One of the most important decisions you’ll make in your life, after who you choose to marry (you know, that forever-contract that is so binding it has to be dissolved in a court of law) is where you live, which thankfully, is far less permanent.
Where you live impacts your energy levels, overall outlook and impacts your resilience to life’s challenges.
If you’re unhappy or simply “meh” about your current situation, the power of your zip code shouldn’t be understated.
I have lived in two really primo locations- southern California and the windy city of Chicago. I was raised in a small town in southern California that’s 45 minutes to the beach, I really had it made. But, for reasons I’ll get in to, I never got to enjoy the beach.
Every day, as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sang, was exactly the same and not having real weather is something people pay top dollar for. Despite this, when I was in my mid-20’s I got the itch to roam.
I applied for a lot of really fancy graduate programs but was accepted to one in Chicago, and off I went, sight unseen. It was going to be an adventure, and I just leaned on my own ignorance to get me there. If I didn’t know how hard and different it would be, I couldn’t stop myself!
Every time I’ve announced my plans to pick up and move, I got an earful that I was leaving behind something awesome, and I totally get it- but after I got real with what made me LOVE a location and the life I could afford to live there, the decision to leave became anchored in self-awareness I could stand behind. When I knew what it would take to really thrive, I had to pursue what gave me the most value beyond catching feels for a place and loving the perks and quirks of a city.
When it came down to it, I wanted a place I could grow and give me freedom, though it took a long time to really understand the details on what that meant for me.
At the time, I didn’t realize that there was an entire community that was growing around the idea of financial independence and early retirement through savvy investing/saving, but there was something that kept nagging at me:
For me, what good is an amazing place if you’re working so much that you never get to enjoy it?
I was nagged by the many days I spent in both of my beloved places, where I would longingly look out the window from my desk, feeling the cold A/C (regardless of how perfect the temperature was outside) hitting my skin reminding me that it was awesome outside and I was, well, inside.
It started to seem that I was paying a fair amount of money to have access to awesome things only two days a week, which coincidentally, were the same two days everyone else had the same idea. Not as awesome.
In order to afford my spot of turf in any given location, this would be my view for a long time: me at a desk, wishing I was somewhere else. It sort of sucked the joy out of either location.
At the time, I hadn’t done the math for retirement, but I felt that gut feeling that the longing I felt looking outside the window would be the swan song of the next 30 years of my life- workin’ for the weekend. Forever.
A few other big deal breakers for me, that would lead to the work/resentment cycle and totally suck the fun out of an amazing place:
– A long commute. Yes, you live in an awesome place, but are you enjoying it from backlogged highways? 10 hours a week in a car due to “normal” traffic on top to my 40 hour workweek was for me, depressing.
– A high cost of living and a salary that means you’re just getting by so you can retire at 65. I didn’t have words like “early retirement” or “house hacking” when we decided to move to Texas, but I realized that while my older friends had amazing lives, I realized I wouldn’t be able to afford their lifestyles (or houses, weddings, clothes) and still have the freedom I craved. Sucks to be both average and simultaneously debt averse, eh? So boring! So realistic!
I wanted life to be an adventure, and seeing my entire life plotted out with simply “get a job,” “buy X house that costs X” and “wash rinse repeat with a 3% salary increase each year,” felt like a ball and chain for me, apparently I was missing out on all this amazing fun everyone else was having since I wanted to both have a good life now and the opportunity to not screw the pooch for future-self’s happiness. What if I didn’t live to 65? What if I did live to 65 and I was too sick to enjoy anything?
Surely, at age 30, there could be more to life than working for the weekend every single month until you finally had the permission and means to leave?
Every time I would tally up the many “pros” of my home state of California and my second home of Chicago, there was just one “con,” that meant I had to move on:
Cities have energy. They have chemistry.
The weather, cost, commute, culture, and community you have (or don’t), flavors every aspect of your life, and to deny it may just mean you’re either missing out on how a particular city can make you feel alive or admitting that being there can make you miserable.
For those of us that are a bit more logical and math oriented, every place you live can be measured in the value it provides, which is unique to everyone.
What matters to you will be unique, and you have to be realistic if you’re paying the price that’s worth it for the life you want to lead.
You can put numbers to just about everything a city makes you feel, and you can analyze what it truly costs you in dollars and time to reap the benefits.
