A Paean to Mid-Sized US Cities
So the Grizzlies recently moved back to the Midwest – Kansas City specifically. Home of The Royals; good BBQ; mid-western values; strangely enough, Robert Heinlein (the Wikipedia page for People from Kansas City is full of awesome folks!), and Grizzly Dad. The city itself has a bunch of nicknames: BBQ Capital of the World, City of Fountains, Jazz Capital of the World, Paris of the Plains, Silicon Prairie. I think most of those are only known to people actually from Kansas City, but we do certainly have a high opinion of our little town.
I obviously have a soft spot in my heart for this little city nestled in the bluffs of the Kansas and Missouri rivers, but I want to go a little broader. I want to give a big round of applause for all the great cities that aren’t New York, San Francisco, or Washington DC. The mid-sized dots sprinkled across our little country that are straight up fantastic places to live, work, and raise a family.
Back when I started this little blog, I wrote a post about living (or not living) in places like San Francisco. A place where $350k gets you a fabulous place like this:
This is real – google “cheapest house in San Francisco”. And that was in 2015, the price has gone up by about 25% since then. Let’s call it an even $400k for this beauty. I talked a lot about the reasons people give for staying in a place like SF: the culture, the restaurants, the kale smoothies, the like-minded liberals. But now that we’ve left the city by the bay I want to talk about the other side. There are a TON of awesome things that we didn’t even expect when we made the move out here. We had some inkling, but it’s better than we could have imagined.
I’m obviously going to focus on the stuff we’ve found in our little corner of this country, but you can find the same stuff in every one of these great little interior cities.
After we bought our new house this is the first thing we realized. Our Neighborhood was awesome. When we moved away from SF we were somewhat worried that we wouldn’t be able to duplicate the life we had in the Bay. From our house we could easily walk to parks, a whole-foods, a few good restaurants, and Baby Bear’s future school was a couple blocks away.
Well, guess what? We found all of that in an immaculate neighboorhood for less than a 1/3rd of the price of our house in SF. We’re about a block away from Baby Bears elementary school, there’s a Price Chopper a 10-minute walk in one direction and a Trader Joes a 15-minute walk in the other. We have counted 5 different great parks for Baby Bear to play in within walking distance (we just found the 5th one last week, so there may be MORE!). If we wanted to drop some money on restaurants (which we usually don’t but out here are about 1/3 the price so why not?!), we could at about 15 or twenty different places but a stone’s throw away.
Our little community has a Homeowners association, often a bane of budgets, but here it costs a whopping $25 a month and gets us an awesome community pool for free (where I taught baby bear to swim), a number of kids events at the local park over the summer, and apparently at least a few block parties throughout the year. I’ll trade $300 for an actual community.
And that’s just our little enclave in the Suburbs. Many of my childless high school friends now live up in a revitalized downtown Kansas City. Neighborhoods like The Crossroads have sprung up in the last few years. Great culture, great restaurant, cool nascent little tech scene all in a place that’s not crowded and is dirt cheap.
Dirt Cheap Houses
I’ll just highlight this again because it’s awesome. What you can buy in places like Kansas City will blow your mind if you’ve only lived in places like NYC. Our new house is energy efficient, almost brand new, and probably bigger than we need but great for hosting parties and visiting relatives. All for a small fraction of what we paid in SF.
Goats and Cows! For Free!
In San Francisco, if you want to do something with your kids (or just by yourself) that’s even a little fun it will cost you. The going rate of admission at various San Francisco Museums or activities is generally one of the children that you want to bring. In the midwest, weirdly enough, cities actually provide things like this for free.
A short drive from our house is an awesome little place called Deanna Rose Farmstead. It’s an amazing experience for kids – petting zoo with tons of different animals, lots of cool non-petting zoo animals (everything from buffalos to bald eagles), great learning activities about farms, animals, history. You can spend a huge amount of time there. Baby Bear loves it.
This is the current price of admission:
And this is baby bear petting some dairy cows (she’s the curly haired one on the right, she was a bit scared):
And that’s just the most cow and goat friendly attraction. If you want to get a little more culture, here’s the current price of admission to the Nelson Atkins Art Museum. Or the price of membership at an awesome community center that’s better than our private gym in SF. Or the awesome public pools in the summer that don’t even exist in San Francisco. In short, there are TONs of things to do with kids (or adults) that cost little to no money. We sort of knew this was true, but the degree is pretty amazing.
I already mentioned that there’s a nascent little KC tech community that’s becoming quite impressive. It’s been pretty interesting to start plugging into it. Last week was Techweek here in KC. Spent some time up there with a number of folks doing many cool things: everything from IoT to Fintech startups. And a very long shot at this point, but apparently a few folks think we might have a shot at the new Amazon HQ2.
