City vs. Country: Which Is Cheaper? The Ultimate Cost Of Living Showdown
“It must be so much cheaper for you to live in the country!” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this in the year and a half since Mr. Frugalwoods, Babywoods, and I made the move from ultra-urban Cambridge, MA to ultra-rural central Vermont. The thing is, it’s not true. Or at least, it’s not entirely true and it’s not true yet.
Why Did We Move To The Woods?
We didn’t make this move in order to save money and we didn’t make this move in pursuit of a lower cost of living. We moved out here to our 66-acre homestead because we wanted to. Because we wanted a slower pace of life, a life surrounded by nature, and the time and the space to pursue our hobbies and interests.
It’s our supposition that–in the long run–living rurally will be less expensive than living smack in the middle of a city, but there’s a long, slow slog of start-up costs before any savings can be realized. We anticipated these expenses before moving here as we’d done years of research into rural life prior to purchasing our homestead (you can read the details of of years-long search in my Frugal Homestead Series). Now that we’ve been living the life for over a year, I thought it would be enlightening to outline all the financial differences between urban and rural life.
Please understand that I don’t share these cost of living discrepancies to complain or even to advocate for one way of life over another, merely to illuminate the surprising differences between living in an urban environment versus a rural one. Our decision to live in the woods was deliberate, strategic, and well-researched so we weren’t surprised by the increase in our spending. But, I hear from many folks who assume that rural life is automatically cheaper than city life and I want to detail just how our spending differs from our previously citified existence.
Before I delve into the specifics, I must include the disclaimer that your own personal experience of costs of living will vary based on where in the world you live, the size and composition of your family, whether you rent or own, what your lifestyle is, and a whole bevy of other factors. I can only accurately represent my experience and so don’t be alarmed if your experience doesn’t neatly mirror mine. This is precisely why I don’t prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach to personal finance. Indeed, there’s far too much nuance in our individual situations for such a myopic view. And now, let’s get to the comparisons!
The Elephant In The Room: Housing Costs
The major–and perhaps only–way in which rural life is less expensive for us is reflected in our housing costs. Or more accurately, our mortgage costs. Mr. Frugalwoods and I choose to carry mortgages on both our city home–which is now a revenue-generating rental property–as well as our rural homestead, which is our primary residence.
Our home in Cambridge, MA has a monthly mortgage of $1,978 (including property tax, but not insurance), while our Vermont mortgage rings up at $1,392.86 (not including property tax or insurance) per month. Clearly, we pay less on the face of things for our Vermont home. However, the maintence and upkeep of our property out here costs us much more, a topic we’ll tackle in depth in the coming paragraphs.
It’s also true that we were grossly underutilizing the asset of our Cambridge home by living in it. We rent it out for so much more than our mortgage that living there represented a misuse of that house as an asset. It’s worth more to us as a rental property than it was as a place to live. We addressed this topic of underutilizing the asset of a home in this month’s Reader Case Study, in case you’re interested in exploring the concept further.
For more on our rental property versus our primary residence, check out:
- How We Turned Our City Home Into A Rental Property
- The Finances Of Our City Rental And Country Homestead
- How We Decided Our Homestead Was The One
- That Time We Bought A Homestead
While housing is often the major barometer of a region’s cost of living index, there are so many other variables that impact a monthly budget that I find it too narrow a focus to solely hone in on. There’s no denying that rural Vermont has a lower cost of living than urban Cambridge, MA, but how you get at that lower cost of living is much more nuanced that one might imagine.
The most expensive aspect of homesteading for us thus far is the equipment that’s required to properly maintain 66 acres of wild woods and grow our own food. If you want to live rurally, there are three primary ways to go about maintaining a property:
- You can live on a small parcel of land (with a short driveway), which limits the amount of work you must do.
- You can hire people to do the work for you.
- You can purchase the necessary equipment to do the work yourself.
