Small-Town Personal Finance

I've been saving this post for several months, waiting for a time to share it. After Penelope's guest-post yesterday about moving to a smaller city, I figured now was the time.

I grew up in a small town. Canby was a rural farming community when I was a boy. People made their livings from selling produce, raising livestock, and, especially, growing nursery plants.

After college I returned to Canby. Over the next ten years I watched it change from a small town into a bedroom community. The farms and nurseries became housing developments. More of the residents began to work and shop in Portland. I did what little I could to stem the growth — wrote letters to the editor, joined the city budget committee — but I was one man with his finger in the dike. Growth came. I left.

Though we now live in Portland, my heart belongs to the small town I used to know. I work in Canby. I still do a lot of my business there. For example, I get my haircut at the same barber shop I've been going to all my life (“Hair of Today”). Most days the discussions at the barbershop are just what you'd expect: hunting and fishing and bombing the hell out of Arabs. Sometimes I'll bump into a former classmate, and we'll get to chat about how our lives have been during the past five years.

The last time I had my hair trimmed, the conversation veered into new territory: the good ol' boys discussed personal finance. One guy — let's call him Jim — had money on his mind, and so the whole shop joined in. Jim talked about budgeting for a new car. He talked about saving. Then he began praise the merits of 401ks and company matches. “It's free money,” he said. “I'll be damned if I'm going to turn down free money. I put as much into that 401k as they let me.”

Howard, the shop owner, nodded as he snipped Jim's hair. “I wish I could get me one of them,” he said. “I'm self-employed. I gotta save everything myself.”

An older man waiting his turn piped in. “You can still save,” he said. “You know about them Roth IRAs?” Howard shook his head. “The Roth IRA is the most over-looked secret in money. Everyone oughtta have one.”

Jim agreed. “I have a Roth IRA, too. I've got a 401k and ar Roth. You can never save too much.”

I smiled as I listened. I love hearing money talk in public. We talk about it all day long at Get Rich Slowly, but that's expected. It's fun to hear it “in the wild”.

I like doing business in Canby. Small-town personal finance has a unique flavor. My lawyer and I have been friends since grade school. I'm close friends with my accountant. I have another friend who works for my insurance agent; she always has advice on how I can save a few bucks. Sometimes it feels like we're all members of the same club.

My friend Wayne raves about his bank. It's a small bank — maybe five branches in the Portland area — and he went to school with the branch manager. “Any time I need something, I just call Sue,” he says. “Like this one time my wife went to buy groceries, but there wasn't enough money in the account. I called Sue right up, and she took care of us.”

A few years ago, the hardware store was still letting people charge purchases to a house account — “Thanks for the hammer, Bob. Just put it on my account, will you?” — maybe they still do.

There are other economic advantages to living in a small town:

  • Housing is less expensive.
  • Transportation is less expensive. When we lived in Canby, I could walk everywhere I needed to go. During the summers, I would often bike the six miles to work.
  • There are fewer temptations to spend your money. Canby has no movie theater, no fancy restaurants, no sports teams. A big night out is a high school choir concert.
  • Fresh, local produce is available all over town, from fruit stands to grocery stores. Now that we live in Portland, we generally have to drive fifteen minutes to find local produce.

Things aren't all idyllic, of course. Wages are lower in a small town, and prices are often a little higher than in the city. There are fewer conveniences. Canby has no bookstores, for example, and no place to buy a computer.

It's also important to note that small town residents aren't any better at managing their money than those who live in the city. People are the same all over; there's plenty of debt and foolish spending to go around. But, all things being equal, I'd rather live in the country than in the city. I'm a small-town boy.

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plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

Honestly, it sounds like a nightmare to me.

I’ve got absolutely no desire to see 95% of the kids I went to school with (and no inclination to see the rest). I love the anonymity of the city, the access to great public transport, the ethnically mixed communities, the fantastic (window) shopping.

