Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lifestyle Change for Dummies

I’ve mentioned how we relocated ourselves out of the cold impersonal clutches of suburbia to beautiful, rural Colrain, Mass have I? Well, what I haven’t mentioned was the cost of that move, the tougher less rosy aspects. If you are considering a drastic change in lifestyle, these tougher less rosy parts might be the elephant in your room. You might look at all the beautiful photos of gardens and livestock and wooded hills and think, “Um, how?” Since our move, many folks have confessed their own lifestyle change aspirations. Most of them also hint at "The Elephant": the dream is impossible, impractical and utterly not-happenin' for them. Well, if you want to drastically change your lifestyle, you can do it. Might want to get to know the elephant a little, though.

You know what they say about elephants: they can only be fully appreciated from a safe distance (There's old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, for instance) So…. from a comfortable distance, I thought I might present you with the Maggie’s Farm version of a lifestyle change guide for dummies. (And just to be clear: WE are the "dummies" in question here.)

Dan and I began planning our move with quite a few assumptions. Primary among these was that living in the country would be cheaper than in the city. We imagined that once we were out in the fresh air our lifestyle would pare down, the excesses and extras falling away. All those free eggs, garden vegetables, home-canned goods and the utter lack of shopping opportunity would combine to make living in the country its own sort of savings plan. We had no actual savings plan. (Here’s where you go tsk tsk. It’s okay, we deserve it.) In actuality, living in the country has wreaked a little havoc on our finances. What we save in staying home and growing our own food is gobbled up in increased gas prices, increased food prices (For some reason, food is actually MORE expensive out here where it's grown!), and animal feed. Also, whenever we happen to be “in town” we feel compelled to pick up some essential or other, which morphs into picking up many additional NONessentials, because town is FAR; we can’t just walk to the corner store. So, number one in the idiot’s guide is….

1) Map out your costs and expenditures as realistically as you can. Figure in things you might be taking for granted in the ‘burbs, such as cheap internet service and lower gas prices. Oh, and once you move, don’t buy into the feast or famine mentality. A little scarcity isn’t so bad. In other words, don’t buy all sorts of crap when you go to the supermarket just because you won’t have the opportunity to return any time soon. You don’t really need that week old Valentine’s candy. I promise.

We began our relocation at the height of the real estate boom. Lucky us, our exceedingly modest home within 10 miles of Boston was worth a tidy sum. Flip side was that a rural property—all the rural properties we looked at in New Hampshire, Vermont and Western Mass-- were worth a tidy sum as well! The plan had been to buy a farm that was priced considerably lower than our suburban house. Well…. We didn’t like those houses (Owing to the crazy market they were the properties that required major repairs or had major flaws we couldn’t accept). We shuffled along from one unhappy house to another, our “price range” creeping ever so slightly towards our upper limits.

When we visited the property that’s become Maggie’s Farm, we fell in love. Hard. It was, of course, at our “upper limit”. Now, Dan is a sunny sort of guy. He has an incomprehensible belief that the universe will provide and that things work out fine in the 99.9 times out of ten and good things happen to good people and all that. Sometimes, he is so persuasively optimistic I fall right into line with this stuff... And so, we made an offer. It was accepted. We were thrilled! Thrilled until the offer on our own house fell through, and then the next one after that and the next one after that. We carried both houses for five months. Fun, fun!

Of course, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am rooted here at Maggie’s. Cannot think of anywhere else I’d rather be (Except maybe, every once in a while, on a mountain top in Wyoming…) But, were I a smarter, savvier sort of relocater, I’d have bought one of those fixer-uppers and suffered through many years of cold winters and shifting foundations while easily paying down my mortgage and working on the flaws. Number two in our dummies' guide is:

2) Don’t fall in love! (At least not with a property, an idea, on the other hand, is just fine.) Look at your future farm with a cold, hard eye. Consider how the property fits into your overall vision and needs. What sort of carbon footprint? What sort of expenses? Here's a chance to change your patterns of energy consumption. Solar costs a lot in initial outlay, wood stoves mean you must have time to spend felling and chopping and carting, electric heat is sooo expensive and in our case, powered by a nuclear plant(!) etc. Make sure you are as clear-eyed about all this stuff as possible. Trust me, you’ll be happy you did. And all those winters in a half-finished house… hey, they’ll make for great stories later.

