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Living in a Small Town // Good for Finances, But Not for Everything

happy wednesday, friends! gotta confess… we felt a little nervous publishing monday’s post. on some level it felt deeply unromantic to talk about divorce at all, let along talking about how it could sink a couple’s well-laid early retirement plans (or even “regular” retirement plans, for that matter). but we’ve been heartened by your response, and encourage you to share the post if it resonated with you. it’s so true that not enough people in pf are talking about the topic, so let’s change that!

now onto another subject: small town living.

we’ve mentioned many times that we live in a small town, and very deliberately moved here as a part of our early retirement plans. while we for sure could have still saved for retirement in the expensive city we came from, it would have taken longer, and we wouldn’t have had the lifestyle we wanted. so for us it was a lifestyle move: we wanted a house, not the condo we had in the city (which, by the way, cost about $100K more than the house we bought in the mountains!), and we wanted to be able to walk out our front door and be in the mountains, rather than battling traffic and driving several hours to be in the mountains. and we’re happy living in our small mountain town, though we still get a lot of fully paid-for travel to cities through work… part of us wonders if we’ll feel the same way once we’re done working and the small town is all we have. time will reveal all.

related post: should you move to a small town to retire?

but for those of you who have wondered what it might be like to leave the city and retire someplace smaller, here’s our take on the good and the bad of small town living, coming from a decidedly city-dweller perspective:

the good

cheaper housing — while we wouldn’t exactly call housing in our town “cheap,” it’s far cheaper than the cities in the region, as in, you can get a house here for the price of a condo in most of the cities. and our town is a ski town, so that drives the price up more than you’d see in a regular, ol’ small town.

less temptation to spend — we have, like, zero chain stores in our town. the boutiques we have cater mostly to tourists. it’s easy to spend on outdoor gear like skis and bike components, as we have tons of sports stores, but hard to spend on just about everything else, including dining out, since there just aren’t a lot of restaurants to choose from compared to the city.

life is slower — if you’re an aggressive driver, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb in a small town. same goes if you feel the need to barrel down the sidewalk. people just aren’t in as much of a hurry, unless they are mid-triathlon. we completely love this fact, especially after more than a decade of go-go-go city living.

easier social life — there is definitely a casualness about social interactions that makes things easier in our small town. people extend last minute invites for dinner or game night, and we often bump into our friends in the little downtown. back in the city, we’d have to plan for weeks — sometimes months — to be able to get together with even our closest friends.

groundedness and simplicity are the norm — most people who choose to move to a small town these days do so deliberately. they want to lead simpler, more grounded lives. they want to get away from all the busy-busy-busy, overly complicated, ego-first influence of many cities. it’s a lot like the urban homestead movement, but with an actual uprooting. doing things yourself instead of hiring work out is the norm here, and few people seem to think of themselves as “above” certain work. maybe the particular city we moved from wasn’t especially known for its “realness,” but where we live now is a big contrast to that in a good way.

it feels a lot safer — we’re believers that most places that seem “unsafe” only seem that way. a lot of people think crime in the u.s. is at an all-time high, but it’s actually at a record low. but in any case, life in small towns sure feels safer. most people we know never lock their doors. even when they go on vacation! we’re not quite to that point, but love knowing that if we accidentally left the car unlocked, nothing bad will happen. (except a bear might get into it — this is the best reason to keep cars and homes locked!)

careers don’t define us — we’re pretty sure that not a single one of our friends could tell you what we do for work. and since we don’t see our careers as our defining factors, and want out of them as soon as possible, we’re cool with this. people care much more about what we do for fun (“do you ski or snowboard?” “do you mountain bike? hard tail or full suspension?”) and where we live (for ease of hanging out) than they do about how we afford our mountain lifestyle.

the bad

no transit — our town has one bus, and it runs a few times a day between town and the ski resorts. completely unhelpful for us. we’re stuck using a car most of the year, and a bike sometimes in the summer. we miss the trains and even the buses in the city.

some things are more expensive — utilities, for one. natural gas costs a fortune. and groceries, too. we call it the mountain tax. it’s a good thing there’s less temptation to spend, because the things you do buy are going to cost a lot more than the same stuff in a bigger town.

