Getting the Guts to Relocate to a Cheaper City

I recently relocated from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin. I made the move in order to have a lower cost of living, and to give me more flexibility to focus on things that will really make me and my family happy.

Most people think this is an extreme move that they could not do. But maybe you can. I am married with two small children, and I am a person who has always lived in big, expensive cities: Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. But the move turned out well for me.

I decided to move after reading a lot of research about what makes us happy — in my mind, it all points to a small, inexpensive city. We used to think that happiness was a mystery, but it's not. The positive psychology movement is scientific, mainstream, and taught at 150 universities in the United States. At Harvard, positive psychology is the most popular undergraduate course. This is not fringe stuff, and it's hefty enough to guide big life decisions.

The conclusions I came to will not work for all of you, but surely the research I used will give you some ideas to think about.  Here are some tidbits of positive psychology research that influenced my move:

Money will not make you happy
Money doesn't buy happiness, but you won't feel like you have enough money if you don't make as much as your friends and neighbors. We really only need about $40,000 to be happy. Once you have a roof over your head (not a nice roof) and food on your plate (not out-of-season fruit), happiness is based on how optimistic your outlook is. To a point.

If all your friends earn a lot more than you do, it is nearly impossible to feel secure with the amount of money you have. I love this story from the New York Times real estate section: A husband and wife are looking a summer home in the Hamptons that is on the market for $5 million, and the wife says to the husband, “If you had a better job, we wouldn't have to live this way.”

Don't be so arrogant as to think you could not be this person. Most of us are not immune to the uneasy feeling of being the person in the room with the least disposable income. It's human nature.

More choices will not make you happy
In New York City you can get the best of everything. It's part of the draw. And people who live there are very smart about figuring out what is best. In fact, so much so that if you tell someone you have the best of anything, they roll their eyes because it's such a cliché.

The problem is that more choices make us more stressed. So if we can choose between ten very expensive health clubs, we will want one. But if there is only one, small, sort-of-ratty health club, we'll usually just go there and work out and won't worry that there is nothing better.

Your mortgage is more long-term than your career
Most of us will change careers more than we will change homes. Moving kids around the country in order to change jobs is not good for the children. Kids need to make long-term friends, to feel part of a community, to have a sense of stability around them so they can explore themselves.

This is not news. What's news is that you should pick your location first and then pick your job. You will change jobs a lot, you will change careers a few times, you will probably not change your community. If you pick a community that is cheaper to live in, then you will have more flexibility when you are changing jobs and careers. The biggest barrier to people leaving a career they don't like is that they've boxed themselves in financially. Living in an inexpensive city makes it more likely you can change careers when you need to.

Your relationships matter most
People think a job will make them happy, but it won't. A job can ensure that you are not unhappy. You need to have interesting, challenging work that you can make progress on. You need to work with people you don't hate. But that will not make you happy unless you have good relationships.

A big factor in your happiness is if you are in a committed relationship and you see that person regularly. Want to test yourself?  If you are having sex once a week with the same person, you're in a great position to maximize your happiness.

So live somewhere close to your friends and family if you can. And don't relocate away from your significant other to get more money. It's not worth it. The less financial stress you have in your life, the more time and energy you can spend with your friends and family.

Conclusion
I think people spend a lot of time thinking about small financial issues because they think the large financial issues are set in stone. My life became amazingly less stressful as soon as I moved to a city with a very low cost of living. I recommend that you think of doing the same thing — think about what is keeping you from doing that, and ask yourself if it's a real barrier or just fear of a big change.

And, if you do want to consider a move seriously, here's a bunch of other research I used for my own move.

For more of Penelope Trunk's advice, check out her book, read her column, or visit her blog.

More about...Career, Home & Garden

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MITBeta
MITBeta
13 years ago

Awesome post. My very first thought when reading the title was, “Great idea… but that would mean moving away from family and friends.” When my wife and I first got married we lived on the other coast from our family but moved back to be close to them. All the talk about money not making you happy is spot on. My sister-in-law is going through this now with a husband who wants her to earn more so they can be happy…

brad
brad
13 years ago

Another point to add about money and happiness is that it helps to ignore what other people do and say about money. The best job I ever had paid $13,000 a year, and to me at that time (1983) it was a great salary. My previous job paid $9K/year, so $13K made me feel rich. I loved my job, but all my colleagues complained about how poorly paid we were. Eventually after hearing them grouse about it all the time, I started feeling underpaid too, and that affected my enjoyment of my job. Ultimately I found a higher-paid job elsewhere… Read more »

plonkee
plonkee
13 years ago

For me also, living near family and friends would mean living in a more expensive city. I’ve actually chosen to remain in a cheaper city, so that I can essentially have more money.

