The Friday “Ask the Readers” column generally follows a set format: I introduce the topic, share a reader e-mail, give my best advice, and then ask for your feedback. Today’s column is a little different. Jennifer sent me a 1000-word question, and rather than write any sort of response, I’m just going to let her have the entire space. Everything that follows is from Jennifer.

My husband and I are in our mid twenties (no children yet), and currently both employed full time with good benefits. We live in Phoenix, which has a relatively low cost of living (our rent and utilities total about $800/month).

Before taxes, we probably make a combined $75,000 per year. While this sounds great, a large portion of our income (about $1300/month) goes toward aggressively paying down our large student loan debts (~$120,000 combined, most at 3%). Although our loan terms last up to 20 years, we’re on track to pay them off in ten years — quicker, if we increase our payments as our incomes increase. Other than our student loans, we have very little debt, at very low interest rates: I have about $6000 on my 0% car loan, and my husband has about $1000 in 0% credit card debt.

We’ve also managed to save a good amount of money in the two years since graduating college. Although we can’t yet max out our retirement accounts, we both have tax-advantaged accounts. (I have a Roth IRA and Roth 401k, he has a 403b and a state retirement plan.) Since the beginning of 2009, we’ve managed to save over $15,000 in cash (emergency fund contributions and wedding gifts), and about $20,000 in retirement savings.

Now that you know our background, here’s our question: Should we move to an area of the country that has a much higher cost of living, but better intangible benefits? Or should we stay where it’s cheap and pay down more debt?

We’ve agreed that we want to be out of the Phoenix area within three to five years, but we aren’t sure if now is the right time. I finish my Master’s degree in a few months, and it’s the only thing really anchoring us here at the moment other than our jobs.

These are the benefits of moving:

  • Living much, much closer to family and friends. Our travel costs will drop significantly, since we currently spend anywhere from $2000 to $4000 on flights every year, plus insurance and car expenses for this road-loving city. We both really miss our family and friends, and they all live within a day’s drive of New York City. We met in Ithaca, NY, and would love to have the option to travel there for some of the key weekends, like Reunion, Slope Day, Apple/ Chili/ or Ithaca Festivals, etc.
  • Phoenix is too harsh an environment to raise a family. No offense to those who love it, but we don’t want our (future) children living in such a polluted, dry environment — we can barely handle it, and we’re adults! We want trees to clean the air and grass in the yard or the park, not rocks, sand, and scorpions. Also, we want to be closer to family by the time we have kids (in maybe five to ten years). My fitness level has declined since moving here as well, because I can’t run outside due to the pollution levels.
  • Driving in Phoenix is terrible and dangerous. We also love the idea of living in an area where driving a car isn’t required, so we could potentially get rid of one vehicle. (Ideally, we’d live within walking distance of a train line that connects to Grand Central.) Getting rid of a vehicle would save us a few thousand dollars per year, and a lot of headaches. I grew up in Connecticut, so I’m used to NYC rush-hour traffic, and trust me, it doesn’t hold a candle to the chaos of the drivers that hit the road (and each other) in Phoenix every day.

But moving isn’t without its drawbacks, which include:

  • Expensive housing. Right now, we pay only $650/month for a two-bedroom apartment with a washer/dryer in the unit (plus utilities). Similar units where we’re looking to move would run about $900-$1200 per month. I might be able to convince my employer to give a small cost-of-living raise, but we’d still have less wiggle room in our finances. Luckily, our debt payments won’t increase based on where we live, so not all of our expenses will rise.
  • Jobs situation. My employer (an engineering firm) has offices back east, and I’m looking into getting a transfer to an office they’re expanding. But my husband works for ASU, and clearly Arizona State does not have any east coast offices. He wants to start his own cleaning company someday, but in the meantime he’s getting hands-on experience working in the facilities management department of the university. This also affords us both free tuition, and clearly (as evidenced by our student loan debt), we place a high value on education rather than on material possessions. He’d have a wide variety of schools to apply to, if we lived near New York City, but we don’t know what the job market for universities is like back east yet.

So, GRS readers, what should we do? Do we stay here a few more years and pay down debt, but possibly losing the opportunity to transfer to another office within my company and miss out on visiting family/friends for a few more years? Or do we move when we have the chance, even if it reduces our capacity for savings/debt repayment for a few years? We’d love opinions from people who have made similar moves in the past, or from people who live in the greater NYC area.

J.D.’s note: This is a tough one. I can see arguments for both sides. On the one hand, I think it makes sense to stay put for a few years so that Jennifer and her husband can be aggressive with debt. But if they’re miserable, what’s the point? One possible solution would be to find an interim place to live — someplace inexpensive yet liveable — for a few years while they aggressively pay down debt.

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