Where we choose to live — both home and community — can have a profound effect on our personal finances, and on the non-monetary “wealth” in our lives. Sabra at the Zillow Blog discovered this first-hand when she and her husband moved into a condo in downtown Seattle. The changes have been amazing — and somewhat unexpected.

Our 3,200 square feet of Texas sprawl has been squeezed down to a cosmopolitan 1,200.  We’ve gotten rid of most of our furniture, clothes, and surplus artwork, and all of our meaningless “stuff.”  We’ve chucked the lawnmower and garden tools, and pared our dishes down to enough for only four.  And best of all — most gloriously of all — we’ve sold our three cars!

Our everyday lives have changed in every way imaginable.  We don’t own a car, so we walk everywhere, including to and from work.  We use the bus or ferry if we want to go farther afield.  This has had a profound effect on how we interact with people.  We realize now that the cocoons of our cars kept us well insulated from the people around us. 

We’ve developed friendships with several proprietors and servers at our favorite restaurants. A restaurateur recently called out to us and said, “We’ve missed you.”  Our neighborhood grocer loves to talk to us, because he finds our change in lifestyle quite intriguing.  “What do you think?  Are you still happy with your decision?”  Our local video store proprietor has very decided ideas about what we should and shouldn’t rent — he’ll actually pull DVD’s from under the counter and say, “Here — I was saving these for you.”  Instead of feeling anonymous in the big city, we’ve grown to feel welcomed and wanted, and we’ve become friendlier, too.  We’ve discovered that most people, whatever their walk of life, are pretty darn nice.

We eat out about 85% of the time and basically keep only snacks at home.  We have not missed the daily grind of cooking and cleaning up at all.  People often ask us how we can afford to eat out so much, but after shifting our grocery and auto budgets over to the dining budget, we are still ahead financially.  And what fun it has been to take in a football game and a great hamburger at this place, and enjoy a jazz trio and a fine wine at that place.

I grew up in the country. We lived in a trailer house twenty miles south of Portland on wide open farmland. It was a great place to be a kid. My college was located in downtown Salem. The’s as close as I’ve ever come to “living in a big city”. I found it exhilarating to be able to walk wherever I wanted to go: restaurants, parks, book stores (and, of course, comic book stores), movie theaters, the library, and even grocery stores. It gave me a whole different sense of the world.

After college, we settled in my hometown, still a rural community of about 10,000 people. We were close enough to the center of town that I could walk or bike most places. Three years ago, we moved nearer to Portland. Though we’re closer to the big city, we’re actually farther from anything useful. The nearest grocery store is a mile away — walkable, but not in the rain.

We love our house — it’s a hundred-year-old farmhouse with two-thirds of an acre — but, in retrospect, it wasn’t the smartest financial decision. We left a home on which we had more than 50% equity (and only nine years left on the mortgage), and traded it for a nicer place that we’ll be paying on for decades. Had I known then what I know now, we’d still be in Canby.

There are times when I try to convince Kris — only half-heartedly — that we could sell the place and buy a condo in downtown Portland. “Wouldn’t you love to be able to just go anywhere on a whim?” I ask. “We could go see movies. We could go out to eat.” (Note how these things require spending money.)

She just shakes her head. “I’m not moving,” she says. “I love this place.” I admit, as I watch her work with her 60+ rose bushes and her tomato seedlings, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Plus, while the financial costs are greater here, there’s also far more social capital in this community. In Canby, neighbors kept to themselves. Here, though, people are friendly. There’s a sense togetherness. I think it’s likely that we’ll live in our current house until we die.

Still, we pay a price (one which is sometimes quite subtle) for choosing to live where we do. I commute an hour every day. Few things are within walking distance. Our home is the opposite of energy efficient. We actually have too much space — we’ve sealed off an entire room because we do not use it. As I said at the start: Where we choose to live — both home and community — can have a profound effect on our personal finances.

[Zillow Blog: Confessions of an Empty-Nester, via A Whole Lotta Nothing]

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