OTOH, I have a job that makes me happy – not because of the job itself, but because I am friends with my colleagues. I’m also developing new friends and slowly allowing myself to become attached to my location.

I think that you can be happy anywhere – its just that some places are easier than others.

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
13 years ago

Great summary of a complex decision, Penelope! My husband and moved from NYC to Philly in 1986. (You were probably in nursery school!) We’ve often mused on how we LOWERED our overhead by moving into a house 3 times the size of our NYC appt for 1/3 the price. It was more complicated than that, of course, and now I wonder why I live in such a resource-sucking house and am continually working on greening it, but it was the most out of the box,best decision of our adult lives. It financed a PhD for my husband, eased the arrival… Read more »

Kelly
Kelly
13 years ago

Great post and I couldn’t agree more, except my husband and I took this to extremes. My husband and I (upon finding out I was preggies) moved to rural North Dakota, just outside of Fargo. Little crime, low cost of living, excellent school systems/programs/teachers, and friendly neighbors. We have our own veggie garden and do everything we can to save money. The thing I like the most about living here is the fact that the issue of money and disposable income / competition between the Joneses doesn’t exist because people just don’t care. We live life, we send out kids… Read more »

Karen
Karen
13 years ago

In my case, moving to a less expensive city has actually made us less happy. We no longer have to worry about money, but we ended up near extended family who act as if we don’t exist, a political environment that is completely anathema to us, and obnoxious neighbors who are overtly disdainful of equity locusts, the derogatory local term for anyone who moves in from a more expensive location (e.g., either coast). In California, we had a wonderful neighborhood, an inclusive church environment, a great private school, and family members who would drop everything to come and visit, because… Read more »

aj
aj
13 years ago

This article is spot on. You carry your culture in your mind-it doesn’t really matter where you live, especially in this internet age. Living in a large, vibrant city is a great experience when you are young and fancy free. A lot of what we love about NY or London is free or cheap enough. I never earned more than double minimum wage in the years I lived in NY, but I never lacked for places to go and things to do on a nothing budget. Eventually, though, priorities change and unless you have a career that demands you be… Read more »

Simplex
Simplex
13 years ago

Great post. I just did that. I think I will save 30-40% considering the apartment. But, really, almost anything is cheaper in a medium sized city (I wouldn’t go to a small city because sometimes they lack on infrastructure) compared to a big city. There are other things to consider: less polution, less traffic (so more time. And Time = life), probably crime rates are lower. But if you need a job, wages are low and jobs are hard to find. Whereas if you are a freelancer, and you work from a home office, you could live anywhere, and keep… Read more »

Eric
Eric
13 years ago

WOW. I was shocked at this article because I was thinking about doing this myself. Moving to a small town, working at a relaxed job, less stress and everything. Great inspiration for me. Thanks for writing it!

Modern-Worker
Modern-Worker
13 years ago

From personal experience, I recommend folks to please pick a GREAT city – not just one that’s cheaper. I’ve found in folds that living in a low quality city is horrible and no amount of savings can change that.

Covert7
Covert7
13 years ago

My wife and I live in a pretty inexpensive place (Memphis) but we’re honestly not very happy here. We’ve thought about moving somewhere that we would actually enjoy going out and doing stuff (mountainy areas usually) but for us that will almost certainly moving to a more expensive area. Really the only thing keeping us here is family. But that right there is a HUGE thing especially since we just had our first kid. We love our family very much and as much as we want to leave the area, the happiness we get from being nearby outweighs the negatives… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
13 years ago

Hey, guys. Checking in during my last night in London. We transfer to Dublin tomorrow, and though I’m sure I’ll find internet access, I don’t know if it will be better or worse than the access I have here. (It would be difficult to be worse.) I love Penelope’s article, too. It hits on a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately. If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend going to your public library and borrowing The Four-Hour Work Week. I’ll have a full review of the book later, but the short blurb is: this book has a… Read more »

Dave
Dave
13 years ago

JD and all – I read Penelope’s column also, and saw this posting there some time back, At the time, I thought it had some good points, even though I’m happy living in a very high cost area (San Diego – very high sunshine tax!). However, for those that don’t read her column, I’d like to point out that she has some later posts talking about some serious problems in her marriage. Not to belittle her problems, but this makes me questions statements such as her opening sentence: “I recently relocated from New York City to Madison, Wisconsin. I made… Read more »