After analyzing both places for the things I loved and wanted access to, and the amount of work, how far my salary would go and how long it would take me to retire, I realized the cost was just far too great.
For me, I realized I could move to a different city with some of the things I loved of both locations, for a fraction of the cost, and I could save enough to visit those places and live like a baller for a weekend if I so chose, making it special and awesome instead of feeling like I could barely keep my head above water by living there full time.
To say that Chicago and I have an on-again-off-again love/hate relationship would be a good way to put it. I loved that city, but it didn’t love me back. I didn’t like how it made me feel, constantly being squeezed for cash and never being good enough to afford how “everyone else” was living.
I remember being invited to a blogger event (one amazing perk of being there) – I got a lot of media invites in that city for free cocktails, goody bags and all the media perks that helped someone like me skate by in those days.
On a gorgeous roof top bar, I sipped champagne cocktails during sunset with a bunch of other bloggers. I complimented someone on their dress and they asked me who made mine. Just the question itself was intended to assign a value on my response.
Spoiler: Calvin Klein, clearance rack. I knew then that I would never cut the mustard with this crowd. It just wasn’t the chemistry I wanted in my life. Yes, the perks were great, the cost was high and the people were influencing me in ways I didn’t even have to fully understand to see that I was heading down a path I didn’t want.
So, what did I really want? Finding your ideal locale is like dating. It took a few “Nopes!” to get to the “Heck yes! This!” but I got there.
There is something to be said about deep, intimate conversations over cocktails, even with a complete stranger. In terms of activities that give me joy, this is one of the things that gives me truly unfettered joy. On the other end of that scale is minimizing small talk that makes you feel like you’ll need to chug another free cocktail and get out- it just drains you.
I started to worry if the only way I could keep up was to keep spending. I didn’t feel I would be able to have the richness I craved without being well, rich. That went on the “Heck No” list.
Where you live influences your happiness, which seems obvious but I have spoken to so many people that are either outright unhappy or simply “meh” about their city and still insist “Oh, I could never move!”
To me, that’s really sad. It’s hard to feel happy when you feel trapped by your zipcode. It’s equally challenging to really invest in relationships, be inspired to slog up the ladder in your career or start a business when you feel your city or town isn’t worth the time. Who likes to think they simply take up space? Investment is a two way street.
Two years ago, we moved to Texas after spending several months traveling around to find our next home. We went to Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, Austin. We tried Columbus, Milwaukee, even taking some time in my home state just to see “what if?” Finally, Texas felt *right.*
We did a gut check and a numbers check, and we came out ahead emotionally and financially. This is our city and right now, it fits our life really well. Best part is that I can pocket enough money and vacation time to travel more. Win. Win. Win.
Living in San Antonio is not as glamorous as Chicago, and yes, there are times I really truly miss my big network of awesome people in my home state of California- but when push came to shove, I wanted a career I could grow in, that anchored me in purpose, and a home that I could justify and afford that would be a place I could host friends, rescue dogs and have enough space to plant a garden. Honestly, the days are longer here, the winters aren’t really winters and I can afford enough earth to mess around in.
The intangibles for me are immense, with loads of emotional payoff you can’t put a dollar amount on, but it is invaluable.
When I was honest to myself, having a home, at least in this season of life, really mattered to me, and being able to live authentically within my income was also key to being happy.
Calculating What Really Makes You Happy:
Key Performance Indicators, or shorthand, KPIs, is a term we use a lot at my day job and are a way to measure something’s performance or success. A key performance indicator can be how much a product sold, how many click-thrus you got on a website ad, how many dollars were earned, etc.
Using this lingo for your life- you could set a few KPI’s for where you live, and stack them up accordingly.
First, what impacts your happiness the most? Is it cost of living? Your job? Your community? Your commute? Is it climate? Population size? Set your values and then, you’ll see how your zip code is performing based on what you’ve established to be “awesome.”
Cost of living is an easy one to break down. First, get an idea of really what makes you happy in terms of what you make to what it costs to live there. How is your current cost of living stacking up? Let’s explore-
KPI- Cost of Living:
– Is buying a home really important to me? Can I afford the type of home I want where I currently reside?
– Do I feel like my salary gets me enough of what I need to be happy in my location?