it’s impossible to be anonymous — we all know this feeling, right? sometimes we just want to go do something and not know anybody, and not talk to anyone. in a small town, this will never, ever happen. you have to be prepared to be friendly and social all the time.

businesses don’t need your business — contractors are in short supply in many small towns, especially the ones that are thriving and building new homes. in the city, any contractor we called would call us back and get us a bid right away. in the mountains, we sometimes have to call as many as seven or eight companies to get one call back. i am not exaggerating. it gets exhausting to feel like no one wants your business. and just pray your pipes never freeze, because good luck finding someone who is willing to come out on an emergency basis.

organizations can be… interesting — people who are driven in their careers and have natural leadership skills do not leave the city and move to small towns. (we’d like to think that we’re an exception to this, but we still have our city jobs.) the people who do move to small towns often don’t have the kind of traditional job experience that might translate into being able to keep a meeting on track or being able to lead a group in a way that’s motivating to everyone. needless to say, some of our experiences volunteering with local nonprofits have been… interesting. we’d like to volunteer a lot in retirement, so we’re still wrestling with how to do this with orgs that might otherwise frustrate the pants off of us. stay tuned.

everything closes early — if we get home from business travel at 9 at night and want to grab take-out, we’re out of luck. while that’s good for our wallets, sometimes we just don’t want to cook. but if you want to eat, you cook.

you can’t get everything you need — we think our small town kicks ass, and offers a pretty incredible range of services for its size, but we for sure can’t get everything there. some things we have to get from the town whose airport we use for work travel, but we also keep a running list of things we need the next time we’re in a “real” city. thankfully, with us barely shopping these days, this list stays short, but you do have to plan ahead for some things in ways we never appreciated when we lived in big cities with 24-hour everything.

that small-town mentality is real, too — our town is one of the most progressive small towns we’ve ever known, but there is plenty of that narrow-minded thinking here, too. we just try not to focus on it.

have you considered relocating to a small town? what are the pros and cons that you see? anyone leave a small town for the city, and never look back? we’d love to hear your perspective, too.

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42 replies »

  1. Absolutely, I have always considered relocating to a small town! I think your “careers don’t define us” in the ‘good’ category sums it up for me. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear that the first question someone asks you isn’t “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” Where in some instances if you have a non-traditional job you may be frowned upon, and if you have a traditional job it’s glorified. I think small town living entices me because I have grown up living in big cities, or at least directly adjacent to a big city with ease of access. Small town living may be the most glorious thing ever, or it may be a huge shock to the system – only time will tell in that aspect if we ever consider relocating! I think one of the major pros of living in a big city for me is the diversity & opportunity aspect. It seems there are always events & groups that collaborate together to create new things whether it’s business ideas, unification of the city, revitalization, strengthening the economy, conserving nature, etc. Very interesting points to both aspects of living!

    • You’re so right about diversity and opportunity! I didn’t mention the diversity part, but our town now is super undiverse. It’s really a hard thing for us to adjust to! And just the energy that goes along with cities — you trade that for a slower pace when you move to a small pace!

  2. Interesting! I gotta admit that when I think of small towns, my thoughts are primarily positive in nature because my wife and I are definitely more comfortable in that kind of environment (the RV living, I think, will confirm that for us!). But, I never thought about the issue with calling contractors or otherwise doing business with organizations that flat out don’t need your business. I had no idea that was such a problem.

    Tucson is about the smallest town that I’ve lived in – at least recently. The metro area has about a million people, so as you can see, not exactly “small” in the traditional sense, but we do tend to keep to our own area. In CA, I lived in Monterey, Morgan Hill and Fairfield as a child, and from what I remember of those cities, they were on the smaller side too. Now, though, I’m sure they are much, much larger.

    Like I mentioned, I think living in an RV will test our ability to live within the “small town” feel to the extreme, as we will be out in the elements a lot. Not too many inner-city campgrounds (though they do exist), so we’ll get to plan our excursions into civilization when we feel like we need it.

