Cheaper than staying home – researching places to live

Like many people with professional jobs, I spent most of my salary every year for quite a few years. I saved some money in short-term savings and contributed to my 401K, but I didn’t really save a big portion of my income. I live in the Boston area, where housing costs are high.

It wasn’t until I realized that I wanted to focus on my own projects full-time (I love online teaching and entrepreneurial activities), that I looked for ways to dramatically lower my costs, so that I could live without my full-time salary. Working on the side while working full-time is not easy because there is never enough time to devote to the side-projects.

At the end of 2012 I left my job at MIT, where I had worked for 14 years. It was an excellent job with wonderful colleagues and MIT is a great place to work. So it took me quite a while to come to that decision. Of course many factors went into it and in this post I’ll discuss my choice to change my living situation as a way to make the leap possible.

Moving into a small studio apartment

My tiny studio apartment
My tiny studio apartment

A year before I left my job I moved out of my 2-bedroom condo into a small studio apartment, (and rented the condo to some excellent tenants). The tiny studio apartment was very close to Davis Square (5 minute walk from the subway), and if you’ve ever been there, you know that Davis Square is super-fun! So the downsize didn’t feel like a sacrifice. I sold most of my furniture and many of my possessions in order to fit into the smaller space.

Doing that cut my housing costs in half.

I was inspired by reading stories of other people who downsized, got rid of possessions, and began to live more simply. I liked that idea.

I couldn’t see a way to live on my fledgling business income while still living in the Boston area, though.

Living abroad or living in the U.S.?

Living abroad in Mexico - Moon Handbook
Living abroad in Mexico

Then I started reading stories of expats, retirees, and “digital nomads” living in Mexico, Central & South America, and parts of Asia who were living in low-cost furnished apartments that they rented for 4-6 months at a time. Food costs are much lower in these locations as well, and it’s pretty easy to find places where you can live without a car. (I’ve been happily car-free since 2005 and I hope I’ll never need to own a car again!)

Many of those places sounded appealing, but at first I thought it would be too drastic of a change to move outside of the U.S. So I researched places in the U.S. that I might enjoy living. My criteria were:

  • lower cost of apartment rental (cheaper than Boston, at least)
  • easy to live without a car
  • good weather, mostly warm (no rainy, winter weather that drags on for too long)
  • coffee shops, indie bookstores & movie theaters (the kind of neighborhood I enjoy)
  • like-minded people to become friends with.

It was fun researching locations. (See below for some sources I used). What I found was that no place fit all my criteria. Too much winter or rain: Madison, Ann Arbor, Portland. Too expensive: San Francisco, Oakland, LA, DC. Not easy to be car-free & weather not so good: Omaha (where I grew up). I’ve lived in Boston my whole adult life and I love it, so it’s hard to find places that offer as much.

I finally considered Providence. Even thought the weather isn’t much different from Boston, it has many advantages. It can be walkable, has fun neighborhoods near Brown University, easy transportation via commuter rail to visit Boston or New York, and the rents are cheaper. It appeared that I could find a one-bedroom in the neighborhoods I liked for between $700 – 900/month. I was paying $1,250/mo for my studio in Davis Square (Somerville/Boston). I visited a few times with friends and even looked at some apartments that were appealing.

House-sitting in Boston

Boston's South End
Boston’s South End in winter

In the meantime a house-sitting opportunity in Boston came my way. Friends of mine go to India for four months every year (January – April) and since they are vegetarian, they prefer non-meat-eaters in their house. I said yes! They have a beautiful historic house in the South End of Boston, very convenient to everything. I decided to accept this as a way to get started with my lower-cost life. I left the studio apartment and moved into the South End house at the beginning of January. I held an indoor “winter moving sale” in the studio as a way to get rid of more of my possessions. The timing was good, since my last day at MIT was Jan. 3.

I thought about moving to Providence in May as a next step after the house-sit was over. But after more research, I decided to go ahead and move somewhere with a much lower cost of living (and very interesting culturally): Oaxaca, Mexico!

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca, Mexico
Oaxaca, Mexico (photo: waywuwei on Flickr)

I’m leaving for Oaxaca on May 1 and in another post I’ll discuss my reasons for choosing Oaxaca as a place to spend the next six months. (hint: I love the Spanish language and I’ve always wanted to get better at speaking it. I also love experiencing different cultures).

Six months is the limit for staying in Mexico on a tourist visa, and by the end of that time I’ll decide if I’d like to go back or try another location. Perhaps I’ll try different locations around the world for 4-6 months at a time for the next few years, who knows?

Below are some resources that inspired me.

Researching places:

(Even if you’re not retiring, books about where to retire are good sources for researching places).

Living simply


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  1. Pingback: Work online, live anywhere | A Location-Flexible Life

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