walk in, and the old duffers hanging around the front counter all turn to watch every move you make while giving each other knowing looks that they think you're too dumb to notice), and one time when I asked a question I was told to bring my husband in to help shop. *fumes* So now I try to hit the middle road hardware stores, the ones that are a chain (so there's some corporate overhead on customer service) that are just in this area (so it's semi local). Here in Maine, that's Hammond Lumber or Hancock Lumber.

        • You're right, it's something that is very specific to the business and the employees. I was super stoked to go to my local bike shop when I decided to take up bicycling again after 12 years of driving everywhere. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the people I dealt with the first time I went in were rude and condescending. Because I'm that girl who always tells everyone to support local…I gave them two more chances, and had the same experience twice more. Talking down to me because I was a girl, acting like my vintage three speed wasn't worth their time, trying to high pressure sell me a brand new bike instead of helping me find the parts I needed for the old one that I already had. Not only do I not shop there anymore, I made sure that the owner was aware that I would be, and why not. It might be worth it to let the owner of the hardware store know why you don't shop there, as well. Sometimes employees do things that if the owner/manager knew about it, they'd put a stop to it.

          • It's just like anything else, simply being local doesn't always make a place, their goods/services or their employees better. No one should feel obligated to shop somewhere they don't feel respected in. Bad news for that shop, but hopefully good for another that perhaps treats its customers better.

  12. All of these suggestions are really great. As a small business owner, I can attest to the power of positive word of mouth and the power of good things shared on social media.

    I feel you, I also want to support local, but also usually find myself with a tiny budget. You should be easier on yourself, though. It does not have to be all or nothing. Even shopping at a local place once a week or once a month makes a difference. And one thing that I don't think anyone else has said: BARTER. I don't know what you're into, and it probably does not help out with the sandwiches, but I'm a local artist and I realize not everyone can afford my work but I am always 100% open to barter. I've traded art for haircuts, honey, other art, photography work, and tattoo work, just to name a few. It might be possible that some of your local shop owners or the artists that produce in your town feel the same way, and that you can trade something you have or can do for something that they have or can do. It's still supporting the local community. It never hurts to at least ask.

  13. Some of these suggestions are so great. I live in a town that is fueled by small business, but I am also on a budget. As much as I would like to spend all of my money buying gifts for everyone I know from the store with the handcrafted local art pieces, that just isn't in the cards. So I try to save up. I make lunches and dinners at home. If I need to work at a coffee shop, I get an ice or hot tea rather than a triple white mocha. I buy small local items to accompany things that I have made myself. I am with all of the people who have mentioned that word of mouth for these small businesses is huge. Word of mouth is the best kind of advertising. If you can recommend these small businesses to the people you talk to, then you are giving them something that might be better than your dollar. You are giving them more potential customers. Keep some of the other businesses' cards or brochures on hand to give to museum patrons when you give the recommendation. People remember information in all different ways.

  14. Birthdays/gift-giving-holidays-you-celebrate: Ask for gift certificates to your favorite local places!!

    Also, I know that my locally owned coffee joint has a prepaid punch card, where if you get the same drink routinely you can buy them all ahead of time on a punch card, and then you end up getting a free drink at the end. It's like a really good win/win. PLUS I find that if I 'buy ahead' at a place like that then I'm WAY LESS tempted to just zip through the Starbucks drive thru when I'm running late to work!

    • The small city where I work has "Gift of (CityName)" certificates that people can buy from the downtown association, redeemable at any of the participating downtown businesses. That way, the recipient can decide whether to spend that certificate on pizza or consignment clothes or home brew supplies or burritos or locally crafted jewelry…but the money definitely gets spent in the downtown. When a business takes one of these certificates as payment, they return it to the downtown association to redeem the money.

  15. First, if your town or Chamber of Commerce puts out a discount card, buy one. I get one every year and it gives me as a private citizen about the same discount at stores that a business account is given. That's huge! 10% at some stores, 25% off one item per day at others, 5% for shopping on a Thursday — abide by the silly restrictions and I'm saving money at tons of local businesses.

    Second, if your town has a seasonal rhythm, learn it. My area has a much larger summer population than winter population. The prices for casual work gear go down in the summer thanks to a higher volume of sales. Stores also have reliable end-of-season clearance sales to switch from summer to winter inventory. On the flip side, the tax rate goes up in summer and a lot of the people that come in for seasonal jobs make great money, so some prices actually increase like at a few of the restaurants.

    Third, stop feeling guilty and shop where you want. It's your money. I get that small towns want to keep wages in the local economy. I also understand that we'd all like to support stable middle-class jobs over low-wage non-benefited work. While I do try to shop locally most of the time, I make exceptions. We have about four stores with outdoor clothing and equipment. There are two I don't even set foot in due to their outrageous prices. While I buy most groceries in town I refuse to but things like shampoo or olive oil locally — those are about half the price elsewhere. So yeah, I wait for that annual ferry ride over to the bigger town and visit *wait for it* a big box store. Business-appropriate work clothes? Catalog only, I'm not paying $40+ for a basic cotton t-shirt. Semi-obscure item? Online ordering.

    I have a finite amount of money. If I blow my money on expensive goods in town then I can't blow my money on services or entertainment. So why not take the savings where I can get them so I have money to spend at the local movie theater , a punch-card to a fitness class, or paying a local carpenter for some repair work?

