money talks

‘I Can Have a Really Great Life That Doesn’t Cost So Much’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut;Photos: Getty Images

Over the past two years, the New York City exodus has become such a cliché that some expats don’t even want to tell their new neighbors where they’re from. “The locals are sick of people like me driving up housing prices,” one person told me from her new home in New Hampshire. “It’s easier to make friends if I don’t say I moved from Brooklyn.”

Fair, but that doesn’t mean everyone leaving New York could afford to stay there, either. Here, three people reflect on what moving someplace cheaper has meant for their finances, and how they can plan for the future.

“When I lost my job, it was like, well … how badly do we want to live in New York anymore?”
—Mary, 43, copywriter, Durham, N.C.
Before the pandemic, my boyfriend and I both lived in New York for over 20 years. I’ve always worked in magazines, so I figured I couldn’t really live anywhere else if I was going to have that career. Then the magazine where I worked shut down. And when I lost my job, it was like, well … how badly do we want to live in New York anymore?

At the time, we were paying $2,850 for a one-bedroom in Brooklyn. And it was a perfectly nice apartment. But the pandemic made us feel like pinballs. We were on the ground floor and if you opened the curtains, there would be people inches away from you on the sidewalk, staring in. Our lease ended in September of 2020, so we decided to move.

My best friend has lived here in Durham for over a decade. And my grandmother lives nearby. So I’ve been coming to this area my whole life. It wasn’t a hard choice to decide that this was where we’d go. We only looked at apartments online. We talked to a realtor on FaceTime, and he waved his camera phone around all the rooms, and we were like, “I guess it looks nice?” My best friend came by and peered in the windows and sent us a bunch of creepy pictures. But we rented this place without ever seeing it in person. Then we sold everything we could, got in a truck with the rest of our stuff, and drove down here. It was even better than we hoped. We live in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house that costs $1,700 a month in rent. My boyfriend and I each have our own office with a closing door. We have fig trees and cherry trees in our yard, and in the summer they’re overloaded with ripe fruit. It’s amazing.

Not only is our cost of living much cheaper here, but my income is higher. After I lost my magazine job, I started doing freelance branded content and copywriting, and I immediately made significantly more money. I only work probably 60 percent of the hours that I worked at the magazine, and I’m making easily 30 percent more. It’s been life-changing. I feel guilty saying this, because the pandemic was so awful for so many people, but I’ve never felt this financially comfortable in my life. I’m seeing things that are possible for my future that I never thought I could do. Like actually retire comfortably, and maybe even retire early.

For my boyfriend, our finances have been transformative. He grew up in a home where money was extremely tight; his family was on government assistance, and he was briefly homeless. And I didn’t realize what a massive weight it would be off his shoulders to have a financial cushion. He’s basically been worried about money for his entire life. And witnessing this sense of relief for him has been wonderful.

Of course I miss a ton of things about New York. But I didn’t realize how having more money would quiet a lot of fears that were always buzzing in the back of my head. Like, You’ll never be able to retire. What will become of you? There were a lot of question marks in my future. Now, when I look ahead, I can see security. I know that I’m going to be fine. And it’s comforting to know that I can have a really great life that doesn’t cost so much.

“The math was pretty simple — we’d be living very hand-to-mouth, and that was stressful.”
—Blake, 36, marketing director at a beauty company, Nashville, T.N.

My wife and I had our second kid in the fall of 2020. We were hoping to find a bigger place that we could live for maybe the next five or six years, as a family of four, but even the cheapest three-bedroom apartments we looked at were more than we could afford. Plus, the cost of child care was easily going to be more than one of our incomes. The math was pretty simple — we’d be living very hand-to-mouth, and that was stressful.

In the meantime, working from home was really hard. We were paying $4,400 for a 700-square-foot apartment. Our building had a lounge, and there was a rush every morning to scout out a seat because they limited how many people could use it. But I could either work there or on the couch at home with a newborn and my toddler daughter. We just needed more space.

We had come to Nashville for an anniversary trip a couple of years earlier and really fell in love with it. It had big-city energy, great restaurants, and a lot of creative people and entrepreneurs. So one morning, we were just like, what if we rent a place in Nashville for a year and see how it goes? Both of us were working remotely, so we figured we’d just try it.

Our house in Nashville is not huge — I think it’s 1,700 square feet — but it’s a proper three-bedroom, and we have a yard and a little office. We pay $3,200 a month, so we’re paying about 25 percent less for more than double the house, and we’re close to a lot of great things that we can walk to, like parks and coffee shops.

