The benefits and drawbacks of living in a low cost of living area with kids

We bought our house in 2013, when we couldn’t really afford it, but we couldn’t really afford to rent any longer. In a perfect world, we would have saved up 20%, but in the real world, I was quickly moving into “geriatric mother” territory, I wanted more kids (which is good, because I was pregnant!), and it was shit-or-get-off-the-pot time.

According to the Internet, our house is a 1-bedroom, 1178 square foot house. Here’s a truth-bomb: the Internet isn’t always telling the truth. Our house is technically a 1-bedroom ranch with a finished attic, which means it’s a 2-story house with three bedrooms. It is different than other 2-story houses with three bedrooms because there is no attic but you know what? Attics are where raccoons and creepy men live. I’ll take my no-attic, thank you very much.

The reason why that matters is that I have no idea if my house is 1178 square feet or maybe like 1199 square feet (the upstairs rooms are teeny tiny!). Okay, maybe up to 1300? To give you an idea of the space. A bad idea. Blame the Internet.

Oh, I just found another listing that says it’s 1349! But that also lists it as having 2 bathrooms, and while it is technically true that we have two toilets, in no way would anybody consider the freestanding toilet in the basement a bathroom, so that 1349 might also be adding in unfinished basement space.

Anyway, three bedrooms. It’s a cute little brick house, perfect sized for a family with two kids and maybe a dog. There is a detached garage with doors that don’t really work but that is in good structural shape. It sits on a more-or-less flat acre of land that is, in my opinion, priceless (just kidding, it has a market value), with an apple tree (wormy apples), a pear tree (some years good, some bad), blueberry bushes that produce buckets of blueberries every year, raspberry bushes, mulberry bushes/tree, space for a big raised garden that I’m slowly building, space for ground mounted solar panels, space to play Frisbee with the crazy puppy, and this summer, I’m going to plant one of these:

Willow dome. I’m not sure if mine is going to look like that but by God you only live once.

Basically, it’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a house, although the bathroom is rotting through the floor and the roof probably needs to be redone, and the sunroom is fantastic when the temperature is just right outside but pretty miserable when it’s not (someday, someday, we will redo those windows and it will be amazing all the time).

It cost us $115,000.

Our backyard, two days ago, when all was right in the world and it wasn’t 19 degrees out, like it is now. I’m not kidding when I say that I think our backyard is worth every cent that we paid for the house, and the house was just an added bonus.

We got our house for $115,000 because it is in an area that is low cost of living (LCOL). At the time, I was not tuned into the FI movement, but I was a cheap-ass motherfucker, so this made sense to me. Why buy a house for $200,000 with no yard and a ton of work to be done on it, when we could buy this piece of perfection for much less? It’s not a choice I regret, although sometimes I do have moments where I question things. There is nothing I would change about living in a LCOL area for me, my husband, my MIL, and my dog. But with kids, the issue becomes more complicated. There are surprising benefits, huge benefits, and not-surprising drawbacks, minor drawbacks.

First, to give you an idea of the general area, let me say this: every child in Sonya’s elementary school gets free lunch. The socioeconomic level is such that it’s not even a question. I love this, because of the aforementioned cheap-ass motherfucker status, but also because there are no status issues around who is eating for free and who isn’t.

Benefits of living in a LCOL area with kids:

  • Duh, the cost. Our mortgage is around $750 a month, taxes included. At the time we bought it, that was a stretch, but now that our income has grown, it is a small part of our monthly budget. This leaves more money for all sorts of other decisions (some good, some bad, but decisions nonetheless!)
  • The community. Anecdotal, but in my experience, communities with more money come together less, and those with less money come together more. We had been here for only a few months when a neighbor asked if I could take her kids while she started a surprise job and scrambled for childcare. When I was at work and Sonya got sick a few weeks ago, I called another neighbor to pick her up. This reliance on neighbors isn’t necessarily only happening in neighborhoods with low socioeconomic status, but if I had a live-in nanny (not counting my MIL, who doesn’t count), or my neighbors did, that wouldn’t have happened. And that is where the building blocks of community start, and there is just a strong sense here that we all stand together. Nobody has a ton of extra resources, so everybody relies on everybody else. I really value this about our neighborhood.
  • The cost of activities. My brother and sister-in-law live in a very fancy place with very fancy schools. They spend a lot – a LOT – so that their kids can do sports (a sport). We spend a lot – a LOT – but that’s because my kids get to do whatever they want. If they want to try soccer, they try soccer. If they want to do dance, they can. They take piano lessons and voice lessons and do gymnastics, dance, soccer, basketball. In theory, I want my kids to have tons of unstructured time, but in practice, I also want them to be able to try the things they want to try. Because we live in a LCOL area, that is manageable. Just as an example: a quick Google search told me that classes for competition gymnastics teams typically cost $150-$300 per month. I pay $243 for all three girls (although only one is on the competitive team). It’s far from nothing, but it’s on the low end. Average cost for dance, says Google, is $60-$150 per month per child – and that appears to be for the minimum. At the dance studio, all three kids do ballet, tap, jazz, and tumbling, Sonya does lyrical and Viv and Amelia do baton – it’s $193 total. Soccer and basketball are $50 per kid for the whole season. It adds up, fast, but that’s because we have three kids and we try to let them explore their interests.
  • But also, the costs of activities. The costs of activities go beyond the cost of tuition. Gymnastics requires leotards (which are shockingly expensive), dance requires what seems to me to be ridiculous costumes for the dance recital and competitions (also shockingly expensive). When it comes time to choose costumes, every coach always brings up the cost – they try to be cost-effective. They purposely order warmups that are much too big for the kids (within reason), so that the kids can get 2-3 years out of them. The gymnastics leotards are only ordered every two years. Our long-sleeved gymnastics competition leotard was $185, and it will last for two years. I’ve talked to parents whose kids had to buy leotards for $350. This kind of community-wide cost consciousness makes its way into all sorts of things – from school field trips to the “cool” clothes that kids are wearing, and it adds up (subtracts down?).
  • Lessons in frugality. Sonya is just moving out of the age where American Girl dolls are A Thing. I’ve known other kids of this age, and it seems to be the first brand-consciousness that creeps into kids’ lives. While some of the kids around here save up their money to get the real dolls, for $120 or whatever, many opt to get the knock-off brands, which are basically the same, for $20. I heard the kids talking about it, and the 8-year-olds have internalized some messages that I think a lot of adults still struggle with – that it’s the same doll for much cheaper, that if you save your money buying the cheaper doll you can get more accessories, that you can’t really tell the difference between one brand and another. There is so much marketing to try to get kids to become loyal to a brand, and one aspect of living in a LCOL area that I didn’t really expect is that kids learn to question that brand loyalty pretty early on.
  • On top of that: all parents are talking to their kids about money, all the time, as in “we can’t afford that.” “We can’t afford to go out to eat tonight.” “We can’t afford new shoes right now.” It’s not necessarily intentional or out of habit, but out of necessity. I think when you live in a wealthy area, some families talk to their kids about finances, because they are being intentional. But some don’t. Our kids’ peers are being taught the value of a dollar because they have to be.
  • Inclusion/exclusion. When my kids wanted to try dance, it was really important to me that the place that we find takes kids of all types, that nobody’s telling the kids to lose weight, that the emphasis is on learning and not some weird level of perfection. Same with all activities. This probably depends on the place you go, but I’ve found that in the LCOL area, nobody’s expecting their 6-year-old to be a prima ballerina. We aren’t investing in future Olympians. People’s lives here are fairly grounded, and the expectations are grounded. One consequence of that is that clumsy kids are welcome on the ballet team, slow kids are spending time on the soccer field, and nobody is telling 9-year-old gymnasts, or 18-year-old gymnasts, to lose weight. I don’t want to pretend that there aren’t cliques at school or that everything is Kumbaya all the time, but I think that in HCOL areas, there are higher overall pressures for kids to conform.
  • Expectations for education. There’s a good chance that, if I stay in my current job, my kids could go to college for free, or for a reduced cost. If not – they are certainly going to notice the choices of their friends and peers. The kids who graduate from this region tend to go to community college, state schools, or liberal arts schools with decent scholarships. My niece is graduating, and her friends are going to top tier schools in California, ivy league and almost ivy league schools, etc., price be damned. Perhaps unlike many in the FI movement, I hope my kids go to college. Fuck, I’d like them to go to a floofy liberal arts college, because I think the life lessons and critical thinking skills are extremely valuable. However, I hope that when the time comes, they will also be able to look at all of the options relatively objectively, not colored by the peer pressure of friends for whom money is not a consideration.
  • I definitely don’t live in a bubble, which is good! Good for diversity of thought! Good for growing kids, as they are exposed to more ideas! It is good! It is so great! Ugh it’s like doing Burpees, you know it’s good for you but it’s hard to put it on a list of benefits. See below.