Since we wanted to live on a lot of land, and since we plan to live here for a very long time, and since part of our goal in moving out here is to enjoy the process of managing land ourselves, we opted for option #3. It’s also true that, in the long run, going the DIY route for our land will be less expensive than continually hiring people to do the labor for us. Plus, a big part of why we’re out here is to do the physical work of homesteading–there’s no fun to be had in hiring out!
Before moving here, Mr. FW and I owned very little in the way of outdoor tools or equipment. People, we didn’t even own a ladder! Building out our retinue of homesteading supplies is expensive and a rather lengthy process since we didn’t rush out to the store and buy everything brand new.
Rather, we’re taking the longer–but ultimately less expensive and I’d argue more exciting–route of sourcing as much of our stuff used as humanly possible. The major challenge with this, we’re learning, is that very few people out here sell perfectly good used tools. Craigslist has scant offerings, garage sales are ravaged early in the morning, and stuff flies off our town listserve in a matter of hours. Nevertheless, we’ve persisted and thanks to some strategic garage sale-ing, Cragislisting, and the like, we have been able to find quite a few items used. My devotion to the used marked is many-fold because…
- Saves tremendous amounts of money–sometimes over 90% off of what the item would cost brand new.
- Often means getting a higher-quality item for much less than a new lower-quality product.
- Keeps things out of the landfill!
- Circumvents the high carbon costs of buying new.
- Is more gratifying to find just the right used treasure than it is to simply buy new.
If you too would like to learn how to buy (almost) everything on the used market, check out: How To Find Anything and Everything Used: A Compendium Of Frugal Treasure Hunting.
I extensively detail the work we do on our land in my This Month On The Homestead series, but in brief, here’s the labor we perform to maintain and improve our 66 acre paradise:
- Fell trees that pose a safety risk and/or are dead and/or are in need of thinning based on our sustainable forestry plan.
- Remove fallen trees from our driveway.
- Fell trees for firewood.
- Buck, split, and stack said wood to be burned in our woodstove, which is how we heat out home.
- Maintain our quarter-mile long driveway, including clearing snow, grading, and repairing ruts/holes.
- Remove snow from around our cars and porches.
- Repair and build culverts to facilitate appropriate water run-off.
- Plant, tend, and harvest vegetables from our garden.
- Preserve and can vegetables from our garden.
- Harvest apples from our apple trees.
- Make apple cider, dried apples, and apple butter from said apples.
- Prune our apple and plum trees.
- Mow the grass.
- Build and maintain hiking trails through our woods.
- General house and barn maintenance.
- Equipment (tractor, chainsaw, mower, trimmer, etc) maintenance.
- Much more that I can’t think of right now…
Some of these activities are elective while others are mandatory, but all of them embody the nature of the life we’ve chosen and we view all of these pursuits as hobbies in addition to necessary to do’s. In order to accomplish these tasks, here’s a rundown of the stuff we’ve had to acquire.
Homestead Equipment List:
- Tractor with attachments
- Pallet forks for tractor
- Lights for the tractor
- A smart plug for the tractor
- Chainsaw safety gear
- Garden tools, such as: rakes, hoes, trowels, and more
- Vegetable seeds, seed starting mix, trays, a grow lamp, and a plant heating pad for starting vegetables indoors (mandatory based on our short growing season)
- Wood splitter
- Splitting axe
- Miter saw
- Apple cider press
- Endless amounts of smaller tools, measuring tapes, nails, screws, etc
- Woodstove tools
- Wood box (found in our barn; Mr. FW repaired and added these wheels)
- Wood storage racks (built by Mr. FW from scrap lumber found in our barn)
- Ash can for safe disposal of ashes from woodstove
- Wood sling tote
- Wildlife cameras
- Fuel cans and fuels for all of our small machines
- Radios to communicate with each other out on the land
- Game sled to hike with Babywoods in wintertime
- Jogging stroller to hike with Babywoods in summertime
- Boot dryer
- Air compressor
- Weather station
- SO MUCH MORE stuff that I can’t remember…
In addition to the equipment of homesteading, we quickly learned that there are some clothing requirements for rural work. We’ve tried to keep this category of purchases as minimal as possible and all of it was actually for Mr. FW (our primary land laborer) save one pair of insulated muck boots and one pair of snowshoes for me.
