You don’t have to live in San Francisco
“What will you eat out there? Is there any food? Do they have GrubHub? Do you just hunt?” – actual quote from a friend in San Francisco when we told them about our move back to my hometown of Kansas City.
As it turns out, there is food in Kansas City. A large amount of great food offered by many restaurants. grocery stores, local shops, and farmers markets. But the comment highlights a block in some minds. That there are only a few places in the world where it is desirable to live and that number is very small: New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo, etc. If you live in some mid-sized city in flyover country you might as well be dead. You probably will be dead once you starve or the roaming packs of wolves and buffalo herds (this is an actual fear expressed by a friend of ours in NYC) get you!
When putting together our plan for financial independence we noticed something big staring us in the face. We could cut back on many expenses, but the price of our house was always going to be a huge problem. Even with all our optimizations, we were still going to have to pay almost $6000 a month in interest, principal, property tax, and homeowners insurance. Sure we could rent, but even renting a similar place would cost almost $4k per month. Staying in the Bay Area was adding a decade or more to our timeline – almost all due to housing.
Places like San Francisco are expensive but they’re VERY EXPENSIVE in a particular way: housing. Everything else can run you a little more, but if you’re careful you can save in interesting ways. Groceries at Costco cost about the same in SF as they do in Nebraska. Gas costs a bundle in California, but you can cut back on driving or eliminate it altogether. A new cell phone is the same price anywhere. Amazon’s prices are identical wherever you go. A Netflix subscription is a flat $10. But housing costs swing dramatically between cities in terms of affordability. Check out this Trulia heat map to get a sense of just how wild the swings can be. Or better yet let’s look at some examples!
A house similar to ours selling in the bay area for $1.3M
And here’s what you can get in Johnson Co, KS for a little bit less:
Many people living in expensive cities think it is a binary option. You live in NYC/San Francisco or you live in a dusty village with the occasional tumbleweed blowing through. I’m here to tell you that this is not the case. There are many vibrant, cosmopolitan, and cultured cities across the world that are not havens for the wealthy. Places where normal folks actually can lead a decent life. I’m here to tell you that if you’re currently living in some expensive city – YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LIVE THERE! YOU CAN GET OUT!
However, there are a number of concerns that are often expressed by people like our friend above – beyond the ability to kill wild game for food or the danger of being eaten by wolves and trampled by buffalo. Somewhat more legitimate concerns but not by much. Let’s deal with them one at a time.
“But what about your kids, where will they go to school? Are you sacrificing their future because you want to save a bit of money by moving to (insert smaller city name here)?”
This is wrong. I’ll simply whip out my own background here. I graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, top 5% of my class at Stanford Business School, and I went to public schools my entire life in a town outside of Kansas City. When I first arrived at college I found that I was actually more prepared than most of my classmates from much fancier and more expensive areas and schools. There are good schools with good teachers in most towns in America. But more importantly, your kids will always have you – the ultimate teacher, and if you manage to free yourself early they’ll have a lot more of you!
“But there are no jobs in (insert smaller city here)? What will you do? What opportunities will you or your children have?”
It turns out that this concern is also wrong. There will actually be more startups in the Midwest than in Silicon Valley in five years. And a bunch of cities in Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, Kansas, and North Dakota are leading the country in startup formation. And it also turns out that unemployment isn’t skyrocketing in the great plains. Basically, there is and always will be plenty of opportunity for highly motivated people wherever they find themselves.
“But won’t you miss Broadway Musicals? Or the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art)? Or the Local Art Fairs? Or …”
No, I don’t think we will since we had exactly zero time in the last few years for any of these. But if you actually have a bit more time than us right now this could be important. But once again this is completely wrong! I’ll use Kansas City again because I’m most familiar with it, but this stuff exists in almost any mid-sized town.
Theater – Turns out they have it! There are great shows showing for pennies compared to their New York counterparts. Sure it might be a couple years before they get Hamilton, but I think that’s a price I’m willing to pay. It also has great local productions by some very talented local actors.
Art – Turns out the local art gallery is pretty awesome with amazing cultural exhibits and it’s also FREE. Plus there are great local art fairs almost every week in the summer.
