Updated on 10.30.15

I Left the Coast for a Simpler Life in the Midwest – and You Can, Too

Making it in Madison: Smaller cities can offer bigger opportunities.

autumn in madison wisconsin

Longing for a simpler, less-expensive life? Don’t fear the seasons or the slower pace of small, Midwestern cities like Madison, Wis. Photo: Richard Hurd

After graduating from college in 2009, I played professional basketball in Israel for three years. When I finished, I moved back to my hometown of Los Angeles, and I figured I’d be there forever. Or if not there, maybe New York City. Or Boston. Or Chicago. Or San Francisco.

All my friends lived in those cities. That’s where it seemed like all the cool young people congregated. In my insular world, those were pretty much my only options. I figured everyone else my age felt the same way.

In actuality, census data show that millennials have been moving in droves to places I would never have thought of living. Places like Morgantown, W.Va., Providence, R.I., Bloomington, Ind., and Oklahoma City. Had I known this back in 2012, I would have been very confused. I had an uncle in Oklahoma City. I’d been there. My main memory was learning about the place where one of my methed-out cousins scaled an impossibly high fence while running from the police. I had no intentions of going back.

What were these young people thinking, moving to the middle of nowhere?

Fast-forward three years to last July. I was packing my bags, getting ready to drive from Los Angeles to my new home in Madison, Wis. Here’s what happened:

My Financial Priorities Changed

Here is a rough breakdown of where my money went in Los Angeles: 45% rent, 30% gas, 20% entertainment, 4.95% absurdly unfair parking tickets, .05% savings. I wasn’t accumulating debt, but I certainly wasn’t building a nest egg. I was treading water. I decided I wanted to break that cycle.

Of course, it’s possible to do that in L.A., but it’s hard. I was trying to become a TV writer, which is somewhat akin to my earlier life goal of making the NBA. In both cases, it takes a tremendous amount of luck, skill, and hard work to make it. Very few get there.

To be a struggling artist, you have to want it more than anything in the world. You have to be willing to go full Van Gogh, and create your whole life accepting the fact that your talents might never be recognized.

I decided I didn’t want it that bad. I had to start being realistic. I started to consider other jobs outside the entertainment industry. I stumbled on a job that would allow me to work remotely, which really got my gears turning. If I could live anywhere in the country, did I really want to be in L.A.?

My Idea of What Makes a Great City Changed

I started looking at all the things that make L.A. so expensive, trying to decide if they were things I simply could not live without.

The obvious driver of L.A.’s high prices is the weather. When it rains in L.A., people act like those hordes in zombie movies who are scrambling to get on the last helicopter out of the city. It’s all-out mayhem. This is because it’s almost always perfect, so any kind of weather freaks them out.

To many people, the year-round warmth is the sole reason they say L.A. is so fantastic. I went to school in Boston and braved some nasty winters. I never thought it was that bad. I certainly wouldn’t use weather as my only reason for picking a place to live.

Next would be the nightlife. There are a lot of folks who crave access to an unlimited number of huge, slick, exclusive nightclubs and bars where they can undulate against strangers and possibly catch a glimpse of someone who played a bit part on Glee.

I admit that I used to be into this scene. But, at the ripe old age of 28, I had grown out of it. There’s only so many times you can wait in a long line outside a bar before you think, “What the heck am I doing? I just spent the last hour and a half playing 20 questions next to a dumpster and swigging cheap tequila from a flask.” At least when you wait in line for a roller-coaster you get to ride a roller-coaster at the end, not buy $13 mixed drinks and inhale enough secondhand smoke to kill a horse.

The final factor driving the obscene cost of living is the beach. Some people can’t live without it. I met a guy once who lived by the beach and commuted over an hour through horrifying traffic to his job downtown. He hates the commute, but he said he would never move, because he likes surfing too much.

I’m like that guy, but the exact opposite. I have never been surfing and I would do just about anything to avoid a long commute. The beach is fun, but it’s not enough to make me want to pay $2,800 for an average one-bedroom apartment in the beachside town of Santa Monica.

After going through all this, I was much more inclined to explore options outside of Los Angeles. My values had shifted. I had a serious girlfriend, and we were starting to spend our nights on hikes instead of dancing in West Hollywood. I liked being in nature and the ability to wake up in the morning without feeling like an elephant had trampled me. I could do those things in a more affordable place.

As my girlfriend and I geared up to make a change, Madison, Wis., jumped out as a great choice. My girlfriend has family nearby and went to college there. She could vouch for its awesomeness. Everything I read said it was a wonderful town full of nice people. I was sold.

My Risk Tolerance Changed

When I thought about moving in the past, I would be riddled with doubts: “What if I don’t like it? What if I get homesick? What if I can’t find a job? What if I secretly love the beach and I won’t realize it until I can’t have it? I might be destined to be a surfing champion!” These fears kept me in place.

But, just as it’s wise to overcome your fear of investing and just do it, it’s smart not to let fear of the unknown dictate your place of residence. I tried to look at all the positives of living in Madison: affordability, four seasons, proximity to my older brother in Ohio, plentiful jobs, its reputation as one of the best places for young people to live, etc.

Plus, if it didn’t work out, I could always move back to Los Angeles. Moving does not have to be a big, unwieldy, expensive adventure. Unless you jump right into buying a house, the barriers for moving have never been lower.

I wasn’t volunteering to go on a one-way trip to Mars. If I hated it, I could leave. Why not give it a shot? YOLO, you know? (Dated use of this slang proves it was time for me to move to a less “cool” place.)

My Job Gave Me Freedom

Even though my lack of income in L.A. played a role in the move, my ability to land a job working remotely was equally important. (Not that Madison doesn’t have plenty of jobs, but having one in hand made the decision that much easier since small cities aren’t always the massive economic engines their bigger brethren are.)

Not everyone has this great opportunity, but more and more people will soon. The amount of people working from home has grown 103% since 2005, and that trend looks to continue. The work-from-anywhere jobs are out there if you look hard enough.

Join Me!

As I told people about my move, I was met with incredulity half the time. Some people couldn’t imagine having to deal with snow and didn’t know why I would subject myself to that torture.

But, there were also a lot of people who said something along the lines of, “Man, I wish I could move.” A former co-worker looked me in the eye and said he was jealous. This was a man making unfathomable amounts of money writing TV shows.

I encountered other people who appeared to be trapped in their golden cages. They are making great money, or they have attained a certain amount of prestige, so the idea of looking for work elsewhere is daunting. Yet, they are yearning for something more. They are torn between their desire to afford $60 brunches and their desire to live in a quieter place where you are not mocked for working less than 80 hours a week.

So, to all the people saying they wished they could move, I say, “You can!” It might be hard. You might hate it. You might miss the beach (or the mountains, or your friends, or any number of things), but if you feel it in your bones that there is a better life out there, how can you not at least try to go get it?

Most of the people I know who expressed a desire to do something similar to me are hard-working, smart, employable people. They’d land on their feet wherever they moved.

I’m not trying to make myself out as some kind of weird, Wisconsinite cult leader. I’ve only been here for a few months. I just want to spread the message that you’re not alone if you’re looking for something more than what the five or 10 biggest cities in America have to offer. I’m loving my decision so far, and I think others will, too.

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