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
13 years ago

Hats off to North Dakota, Kelly! It’s my home state, and you are the first to legalize hemp growing. Hemp is a great crop from an environmental standpoint.
Though from what I hear the lake cottages of my youth have grown into fancy, huge year-round McMansions.
Take a peek:
http://www.moneychangesthings.blogspot.com

Annie T
Annie T
13 years ago

I agree with Modern-Worker. I’m pretty frugal, but I don’t buy into the “cheaper = just as good” argument when it comes to community. To me, it’s more important to live in a city I love than to save a few bucks. I just moved from Chicago to San Francisco, where my rent is $500 more a month, and I’m so much happier here. Better weather, better transit, and lots of progressive people (which is important to me). I had been unhappy in Chicago for years, but I stayed because it was more affordable than New York or San Francisco.… Read more »

DJ
DJ
13 years ago

Conceptually this was a good article, but I think it ignores some of the drawbacks of moving to a smaller city. She mentions the ability to pick and choose careers, but I would argue that in a smaller city it would be far more difficult to just switch careers due to limited job availability. I also think that families should not restrict themselves to living in the city where the rest of their extended family happens to live. I believe family is important, but if the city your family lives in does not fulfill the priorities and needs of your… Read more »

HalOtis
HalOtis
13 years ago

I recently moved to a bigger city and I have been more happy since moving. Sure the cost of living much higher and as a result I haven’t been able to afford a motorcycle I’ve been wanting for the past year. And yeah I feel pressured to be tight on my wallet. The things that make it better have been access to amenities without having to jump in the car or take the bus. The weather was a major factor in moving. And the amount of jobs makes me feel safe even if I were to find myself downsized. That… Read more »

Kristina
Kristina
13 years ago

I love this posting and agree with just about all of it, but I want to add one caveat. There actually is some research that your job can make you happy if it’s your passion. Your real passion – not something you are trying to convince yourself you like or that you are doing because money is your passion. I know that almost all of my jobs have made me happy because they are linked to who I am at my core – they all involve helping women achieve equality, ending sexual assault and domestic violence, etc. Even if I… Read more »

Kate
Kate
13 years ago

Dave – thanks for the reality check re: her later columns about her marriage problems. I hope she can find personal happiness and work out the personal issues, but it really makes me think: all these career gurus (“Brazen Careerist” et al) — how many of them have broken personal lives to go along with their brazen careers.

Not to open up the “can we have it all” debate — but there is a bit of a question there. Maybe you can’t have it all at one time, or maybe you shouldn’t get it all too fast….Food for thought…

Moneymonk
Moneymonk
13 years ago

I have to agree with the part about making $40K is enough to be happy.

Once I jump from $38K to 50K I was relieved after $50K I did not feel any different. Besides $45K is the national average.

Ron
Ron
13 years ago

I don’t think Penelope, or J.D. for that matter, is saying that moving to a smaller, lower cost city is for everyone. It’s just an option to consider if you really are trying to cut down on expenses. I have plenty of friends who are absolutely devoted to urban living for a variety of reasons. For them the cost savings of moving to a location with a lower cost of living doesn’t make sense. I, however have no such commitment! I’m a small town kid at heart so the thought of moving to a smaller place is already appealing to… Read more »

Marc
Marc
13 years ago

After being “eliminated” from my job as an IT Manager in Orange County, CA, I decided to relocate my family to a small town about 20 miles southeast of Charlotte, NC. One of the reasons was that I grew up in NC. Another was that all our families are within a day’s drive (close, but not too close … if you know what I mean). But the main reason was the inexpensive housing. By cashing out on the the equity from the sale of our house in CA, we were able to get a bigger house and use the remainder… Read more »

Shaz
Shaz
13 years ago

One reason that I don’t consider moving to many places that are considered less expensive (yet still desirable to raise a family, have a good quality of life, etc.) is because a lot of those areas that are ethnically homogenous. An added layer of very real consideration for anyone interested in diversity/raising families in ethnically diverse areas. A make or break consideration for people of color in my opinion.

color would have to take into consideration, that is not mentioned in this article.

Anne
Anne
13 years ago

Shaz, I agree with you wholeheartedly. One of the primary reasons I am committed to settling down in (or near) San Francisco is the ethnic diversity. As an SF native and woman of color, I had the luxury of growing up surrounded by the cuisine, festivities, and experiences of other people of color. All of that has informed the way I see the world and I am willing to live simply so that my future children will have the same opportunity I did.

