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The pros and cons of moving out of the city

Before you move to a smaller town, ask yourself these key questions.

In 2017, I did something that my younger self once swore she would never do: I sold half of what I owned, packed up the rest and moved back to the Midwest. I had spent much of my early adulthood bouncing from one major coastal city to another, and this move took me from Seattle, Washington (population 744,955) to Cedar Rapids, Iowa (population 133,174). Like many people, I moved to be closer to family — but I also moved to take advantage of the lower cost of living, save more money and begin working towards financial independence.

Rebecca Lake, personal finance expert and blogger at Boss Single Mama and Haven Life contributor, recently made a similar move — and took her children with her. “I moved from Charleston, South Carolina, which is a pretty big city, to a town of less than 5,000 people. Financially, I’ve been able to save a lot of money because things are cheaper, but there have been some trade-offs.”

In my case, the trade-offs were minimal. The benefits, on the other hand — a stronger relationship with my parents, the opportunity to participate in community arts organizations, the ability to significantly increase my net worth — were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that my move to Cedar Rapids was the best $5,929.10 I’ve ever spent.It’s not just me. According to the Pew Research Center, 22% of American adults have either moved or know someone who moved because of the coronavirus, many of them being young adults leaving bigger cities. A Brookings Institution report indicates that this trend actually predates the coronavirus, and that we are in the middle of “a longer-term, national dispersal away from large metropolitan area populations.”

Does that mean leaving the big city behind is the right move for you? Well… maybe. It was definitely the right choice for me, but that doesn’t mean you’ll take to smaller-city life quite as easily. Before you, your partner and/or kids pack up for the promise of a more spacious and affordable life in a smaller city or town, it’s worth taking the time to do a little research — and to ask yourself a few key questions.

In this article:

Research how much you might save — and how much it might cost you

It’s often less expensive to live in a small town — moving to Cedar Rapids meant paying half as much rent as I was paying in Seattle, for example — but your newly reduced cost-of-living might come at a cost. “Moving from the city [to a small town] will reduce your earning potential,” Lawrence Gonzalez, government auditor and founder of The Neighborhood Finance Guy, says. Pay rates can differ by region and by individual location, and it might be unrealistic to assume that you’ll still earn your big-city salary when you take a new job in a smaller town.

Likewise, smaller towns may simply have fewer jobs available — and if you don’t already have a job lined up, you might not be able to find a new one right away. On the plus side, living in a smaller town might help you advance in your career more quickly. “You could have been a small fish in an ocean,” Gonzalez says, “but you might end up being the biggest fish in a pond.”

Luckily, you can do the math prior to making such a big decision. Before you commit to leaving the big city behind, use resources like Glassdoor and Salary.com to compare salaries in your industry by location. Check job boards for the towns you’re considering to make sure there are opportunities for people at your skill level. Then, use Best Places’ Cost of Living Calculator to see exactly how much money you might be saving by moving from a large city to a less-populated location. If I were moving from Seattle to Cedar Rapids today, for example, I could expect to cut my cost of living by 56.2% — and, because I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2012, I’m able to take my job (and its accompanying annual earnings) with me.

If you also freelance or work remotely, moving to a smaller town or city might give you the benefits of low-cost living without the corresponding reduction in salary. If you don’t currently work from home, you might be able to secure a remote job before you move — or ask your boss if they’d be interested in keeping you as a remote employee. “The good news is that, given the evolution of modern technology and the increase in remote work spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, more companies are willing to accept remote employees than ever before,” Sean Messier, associate editor at Credit Card Insider, explains. “If you can score a position working remotely, you may be able to secure a relatively high salary while living in a generally low-salary region.”

“You could have been a small fish in an ocean. But you might end up being the biggest fish in a pond ...”

—Lawrence Gonzalez, government auditor and founder of The Neighborhood Finance Guy

Know what you’re getting into — and whether you’ll have family to help

I grew up in rural Missouri, so I was already very familiar with both small-town culture and Midwest culture. After I graduated from college, my parents moved to Mount Vernon, Iowa (a college town just outside of Cedar Rapids), so I was also very familiar with the Cedar Rapids area before I moved there. If I hadn’t known Cedar Rapids — and if I hadn’t known that my parents would be a 20-minute drive away — I probably wouldn’t have made the move.

Lake and her ex-husband also factored familiarity and family into their moving decision. “I had visited [my ex-husband’s hometown] several times and met his family. Since I had no family close by, it seemed like a good option.”

If you have a good relationship with your family, there can be a lot of benefits to “moving back home,” as it were: you can spend more time with the people you care about, you can help your parents or in-laws as they age, and you can share resources or even create a multigenerational household. Plus, moving to be closer to family can help busy parents to solve the childcare equation — assuming the grandparents, aunts or uncles are happy to babysit, of course.