DirtRoadProud
DirtRoadProud
8 years ago
Reply to  plonkee

No friends?

Anne
Anne
12 years ago

Ethnic diversity…the city is worth it for that alone. When my husband and I bought a house, we had to move from the area we rented in for six years, to one we could afford to buy a house in. We’re still in the city, but the area around the house isn’t as diverse as where we rented, mainly because it’s not as integrated…but still, it’s a heck of a lot more diverse than the small town I grew up in. There are plenty of wonderful things about small towns and the country, and I love the diversity of cities.… Read more »

Lynnae (From Under the Clutter)
Lynnae (From Under the Clutter)
12 years ago

I’ve been through Canby! Nice town!

Right now we live in a little town of about 5000 near a bigger city. I really like being able to walk anywhere I need to go, and it’s nice to run into my neighbors while I’m grocery shopping or out for a walk.

Alan Bluehole
Alan Bluehole
12 years ago

I’ve lived the small, Southern town life. Ten years in Portland and can’t imagine going back.

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

“All things being equal, I’d rather live in the country than in the city. I’m a small-town boy” Me too – I only wish I had a way to make a living there. Engineering & technology jobs (my field) are pretty rare in small towns. That’s one thing the career counselors never ask you to consider – where you want to live. All the focus is on pursuing a career in the subject areas you like – then you end up locking yourself out of places you might like to live. Wish someone had told me to think about that… Read more »

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

I think sometimes I over romanticize small towns and whatever ideas I might have about how “great” it would be to live there compared to a big city. I’ve never lived in the country, but I also ponder living in a small village in Africa or the France country side. We could still be disconnected if desired, but still right there where we were. Still on this planet, still being human and having human experiences. Our child would still grow up and live their own lives and move to the big city if they chose to. Hopefully we can help… Read more »

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

I grew up in a small city, Fargo, ND. I hated the way it took forever for movies, fashion, and books to arrive, 6-9 months after they hit the cities. That is all different now with the internet and overnight deliveries. Also with chain stores. Fargo and every other place sell all the same stuff in depressing monotony, including the Starbucks and Einstein Bagels. The irony was that in Fargo, with 3 colleges, I heard Van Cliburn, watched Marcel Marceau – when a name came to town, it took 10 minutes to get to the theatre – we were hungry… Read more »

Patrick Szalapski
Patrick Szalapski
12 years ago

“Over the next ten years I watched it change from a small town into a bedroom community. The farms and nurseries became housing developments. More of the residents began to work and shop in Portland. I did what little I could to stem the growth – wrote letters to the editor, joined the city budget committee – but I was one man with his finger in the dike. Growth came. I left.” I hope you’re not bitter about changes in Canby. You have a great outlook on money–you say that we shouldn’t be trapped by the past; instead, we need… Read more »

Ali
Ali
12 years ago

I moved from New York City to a town of 4000 in the Canadian Arctic and I love it. There is a lot of time to just be. Special events happen less frequently and are more significant because there are fewer of them. Life is much slower. People do still rush around, but it is not as intense as in a larger city. Cell service is analog only and doesn’t work outside of town. When the beach is crowded, there is still plenty of room and you know many of the people there. From a purely financial viewpoint, it’s pretty… Read more »

icup
icup
12 years ago

I hope I never have to move away from a small town. I live in a college town and work at the university. There’s plenty of technology jobs around here, my salary is still higher than average, but cost of living is still cheaper. The big city is within a 3-hour drive, which is close enough for me. Truly the best of both worlds. The best part is the relative lack of crime though. Murders, grand theft, B&E, etc is all extremely rare here. In the nearest city, there was talk recently about the 256 murders that have occurred in… Read more »

Beth
Beth
12 years ago

@Kevin: What kind of engineering? There are a lot of mine jobs even for people who aren’t geo or petrol engineers in a lot of small towns in the West, and a phenomenally growing market for systems, structural, and control engineers in sustainable technologies (windfarms, biodiesel plants, etc.) in the West again and in the corn belt. A lot of manufacturing jobs in the South. I could probably offer some more specific examples with more information. Part of the problem with professional jobs in small towns – people who have them keep them until they die. And they usually have… Read more »

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

@icup, I’m interested what city/state you currently reside in.