– Do I often feel squeezed with high tax rates, city fees and other costs like insurance, parking tickets, bag taxes and other things that eat into my income or does it feel okay?
– Do I feel I could still have fun in my location without spending a dime, or do I constantly need to spend money to feel like I’m “keeping up” with everyone else, or spending simply because I’m super bored?
You can get really granular with what gives you the biggest emotional payoff and analyze what’s causing you the most glee or the most grief accordingly.
For me, my KPI’s were outlined thusly, and you can really see how they shaped our decision to leave Chicago:
– Cost of Living: Can my current salary help me afford the lifestyle I want? Would I be able to afford a house, not just a condo?
Long story short, I wanted a house with a yard.
In Chicago or California, I could have only afforded a condo for $250,000.Condos come with association fees (do not like), shared walls and strict policies on what you can or cannot do. I’d rather not have anyone tell me I can’t rent out a room or what color my Christmas lights should be. My salary wouldn’t go very far.
Employment & Commute: Can I get a competitive salary with good benefits that’s either a train ride away? If not, will my daily commute be under 1 hour?
I got laid off from my job, and the offers I got were not in places I could take the train, and without a significant pay increase, it would not be worth it to drive 1.5-2 hours round trip every day.At 10 hours a week, that meant I couldn’t earn extra cash, work out, or sleep as much as I’d like. NOPE.
At that point, I considered moving to California, but realizing my dreams of home ownership would mean that I likely would only be able to afford a condo in a less than nice area, with traffic, I knew I would be driving a LOT.We looked at salaries on job listings for California and found they were also on par with what I was making in Chicago, add a higher COL and at least a 30 minute+ commute each way, it would be chipping away at the value of my salary.
Climate/Geography: Do I like the weather? Do I have access to nature? Are my surroundings ideal?
California is a big YUP. Gorgeous weather, but really crowded and expensive. I also knew that for that price tag, I’d be working so much I would never get to see the beach to warrant the price tag.What good is a gorgeous sunny day if you’re stuck in a cube day after day? Millions of people do it, and that’s great, but I would be paying a big price to stare longingly out the window.
Chicago winters made me grumpy. There is nothing in the world that beats Lake Shore drive and seeing the beautiful skyscrapers juxtaposed next to a gorgeous, endless lake that seems as big as the ocean.
Running in the parks and seeing the leaves change was inspiring and gave me the warm fuzzies, but wearing parkas from November until April or feeling like for 6 months out to of the year the only reasonable activity was going to a bar to be social and leave your snow cave was also a big ol’ NOPE.
The Feels: Do I feel like I can live the life I want to live in this place? Do the activities I find most important? Be the person I feel I could be? If my life were a movie, what would the soundtrack be to accompany it- fun and happy or grungy and grumpy?
When it came down to it, I didn’t feel confident that I could feel confident in Chicago or California.Texas just had a laid back vibe that felt very much like home, but without the price tag.
Winter was a huge disruptor for me in Chicago, and it felt like two different lives, I wanted more stability in my daily life.
My goal was to be financially independent, mentally and physically healthy, and be able to do activities I got emotional payoff from- fostering dogs, gardening, being outside regardless of time of year, and being involved in the community. I can’t put a dollar value on that, it just feels good.
When we applied for jobs in Texas, and got offers that included a pay bump and lower cost of living, it felt like it freed up mental space to become who I wanted to be and focus on the right things, and achieve my personal and financial goals.
There are days I miss Chicago, you bet your sweet ass I do. There are days I see my friends hiking in the hills of San Diego or spending a day at Disneyland and I long to be home with them.
I do though, know the grass is always greener on the other side, and I wonder had I moved back, would I have the mental space and flexible finances to be able to see them, do activities or travel with them as often as I’d like? Probably not. We’re all busy, traffic is crazy, work is unpredictable and don’t forget we are all having kids right now- so with this season of my life, I relish in their moments and live vicariously through them, making time whenever I can to visit either place for quality time.
Life y’all, is what you make it. Nobody is trapped where they live (that I’m aware of) and with some analysis of the numbers (the true cost of living somewhere) and the prioritization of your values, you can get a huge emotional payoff no matter where you live, as long as it resonates.
So- take it from me, you can be happy anywhere, but you have the power to choose and sometimes, a physical move is just what you need to get to where you need to go emotionally and otherwise!