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Prepare for a culture shift

Knowing what you’re getting into before you move will often make the process go more smoothly — but even if you’re already familiar with the area or have been visiting family members there for years, you should still be prepared for a culture shift, if not outright shock. Lake, for example, was surprised by just how tightly-knit small-town living could be. “Everyone knows everyone and their family all the way back to their great-great-great-grandparents,” she told us. “On the one hand, that’s good because people here are always willing to help if you need anything. On the other hand, everybody knows everybody’s business most of the time — and if they don’t know it, their neighbor or cousin or whoever will fill them in pretty quickly.”

Moving to a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business is one thing; moving to a town where nobody looks like your family — or where everybody looks like your family — is another. Researching a new town or city’s demographics, which you can easily do through Data USA or even Wikipedia, can be just as important as researching the cost of living. “I would definitely encourage people to consider what kind of fish bowl they’re moving to when transitioning from a bigger city to a smaller one,” Lake says. “If you want an inclusive environment, then small towns don’t always offer that.”

That said, don’t assume that living in a city with a diverse population will ensure that your children grow up in a diverse or inclusive community. “Though on the surface a big city like New York City or DC seems diverse, most of the time people disperse back to very segregated areas,” Gonzalez explains. “Riding the metro in DC is a perfect example. I start off at the Largo Town Center metro (90% Black) and end up in Tysons Corner (90% white); in between, the groups commingle for work. On top of that, there is socio-economic class at play.”

Gonzalez, who is Haitian-American, also acknowledges the struggle of raising children of color in a town with limited demographic diversity. “Smaller towns are stuck in a uniquely challenging scenario for minorities since there are less people that look like them.” If you are raising white children in a predominantly white area, you also need to consider what your children might experience as they grow up. “The majority might fit right in, but they are often left with little to no global exposure. Some kids can grow up insensitive to others and even lack the skills to really network outside of their peer group.”

“Consider what kind of fish bowl [you’re] moving to when transitioning from a bigger city to a smaller one. If you want an inclusive environment, then small towns don't always offer that.”

—Rebecca Lake, personal finance expert and blogger at Boss Single Mama

Ask yourself what you value — and where you’re more likely to find it

“The biggest trade-off with living in a smaller town is that it limits your options for certain things,” Lake explains. “I live in a small town that has literally one main street. We just don’t have the shopping, restaurants, entertainment or recreation options that bigger towns do.” When Lake wants to take her kids to the movies or to a bookstore, she has to drive the family to the next town over — which is a 45-minute trip each way.

Before you decide to relocate, Messier suggests asking yourself how you and your family like to spend your free time, and whether you’ll be able to enjoy those hobbies and pastimes in a smaller town. “A lot of small-town entertainment involves being outside — hiking, sports, and that kind of thing — which is great if you’re into it. But if you’re into arts and culture, you’ll likely be driving quite a bit for the sake of entertainment, and the cost of travel can add up quickly.”

To be fair, some small towns and cities have a lot of arts and culture — one of the reasons I moved to Cedar Rapids was because it had a symphony orchestra, multiple community theatres and was a touring destination for all kinds of musicians, comedians and Broadway shows — but it’s still worth considering whether the area you’re considering supports the life you want to live. Not just in terms of entertainment and hobbies, but also in terms of values.

For some people, moving to a small town can help them achieve a life goal like homeownership or help them feel more connected to the people around them. “Big cities are filled with a revolving door of people,” Gonzalez explains. “Moving out can lead into more life-focused stability i.e. homeownership, family, etc.” For other people, small-town life can feel isolating — especially if the location is not racially, socially or culturally diverse. Ask yourself whether you really want to transition your family from a city where you can take public transportation to a new neighborhood, restaurant or museum, for example, to a smaller town where everyone drives their own car and the biggest destination is a big-box store. In some cases, a larger city might actually provide more of a sense of community.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to move from the big city to a small town comes down to asking yourself what you want out of life, where you’re most likely to find it, and which trade-offs you’re willing to make. “If you’re thinking of leaving the big city behind, ask yourself why you want to do it and what you’re hoping to get out of your experience,” Lake advises. “At the same time, consider what you might be sacrificing in the process as well.”

After growing up in the Midwest and spending ten years of my life living in big cities, I knew that I could only build the kind of life I really wanted in a smaller town. That’s why I moved from Seattle to Cedar Rapids — and why I’m currently in the process of moving from Cedar Rapids to nearby Quincy, Illinois (population 40,042) so I can buy my first home. I’m hoping this move will provide similar benefits as my move to Cedar Rapids, and if all goes well, it should put me on the right path to achieve the financial and personal goals I’d like to work towards over the next five years.

What about you? Where would you like to see yourself in the next few years — and will you be able to make that happen where you’re currently living? If not, it might be time to consider the pros and cons of a move.

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About Nicole Dieker

Nicole Dieker has been a full-time freelance writer since 2012, with a focus on personal finance and habit formation. In addition to Haven Life, her work regularly appears at Lifehacker, Bankrate, CreditCards.com, and Vox. Dieker spent five years as a writer and editor for The Billfold, a personal finance blog where people had honest conversations about money, and is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales.

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