For most people throughout the history of our species, the reason they have lived somewhere is because they were born nearby. And the reason they were born there is because their parents were born nearby.
Very rarely, a brave and enterprising person will make a big move to a whole new place in search of wealth or happiness. Some of your ancestors did that, forming an interesting chapter in your family history. And maybe even YOU have done that in your own lifetime, and you’re currently living far from where you were born, probably because of a bold personal choice you made. And if so, good for you!
I’m bringing up this topic because I am often amazed at the sheer disparities in niceness between different regions here in the US, despite the fact that it’s all one country which makes it very easy to move around. There are some areas which have drastically better weather, or landscape, or outdoor recreation, tax rates, job possibilities, mountains, ocean, lakes, beaches – you name it. And yet, as I study the areas with the best attributes, the cost of living in these areas is often completely uncorrelated with how nice they are.
I like to make fun of the New York/New Jersey region, because it is just amazingly expensive and crowded, and yet it is completely unremarkable compared to the rest of the United States – humid summers, rainy and cold winters, limited access to wide-open natural areas. All wrapped in a package of heavy regulations on small business owners like myself and shocking property taxes (annual tax on a house like mine would be over $12,000 there vs. $2300 that I pay now, even while the house itself would probably be a one-bedroom shack in my price range).
It is true that some people make ridiculous salaries in New York City, and for those people it may be logical to live there for a short time to quickly sock away a freedom fund before escaping. Others actually like it there, and of course many are tied by strong family bonds, which are very important too. But after we set aside those groups, there are still millions of people who are just there because they are there, living a crowded and expensive life just because they haven’t realized how liberating and energizing it can be to MOVE.
Meanwhile, I’ve seen a lot of other parts of the US on my many road trips in the years I’ve lived here. When visiting Tucson, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was astounded by the gorgeous scenery, never-ending clear blue skies, and the extremely low cost at which you can pick up a stylish stucco house on a palm-treed lot in nice parts of town near the university. Although my own region near Boulder/Denver Colorado has grown quite popular (meaning expensive), the whole Mountain West still has plenty of affordable towns and presents a nice balance of culture, recreation, and reasonable outdoorsy year-round climate.
Update: this article was first written in 2011, and the US has been on a non-stop house appreciation binge since then. So, although many cities in my country remain very affordable, other prices are pretty out of date.
But recently (2016), an MMM reader developed a global search tool to help seek out cool, inexpensive places to live around the world. It’s really well done and still expanding: check him out at The Earth Awaits – https://www.theearthawaits.com/
In Las Vegas, you can often get much more for your money than other major cities – especially during recessions as the prices tend to fluctuate like a gambler’s fortunes. A stylish condo near the strip which you can rent out to tourists for massive profits as a vacation rental, or a spacious modern house with a pool out near the foothills where you can swim and hike out of your back yard, and never see winter again.
You won’t care about the housing market or even the job market, because your cost of living will be so low that you may be able to retire a decade earlier than normal! The same story of palm trees and never-ending warmth combined with reasonable living cost persists throughout the desert Southwestern towns of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and even the less famous parts of California.
In the Pacific Northwest you can live affordably in the land of Beer and Beards in hip towns like Corvalis, Oregon or Bellingham, Washington. You can even live on a rainforesty island in the nearby San Juan Islands, and spend many of your days exploring coastlines by kayak.
In the 200-mile-stretch of beach cities around Miami, you can sometimes pick up a luxury house, or a snappy condo complex with a sweet pool and spa, or a skyscraper overlooking the beaches and turquoise waters, for less than you’d think thanks to bank foreclosures during each housing downturn, making a waterfront tropical beach compound less costly than a vinyl-clad shack in a Toronto suburb.
Ahh, Toronto, the Big City near my birthplace. It’s the Canadian version of NYC. People pay fantastic amounts for modest houses that are buried in stale brown snow for several months each year, and commute 40 minutes each way through a 16-lane traffic jam to get to their jobs. Or Fort McMurray, Alberta, where people pay Toronto prices to live in a Mosquito Tundra near the arctic circle, just to plug themselves into an above-market income stream from the Saudi-Arabia-sized Oil Sands project that is cranking out fossil fuels there …. for now. What kind of life is this!?!?
Canada has the fantastic Oceanside Cliffs of the Maritimes, where everyone is friendly, houses near the sea are nearly free, and the parties are legendary. It has the Sunny Granola/Marijuana hippy belt in Interior BC and the Okanagan valley. There’s the Hong Kong Cosmopolitan buzz of Vancouver, with its non-snowy winters, or the Indie Rock/University Town/Island vibe of Victoria.