Anon
Anon
12 years ago

I love small towns. All they really need is broadband or satellite access for home businesses and they could stay “home towns.” They could attract telecommuters or home business owners who prefer a quiet daytime atmosphere (say this as the guy next door bangs on his house with a hammer for the umpteenth time). As long as they are making a living with out of county dollars, it becomes a good deal. No problem in employment then. Of course, if you have kids, the small towns may not be that much fun for them.

Adam
Adam
12 years ago

Good post! What the deal with people and ethnic diversity? I could care a less about the ethnicity of people living around me as long as they’re good people.

Kelly
Kelly
12 years ago

OK, I know I’m going to be flamed for this, but sometimes ethnic diversity is not beneficial. I just want to point out there are drawbacks as well. We’d be stupid to ignore that some groups don’t mix well. Also, how does diversity affect crime factors? From what I can tell, not so hot… here is just one article I read regarding some studies: http://www.city-journal.org/html/eon2007-06-25jl.html. Please please please don’t hound me or call me racist etc… people are mentioning it and I wanted to show both sides of the ethnic diversity argument. I will also point out that although I… Read more »

Kelly
Kelly
12 years ago

Sorry, remove the period from the link: http://www.city-journal.org/html/eon2007-06-25jl.html

Also, my post is misleading in that the article focuses on crime, it does not… it focuses more on how neighborhoods and infrastructure / political relations are perceived.

Joe
Joe
12 years ago

Anytime of the day it takes me 10 minutes to get to the grocery store compared to a variable amount with the traffic messes in cities.

I also have 4 golf courses within 15 minutes of me. After work $12-$14 for 9 holes, I will take this anyday over “city life”.

Canadian Dream
Canadian Dream
12 years ago

Perhaps its just me, but I’m not a big fan of small towns. They just tend to be too small for my lifestyle where I like a good sized library and a good movie complex. So I tend to cut the difference and go for smaller cities with many of the similar benifits of smaller towns, but with a few extra services. I’ve lived in areas with population ranging from 20,000 to 800,000 and I’ve found I rather like the 200,000 range. It is a good balance of cost of living vs service you can get. I suppose another way… Read more »

MVP
MVP
12 years ago

Hallelujah, Kevin. Seems everyone wants to do what I do for a living, ‘cuz it’s “fun”. Well, now that I’m older, I wish someone would’ve slapped me when I was 19, an idealist in college, and pursuing a career that was “fun” but really wouldn’t make me much money and has a b*tch of a job market. I’ve moved all over the country in the past 8 years because I must go where the jobs are, and I still barely earn enough to fly home when someone in my extended family dies or gets married. Seriously, it’s not worth it.… Read more »

Jose
Jose
12 years ago

I moved to Seattle a couple of years ago. Now I think Portland is a small town. Canby is a nice place (I used to live in Hubbard). I didn’t like the traffic there that much compare to Portland. Otherwise, it’s cool.

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

Dave (post # 11)

icup may be talking about State College, PA which is home to Penn State University. It is about 3 hours from Philadelphia (which is the city with the high murder rate).

