The Guide to Getting By 

A cheat sheet to making ends meet in Missoula

Page 2 of 4

How to busk

It doesn't take some Dick Van Dyke drum-and-squeezebox getup to bring foot traffic to a coin-reaching halt. Thanks to Missoula's penchant for folk music, an acoustic guitar or strong set of vocal cords will do the trick. Busking is a time-honored tradition in societies around the globe and has been putting the odd fistful of change in musicians' instrument cases for ages. And it's worth noting the Busking World Report at lists Missoula as one of the 15 friendliest destinations for street performers in North America—alongside Toston, Mont., and Glacier National Park, strangely enough. Missoula's prominence makes sense considering the scores of cellists and roots trios who set up shop downtown during the Saturday markets. A traditional bluegrass tune like "Shady Grove" or a lively piece from Les Miserables are always sure to catch pedestrian attention and spark generosity, but you might increase your financial intake by mixing it up a bit. How about a spirited acoustic rendition of R. Kelly's "Ignition" or Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance"? You might just see a coveted dollar bill or two appear as thanks for the morning chuckle.

How to cover thelogistical stuff

How to get medical and dental care

Health care reform naysayers and celebrators can agree on one thing: we're seeing few immediate benefits from all this hoopla. Luckily, while we wait for reform to kick in, those of empty pockets and inadequate insurance still have options.

click to enlarge To grow marijuana legally, first register as a caregiver with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. It’s free. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • To grow marijuana legally, first register as a caregiver with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. It’s free.

First, check out medical organizations that offer the income-deprived a break on billing. Partnership Health Center (323 W. Alder Street) scales medical bills based on income and offers dental care in its new facility (401 W. Railroad Street). CostCare walk-in clinics (three locations) offer treatment for minor ailments—everything from strep throat to ring worm—for a flat $45 fee. For those in the university bubble, the Curry Health Center (634 Eddy Avenue) features low flat fees for a variety of medical and dental procedures.

To maintain good health, preventative medical visits are smart, but many can't justify the cost. Alternatively, you could actually make money while receiving regular health updates. Biolife (see page 14) requires a physical before clients donate plasma, and with each return visit, an employee evaluates the donor's heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, protein and red blood cell levels. It's not a full-featured checkup, but nothing beats gaining money and a little peace of mind.

How to keep the lights on

LED bulbs and sun tubes can help lower your electric bills, but wouldn't it be nice to just avoid those monthly payments altogether? We found a number of resources online to help you construct your own solar power system on the cheap. It all starts with a few homemade solar panels, and you can find step-by-step building instructions all over the web (for example, check out With inexpensive solar cells readily available on eBay, the cost of a small-scale solar power system could be as low as $100—well below the market value of a brand new solar panel. That'll put a dent in your utilities.

How to stay warm

We've heard tales of inventive minds around Missoula cobbling together cheap home heating systems. Jury-rigged wood stoves aren't a bad way to go, considering wood is about the cheapest and most traditional source of warmth. According to numerous Do-It-Yourself websites, all it takes is a used electric water heater and a little welding to make your own—an affordable alternative to the $500 or more you'd spend on a new stove. Mother Earth News claims it can be done for $35 or less. And you don't have to pay top dollar for fuel, either. The U.S. Forest Service offers personal-use firewood permits that typically last through March 31. Prices for wood vary per forest, but you can get four cords of wood (one cord is 128 cubic feet) for $28 from the Bitterroot National Forest. Homemade wood stoves aren't for everyone, however. Only stoves grandfathered into local air quality regulations can operate in the Missoula Air Stagnation Zone. Outside the city limits, burning's fair game.

How to keep the lights on and stay warm if you can't figure out the solar panel or wood stove things

According to Montana law, NorthWestern Energy (1-888-467-2669) must give you written notice with specific detail before cutting power. The utility can't touch you at all during winter months or if a doctor confirms that you require medical equipment to maintain your pesky mortality.

If you're struggling with your energy bill, providers are obligated to negotiate a payment plan that you can handle. Low-income individuals can also apply for weatherization programs and energy assistance through the Montana Department of Health and Human Services (1-800-332-2272). Finally, NorthWestern Energy offers several rebates to qualifying customers, although they generally involve home improvement expenditures. You apparently have to spend money to save money. But if you're jonesing for a new refrigerator or energy efficient light bulb, here's your perfect excuse.

