Making A Major Life Change

David Herring #4A reader who I will call Kathy wrote to me with a rather long but quite compelling story that really struck a chord with me. When I read the story, I saw so much of myself and my wife in it in the position we were in about five years ago, and because of that I felt compelled to write a very long response to their story.

Hopefully, Kathy’s story will strike a chord with some of you as well, and you can offer some advice to them. Here’s Kathy’s tale, along with my thoughts.

My boyfriend and I have been fans of The Simple Dollar for some time now, and really respect and aspire to the lifestyle you write about. The reason I am writing you now, for the first time, is because over the past few weeks we have come to realize that we are on the whole very unhappy with our current situation.

We’re both under 25, have been together for over 5 years and live in the Greater D.C. Metro area. We’ve both got computer science degrees from prestigious New England schools and I have a masters in information security assurance. My boyfriend is a software developer and I’m a consultant and our combined income is well over 100k. We’re making all the right moves in terms of saving (well over 30% of what we’re making) and maintaining a debt free life (aside one very manageable student loan and a car which will be paid for in a few months).

Before we even get to the problem, it’s pretty clear that Kathy and her boyfriend are in a very good financial state. If they’re living in D.C., are debt free, and have marketable degrees and already have workplace experience, the world is truly their oyster.

And we’re miserable. We don’t feel as though we are in the right place at the right jobs to be living the kind of life we want. Everyone around us seems to be very content sitting in traffic for 2 hours a day to get to their jobs where they work 60 hour weeks, so that they can afford another sports car, a $500,000 one bedroom condo and a few more inches on their TV.

They’ve also made a conscious decision to reject a consumerist lifestyle. This sounds just fine to me, living in Iowa driving my eleven year old truck.

After many long conversations we’ve identified the things that make us happy in life and have made the decision that we will do everything in our power to be well on our way down the path toward those things in a year. We want to be closer to nature, and we’d love to be able to afford a modest home. I’d also love to be someplace with a sense of community where I could volunteer my time. As far as jobs go, we’re far less picky, we’re just hoping to find something to support ourselves and eventually a family, but ideally use our skills and have some sort of impact on the world.

Let’s look individually at the the things they want:

They want to be closer to nature.

That likely means living in a much smaller town than the D.C. Metro area. If you want nature to be easily accessible, you’re probably looking at living in a town that has at most 100,000 residents – and likely much smaller.

They want to be able to afford a modest home.

This also points toward a move to a more rural area. I can’t speak for other regions of the country, but much of the Midwest is very affordable.

They want to live in a place with a sense of community.

This, again, speaks towards a smaller town, probably one that’s near an affluent area. A great place to look for this is to look for a small town that’s outside an affluent or educated area, such as a small town within 20 minutes of a college town or a technically adept city. These tend to foster communities of intelligent people who want to live in a small-town environment and often include thriving volunteer work and community activities, both in that small town and in the larger city nearby.

Adding up these points, I would encourage them to look at small towns within a 20 or 30 mile radius of smaller Midwestern cities, particularly those that house a university. In many places, these usually have an abundance of jobs for technically inclined people, but make small town living quite easy. For example, I live within an hour of several decent-sized cities in Iowa, including Des Moines, and yet my backyard has a cornfield bordering it, and there are a lot of technical jobs in this area.

We want to be living a simpler life and because doing what we were “supposed to” up until this point has lead us to very stressful, complicated lives, we’re not really sure where to even start. We’d love to pack up the car, drive across the country (something we’ve always wanted to do, always had the money to do, but never had the time to do) and eventually wind up in our new town.

That’s an awesome plan, especially since you have the freedom of youth on your side.

But how do we find this new town and should we lock down work first? What about health insurance? Should we go down to the courthouse and get married just to increase the odds that we’ll both be insured? Is there any way for people in our situation to purchase affordable insurance to make sure we’re covered for the few months of instability a move like this would cause?

If you buy into the idea I presented above, here’s what I would do:

Make a list of potential matching cities in the Midwest.

Look up the state schools for the Midwest, then identify ones that potentially have a thriving research program in areas you might be interested in. This generally means that there are lots of spin-off companies in the area. You should also look for job listings at monster.com for smaller cities in the Midwest – not necessarily to find a job, but just to know who employers are in those areas that might match with your skills.

Narrow down that list.

Try to narrow this list down to two or three, then investigate those cities in detail. Are there small towns nearby with palatable housing markets? Are there community features that interest you, both in the larger town where you may find work and in the smaller town where you would live? Most likely, the right place will start to become clear for you.

As for the health care, I would look into COBRA – it’s likely that you can extend your current health care package for a while after you leave your current jobs. Then, when you’re re-employed, get a health care plan that matches what you need.

And more fundamentally, in the long run, will this be a good decision? By staying where we are, we’ll probably both have six figure salaries in a few years, but during those years, we’ll be stressed, won’t have the time to do the things we enjoy and won’t be able to afford a place of our own. Alternatively, if we make this move, we’ll both likely take huge pay cuts (both to our yearly salaries and likely to our lifetime earning potential) and won’t be able to save nearly as much, but we’ll be happy now, rather than in 40 years when we can retire.

It won’t be the big cut that you think it is. Let’s say you can get a 2,000 square foot family home in the D.C. Metro area for $600K. In the Midwest, you can easily find them for under $200K. Consider the difference in those house payments, and you’ll see where most of the difference in salary actually goes.

Any, and all advice you could give us would be greatly appreciated. Right now we’re looking at about 10 months to make a major life change, and while this thought is daunting, we’re willing to do everything necessary to make it happen.

Living in a Midwestern small town isn’t the right thing for everyone, but from my perspective, it sounds like the right thing for you two.

Do any of you have thoughts for Kathy?

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