Grizzly Mom and I have already determined that we’re not exactly the type of people that can actually ‘retire’, so the future most likely holds interesting things for in the KC startup and tech scene. This is a topic for a very long post from each of us as we think through what we want to do with our time.
This one actually isn’t near Kansas City, but it bears mentioning. We spent about a month back in San Francisco in August. In one month Grizzly Mom and I have now officially doubled the number of trips to wine country we’ve taken in the last 10 years. In San Francisco, we never had the time to take a short one hour drive north. Now that we live someplace a little more normal we can slow down a little bit and actually go on vacation. I expect we will probably exponentially increase the number of cool things we do around San Francisco now that we don’t live there.
Awesome Bike Trails, Even More Planned
When we bought our house we didn’t necessarily optimize it for biking. But it turns out we struck gold. It’s super easy to get around our little neighboorhood on a bike, and only getting better. This is the current pedestrian and bike master plan for our little suburb south of KC, a plan that’s well on its way to being implemented. What is currently an awesome place for walking and biking is getting MUCH better.
A Little Community, a Little Religion
The Grizzlies are probably going to get themselves some religion in the near future. One of our biggest laments in San Francisco was a lack of community, a lack of any organizations tying the community together beyond the tech industry. We’re both what I call lapsed Christians. We both want the same sort of supportive communities we grew up with. Local churches that actually care about the community, support people in the city they call home, actually make a little bit of good in the world. Grizzly Mom was a Catholic, I was a Lutheran/Presbyterian.
We’ve been talking to folks around here and shopping for churches and there are a ton. Some folks might scoff at that, make some comments about backward religion. But for us, it’s an unmitigated positive. It means there are actually community ties in this place. There are buildings whose sole purpose is to bring folks together, not to make money, not to build widgets. Places where you can host a boy/girl scout troop. Places where you can have a pot-luck dinner. Places where your kids can have Christmas pageants.
Come on Out, the Towns are Great
So if you’re working 80 hour weeks to afford your small apartment in NYC or San Francisco, if you never see your kids after you get off work, if you just spent $300 on dinner at a hip new restaurant in the Mission, I have a suggestion for you even if you’re not on the path to early retirement.
Find a company out here in the heartland looking to hire some great people (I’ve talked to 10 in KC in the last week alone). Apply, and ask them to bring you out to one of these little gems in flyover country. Once you get here, spend some time browsing Zillow, walk through some of the newly revitalized downtowns, bike around some neighborhoods, walk through some art galleries, maybe even go to a church service. See if living the life you live right now is worth it for a slightly higher salary that gets entirely eaten up by rent or mortgage payments. The answer for us was no.
Made the move from NYC to Raleigh a couple years ago and have no regrets. I miss things about New York here and there, but the overall net benefit is overwhelmingly positive. A median income earner, such as myself, is nearly poverty-stricken in NY (I rented a windowless converted laundry room in a rough-to-gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood and had 3 roommates), whereas in Raleigh I’m comfortable (I can afford to buy a house.) Grocery bills have been slashed in half, eating out is much cheaper. I can’t decide if biking is better or worse here. Way less potholes, less likely to get doored, but traffic flow is much faster and less used to dealing with bikes/pedestrians. So, I think you’re less likely to have an accident here, but if one does happen the odds of it being life-threatening are higher.
I totally thought you were joking about that picture of the cheapest house in SF, made it even funnier when I found out you weren’t. Glad you guys are publishing content again, I’ve been enjoying following along.
It’s my go to “SF is crazy” picture. But there might be a few new contenders
I’m from St. Louis, and this post makes me nostalgic for the Midwest, after years of living in New York, London, and now Shanghai. Excited to see how life unfolds for you in the Midwest after FI. Perhaps we will also be inspired to follow suit!
Hope we can convince a few folks! Come on back!
We just pulled the plug and moved from the San Diego area to the Sarasota area. We bought a nice, near new home with our California equity and had $200k left over for investment and our 15 yr old daughter’s college fund. Like you, we left good jobs behind, but we were stressed after 30 years of hard work and had to make a change. We did vest in our pensions, which include health insurance until medicare and then supplementals, before leaving though.
Although we are older than you guys (early 50s), a lot of what you’re writing on this blog resonates with us. Keep it up!
Thanks! And the big thing for us is that if we do want to work again we’ll probably be able to find jobs that are just as good for the relative market difference. That’s the thing folks often miss. Sure, you can make more in SF but most of it get’s eaten up by housing.