Let me disavow you of the notion that we look glamorous while working the land–we do not–but there are warmth and safety requirements that must be met. However, there’s no need to buy a whole new wardrobe when you change paths in life. I still wear the same clothes I wore in the city and I definitely still wear the coat I found in a pile of trash several years ago.
Homestead Clothing List:
- Insulated muck boots
- Chainsaw safety boots
- Insulated bib overalls for running the tractor in -25 degree weather (I must note that these were $5 at a garage sale!!!)
- Work pants
- Work gloves, work gloves, and more work gloves. Really, more work gloves than you could ever imagine…
- Bug repellant
- Hearing protection for operating machinery and loud equipment
And this is just the stuff I can remember!!! With each of these purchases, Mr. Frugalwoods and I have dutifully followed our self-imposed rule of waiting at least 72 hours before purchasing. In most instances, we waited much, much longer.
Our modus operandi with buying stuff is to always, always, always see if we can get by without it first. For each of the above listed items, we tried to retrofit things we already had and go the cheap route before capitulating to our need for the more expensive solution.
A great example is our wood splitter, which we waited over a year to purchase. I have the full story here, but in short, Mr. FW split wood by hand for a year before deciding that a wood splitter would greatly increase his capacity for putting up wood. With how unbelievably cold it has been so far this winter, we’ve burned through more wood than anticipated and so we’re grateful that, thanks to the wood splitter, Mr. FW was able to put up much more wood than we need this year. The wood splitter rang in at $999 and, while very expensive at the outset, is an excellent example of a tool that will save us serious cash over time.
City vs. Country
While all of the above enables us to live the life we want out here on our homestead, there are other costs to rural life beyond simply the maintenance and upkeep of land.
In the city, we had access to numerous modes of transportation: walking, biking (which is how Mr. FW commuted to work every single day), public transit, and finally, our car. Out here, conversely, we have only one mode available to us: our cars. Not ideal in terms of carbon emissions or expense. However, it’s simply a fact of life when you live in the literal middle of nowhere. Our driveway alone takes 10 minutes to walk up!
At any rate, before moving here, we knew we needed to own not one, but two reliable cars. As a family of two adults and soon-to-be two children, we sometimes have different schedules and felt the most prudent route would be owning two vehicles–an approach that has served us well. Before moving here, we purchased a used 2010 Toyota Prius (in cash) and a used 2010 Subaru Outback (also in cash). I detail those purchases in these two posts:
In addition to needing two cars in the country, we need two cars that are both reasonably reliable. Back in the city, we were able to scrape by with a junky, 200,000+ mile, 20-year-old minivan that occassionally didn’t start. In the city, it wasn’t a big deal when our car didn’t start because there were plenty of back-up modes of transportation: walking, biking, public transit, ZipCar, etc. Out here, however? The only back-up mode of transportation is to either not go anywhere or to rely on a friend to come pick you up in their car. There are no other options. Hence, we feel it’s responsible to have cars that are more reliable, which is why we upgraded to new-to-us 2010 models (note that we didn’t buy brand new; more on why here).
Our Toyota Prius is our answer to the incredibly long distances we need to drive in order to reach places like the grocery store, the doctor’s office, the dentist, the pediatrician, etc. It’s a wonderfully fuel-efficient hybrid machine and, with studded snow tires, is able to handle (almost all) of our harsh Vermont winter. Quite a few of our neighbors similarly own Priuses as the gas mileage–and decreased environmental impact–can’t be beat. Love the Prius.
