Big City To Small Town:
A Personal Cost-Of-Living Update

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Nearly a year ago, I wrote about how moving from San Francisco to rural Illinois would change my economic reality. Some friends even assumed that it was so cheap to live in the country that I wouldn't have to work at all! My plans actually changed a bit, and I've spent the last 8 months in one of Illinois' small towns (Pop. 9,000) and figured it was about time for a check-in...

Note: Some of my most dramatic cost-of-living increases (heating, air-conditioning, winter gear, home repairs) and decreases (living in a house my partner owns vs. renting in San Francisco) are unrelated to the transition from city to small town, so I haven't listed them here.

COST INCREASES:

All Driving-Related Costs. I'm lucky to have found a job in my town, and the distance is eminently bikeable... but not in the winter. I was able to ride until mid-November — I think the coldest day I biked was 21ºF — but then the snow and windchill and polar vortex rolled into town. My daily commute costs approximately $5.50/day in gas and insurance, whereas my San Francisco commute cost $2/day (Muni ride to work, walk home).

Clothing. San Francisco is home to countless amazing thrift stores and consignment shops, where barely-worn $300 dresses are available for $20, and you can consistently buy a totally presentable wardrobe at Goodwill for $5/piece. There are thrift stores here, but the clothing is generally outdated and worn out. I have been able to score lots more cute, cheap kids' clothing, but when it comes to shopping for myself, I'm afraid I'll have to buy new clothes for the first time in 8 years.

Household Goods. Just as for clothes above, in cities I bought all of my household goods at thrift stores (with the addition of a trip to IKEA every year or two). I'm able to pick up a few things secondhand here, but there's not enough to rely upon.

Lack Of Jobs. I've been job-searching for 8 months, and the positions I see most often are Truck Driver, Factory Supervisor, and Fast Food Worker. I'm not qualified for the first or second, and the third doesn't pay any better than the minimum wage job I already have. There are a few charming independent businesses in the area, but the thing about small businesses in small towns is that they don't have any employees. All of the owners I've chatted with do all the work themselves, with a relative filling in occasionally. There simply isn't enough business to make businesses busy enough to afford employees. (Note: I'm searching not just in my own town, but in the half-dozen towns in a 40-mile radius.)

Lower Pay. This one is harder to put into words because I am definitely not an economist, but I see a ton of minimum wage jobs here and not a lot of potential for career advancement in those jobs. The per capita income in our town is slightly over what you'd earn making minimum wage, and the unemployment rate is 12%, compared to 8.3% in San Francisco, or even 10.9% in nearby Chicago.

SAVINGS:

Garden-Fresh Vegetables. Living in a small town means having room for a garden for the first time, which means that we basically eat for free all summer and fall. Other than buying almond milk, wine, and a few other staples, we happily subsist on what the garden yields for many months. This year I hope to be even better at canning/freezing/jamming so that the savings can continue into the winter.

Lack of Temptation. There's not much around here to buy! Other than my oft-ridiculed love for Big R, which I totally have under control, there aren't any daily tugs at my purse strings. The thrift store doesn't get new merchandise in often enough to justify going more than once a month, and there aren't enough restaurants to tempt me more than twice a month.

In short, I'm incredibly happy, lucky, and broke, and making less money than I ever have (my first high school job as a lifeguard paid more than the current minimum wage). Keep in mind that these are just my personal cost-of-living changes — I'd love to hear about your city-to-small-town (or vice versa) experiences!

(Image credits: Carol & Phil's Charming 1930s Cottage)

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