Farmers Markets and other Millennial Accouterments
“But what about food? Where will you find healthy alternatives? AND WHAT IF YOU CAN’T FIND ANY ORGANIC QUINOA!?!?”
So we don’t give a shit about organic Quinoa. But we do like healthy food, and we actually do a lot of farming in the Midwest. It’s kind of our thing. And there are a ton of awesome farmers markets that you can take advantage of in almost any city. Here’s the list for Kansas City.
“But what if you can’t find any similar minded people? Or any diversity?”
I always find it somewhat strange that these two questions are often combined in the same breath. I’m pretty sure ‘similar minded people’ means coastal liberal. The Grizzlies are college folk living in SF, so I’d be lying to say we don’t tilt a little to the left on some issues. But I grew up hanging out in a Civil Air Patrol unit, cut my teeth on high-school football and JROTC, joined the army, and have tons of friends and relatives that tilt a little bit to very far to the right. I actually think it will be good for us and for our daughter to get exposed to as many different opinions as possible. And I think we as a country could do with a little more mixing of these viewpoints.
I think this is the first valid concern on the list. If your entire social network and family are tied up in some expensive city it can be tough to leave. Mrs. Grizzly is in this situation herself. Her family is here in San Francisco. This is hard, and I won’t try to minimize the difficulty of this decision. We ultimately made the call to move. We can take long trips back to California over the summer. Her parents can come back to Kansas and stay for long stretches with us. But this is a very tough call that will involve some heavy soul-searching.
But you have it easy! You have family and friends in Kansas City!
This is also a valid concern. We have a safe haven in a less expensive area, one that both my wife and I know well. Moving to a new area can be both challenging and difficult. I had to go through it a few times while I was in the Army. If we didn’t have Kansas City we would most likely be building a short list of attractive cities on the west coast or in the mountain west. Our biggest hope is that once we reach financial independence we’ll actually have more time to meet people and make new friends so even if we moved to place where we knew no one we would be okay!
So there it is. Every argument that I can think of against making this change. Ultimately, we believe it will be one of the least risky decisions we’ve ever made.
Right on point Mr. And Mrs. Grizzly. It’s amazing when I hear the rents my east coast friends and family pay. Money just goes much farther in the Midwest.
The idea that there aren’t opportunities in the Midwest is simply crazy. Here in Minnesota for example, we have an usually high number of fortune 500 companies, hospitals, schools, etx, so there are plenty of jobs.
I have a ton of friends who simply refuse to even consider the Midwest for anything, even though they have no particular reason to stay on the coasts. To them, it’s all about the “prestige” of living in a city like DC, NY, SC, etc, and going anywhere else simply isn’t possible. Or they say a state like Minnesota is simply too cold.
Those are a couple that I forgot! Prestige and ‘it’s too cold!’ I’ll have to add them. I actually feel really blessed that I did grow up in the midwest and spent time in the army. It gave me a perspective on these places on the coasts – you can actually see that these places are bonkers!
Your points are valid. I grew up in a homogeneous town of 13,000 in Indiana but thanks to my Dad’s extra time at home as a schoolteacher with summers off, he found me internships with local professionals, helped find me college credit summer programs and the local Rotary Club and Lions Club to sponsor study abroad, and in general my parents used every last penny toward our education. I graduated summa cum laude from Wellesley where I too found the kids from private schools thought they were better prepared, but as my favorite history professor pointed out everything equalizes by your second year.
We moved from NYC to Arizona. Housing is not that much cheaper for us to live near work, but for the price of a tiny 2 bedroom 4th floor walk-up apartment in a not so safe area, we have a beautiful home where we can actually enjoy ourselves and entertain friends, ride our bikes to the grocery store and have a 10 minute work commute. For food here and in any flyover state you can get to know local farmers/ranchers and buy directly from them or grow your own. We pick citrus at a local retirement home that helps the residents save on gardening and we get free oranges, lemons and grapefruit. We also get Azure Standard truck deliveries which is like a bulk coop for people who cook from scratch. And for the things that are hard to get in the desert like raw cream and cheeses an Amish farm in PA delivers to us 3 times a year.
Kansas will be great!