  16. Not sure if this has been mentioned yet but the350project.net is a great resource. The idea is that if everyone should try to spend $50 across 3 businesses each month.

  17. The problem with any business is know your area, even if you are a national chain.
    I work in an area were people don't (inc. myself) have traditional work hours (most people where I work are at work by 7am with alot of people flexing before or after that). (I work on a military base and the surrounding business area supports the military base, so hence the odd hours alot of people work (barring traditional work places like schools, etc)).
    One coffee place that just closed down (I don't drink coffee, but I have been in there to check it out and try their sandwichs (which is a different story (not good for the price you pay for a genric sandwich you can make yourself at home)). Anyway, their business hrs where 7am – 6pm during the week. But guess what, if 80% of the people you are trying to target are already at work by 7am, then logic tells you need to do something to get the early morning crowd in. So people went to the local Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, local donut place that is open 24/7, WaWa, Mc Fast food chain, or Sheetz to get their coffee at 530/600am on their way to work as they Starbucks figured the area out and that local coffee place did not.

    • Yeah – I also get frustrated by this. Only the chains have realistic hours for working people in small German towns – on Saturdays, most places close by 2pm at the latest (during the week 6pm latest). This makes me a little less sympathetic to some of the local shops, even though of course I want them to have liveable working hours…

      • I agree. But also it is not like they are the ones running the show 7am-6pm everyday all day (vs. other types of local businesses like a clothing store were the demand for longer hrs is not there compared to food businesses). This place, like other resturants have other people working there obviously. I am stating the obvious that if you are playing the game of coffee (and food) and you are playing the game against Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, WaWa, Sheetz, and fast food that sell breakfast, you kinda have to play with them (esp. as mentioned in an area like I live in were people are at work by 7am or earlier. So if the national chain has been open 24/7 or at 5am, then you just lost).

        • This is something that I've found frustrating about the shops downtown where I live. Yes, most of them are really small businesses with maybe just the owner working there or the owner and family…but it also seems like many of them don't take the business seriously enough to actually be there. I tried 4 times to visit this little boutique that had opened up because I thought that there were lots of things there that I would love to buy. 4 times I went during posted business hours to find the door locked and nobody home, sometimes with a note "Sorry, had to run get lunch" sometimes just locked. Other people I talked to had a similar experience. If you want to do business, your business actually has to be OPEN. Surprise, the place closed down last month.

  18. Along with what people were saying about making your own food and then saving up, I would add that when you think about buying something, think about whether you'd rather have several things like it or one "better" / local thing. Of course there are some things that you'd rather have more of and that's okay (something like undies or work clothes comes to mind), but there are other things that might be less functional that you could skip to save up for something cooler. Okay, maybe you're not buying much of this kind of stuff since you're on a tight budget, but examining each purchase might prove otherwise, especially about household-type stuff that's often so cheap at the big box stores.

    This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but the other thing I like to do is consider the price difference. If I'm shopping for something that's already expensive, maybe it's not so much more expensive locally. If I'm shopping for something cheap, the price difference might seem more exorbitant. And as someone mentioned above, this is especially true for things where you might need some advice – a do-hicky that was more expensive but will meet your needs perfectly for the next few years is still cheaper in the end than one which cost less but will need to be replaced in 6 months because it isn't meeting your needs (because you couldn't get good advice about it at a big box store).

  19. Someone in my city organized a Live Local week (this week!), where participating businesses offer small incentives (such as 10% off) to participants, who are spending the week tweeting about their adventures in living local. So if you're looking for something bigger to do to support small biz, you could organize an event like that, either for a day, week or month!

    And something that came up through the live local week, is that you can support small businesses by paying with cash instead of debit, and especially instead of credit! This may not be the case everywhere, but most of the small businesses I frequent are charged for each Interac or credit transaction, so paying with cash is a small way to help out. (I'm terrible at this, but I'm trying to get better, especially since using cash is a good start to reduce spending!)

  20. I'm a poor college student and most of the food I buy is Kroger brand, but there are a few things I regularly splurge on from the local natural market, like my favorite yogurt, dark chocolate, and local honey. It feels like a treat and soothes my conscience without breaking the bank.

  21. One thing I've been doing lately is splitting the difference. I'll get a burger from the pub down the street, bring it home and have it with homemade mashed potatoes and salad and the wine I already bought and some dessert. I can afford a burger every couple of weeks; I cannot afford a 300-500% markup on wine and ice cream.

  22. Another little thing you can do…use cash at local stores whenever possible. Many of them use square (or other phone based software) for credit/debit purchases, so you help them keep a tiny bit more of their profit when you use cash.

  23. This is a bit different compared to the rest of the conversation but it still fits the theme.
    We tend to focus on food or retail for local consumption but consider other services too. My husband owns a tax practice and while he can't offer cheap simple returns like the big chains, his prices are much more reasonable for more complex returns than many of the chains and the level of personalized service he can give you is much higher. Some of the chains get you to think they are the least expensive option by offering the simple services cheap so you'll assume their prices for more complicated work is also cheap.

    You can also use word of mouth to find people providing services like cleaning, gardening or handi work around the house. If people you know like them it's easier to trust them, and hiring individuals is sometimes less expensive than a service because you pay the person directly with a larger company adding fees. That also keeps more money in local pockets as well.

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