Our Subaru Outback is our answer to the sometimes unavoidable need for an all-wheel drive machine. There are times when our driveway–and the side roads in our town–are so ice-covered or mud-entrenched that only AWD will see you through. We drive the Prius as often as possible and reserve the Subaru only for the worst weather or when we need to haul something too large to fit in the Prius. I have to say, I’ve been impressed with how infrequently we have to rely on the Subaru. That Prius does a great job!
We were correct in our suspicions that we needed two cars and there’s really no way we could make it with just one car, especially given the fact that we have young children and refuse to be stranded (either in cases of actual emergency or toddler emergency–aka we must get to playgroup!! parents of toddlers will understand this… ).
Back in the city, we were able to share that geriatric minivan between the two of us with nary a need for a second car. Additionally, we lived in cities for many years with no car at all–truly the cheapest and best way to go!
Hence, our transportation costs–the vehicles themselves, taxes, insurance, gas, and maintenance–are markedly higher out here and our options for transit decidedly limited. The upside is that we get to listen to a lot of NPR while driving.
Another factor I’ll note is that, despite the distances we drive on a weekly basis to the grocery store and for errands, we don’t commute daily, which dramatically reduces our costs. Plenty of our neighbors have a daily 60-mile roundtrip commute to work, which is a cost that should be taken into consideration before making a move to a rural area.
This was one of the only unanticipated increases in our spending. We did not realize before moving out here–and performing several months of grocery shopping–that our food costs would be higher. However, as with all things, more options = lower prices, and we have fewer options out here. In the city, we had dozens of grocery stores to choose from and we shopped exclusively at Market Basket (an amazing local chain with FABULOUS prices and and even better selection) and Costco (a warehouse-style membership store). The dream team combo of Market Basket and Costco enabled us to keep our food spending in the neighborhood of $350 per month for two adults.
Out here in the country, however, there are fewer grocery stores to choose from and, tragically, no Market Basket (I shed a tear). There’s a Costco 1.5 hours away from us and we do have a membership. Mr. FW drives up there every few months to stock up, but it’s not the same as being able to shop there regularly.
We now shop at Hannaford’s, a regular old grocery store with OK prices, and BJ’s, a warehouse membership store whose prices and selection aren’t as good as Costco’s. It’s true that we have a third little mouth to feed now that Babywoods is two years old and it’s also true that I’m currently pregnant and thus eating more than I normally do. However, family expansion alone does not account for the increase in our spending. Eventually, we hope to grow ever more of our own food on our land, but that goal is still a number of years away. But hey! We grew a lot more this summer than we did last summer!
3) The Used Market
The used market–which I waxed about above–isn’t more expensive out here, but it’s less well stocked. I alluded to this challenge above and while it’s true there are garage sales and online buy/sell groups and some roadside trash finds, it’s nowhere near the bounty we enjoyed in the city. I posit this to be the case for several reasons:
- Fewer people live here; ergo, less stuff.
- People are thriftier out here in the country; ergo, they upgrade their possessions much less frequently.
- The city is a much more transient place and, when people move, they often get rid of stuff. People don’t move very often out here.
- Homes (and barns and land) are much, much, much bigger out here and so people aren’t constrained by space in the same way that they are in the city. When you live in a studio apartment, you’re not keeping extra junk around. Conversely, when you live on acres and acres of land, you’re much less motivated to declutter.
- There are fewer thrift stores with smaller selections.
While we’ve found plenty of stellar deals on the used market, there’s no doubt we have to resort to buying new more often than we’d like. I haven’t had too much trouble finding used (or free) baby and kid stuff–a second crib, clothes, toys, etc–for the girls as we have a pretty robust market of people swapping and selling their kid stuff. But the farm equipment arena is decidedly a scantly populated used market. If you live in a city, revel in all the free and cheap used stuff you can source!!!