Drawbacks of living in a LCOL area with kids:

  • The schools are underperforming. I’ve done quite a bit of reading and have come to the conclusion that schools tend to have low ratings because the students are unprepared when they enter school, and not the other way around (that students don’t reach outcomes and therefore the school gets a low rating). Many of the students in our district don’t have the resources at home to be ready for school, so they don’t test well once they get there. I’ve also read studies showing that kids with the proper parental support get the same education in a “crappy” school as a “good” one. Sonya is in 3rd grade, and, so far, I’m very happy with her education. This may change? But so far, it’s okay.
  • The schools are underfunded. This is absolutely a drawback. Because property values are lower, taxes are lower, and teachers get paid not enough. Last year, our teachers went on strike, as they should have. It was probably about a month, seemed like twenty years, and it’s always a possibility. It suck suck sucks. I have heard of some of the wealthier districts going on strike, but I think it’s less likely, and more importantly – our teachers are underpaid, and it sucks sucks sucks.
  • Jealousy. I have a colleague who has chosen the opposite – she has a big, beautiful home in a supergreat region. She paid 3 times for her house what we paid for ours, and I’m sure her taxes are at least twice as high as ours are. I wouldn’t choose that path – I didn’t choose that path. But when we go to her house, I’m always wondering if I chose wrong. She has a separate playroom so her kids’ toys aren’t constantly cluttering up every section of the house. Her hardwood floors seem so easy to sweep. She knows that her schools are great, and so I assume she doesn’t sometimes battle the “but am I ruining my kids’ lives by being cheap?” thoughts. I hate to admit it, but jealousy is a drawback. I don’t feel any sort of diminished status for living where I do, but I do sometimes want for something fancy.
  • The politics. I’m pretty progressive, and many of my neighbors are not. I am highly educated, too highly educated maybe, and only 23% of the people in my zip code have a bachelor’s degree or higher. I’m sort of “educated coastal elite” living in “white working class America.” I am married to an immigrant, and I am a feminist (lest you think you aren’t, remember, the definition of a feminist is somebody who thinks men and women deserve equal status and equal opportunities in society). The morning Trump was elected, I woke up in my half-immigrant household feeling very isolated. I love my neighbors, I love my friends in the town. But we often just don’t talk about politics, because it’s touchy. It’s hard to hear people say that immigrants are taking all of our welfare when I’m supporting a legal immigrant (MIL) and I know for a fact that even legal immigrants aren’t eligible for social services for five years after they get here. I know that there are guns in just about every house, and even though I know that it’s completely reasonable to have guns in the house and be a responsible gun owner, I also know that kids are very bad at understanding risk and responsibility and just knowing that my kids could get their hands on a gun while hanging out with friends makes me feel sick.
  • Politics, part two. Along those same lines – while the pressure to conform in certain ways may be higher in HCOL areas (get high SAT scores, be overachieving always, be thin and pretty and picture perfect), there are pressures to conform in other ways here. If any of my kids turn out to be transgendered, I think that will be very hard. Homosexuality doesn’t seem to be as big of a deal now as it was 15 years ago, but still, I worry a bit. Fortunately for me, that hasn’t come up – but I think it can, easily, in many LCOL areas.
  • The cost of commuting. I didn’t plan this out well; when we moved here, my husband and I took one car to work, and it was manageable. Now, with the different work schedules, one kid in public school in our town and one in preschool near our work, and a MIL who needs a lot during the day, we take two cars, and the cost of gas and wear and tear are more than I bargained for. Sometimes I wish we had paid more money for a house closer to our works, because the cost of commuting just burns up in the air – it doesn’t give us better equity in the house and it won’t be reflected in the eventual sale price of our house. I still think we come out ahead, but I hate that cost of commuting.

I love my house. I love my neighborhood. I love our lifestyle. I don’t love the region’s politics, and I have a sneaking fear that the education may not be as good as it should be (I think that’s hype. BUT STILL THAT FEAR IS THERE). Living in a LCOL area seems to be one of the pillars of FI, if it’s possible, and with kids, it often seems like the drawbacks are not worth the benefits. However, in our case, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, and I would make this choice over and over again.

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