How to get a job

We won't lie—it ain't easy to land a job in Missoula. It's been that way for years and this damn recession has only made it worse. But you still have to try, right? The Missoula Job Service (539 S. Third Street W.) might be the place to start. Operated by the state's Department of Labor and Industry, the job service has helpful staffers and tons of resources, including a resume-building program, retraining program and the ability to take tests required for some positions on-site. The office also has computers the unemployed can use to peruse job openings. (You can also search the system from home at If you don't have any luck and need quick cash you can try any of Missoula's temp agencies, including Labor Ready (2025 S. Higgins Avenue), LC Staffing (1503 S. Russell Street) and Nelson Personnel (2321 S. Third Street W.). Make sure to also scan the city's classifieds. The Indy and Missoulian have 'em in print and online. And don't forget Craigslist. But the best way to find work, we've found, is to meet as many people as possible. Connections usually matter more than impressive resumes, no matter how many you determinedly hand out at businesses around town. If you still can't find anything then volunteer at any of Missoula's gazillion nonprofits. That's better than sitting on your keister all day, it's a resume builder, and, who knows, you might make that crucial connection.

click to enlarge Free Cycles offers free parts to build your own bicycle. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS

How to get extended unemployment

An unemployment check is rarely the balm to calm your financial hurts. After all, it's usually a meager half of your most recent income average, and max benefits are capped. Even so, it can be the difference between another month in your home and a night making friends with the downtown panhandlers.

First, you have to be accepted, and that can be a trick in itself. If you quit in a huff because Larry kept parking in your space, or you got fired thanks to your tragic incompetence, kiss that sweet government assistance goodbye. On the other hand, if Larry's space invasion centered more on the waist, hips and thighs region, you have a legitimate claim for quitting and receiving benefits. Injuries, military-related moves and general lay-offs are also likely to make good cases.

State unemployment benefits run for a period of 26 weeks. After that, the state will send you information to enroll for another 53 weeks of federal benefits. According to unemployment insurance administrator Roy Mulvaney, you'll have no trouble accessing the federal insurance if you successfully applied for state benefits. Those currently on unemployment can rejoice, because Congress just passed an extension of federal benefits until the end of November. Visit the state's Unemployment Insurance Division at for more information.

If you're unable to collect unemployment, however, there are still options. The government will assist low-income families in obtaining food, medical care and financial aid through their public assistance programs.

How to get from here to there

Let's face it: ditching that gas-guzzler is often less a matter of idealism than cold pragmatism. The cost of buying, registering, insuring, fueling and maintaining a vehicle, not to mention dealing with pricy repairs, can be downright prohibitive.

With a little research, Missoula's bus services are an admirable solution. Mountain Line's standard rates land at a dollar for a daily ticket. Frequent riders can save up to $6 by purchasing a monthly pass for $25. Seniors, youth and the disabled can apply for additional discounts, and students ride free. Or you can pressure your employer to adopt the EZ Pass Program and fully satisfy your bus lust. Just remember to get your errands done early because the buses stop rolling at 7 p.m.

How to get from here to there after 7 p.m.

You don't need cash to get rolling on a newly resuscitated bike. Free Cycles, operated by the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation, has roughly 500 of them to pick apart and build from. So if you've got a vision of a BMX hybrid with a banana seat and ape bars, chances are you can make it happen at Free Cycles (732 S. First Street W.). Volunteers are on hand to offer expertise during open shop hours Monday through Thursday from 3 until 7 p.m., and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

There's no charge for any of Free Cycles' services or parts. But the nonprofit does ask folks who assemble new bikes to volunteer two hours and attend one BikeWell Class, which teaches the rules of the road and orients new volunteers prior to putting in their time at the shop. Kids under 10 are not required to volunteer.

How to get from here to there with a little advance planning

According to AAA, the average cost to own and operate a medium-sized car is up to 56.6 cents a mile, or $8,487 a year. It's surely cheaper if you still drive the '96 Chevy Cavalier your parents gave you as a high school graduation gift, but you're still paying insurance (which, on average, runs about $1,500 a year) and repair and maintenance costs. So why not just ditch your car all together? The Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) helps ease the car withdrawal symptoms. If you're a MUD member and have a current driver's license you can participate in its Truck Share program, affording you a set of wheels only when you really need it, which, in bicycle-friendly Missoula, doesn't have to be very often. Just sign the Truck Share contract and pay a $5 non-refundable fee. You can then check truck availability on MUD's website ( and submit reservation requests (usually in three-hour blocks) by phone or e-mail. You pay $5 per hour and 45 cents per mile. For more information call 721-7513.

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