4) Home Infrastructure
Out here in the country we, and all of our neighbors, are on septic systems and have individual wells for our water. I detailed the nuances of these systems in Frugal Homestead Series Part 5: Well, Well, Well and Frugal Homestead Series Part 6: Septic, The Other End Of The Water Equation, in case you’re interested in gory water-related details. While we don’t pay a monthly sewer or water bill, as we did in the city, over the longterm, it’s more expensive to maintain, repair, and replace septic systems and wells.
While we heat our home primarily via our woodstove with wood we’ve harvested ourselves from our land, many folks heat with either oil or propane, both of which are typically much more expensive than natural gas, which is more widely available in the city.
We absolutely LOVE that we have high-speed fiber internet out here in the middle of the woods, which comes to us thanks to a local cooperative dedicated to bringing internet to broadband-scarce rural communities.
However, be aware that not all rural areas have access to such quality internet, or any internet at all. One of the major prerequisites we had for purchasing a property was access to high-speed internet and the fact that our home has the holy grail of fiber was a significant factor in deciding to move here. We feel so strongly about the importance of providing internet to rural areas that Mr. FW now serves on the fiber internet cooperative’s board of directors.
That being said, we have exactly one choice for fiber internet with exactly one dollar amount. We are more than happy to pay $74 per month for this stellar internet, but it’s a fixed cost that can’t be reduced by shopping around for other options–something that you can typically do in a more urban area.
Real Numbers! What Fun!
This is a personal finance blog after all, so let’s take a look at some real numbers. Since I share what we spend every month in my Monthly Expense Reports, I tallied up our expenses for a year of living in the Boston area versus a year of living in rural Vermont. This is not a perfect comparison since, as we all know, large aberrational expenses crop up in individual years. Over time, I’ll be able to provide a more comprehensive and smoothed-out view of urban versus rural spending, but I’ll need a few more years of data first.
We closed on our homestead in January 2016 and moved here full-time in May 2016. Since we started purchasing “homestead related” items in January 2016, I decided to use calendar year 2015 (January 1, 2015-December 31, 2015) as my urban year. For our homestead year, I chose May 1, 2016 to April 30, 2017 as that was our first full year of living on our homestead.
The period of January 2016 to May 2016 was a weird one since we were living full-time in Cambridge but driving up to our homestead almost every weekend. Given this, I decided to eliminate that time period from this side-by-side comparison, but you can check out our spending during those months in my Monthly Expense Reports section.
Another complicating factor is that our first child was born in November 2015 and so our year in the city reflects life without a baby and our year on the homestead reflects life with a baby. That being said, Babywoods actually costs us very little every month since we source all of her stuff used and stay at home with her (thus no daycare costs; although she does now attend preschool two mornings a week).
A Year In The City
|2015 Month||Total Spent||Groceries Only|
A Year In The Country
|2016-2017 Month||Total Spent||Groceries Only|
|September||$10,580.95 (includes annual VT property tax)||$325.63|
Difference: We spent $4,523.79 MORE in our first year in the country than we did living in the city and $2,359.27 MORE on groceries in the country. This despite the fact that Cambridge, MA is regularly cited as one of the most expensive cities in the country, if not the world.
The most significant change in our spending was the cost of our mortgage, which went from $1,978 in the city to $1,392.86 in the country. However, what the above graph illustrates so clearly is that this decrease in housing costs was MORE THAN eaten up by increases in spending in every other category. This is why I strongly caution against using housing as the only barometer in calculating cost of living.
Year of mortgage payments in the city: $23,736
Year of mortgage payments in the country: $16,714.32
If you’re curious how we kept our costs so low while living in uber-expensive Cambridge, MA, check out the following:
Taking The Long View
All that being said, and all those expenses being tallied, in the long run we anticipate a lower cost of living out here in the country. Just about everything we purchase now will enable greater frugality down the road. Performing all of our own wood harvesting (to heat out home via our woodstove), for example, is more expensive upfront as we needed to purchase a chainsaw, chainsaw safety gear (NEVER operate a chainsaw without safety equipment and training!), pickaroons, axes, mauls, a wood splitter, and more.