I love the coastal thoughts on the interior of the U.S. I grew up in the town next to Princeton, Pennington. Side bar if you remember the Presbyterian church adjacent to the University campus on Nassau St (I believe it is Nassau), my mom was the business manager there for a long time. Anywho…when I decided to head west for college the shock and horror was astounding. Some actually think electricity is sporadic once you get west of Pittsburgh.
As for the cultural events you will magically miss due to not living in a tier 1 city, I would like to throw out a casual reminder that you can in fact hop on a Southwest airplane from K.C and many other cities and fly non-stop to the cultural hub of your choice very affordably and catch a show. This could be done monthly, and STILL cost less than your 6k a month housing habit you have now while also adding in the expense of the housing in mid-America.
My question. What are the reasons you are not looking for new jobs in the KC area now? Surely the income decrease coupled with the housing cost decrease more than equal out. I guess what I am suggesting is, yes you earn more in S.F but in K.C or Denver those jobs will pay perhaps 10% less while housing in K.C will cost 60% less or more for lodging of equal size, neighborhood etc. Perhaps no bay view though.
Their is a chance you could score a job that understands they rent your time and not own your soul, therefore adding some enjoyment to going to work that mitigates the desire to quit entirely. Remove the financial stress and working because you don’t need the money and/or your spouse does not think it is a good idea you stay home all day could possibly be quite rewarding.
Great points. As a Canadian following your blog we have some different challenges to overcome but essentially most of your points are bang on. We live in a “rich” province (state) and one of the most expensive cities in the country. However no more than 45 minutes away from the edge of our city are beautiful towns that have amazing homes and *gasp* electricity, food, AND running water. Not to mention access to great schools, distilleries, one of the most highly acclaimed restaurants around (you have to book a minimum of three weeks ahead of time and it’s an hour drive outside of the city. Packed house every night.), and local art galleries. And houses cost $50,000-$100,000 or more less than in the city.
The difference in perspectives is so interesting; my cousin moved away from her hometown because she wanted to live in the “Big City” of Kansas City! It’s funny to think of people considering KC the middle of nowhere! I agree that finding a low cost of living city is key to retirement; it’s probably the most important aspect of our early retirement plan. Your decision to move to reach retirement is really admirable; many would not be willing to take that step. I’m impressed!
Haha! Yes the difference in perspective is pretty interesting. And agree, I think there can be a case made for living in a place like SF/NYC for a very short period of time while you’re single or DINKs to accumulate a ton of assets fast. But you have to
1. live smartly while you do that
2. Maintain your ability to get out
Really enjoyed this one -infact you sold KC so well, I am half thinking about relocating our family there from Australia 🙂
I grew up in AZ and moved to the bay area with my dad’s job. Been here for 20 years and my husband and I have had no real plans to leave, but the longer we are here the more we want to go (most likely to Oregon, where we have family). We visited my brother in KC last year (my first time) and I loved it. The coasts have no idea of the culture of these river and railroad founded cities. Chicago gets some attention, but St Louis, KC, Indianapolis, etc all have great food, fine architecture, great history, etc. Love this perspective and good luck in KC!
I know! It’s just so surprising when I hear people talk about it in NYC/SF. I feel we’re actually really blessed in that we’ve seen both sides of the world and we know that the expensive one isn’t actually that much better.
Thanks for writing this! It addresses everything in my last comment. It’s nice having ignorance exposed ???? Like you said above you should add “it’s too cold” to the list
There are tons of places in CA which are not prime work hubs that can be relatively cheaper and make sense if you are retired (because of no commute). Livermore, San Ramon, Sant Cruz, Morgan Hill are few that I like.
This is a great attitude and one that it has taken me a while to get over myself. What do most people do besides work all day and night, do kid stuff, and get their to-do lists done? Many of the people who say this do not even take part in the cultural activities that their city has to offer. I used to get sucked into that logic but then I learned… Life is what you make it. Kind of the equivalent of when parents say to kids who whine about “being bored”… “only boring people are bored”. 🙂
Couldn’t agree more! When my wife and I lived in this little town on the Kansas Prairie when I was in the Army we still found things to do. It’s easy if you actually look for things.
Wow, sounds like Kentucky could be your go to place!! Throw some chickens into the mix and we have it all:)!!
Really, you have put into words what we have been living…or trying to…lots to talk about when we visit!!
That’s awesome! And we definitely want chickens!