    If I had a choice, a small mountain town, or a small surf town near the ocean, would be where I’d prefer to settle down and live – even with the stipulation that it might take several weeks to get a contractor out to our place! :)

    • I think you’re right that you’ll definitely get a feel for the small town vibe when you guys are RVing — though you won’t be such a “known quantity,” which could be a good thing. And you’re right — we’re still happy with where we are, even though no one ever wants to take our money for services! :-) And maybe one day, when we get sick of the cold, we’ll trade our mountain town for a little surf town… I like your thinking!

  3. Interesting. Much the same especially getting anyone to do any work out here. I got a quote on an alarm system that included a fee for travel that cost more than the entire alarm system. (We were after the remote monitoring not the theft protection so much.) Your small town sounds like our nearest city though. Our small town is 75 people, a small general store where food is typically 60% higher in cost, a restaurant that is open when the owner feels like it and serves hamburgers for the same price as a fine meal in the city, a post office and a school. The next small town which is a resort town has all amenities at a very high cost and it is a 35 minute drive away. The nearest city is an hour and half drive. Most things out here are cheaper. Our taxes are less in a year that we were paying in the city each month. Same thing with our water bill. Internet is triple and we have a 100g/month limit. Cell phone service does not work. No cable TV. You need to get out to town to use a cell phone. But the pros still outweigh the cons. We have never been happier than in this little house in the country.

    • I’m so glad you’re happy in your very small town! You’re right — our town sounds more like your nearby resort town. We have two supermarkets, for example, to give a sense of size. And we have cable and cell service, though a TV antenna won’t pick up any broadcast signals because of the mountains. :-)

  4. I grew up in a small town of about 2,000 (yes I’ve definitely made quite the jump from that to NYC). Because of that you live I probably would consider a small city if you have a downtown – about how many people live there? Small towns have their pros and cons, but eventually I want to move to the suburbs of a small city. I want to be able to walk or ride my bike into town, but still have a little bit of land and sense of community.

    • I grew up in what I think of as a small city — about 100,000 people. Our town now is small — about 15,000 — but feels bigger in some ways because the tourist industry provides enough services for both the residents and visitors. And when I say “downtown,” I really just mean the strip of shops along the railroad track. Our small town main street. :-)

  5. We’re looking to relocate from Houston to a small’ish town. Roanoke is about 300k, but it has some awesome little towns around it. Salem, Cave Springs, Troutdale, and the like which seem more in tune with the size we’re looking for. Also, wanting a few acres definitely puts us outside of Roanoke. We have had the discussion, “Is Roanoke going to be too big for what we want?” It probably would be, but the surrounding towns seem about right.
    While being social a lot might seem exhausting at times, we’re looking to find someplace with more of that sense of community. Maybe not where everyone knows your name, but enough people that you see someone you know when you go out. Hopefully the kids activities will help with that too, but I’m looking forward to small(er) town living.

    • That’s great that you’ve IDed some smaller target towns outside Roanake that could work for you. Since we don’t have kids, I didn’t mention the school side of things, but that would be a very real concern if we had kids. Our town has two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school, none of which are especially renowned. Don’t like them? Too bad. There’s one tiny charter school at the high school level that’s super selective, but small towns don’t give you the school options that bigger places offer!

      • That has been a big killer, 3 Sisters for instance has some great properties that would fit us well, but the schools are rated 3-5 out of 10… I Figure we’ll be supplementing a lot at home, but man. Compared to Bend, where most schools are 7 or higher out of 10. Just one example, but we’ve even come across it in the towns outside of Roanoke area. It definitely changes your parameters.

  6. We used to discuss finding a new place to live closer to the city to help with my work-commute time. Now that we’re on the path to early semi-retirement, we’re looking at more rural destinations so we can start a small homestead. The school system is an issue, but there are more options since we are no worried about being close to the city.

    • Isn’t it interesting how things change when you get FI in your sights? Moving to the mountains has definitely NOT been ideal from a career perspective, but we no longer care. The school district question is for sure a big one, but you’re so right — you can have lots of choices if you don’t care about things like commute times!

  7. I never considered myself to be much of a small town kind of guy. I also hate the big city – I’m more of a “tweener” when it comes to how busy a location is that I’m comfortable with.