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
13 years ago

We’ve seriously considered moving to the smaller city where my parents live. We could buy an ocean-view executive home for half the price of a fixer-upper in our current city. However, it would mean taking a step down in our jobs and earning power. The problem is that, if we ever lost our jobs, we’d have to go back to a big city for employment. And then we wouldn’t have any recent senior experience. So we remain in the city, even though we’d rather be in a smaller city.

dH
dH
13 years ago

I think it’s all true and it isn’t at the sime time. It’s all depends on your age. If you are a child, a small town is good enough. Later, a huge, impulsive vibrant city, to extend your possibilities, to challenge is the best. Later, when you’ve a family, the town is the best again. Families and New York just doesn’t compatible.

Kevin Baker
Kevin Baker
13 years ago

I have strongly been debating moving to Madison for a while now. My wife is from there and moved to Chicago after we had been dating a while. I know she would really love to move back there but I’m having trouble making the full decision. Her family is there and mine is here which really isn’t a huge deal for me. Since we had our daughter I don’t see my friends all too often (very different lifestyles) Honestly I think I would see my friends more often if we moved. I would have to take about a $25,000/year+ paycut… Read more »

finance girl
finance girl
13 years ago

omg I just wrote about us considering moving from seattle to denver not 1 week ago!!

wow, what timing!

Brandon
Brandon
13 years ago

Keep in mind Madison is not exactly a very low cost of living city. It’s quite expensive to live here. Sure, it’s no New York City, but it’s definitely not your average mid-sized city as far as cost of living goes. Madison is consistently ranked in the top ten cities to live in, so I think your post has more to do with quality of location than cost. I’ve lived in Madison for many years and absolutely love it, but I love it despite the fact that it’s still an expensive place for housing. We have fantastic recreation, restaurants, arts,… Read more »

Beth
Beth
13 years ago

@financegirl: Seattle to Denver is virtually no change in terms of either size of the urban area or cost of living – but there are some gorgeous, friendly, pleasant communities all around Denver that are smaller and cheaper. Boulder’s great, but not cheap; look at Loveland, Longmont, Golden. Colorado’s a great place to live!

xshanex
xshanex
13 years ago

“Seattle to Denver is virtually no change in terms of either size of the urban area or cost of living” are you sure about the cost of living difference when comparing seattle/denver? Most of the data I’ve found puts home prices in seattle at around $420k median and denver around $250k My girlfriend and I were split between the greater Seattle (family) area and the Denver area (cost of living/career) in addition to Colorado springs. This is also after several trips to Colorado by myself and a couple dozen by her(work) where we checked out the neighboring areas and homes/communities.… Read more »

MVP
MVP
13 years ago

In my experience, Seattle and Denver are very similar in terms of cost of living. In both places, you’ll likely have to live on the outskirts to make ends meet, unless you’ve got a high-paying job. I’d take Colorado Springs any day, but I love the outdoors and scenery there. I live in the NW, but spent a year in Colo. before moving here for my current job. Colo. is booming, but it’s fairly conservative, whereas Seattle is the opposite. You may want to consider other lifestyle factors, like how much you like to visit the ocean and if you… Read more »

Brip Blap
Brip Blap
13 years ago

This is definitely a great conversation. My wife and I almost constantly debate moving to a smaller city/town. Currently we live in NYC and we’ve considered Jacksonville, FL and other locations. The birth of our first child really accelerated our thinking, because the school district we live in is miserable and private school will almost be required if we want a safe environment for him in 4 years. I think, however, that the single greatest factor in why people don’t leave big cities is family. I know people say culture, but I don’t kid myself – I don’t go to… Read more »

Emily H.
Emily H.
13 years ago

Madison is a gorgeous and livable city. I would move there in a heartbeat. I’d be wary of the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter where you live–most smaller cities aren’t Madison.

Ron
Ron
13 years ago

You’re right, Emily – there are small cities and then there are small cities. Madison,WI; Asheville, NC; Boulder or Durango, CO. These are all towns that offer a lot to just about anyone in terms of culture and opportunity. Like I said before, I’m a small town guy, but I can recognize the difference between Asheville, NC and Rolla, MO!

Shannon
Shannon
13 years ago

I moved from Northern CA to Austin, TX almost 10 years ago and it was the best decision. I went from living like a starving college student to being able to buy a house with a yard in a nice neighborhood. There’s no comparison. It may not seem as bleeding edge as SF/Berkeley…but there’s museums, a university, coffeeshops, huge live music scene and film scene…and people are so much more relaxed than in CA.

