Could a Cheaper City Change Your Life?
Affordability plays a role in how we live
“Once I realized that all the things I loved about New York City were no longer things I did often or brought me joy—because it was so hard with kids or I couldn't afford it anymore—I realized that my quality of life would actually improve with a less expensive city/area."
Although the national economy has improved, families across the country remain in search of great value and more affordable living arraingments. The cost of living can vary widely from city to city due to supply and demand, explains Jennie Allison, a project manager for the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, so moving to a new city can dramatically impact a family's cost of living.
"Anything in cities or metro areas that affect either [supply or demand] will have an influence on price," Allison says, "therefore impacting the cost of living in a given place."
The trick is finding a city that has what you want and—not what other people want and are willing to pay a pretty penny for. Livability.com's new ranking of the Best Affordable Cities, shows that there are cheaper places to live, where the quality of life remains high.
But how much difference can leaving the expensive confines of a major metro area like New York City make? The stories below prove lowering your cost of living can be life-changing.
Finding a Smaller Apple
There is little that New York City can't provide. The "city that never sleeps" is bursting to the seams with culture, history and diversity. But it doesn’t have a reputation for being affordable.
According to recent data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), New York City is the fourth most expensive place in the country to raise a family. Just to pay the bills and maintain a modest standard of living with no savings, a family of four needs to bring in $98,722 a year.
Merika Dolin Goldstein and her husband, J.D., can relate. The couple—in their early 30s with twin toddlers—lived in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood until about a year ago. The young family lived a frugal life, spending their modest nurse practitioner and schoolteacher salaries on rent, childcare, Metro cards and other essentials. They lived together in a one-bedroom apartment and relied on the subway out of necessity.
“I worked four days per week as an NP and my husband full-time as a school teacher,” Merika Goldstein explains, “We had no cars and we still could not afford more since we have twins and childcare for two kids the same age is costly.”
So costly, the EPI reports, that in most cities they surveyed, childcare is as expensive as rent. In Washington, D.C., which ranked as the most expensive place to raise a family, childcare costs average more than $30,000 a year.
Of course, life in the big city had its perks. Goldstein says she sometimes misses the culture, diversity, reliable public transit and wide array of good food. But her relationship with the city shifted over time, as she went from being a grad student to a working mother of twins.
“Once I realized that all the things I loved about New York City were no longer things I did often or brought me joy, because it was so hard with kids or I couldn't afford it anymore, I realized that my quality of life would actually improve with a less expensive city or area,” she explains.
So the Goldsteins opted to move to a city with a lower cost of living where Merika has roots—Beaverton, Ore, a suburb of Portland, and one of Livability.com's 2015 Best Places to Live. The resulting transformation was dramatic. The $1,700 a month they once paid for a one-bedroom apartment 20 minutes from midtown Manhattan turned into a four-bedroom house with a yard, just five minutes from the grocery store.
“My sister, brother, sister-in-law, and my husband's cousin live in Oregon, we figured it was a more affordable place,” Goldstein says, adding that she appreciated “not having to start all of our social life fully over since many of my close friends had moved back too.”
Though her hourly wage is slightly lower in Oregon than it was in New York, it goes so much further that she feels like she got a pay raise. Plus, they can afford for her husband to be a stay-at-home dad for now.
She says the biggest perks of moving to a more affordable city have been the “ease of getting the girls from point A to B—a car is so much easier with kids,” a larger house with amenities like a washer and dryer, a yard with good air quality, and the decreased cost of commodities like food.
A $9 squash
But affordability is relative, and moving to a city that has even a slightly lower cost of living can have a big impact on quality of life. That’s what Cassie Lynn found when she moved with her husband and two young children from Marblehead, Mass., to Seattle—only to return in a year due in large part to the cost of living.
“We had both lived in downtown Boston, and Marblehead is not known for its low cost of living. Marblehead has some of the highest property prices in the state, so we thought we were prepared,” Lynn recalls.
Her husband had just accepted a job offer that came with a generous pay increase, so it seemed reasonable to assume they could absorb the anticipated costs.
“We figured we could move to Seattle and pocket some of that raise and put our family in a better position,” she explains. “But the price of everything in Seattle, from a haircut to a loaf of bread, was shocking.”
She compares the costs. Their 800-square-foot Seattle apartment was $4,000 a month, twice the cost of the mortgage on their home in Marblehead. Lynn says she was spending $500 a week on groceries, more than five times what her friends in Maine were budgeting. The high price of childcare kept her home with the kids and made date nights a treat, with an evening of babysitting running $250. Everything was inflated.
“I remember texting my mother a picture of a two-pound squash and asking her how much she thinks I paid for it. She was like, ‘Oh, I would pay $1 here in Maine, but since you're in Seattle, $3?’” Lynn recalls. “It was a $9 squash.”
In Lynn's experience, the cost of living in an expensive city outweighed the higher incomes. But the opposite can also be true.
"A good example is Loudon County, Virginia, which is one of the highest household income counties in the country," explains Jennie Allison, from the Center for Regional Economic Comptitiveness. "However, their cost of living is much lower than that of the D.C. metro area."
In search of a better balance betwwen amenities and affordability, Lynn moved the family back to Marblehead, while her husband continues to work in Seattle. She says that even with the commute, it's more affordable to be based out of their home in Massachusetts. And while moving to Seattle didn’t get them the financial security they hoped it would, Cassie says the family’s big city adventure was worthwhile.
“We learned a lot about ourselves as a couple and a family, and we learned to live with fewer possessions. We also learned that we are not city people, and that we would like to live a more frugal lifestyle,” Lynn says. “Sometimes jobs bring you to a city, and that cannot be avoided. But there is so much more to be said about living more simply. I would rather take a lower-paying job in a place where that lower wage goes further. I think you live better that way.”