Welcome to Mini-Portland

Small Budget, Small City, Big Fun

Written by Ernie Reppe  |  on


I love small cities. I love their close-knit communities, unique origin stories and slower pace of life. And, with the recent revitalization going on across many of these small cities, I love the vibrant culture and atmosphere that is starting to invade these small cities.

It used to be, you had to travel to the big city to find cutting-edge cuisine or innovative performing arts, but not anymore. Small city locals are creating experiences that are just as creative and engaging as those you’d find in the big city. And the best part? They don’t cost as much.

I know this, first-hand because I live in Eau Claire, WI, a small midwestern city that some have likened to a “mini-Portland.”

A Peek Into Life in Eau Claire

I enjoy a good quality of life. I’ve got a reasonable mortgage on my 4-bedroom house, and I can take my family of five out for a nice dinner for $50.

We also travel to small cities for our annual vacations. Some of our favorites have been Des Moines, IA, and Lincoln, NE. We’ve definitely gotten some weird looks when we’ve told people where we were headed, but these cities provided my family and I with countless memories at a fraction of the cost of what you’d pay in big cities.

I’m not trying to convince you to move to, or vacation in, a small city. Instead, I want to share with you some tips on how to get the most out of these small communities when you find yourself in one. Maybe you’re visiting friends or family. Or, perhaps you’re there on business or just driving through for a night on your way to the big city. Here’s how you can get the most out of your time—because why not enjoy it? When in Rome (the one in Missouri, for example), right?

Take Advantage of Travel Hacking

For many years, I associated travel hacking (i.e., cashing in on credit card rewards) with big cities. But, recently, I discovered that small cities offer a lot of opportunities to put those points to use and they’ll go a lot further!

My wife and I redeem most of our points at Hyatt Hotels. Last summer, we spent five days at the Hyatt in downtown Lincoln, NE, and used significantly fewer points than when we stayed at a similar hotel in Minneapolis. (We also paid a lot less in parking!)

Even in Eau Claire, which is much smaller than Lincoln, you can book a stay at the fancy Lismore Hotel for far fewer points than you would at a similar hotel in a large city.

Utilize the University

A lot of small cities are also college towns, and universities offer a number of top-notch experiences that are easy on the budget. When my family and I were in Lincoln this past summer, we only dropped $13 for a couple hours at the University of Nebraska State Museum. The next day we checked out the Sheldon Museum of Art for free!

Here in my city, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire offers music performances from award-winning ensembles, theater, dance performances and forum speakers. And, there are always a handful of college athletic events to choose from, too.

Check out Local Events

Just because these cities are small in size doesn’t mean they don’t know how to have fun! A quick Google search will likely bring up a number of events to check out. Here in Eau Claire, the downtown farmer’s market, dragon boat festival, Chalkfest, International Fall Festival, National Kubb Championship, Sounds Like Summer concert series and annual marathon are some of the highlights.

It’s also common for small cities to have a trademark festival or specialty. In Eau Claire, we have a number of popular music festivals that have made us the Music Capital of the North.

Get Outside

We’re all about our parks, trails, water, hiking and camping here in the Midwest. And while not every small town may have a similar outdoor ecosystem, there will be something for you to do outside. It can be as simple as watching the sunset on your friend’s porch to window-shopping downtown.

Benefit from the Local Sports Scene

Every small town has a sports scene. For some, it will be high school games. Other towns offer college and amateur games. And, if you have the time, do a quick Google search to see if any professional athletes cut their teeth in the small town you’re staying in. You just might find a great story, like Hank Aaron starting his professional baseball career in Eau Claire.

And, if you really want to jump in with both feet, head down to the local YMCA or rec center for a pickup game of basketball or pickleball.

Small Cities Have so Much to Offer

I hope you have a great time in whatever small city you find yourself in, next. And, if you’d like to plan a big trip to a small destination, why not add it to your wish list now? Whatever your interest, there’s bound to be a small city that’s right up your alley.


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Your Next Step

Budgeting is not restrictive. You won’t be spending less, you’ll be spending right. So what do you have to lose? Except all that debt and stress?