And work? In an ideal world, you would relocate with enough of a nest egg to live job-free (Don’t expect to make money off your farm, at least not for a long old while.) Alright, who can really do this? In lieu of the phantom nest egg, you may want to look at the job options in your intended town. In many rural areas, jobs are few and far between. And rural salaries are not on the same scale as urban and suburban ones. This works just fine for folks who have lived in on the same family property for generations, but will it work for you of the higher than expected mortgage? Maybe not. You may be able to telecommute…. if you’re not stuck with dial-up internet services. (Many rural areas have only dial-up.) I’ve made my peace with my looong commute. But I can’t imagine that this solution would work for everybody. So…

3) Look at your employment options with the same cold, hard eye. Figure out your job situation ahead of time.

This guide may sound more like a series of gripes. I don’t mean it to be. Rural life is rich and "real" and , for lack of a better word, awesome. One of the most awesome aspects is the way people are interconnected. Everybody DOES know everybody. You see the same folks at the Harvest Fair, the school, the post office and library. In the suburbs, you might live twenty years in the same neighborhood and barely know a soul past hello and good morning. In the country, villages really do raise children. You will get to know people, lots of people: teachers, neighbors, friends, the folks you argue with at town meeting, the folks who’ll help chase down your errant livestock or come over to pick up your preschooler when you’re stuck in the driveway and he's about to miss his class Valentines' day party. These folks are a big part of what makes rural life so much more satisfying than suburban life. Dan and I wanted to move to a reasonably progressive place with some diversity and not so distant opportunities for our kids to experience the good stuff larger places can provide: Music, art, cultchah (as they say in Boston), etc. Colrain suits us just fine. But community is a very personal thing.

4) Check out the community you are considering very carefully. Go to community events, fairs, schools, libraries. Check out the local papers and the flyers hanging in the convenience store windows.

5) Lastly, have fun! We had such a great time exploring houses and towns in the rural Northeast. We met a bunch of wonderful folks and have some pretty great memories. Dummies or not, we don’t for a minute regret our move. The choice has not been the financial boon we envisioned. We commute godawfuldistances. But the good so outweighs the less-than-good.

Well! Now that that's out of my system I realize I haven't written about perhaps the most important aspect of lifestyle change: the DREAM and its persistence. If you bring a sort of intentionality to the dream, if you know what your priorities are going in and remain clear eyed-through the process, you will be able look that elephant in the eye-- come to grips with all those cold clear not-so-rosy facts-- and see the dawning of a very beautiful thing.

Whatever and wherever you choose, I wish you a happy journey.


Christy said...

That was a wonderful post! And it gave me a lot to think about. The dream is there and I hope we are going to start the looking phase of the journey soon.

Chile said...

This post reminds me of all the things I worry about with our eventual move. We hope to relocate to an entirely different area, an area that we are totally unfamiliar with. We may have little opportunity for the initial forays before plunking down money. Considering our current awful neighbors, this scares me!

P said...

When planning our move, we considered far away places like Oregon and Colorado but decided against them because we couldn't visit for more than a day or two. Also, looked in books like "100 Best Places". Not much help there. The most important thing about a town is the people. We didn't want to move to a more beautiful sort of isolation. Visiting is crucial. Unfortunately, many of the cheaper properties are in depressed and washed out communities.

(...but if you want to check out Western Mass, drop on by!)


City Mouse said...

Excellent thoughts all! I have frequent bouts of "If I knew then what I know now." Luckily, we got to know our town before we bought, and knew the area well. Anyhow. Great list! (And love the elephant simile.)