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.