Over time, doing this work ourselves is vastly cheaper than paying for a delivery of split wood every year. It’s also cheaper than paying a heating bill in the city. Thus, it’s a question of the long game for us.
Another great illustration of how these purchases make life cheaper in the long run happened this fall when Mr. FW changed the snow tires on our two cars himself. Here in snowy, rural Vermont, snow tires for your car are mandatory (provided you don’t want to get stuck) and must be changed twice a year–from summer to snow in the fall and then back to summer tires in the spring. Last year, we paid our mechanic to do this switch-a-roo on both cars. Not wanting to replicate that expense this year, Mr. FW purchased all of the equipment necessary for him to change the tires himself. So at two cars being changed twice a year, a great investment in tools! Our eye is always on these longterm DIY options that allow us to both build our skill set and save money over the years.
Most of the equipment I’m discussing can be used for years (if not generations) and so much of it represents a one-time expense. That being said, it’s a lot of one-time expenses! I note this as a cautionary tale for anyone assuming that a rural life is automatically a cheaper life. Having this awareness has served Mr. FW and I well in our first 1.5 years out here and allowed us flexibility in our budget. We are still in the process of outfitting ourselves for many years of homesteading bliss and so I anticipate our expenses will continue piling up over the next few years. However, I do anticipate a time when we’ll plateau. When we’ll reach that wonderful state of having (most of) the tools and equipment we need and when we’ve carved out an even more sustainable life for ourselves. Until that time, I’ll continue to view these expenses as spending in service of our priorities.
A counterpoint to this longterm reduction in spending are our transportation costs. They won’t go away and will likely increase over time. Not even counting depreciation and the upfront cost of cars themselves, the ongoing expenses of car ownership will always be with us: insurance, maintenance, registration, gasoline, and more. All that to say, who knows? We might end up spending more on our country life than we would have had we stayed in the city. But that economic reality doesn’t change our minds in the least.
Choose The Life You Want
The overarching message I want to drive home today is the importance of choosing to live where you WANT to live. Not where you feel you should live or where you perceive is cheapest. There are plenty of lower cost of living places Mr. FW and I could’ve chosen–other rural communities, the suburbs, etc–but we made a considered and conscious decision to move here. Vermont is not the cheapest place in the US to homestead, not by a long shot, but it’s where we want to live.
We love Vermont’s progressive ethos, the good public schools, the type of land and housing, the proximity to Boston and NYC, our proximity to Dartmouth College, the arts and culture alive in our rural town, the community-minded spirit, the people, our church… the list goes on. I have an entire post devoted to our selection of the Green Mountain state, which you can peruse here: Frugal Homestead Series Part 3: Why Vermont? Life should be of your making. Life should be lived as you see fit, where you see fit. I’m cognizant that there’s a great deal of privilege coursing through the ability to choose your circumstances and I never want to lose sight of how tremendously fortunate my family and I are to have this freedom.
Frugality is a means of enabling yourself to make decisions based on what you want to do, not what you have to do. When you give yourself the unending gift of financial security, you can start making choices with an eye towards your priorities and your values–not what your monthly budget mandates. Free yourself from the shackles of living paycheck to paycheck. Open yourself up to the possibilities that arise when you aren’t beholden to your stuff, your debt, or even your job. The liberation that comes from being able to choose your path through life is transformational and I wouldn’t trade it for all the material goods in the world.
Give yourself the choice of your circumstances OVER a choice of buying things. What Mr. FW and I have discovered through living the life we want to live, where we want to live it, is that our lives are now infused with gratitude. When people ask if our frugality makes us feel deprived, I’m taken aback: how could we feel deprived when we do what we want, where we want, with the people we love most? Deprivation isn’t any part of this equation. Rather, a recognition of abundance surrounds us daily.
Where do you live? Do you love it or are you plotting a move?
Never Miss A Story
Sign up to get new Frugalwoods stories in your email inbox.