Moving to the Mountains

A city to small town transition

3/26/20233 min read

low cost of living mountain living personal finance
low cost of living mountain living personal finance

When I moved back to my hometown (Indianapolis) from Boston, I never thought I would leave again. I certainly didn’t think I would move back to a big city.

Life had other plans. In summer 2021, during the throes of COVID, I had a great opportunity to shift careers. While offices remained shut down, the expectation (at that time) was that we would return to work in the fall. To avoid uprooting my kids in the middle of the school year, we moved to DC that summer.

DC has many things to recommend it, but cost of living is not one of them. While we enjoyed the city, we’ve always loved the mountains, my spouse especially so. We found ourselves spending more and more time in Front Royal, Virginia, and less and less time in DC.

With the kids in sports and other activities, this split attention was not sustainable long-term. After a year in DC proper, we decided to relocate to Front Royal full time.

There were several reasons we made this move. One was that we genuinely liked the area – our neighborhood has direct access to the Appalachian Trail, a walking path across the street, and Shenandoah National Park is just a few minutes away. Our kids can run around the neighborhood and play in the woods.

It’s easier to get around and, while there are not nearly as many restaurants or entertainment options as the city, there are a few good local spots. As a bonus, there's an Aldi nearby. We value outdoor access much more than nightlife and indoor entertainment, so this works for us.

Little things are easier out here, which saves time. Not only can you walk into the Front Royal DMV without an appointment and get what you need accomplished, they affirmatively try to help you. By contrast, when my husband tried to get plates in DC he waited for hours, watching people get turned away for minor discrepancies on their documents. When we wanted to appeal our property tax reassessment here, my husband walked in almost same-day and talked directly to the board. Getting in to see a doctor is easy. Getting the kids into activities is easy.

Another big factor was the cost of housing. It would have cost over a million dollars to buy a house in the neighborhood where we were renting in DC. The idea of committing to a huge house payment for the next 30 years gave me anxiety. I like my job, but I didn’t want to be constrained to earning the same salary for decades. What if I wanted to move into government or public interest? I didn’t want to have to sell our house to do that. Taxes are also quite a bit lower in Virginia than DC.

While the housing savings are significant, there are some costs that have gone up living out here. The biggest expense was moving our kids into private school. While tuition is much lower than most DC private schools, it is obviously more than the public school they previously attended.

This was worth it to me because I thought our sons would benefit from smaller class sizes regardless, and if our financial picture changed it would be easier to transition from private school than to sell a house.

An ancillary cost is gas, travel time, and wear and tear on our vehicles. While we used to walk the kids to school, we now have a 20 minute drive each way. The boys’ friends (for the most part) don’t live down the block, they are scattered throughout a few different counties, so get-togethers also require additional driving. We could have gotten by with one car in the city; right now we have three.

There are also still costs related to work. I drive into the city mid-week, usually Tuesday through Thursday (driving in Tuesday morning and back Thursday afternoon or evening). Along with the usual commute costs (gas, tolls, mileage) I have also rented out a room from a friend this past year for those days.

This allows me to make in-person connections at work and continue to experience the city, but it does mean less time with my family. This puts a lot of the load on my husband to manage the kids three days a week solo. Luckily he is a rock star and the kids continue to get (somewhat) more self-sufficient as they get older.

We're happy with the move and the pace of life out here, but there are definitely tradeoffs. I'd love to hear your thoughts about city vs. small town living or any interesting pandemic-inspired moves!

Disclaimer: I am not certified in financial planning, nor am I familiar with your personal financial situation. These are my thoughts grounded in my experience, which will differ from yours. Please run any of these ideas by someone familiar with your situation!