Like Dorothy and that rainbow, younger people often chase their dreams in the big cities. There’s much to see, do, and gain in major cities, but there can be downsides. Can a smaller city lead to a larger life?
Can a smaller city lead to a larger life?
Ditching small-town life.
That was the case for me. Having spent the first half of my childhood near a big city and the latter half in a small town in a land far, far away, I couldn’t wait to get far, far away myself!
As a young gay man, I thought I’d wind up in San Francisco – with the Rice-A-Roni and all. But a friend of mine and I moved to Denver, Colorado in the late 90s instead. It wasn’t Philadelphia, PA, but it wasn’t Lebanon, PA, either. I was supposed to live here for two years, soak up the snowboarding, and then move onto “bigger and better” things.
But, I met a boy, and that’s a whole other story.
With about 549,000 people in Denver proper in 1999, Denver was big enough, but not too big. There was lots to do. Nightlife and dining scenes and all the great outdoors. It wasn’t yet expensive. Our first apartment cost less than $800 a month for about 1,000 square feet.
Denver has seen a population boom in the last decade, with a relatively consistent growth rate over 2%. That same 1,0000 square foot apartment now goes for about $1,800 a month. We’re no New York City, but the consequences of growth are evident.
A big city can mean empty pockets.
It is desirable to live in a city with half-a-dozen things to do all seven nights of the week with millions of people looking for the same; you may be surprised at how expensive it can be living in such cities. Here are the costs of living in premier locations, based on PayScale data:
- New York – cost of living is 118% above average; housing is 341% above average
- Los Angeles – cost of living is 32% above average; housing is 102% above average
- San Francisco – cost of living is 63% above average; housing is 198% above average
- Chicago – cost of living is 17% above average; housing is 38% above average
- Seattle – cost of living is 24% above average; housing is 57% above average
All of those cities have a lot to offer, but at what cost?
More jobs are going to smaller cities.
With the combination with the dotcom bust, the 2008 housing crisis, and ever-increasing taxes in the above cities, more businesses are transferring some or all of their operations out of the bigger cities. This migration is called ex-urbanization.
Housing tends to be more affordable in second- and third-tier cities, like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Charlotte. Such cities offer a diverse pool of talent that isn’t isolated to bigger cities.
In many cases, the quality of life outside of work is appealing to many industries’ best and brightest. Denver and Salt Lake City offer skiing and snowboarding to give you your weekend adrenaline rush. Portland has amazing microbreweries to wind down your work week. Charlotte has a unique and vibrant foodie scene for those of us that love to love food. Richmond is a perfect place for runners and kayakers.
Businesses know that happy employees make for happy businesses. If employees have a high quality of life outside of work (and not just the Colorado kind), they’ll give their all at work.
Smaller cities allow for geographic arbitrage.
With the growing gig economy and online entrepreneurs, more people can now live and work from anywhere. One can charge big city prices and live on a little city budget. A virtual assistant who resides in Kansas City can charge a client who lives in Chicago Chicago-based fees. Or, they can offer competitive fees that a virtual assistant who resides in Chicago can’t.
Geographic arbitrage isn’t just a benefit for virtual assistants, virtually any online freelancing or IT job, and many contractors and consultants, can thrive off of charging big city prices with little city expenses.
If climbing the corporate ladder is more your style, get a job in a big city and then transfer within that company to a smaller city. Most companies will keep you at the same salary even though your cost of living will likely drop. I’ve seen many Denver friends leave for a few years and return, taking advantage of just this strategy.
Smaller cities can mean bigger pockets.
By and large, smaller cities come with lower living expenses. This is a big deal for things like saving money for retirement, owning your own home, and putting children through college. These financial goals are all easier to achieve with a lifetime of lower costs.
A personal, favorite perk of living in a smaller city, especially one centrally located in the country, is that we can quickly hop on a plane and get to any coast within less than five hours and many within three hours. So while I never moved to San Francisco, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been there because it’s cheap and easy to head that way.
Before you hop a jet plane over the rainbow to some major city far, far away, open your mind to second or third-tier cities elsewhere in the country. The costs may be more agreeable and open you up to a lifetime of bigger living. With transportation getting better and the internet making the world smaller, your opportunities may be greater.