    However, our family recently took a vacation in a very small town in the middle of nowhere in eastern Tennessee and I have to say that I really loved it. I actually told my wife that I could see myself retiring there.

    I don’t think I could do it now, but maybe once I’m done with my career and am able to slow down a little, a small town might not be a bad fit for our family.

    — Jim

    • It’s so interesting to know how different people identify with cities or small towns or something in between. We’re kind of the city-or-small-town-but-nothing-in-between types. :-) It’s cool that you found a town that you could see yourself in. Will be interesting what you decide to do once you retire!

  8. I’m recognizing the differences between city and small-town, it’s the same in the Netherlands. About the charities: perhaps you can also get long-distance charity opportunities, where you’ll only fly in once a year or so and volunteer from home mostly?

    • I always love knowing if things are similar in other countries or not, so thanks for that info! It’s a good idea to do some charitable work from a distance. And, who knows — maybe we’ll start our own charity! :-)

  9. I’ve lived half of my life in a big city in Texas and half in a small city in Montana (which I often call a town because it has that “small-town feel”). It took a while to adjust, but I don’t see myself going back to living in a big city. While there are a lot of advantages to living in a big city, I enjoy the slower pace and the lack of traffic my smaller city has to offer. I could, however, see us moving somewhere AROUND a big city. That way we get the small-town feel for our every day and yet have the option of cheaper flights and an IKEA.* ;)

    *side note: While I probably wouldn’t shop at IKEA, that’s the store SO many people here feel they’re deprived of. The closest IKEA is in Denver. And yes, I know people who will actually make the drive. Consumer dedication at it’s finest.

    • Haha — We have for sure owned our fair share of Ikea furniture, but we consider it a mark of adulthood that we now refuse to buy it if we need something new. :-) But I understand!

      I think small city is a nice compromise between big city and small town. :-)

  10. We live in a huge suburb just outside of a major city, but my family has a cottage in a teeny town in Wisconsin. It is the best breath of fresh air. We are so lucky to be able to retreat there on some weekends. Just a few years back, a Walgreens opened. That’s the only chain store. :) Mr. P and I talk about living there permanently, but the commute to get to a school would be quite lengthy (assuming there were openings) – and public education is taking a beating in that state at the moment.

    • The remoteness can definitely make small town living a challenge. We managed to find one that’s close to larger cities, because we don’t think we could live somewhere that’s far from everything. It’s definitely an important factor to consider!

  11. I love your take on the small town. We’ve actually found that Anchorage has a lot of the benefits of both a small town and a big city. We have all the amenities of a big city, but there’s definitely a small town feel. We don’t have traffic, the “outdoors” are steps away, and you run into people you know all the time. It’s unlike any other place we’ve been and we sort of struggle discussing where we would want to move if we did move. We both grew up in the Burbs, but now we get all stressed out about the people and the traffic. Too many people! But we like having the amenities available in a city. And now I really want to come visit! :)

  12. Is there good medical care in your town? This was one of our worries when we thought about moving too far away from a major city. We are only 28 & 29, but being in the medical field, health care is always on our mind. How far away is the nearest proficient major hospital? With my grandpa like driving I would fit right in :-)

    • Great question! We actually have a sizeable hospital here because our town serves a large rural area. Because it’s a ski town, their main focus is trauma center, but they also have a cancer center, ER, most specialties. That was important to us!

  13. We too live in a smallish town, but with one big blessing – a public university. I love having the uni here, because of all the services it offers – the coop extension, free lectures/ events, cheap movies, etc. My number one complaint about small town living is transit. Like your town, our city buses suck. Our town is also over 200 years old, so all the streets are narrow … so bad for biking.

    I do love the sense of community though, especially among townies. In one of our friends neighborhoods, each Friday night one house displays a plastic flamingo in the front yard, and that’s the house where the gathering is for the night. Potluck, drinks, and good company – so laid back! I love that idea.

    One last thought on small town living – work situation. In our town you either work for the uni or the county, and if you happen to work in a niche market, like me, everyone knows EVERYONE, for better and worse. It makes networking tenuous.