JenK
JenK
12 years ago

Kelly, I agree that someone who is thinking “Oh I want to live with other cultures so I can learn more about them” is going to have a rough time. But the people I know who are concerned about diversity are in already in multicultural families. People want to fit in, and especially they want their kids to feel “normal”. One way to do that it to look for other families that look like you. A third-generation Korean-American married to a blond guy, or a black woman living with her white boyfriend, or a white woman raising a black kid… Read more »

Brip Blap
Brip Blap
12 years ago

I love living in a multicultural, multi-ethnic area like New York. I have been to Iranian weddings, Greek anniversary parties, Spanish opera, Chinese markets, Croatian restaurants, Arabian photography exhibits, heard Portuguese fado singers, and danced at Turkish restaurants – the list is endless. It’s not for everyone, but having grown up in a small town in the South, with a rich, deep and varied culture of its own I would say that more is better. That is, the more people of this planet I come in contact with, and the more I see of their cultures and music and film… Read more »

Justin
Justin
12 years ago

I never knew that the Pacific Northwest could seem so much like the South. I love my little town and do not mind it trying to grow but you hate to lose that small town feel.

Greg C.
Greg C.
12 years ago

I am not a social person ( I have social anxiety and the people closest to me do also. Suffice it to say, we pretty much stick to ourselves) so that aspect really doesn’t matter much to me. It’s all the same to me. Though in some ways, a small town might be WORSE for that ( harder to be anonymous, not wanting to see childhood tormentors, etc) I am more interested in cost, convenience,etc. I have never lived in a real “city.” I grewup in small towns and seasonal towns. As an adult I have lived in those towns… Read more »

Chad
Chad
12 years ago

Speaking of talking personal finance at the barbers: The Wealthy Barber is a pretty good book about basics of personal finance.

Sarah
Sarah
12 years ago

@Kelly, Everyone say it with me– correlation does not imply causation. Areas that are more diverse also tend to have other characteristics that could cause the negative effects mentioned in your link. Age and wealth are mentioned, but there is much more than than to be considered. I’m a fan of Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” but I think he may be off base here. “In diverse San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 30 percent of people say that they trust neighbors a lot. In ethnically homogeneous communities in the Dakotas, the figure is 70 percent to 80 percent.” This is also… Read more »

Angie
Angie
12 years ago

Joe up in #17 says: Anytime of the day it takes me 10 minutes to get to the grocery store compared to a variable amount with the traffic messes in cities. I also have 4 golf courses within 15 minutes of me. After work $12-$14 for 9 holes, I will take this anyday over “city life”. I live in Seattle, and I can *walk* to the grocery store in 10 minutes (5 minutes or less to drive). And there’s a municipal golf course within 10 minutes’ drive… Also within a 5 minute walk from my house: a business district with… Read more »

Livingalmostlarge
Livingalmostlarge
12 years ago

I’m a suburbanite and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I sort of like the small community feel (small town), but very different feel. But maybe where I grew up the burbs are more like little small towns. But no one considers it small town. LOL. It is nice.

A.J. - IAmFacingMillions.com
A.J. - IAmFacingMillions.com
12 years ago

I married a girl from a small town like you are describing. I absolutely fell in love with the small town life. Everyone knew everyone. It’s ashamed that marriage didn’t last more than 10 months. It’s too small of a town to be living there when you are the outsider and your ex wife and her family make up 1/2 of the town 🙁

mickie
mickie
12 years ago

I have lived in many small towns–born–n-raised, and as an adult. Lived through a small town becoming a suburb (oh, that’s painful–Sue’s BBQ bulldozed for an Olive Garden), to bedroom community, to college town to small cities–mostly all in the south. I now live in Brooklyn. Why? Perhaps I’ve been unfortunate but ALL of the small places I’ve been have been EXTREMELY judgmental of anyone not “just like us”. Anyone “odd” is suspect–even when known cradle to grave. If you are catholic (or pick a non-local religion), you’re odd. If you are ethnic, you’re odd and/or second-class (depending on your… Read more »

gabrielle
gabrielle
10 years ago

I agree living in a small town saves money because you don’t go to many places because their isn’t much to do and that prices are reasonable from those you know. On the other hand, what are your chances to make any money unless you already own something or come across money? That’s why people leave small towns. There is nothing for them to grow with, but a dream and that dream is elsewhere. It just makes “cents” to follow money so you can follow your dreams.

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