My husband and I just got back from a fun visit with some friends in Cincinnati, Ohio. As usual, the trip was frugal. Staying in our friends’ fantastic, mid-century modern house cost us nothing. We ate out at a fancy place just once. We paid a little over $200 total for the plane tickets.
What was unusual was the reason for the trip. This wasn’t an adventure trip, exotic international vacation, or life-changing journey. Our friends used to live in New York and we see them when they visit, but we’ve never gone to see them in their home city. It was about time.
But besides a friendly visit, this was just as much a scouting trip.
In case I hadn’t mentioned it before, I want to be financially independent someday. That means that if I front-load saving and investing just the right way I’ll have enough money to cover living expenses for decades. Which means I can retire way earlier than the usual 65.
Not having to work if you don’t want to? To me, that’s the ultimate luxury of having money.
But those living expenses vary depending on where you live. With New York’s cost of living, becoming financially independent here isn’t going to fly. Well, it could. But I’d have to work many more years to cover expenses. A life that costs about $25k a year in another city could cost double here. So when I’m ready to become financially independent, there’s no question what the easier choice would be: to move somewhere else.
But where? Simple question, difficult answer. And though I won’t be financially independent for at least another five years, the gears are turning in my head.
Every place I visit is now going to be filtered through a new lens: the could-I-retire-here lens.
So a two-hour flight to Cincinnati might seem run of the mill to someone else, but to me, it was immensely exciting and full of possibilities. Could it be the city for me?
Another reason I looked forward to the visit was because I like taking a break from the city every now and then. My fellow city folks, I think you know what I’m talking about. I love it here, but sometimes it feels like a gigantic playground for rich people. When everyone else around you seems happy to drop $2,300 on membership fees for a women’s club, or working out at the same gym as Victoria’s Secret models, it’s easy to think you need to be doing that stuff, too. Yes, even for me. So it’s nice to get out of the city to help keep my perspective in check.
Anyway! My husband and I had a great time relaxing in our friends’ peaceful backyard, going thrifting, drinking beers at a baseball game, eating Oprah-approved ice cream twice, and driving through all the neighborhoods in the city.
Even though I was technically on vacation for a few days, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have any personal finance-y thoughts. Here are some of my observations from the trip.
1. There’s value in travel.
To me, travel doesn’t have to mean hanging out in a resort in the Bahamas, or flying to a remote country, or checking off every sight on your list, or paying hundreds of dollars for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Any sort of travel, near or far, fun or boring, cheap or expensive, has value to me as long as you get to see how other people live and do things. For example, I noticed that the friends we were staying with produce a lot less trash than my husband and me. Did I have to go to their house to know they care about reducing waste? No. But by staying with them I could observe the lifestyle that goes into it. They buy mostly fresh ingredients with very little processed goods. They don’t even have a box of tissues in their bathrooms. In our house, tissue boxes by everyone’s bed and in the bathroom is a must, but maybe now I realize that we could stand to reduce our consumption of paper products.
2. Moving to a new place isn’t a magic cure-all for your problems.
If you don’t like where you live, it’s easy to think:
“If I move I’ll have more friends.”
“If I move I’ll have more space for hobbies.”
“If I move we’ll stop having money problems.”
There have been plenty of times where I fantasized about how perfect life would be if I lived on the set of Gilmore Girls. A cranky guy at the local diner to give me free coffee every day? YES. But a change in setting is just that.
Our friend in Cincinnati used to live in New York, too. She said that her social life in Cincinnati would be way less active if she didn’t volunteer at bookstores and music events. So, even if you move to a “friendlier” city and continue to stay home, friends aren’t going to magically appear at your doorstep. You might also feel like having a dedicated room for your hobbies will result in working on projects more. But ask yourself if the space is the problem, or if you just aren’t prioritizing the time in your schedule. And if you and your SO have money issues now, moving to a less expensive place isn’t going to solve underlying communication and compatibility problems.
3. Never let go of simple pleasures.
When we grow up we tend to get jaded over time. This happens to me, too. For example, I go to the movies all the time. Because I do it a lot it’s not that special, and I don’t get particularly excited about going anymore. But over the weekend I’ve noticed I still get excited about simple pleasures. Like when I found a true vintage shirt for $0.29 from the thrift store. True vintage! Twenty-nine cents! Unheard of! Or when I saw mini Yoo-Hoo bars (not something I see regularly where I live) in a candy bin at the grocery store and bought two for $0.27. Or just sitting outside with the trees and the stars, building a fire. Some simple pleasures in life don’t have to cost much at all.
4. Think twice about unpractical purchases.
I’ve seen our friends’ house on their Instagram, and since it’s a legit 1960s architectural gem, I was so psyched to stay in it. It was set back in the woods with floor-to-ceiling windows that made you feel like the house and nature were one in the same. “This is an amazing house!” I told our friends. But then they told us how the house is freezing in the winter because of the windows, and how they spent $900 on heat in three weeks. Since the walls were so thin, when I was upstairs I could hear conversations from downstairs. And late at night when I had to use the bathroom, those same windows that were so dreamy during the day became downright creepy. Our friends told us that if they had to do it all over again, they would have put more thought into buying the house. At the time, the price was a steal, and the vintage charm was irresistible, but they’ve had to pour a lot of money to maintain it over a newer, less interesting house.
5. Buying a house seems way too expensive.
When I was growing up, I thought $300k was the price you paid for a “rich” house. Fast-forward to NYC and for that price you’d get a tiny studio in a far flung neighborhood. Owning a house seems like it’s not in the cards for me–at least, not where I live. I’ve only lived in cities after college, and I can’t bring myself to pay $800k for an 750 square foot apartment that has fewer amenities than the ones I’m renting now. If I ever want to own for less, I’d have to buy elsewhere. So I noticed houses in Cincinnati. While we were driving around neighborhoods, every time I saw a house for sale I’d plug the address into my phone to check sale prices. Not one was less than $450k. And that’s after I had people telling me that Cincinnati real estate was “super cheap.” And then there’s upkeep costs, too. Back at our friends’ house, I liked watching the leaves fall from the trees in the backyard. But then someone would need to rake those up later. I loved how there were stone steps leading up to the house. But a couple of them were loose and would need to be replaced. It seemed like there was always something on the list to fix or update. I wonder, factoring in renovation costs and maintenance, how many folks actually end up coming out ahead. Everyone says that buying a house is an emotional “investment” purchase. Or how it’s dumb to not “build equity.” But I’m clearly not ready to buy a house yet. And that’s OK for now.
What about you? Are you aiming for financial independence? If you live in an expensive city, are you planning on moving? Do you have any favorite lessons from traveling?