MissPinkKate
MissPinkKate
13 years ago

I really want to read Penelope’s book, but the NY Public Library doesn’t appear to have one copy!

English
English
13 years ago

“Families and New York just doesn’t compatible.”

Why do so many people think this? I grew up in New York, returned after college, and would be thrilled to raise children here. What exactly is the objection?

finance girl
finance girl
13 years ago

Denver is way cheaper housing than Seattle. We could move and buy a house for cash with what we’d get for our Seattle house. Denver has an incredible glut of homes for sale (compared to Seattle). Denver has snow, yes, which is awesome if you love to ski/board. Seattle has rain. Consistent rain. For 9 months. I have lived here 18 years and there’s precious little deviation from this. The Puget Sound (water) is pretty, and if you need water around you Seattle is more the place for you. I did a whole list on how Denver tilts the scales… Read more »

bethh
bethh
13 years ago

I think this post is great encouragement to think outside the box and make a leap if it feels like the thing to do. I live in the bay area and know that I can’t possibly take advantage of all it’s got to offer – when it comes down to it, I tend to find and revisit a few restaurants and neighborhoods, rather than explore a different sushi place every day, for example. My life tends to be based on friends, work, and convenient things to do, so really I could do that in a much less insanely huge and… Read more »

Tiffany
Tiffany
13 years ago

Well, if you read Penelope’s blog you will see that she is most decidedly not happy. She has posted twice — in depth — about some pretty severe marital problems.

This sunshiney post about moving being the solution to a host of problems really rings false to me. Not that it can’t work, but I would say that it hasn’t worked for the poster.

JenK
JenK
13 years ago

As an aside, I would note that this post & the discussion also brings up several other factors in housing, such as community & services. I owned a condo when we married. A few years later we looked at a house that was for sale – because it was across the street from 2 houses owned by friends. We did buy the house and it’s been a fantastic experience – we lend each other tools, help each other out, share costco runs and so on.

Fortis
Fortis
13 years ago

Some of the logic in this article is flawed, but I think the basic sentiment is valid. I believe that the trick to life is to figure out what makes you happy, accept it, and pursue it; even though, most of the time, it isn’t what you wish made you happy (being rich, famous, suave, etc.). The same can be said for your partner, stop looking for the person you think you “should” be with, and find the person you want to be with. I did the opposite as the poster, I moved back to the “big city”. I’ve lived… Read more »

beanspants1
beanspants1
13 years ago

I don’t understand this article… If money can’t make you happy then how can a different bunch of dirt, some houses, and some different names for stores make you happy?? Isn’t that just attempting to find happiness in a different bunch of souless inanimate objects?? Less choice might make us happy (I doubt it, but maybe), but prof. schwarz never discusses the ‘tyranny of the majority’, which makes his book nigh on worthless in my opinion. Less choice is great as long as it’s not your favorite stuff being phased out. And phasing out tends to keep the middle and… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416
13 years ago

Great comment Fortis!

Carol
Carol
13 years ago

My husband and I made the move to a smaller city. Granted, my co opened a office there and my husband was retiring from the city of Phoenix and wanted to move to a smaller place. His wants, western city, smaller, great library, access to stores that we need to go to eg. Sams, Home Depot, Lowes. We did not know anyone here in Pueblo and it is my husband, me and our son, 26 who will live with us forever, and our pets. We sold our house in Phoenix at the top of the crazy buying in December, 2006… Read more »

Kevin Baker
Kevin Baker
13 years ago

Brandon

Madison may seem expensive to you as you have lived there for a while. Compared to where we are right now housing is at least half the price in the $200,000-$400,000 range and considerably cheaper in the higher ranges. Houses that would easily run you $3 million here were about $900,000 to $1 mil.

Trust me its not the cheapest place but My wife spent her whole life there and I’ve been looking at moving there long enough to tell you cost of living is much much cheaper than Chicago.

Steve
Steve
13 years ago

This is the worst advice I’ve ever heard. I’m recently married and if I moved to a small city from philly and had kids that grew up following some other sports team I would have to kill them. Which is one of the many reasons I had to leave the hell hole that is called washington DC.

Karen
Karen
13 years ago

Steve…to each, his own. I used to live in Maryland, about 30 minutes from D.C. and the same to Baltimore. I loved it!

Kevin Baker
Kevin Baker
13 years ago

Steve

I really hope you’re kidding. If that would be your biggest concern about moving I don’t think you’re actually ready to even think about having children.

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