I also love Australia and New Zealand, where pleasantly different and fun-loving cultures combine with much more ocean and noticeably cheaper food and beer – all in a gorgeous climate that rivals the best parts of North America.
With the increasing number of careers and entrepreneurial businesses that can be done from ANYWHERE thanks to remote working, and the fact that an ambitious person can carve out a job for themselves in almost any city, I think that moving is often a fantastic idea, and it is mainly fear of the unknown and fear of change that is holding people back.
When I graduated from Engineering school, I moved 300 miles away from my hometown, because that was the location of the best jobs that I knew about at the time. It was also where my wonderful sisters and my girlfriend lived. But as my career progressed, I learned about the work opportunities South of the border. They captured my imagination, as did the increased choice of geographic settings versus those available in my native Ontario (“Smoggy metropolis”, “Mosquito Forest”, or “Mosquito Swamp”).
I did the research, got the interviews, fought for the work permits, and BOOM, here I was in a fantastic new land of untold adventure. I can’t even express the joy this decision has brought to my life since then.
This seems like a strange contradiction to the principle of Hedonic Adaptation, because I cannot deny that regardless of where you move, you are still the same person. So some would suggest that you should be equally happy regardless of your surroundings. But it doesn’t seem to work that way for me. I think that for some people, there really is A BETTER PLACE.
For me, it was the vast increase in Nature and Sunshine, with just enough city thrown in to make life convenient. And the odd combination of culture in the Boulder, Colorado area that starts with an entrepreneurial and educated base, but throws the whole Workaholic thing out the window and seeks quality of life instead.
And Let’s Not Forget the Money
For me, the irresistible combination of higher income, lower taxes, and a lower cost of living was the thing that allowed me to retire so early. If I had not moved here at age 24, I’d probably still be working an increasingly monotonous tech worker cubicle job to this very day back in Canada. Mr. Money Mustache might not even exist yet!
What would your own financial picture look like if you could cut your living costs by, say, $4000 per month while keeping (or possibly increasing) your salary?
What About Family?
I do miss my family, especially when I read the emails about casual get-togethers that I missed out on because of living 1700 miles away. But we were always a far-flung family who got together only a couple times a year anyway.
Even more important is what most people overlook: when you lower your cost of living, you don’t have to work as much, and you get to retire earlier. And when you live in a nicer place, you will generally be in better spirits. This means that you can make longer visits with more relaxed schedules. Since retiring in 2005, we’ve been able to spend entire summers with the family back in Canada, rather than having to pack the visiting into occasional weekends and holidays as non-retired people have to do.
Moving is especially easy when you’re young, fresh out of college, and with no kids. Considering new cities is like reviewing a broad and exciting variety of new dishes and deciding which one to eat, so I highly recommend doing this type of dreaming and strategizing before deciding where to settle down. Binge on those “Best Places to Live” lists, tour the country and the world in person, and fly around virtually to check out the terrain and the bike paths using Google Earth (and the house prices and ‘hoods using real estate sites like Zillow and Realtor.com).
The Ultimate Human-friendly city in my own view is one with a population between 50,000 and 200,000, in a compact and bikeable footprint, separated from neighboring cities by Actual Cows And Fields, as opposed to the suburbs-that-are-named-as-if-they-are-actual-cities that exist by the dozen on the sides of giant metro areas.
This “Distinct City” status ensures that you’ll have everything you need right in your own town, and yet you’ll be able to hit the streets and very quickly end up in the country soaking up open vistas and black starry skies, without even having to resort to car transportation. Your phone will still have proper reception, and Amazon will still deliver your packages efficiently. But yet you’ll never find yourself paying to drive into a parking garage or waiting in an endless line for a restaurant. There is space for everyone in these person-friendly cities.
For slightly older and more settled folks like me, moving is temporarily off of the menu – we decided to give our son a stable upbringing in a stable place where the faces and friends stay the same from birth until high school graduation, and even the trees and hills and seasons become familiar through the span of his childhood.
But I’ve already got some more adventure moves planned for the many decades to follow in the future. Tropical winters and phases of van life and “Carpentourism” trips in various exotic locations, and eventually some sort of intentional community where lots of friends all get to live together in beautiful surroundings.
You should live in whatever place works best for you. But you should be able to prove to yourself that it really is the right place – instead of just being the place you happened to be born.