We also pay about $1,100 a month for our kids’ preschool, which is less than half the cost of what it was in New York. And that was really significant. Paying almost $2,500 a month for child care in New York was more than either of us could rationalize, let alone afford.

Now that we have more expendable income, our lives don’t look radically different. Instead, it allows us to plan more. Living in New York my whole adult life, I got used to checking my bank balance on the 13th or 14th of the month to decide what I could afford to do that weekend. And the way I would spend time and see friends was expensive — coffee, going to the farmers’ market, getting a drink later — suddenly you’ve spent a hundred dollars on nonsense. And things could get very tight, very quickly. At the end of 2019, I lost my job and we had to have a very real conversation about whether we had to pull our daughter out of preschool. Here, we don’t have those constraints. We’re saving for a down payment on a house. My wife and I are thinking about starting our own business together someday. A lot of things that would have been impossible in New York just seem more accessible here.

“I still feel like I’m delayed compared to other people my age, financially, but I’m not ignoring it anymore.”
—Isabel, 32, human resources director, New Hampshire

In 2019, I moved into my first solo apartment in New York after years of living with two roommates. It felt like a very adult step, but I was barely ever home. I was very much on the hamster wheel of work, friends, gym, going out — always busy, looking forward to the next thing. I was moving so quickly, but not really going anywhere. And my finances were terrible. I was having a great time, but I had very little savings. I was just burning through my income and not thinking of the future. I could cover my bills — student loans, rent, that kind of thing — but there was never anything left over. I always had to make sure that I was paying certain bills at the right time, and moving money around in the right places so that I wouldn’t overdraw.

When the lockdown started, I was suddenly confined to my apartment, and it was terrifying. I had a panic attack and went to stay with two of my best friends, just so I wouldn’t be alone. From there, we went to stay at my friend’s parents’ house in Massachusetts. I packed up two suitcases, grabbed the dog, and off we went for what we thought would be a week or two. I wound up staying for months.

By the end of the summer, I was loving remote work. I even signed up for some online classes that I eventually parlayed into a promotion. It was clear that we wouldn’t have to go back to the office anytime soon. I was still paying rent on my empty apartment, so I decided to break my lease. At that point I was like, “So, where should I live?”

I decided to start looking in rural New England and upstate New York. There weren’t a ton of options that I could afford, because thousands of other people were doing the same thing. It was almost like hunting for apartments in New York City — things were getting snapped up within hours. I’d talk to someone and then they’d be like, “Sorry, a person from San Francisco just offered to pay a full year’s rent up front, in cash.”

Finally, I found a house on Craigslist in New Hampshire, and I put a deposit down without even seeing it in person. Once I got there, it was clear that the pictures were definitely multiple years old. The place wasn’t in the best shape. It was also a tough transition to live alone in a house in a rural area. You can’t meet people when it’s a pandemic. I was game to join a book club or volunteer somewhere, but everything was still totally locked down, so that wasn’t possible. I had all this great stuff to do, like go on hikes and swim in swimming holes, but no one to do it with except my dog. Finally, I ended up meeting someone through a dating app, and now we’re in a long-term relationship.

Financially, I’m in a much better place now, but it’s taken a lot of introspection. Obviously it makes a big difference that I’m paying $1,250 a month to live in a two-bedroom house compared to $1,700 to live in a one-bedroom apartment. But even still, I didn’t save much at first, because I was like, Oh, I have all this extra money because my rent is so much cheaper. Let me buy new furniture or start a new hobby. I bought skis. I bought snowshoes. I bought a car. But I was able to do that in a way that I never could before. I feel so lucky to have the freedom to mess up and buy too much stuff. I can say, “Oops, I should have put that into my savings account, but at least that’s not hurting me.”

Now, I’m getting smarter. I used to just tune it out whenever people talked about finances, because everything seemed so out of reach — I was like, La la la, I can’t do that, so why bother learning? But now I know what’s happening with my 401(k) and where my contributions are going. I’m working on paying off the rest of my loans. I still feel like I’m delayed compared to other people my age, financially, but I’m not ignoring it anymore. I’m contributing to my retirement savings and I have a rainy-day fund. I hope to be able to buy a home someday. Looking back on my life in New York, it seemed like I was sort of a permanent child with no commitments. But now I feel much more ready to make longer-term decisions, and better equipped to do that, too.

Three Ex-New Yorkers on Leaving For Somewhere Cheaper