    • I LOVE the idea of the flamingo out front! I wonder if we can talk our neighbors into that? ;-)

      I’m surprised you don’t have better buses because of the university! And no good bike infrastructure. Those seem like prereqs for a university town.

      The work situation is for sure tough. We could not have moved here when we did if we weren’t able to bring our jobs with us. I can only imagine how tough that must be, if you want to change jobs — everyone will know what you’re up to! Thank goodness you have a good job!

  14. OMG I just wrote the longest comment and wordpress ate it :( I’ll try to summarize: I really like my 100000-person small midwestern city. What it lacks in easy hiking (too flat around here!) and access to my best friends and family, it makes up for in COL, zero traffic, no restaurants that make me want to go out and spend money, and a good community of local friends. It is also racially diverse and has a religious community I vibe with, and both those things are very important to me. I do worry that over time my social circle will be less strong because university towns tend to have a lot of churn.

    • Ugh — I’m sorry! If it makes you feel any better, the same thing happened to me earlier when trying to comment on your PPO vs HDP math breakdown post. Okay, I know that doesn’t make either of us feel better. Technology! :-S

      I’m glad you like where you live, and it gives you the things that are important to you! Racial diversity can be hard to come by in small midwestern cities, so that’s a real plus. (Our town is super white– definitely not our favorite thing about it!) And yeah, zero traffic and low COL are huge pluses, too. Assuming you decide to stay put, it will be interesting to know if the churn ends up being just a broader force that you’re generally aware of, or something that directly impacts your direct social circles.

  15. Interesting break down of the pros and cons of living in a small town. It seems to bring some opportunities in exchange for a manageable number of downsides.

    The fact that you can leverage your skills in small town organisations looks to be more a pro than an con.

    Living in Belgium, the same comparison is possible. That being said, when you live like us in the centre, nothing is farther away than a 2 hour drive. The coast: about 90 minutes, the woods, somewhere between 15 minutes and 2 hours (depends on how wild you want them to be).
    Contractors can come from a town or two further, no problem… Not that they all answer are request for a quote…

    We now live outside a town to have a bigger garden for the kids to play. Once we retire, I actually consider moving the city centre, to have easy by foot access to everything. I guess the final call depends on where friends and family are by then, how far the city has expanded by then. Lets see

    • That all sounds so lovely and convenient. As you probably know, in the U.S., unless you live in the northeast corridor (New York to DC, basically), everything is relatively far away — it’s a big country!

      I could definitely see moving closer to the city center, especially once your girls are a bit older and don’t need the outdoor play space as much. I’m sure being able to walk to most things would be wonderful!

  16. I moved from a big city in Texas to a smaller city in Texas. I absolutely love it. Yes, I can no longer order a pizza to be delivered. Yes, I have gotten used to hearing gunshots often. If I heard gunshots in the city, I’d call the police! I have room to walk (42 acres). Enough projects to keep my out of trouble. And, a fishing pond, horses, cattle, chickens, and dogs to keep me from being lonely.
    I’m a very lucky and blessed girl.
    I would recommend making a contribution to the local fire department. They are usually unpaid and need funds for training/equipment.
    I got stuck recently and the fire chief was kind enough to pull me out.

    • How wonderful that you’ve found a situation that suits you so well! Congrats! I’m thinking that our town is not quite so small as yours (for one thing, we could definitely not afford 40+ acres — we have about .3 acres in a pretty normal subdivision — and we also have a fully professional and paid fire departments. Thank goodness, as this is the wildfire-prone west, and no real fire protection would have been a deal breaker when we were considering moving here!). But it’s a great tip generally — contribute to your local fire, or at least be very, very nice to them. :-)

  17. I love small town living because the crime is gone, folks make eye contact and hold doors, stop in zip for traffic. Real, honest, low or no cost too happens in the small town experience every day.

    • Agree on the cost stuff! Though the other pieces seem to be locality-specific, in our experience. Lots of small towns are warm and friendly… others, notsomuch. ;-)

  18. considering living in small towns does not define the career as a lot of things are expensive, there is no transit, all the shops closes early in small towns etc.

    • Oh yeah, all those concerns are legit! Small town living is not perfect for everyone’s situation!