The lie sold to young wanna-be urbanites

Posted by
"When you get here, just come yell at the Walgreen's sign," Travis said
This is me visiting my old San Francisco neighborhood a couple years ago.

When I was 21 years old, I decided it was time to move to a REAL city. Sleepy Seattle felt too small, too familiar, and not nearly international enough. I wanted something grittier. Something faster-paced and higher density with glamorous nightlife and world-renowned music. I’d spent most of my life in a region known for rock — but it was 1996, and I wanted a city known for House.

So I moved to San Francisco.

Or rather, first I moved to Hayward, a working class city in East Bay, where I squatted in my aunts’ guesthouse for a couple months to save up money. THEN I moved to San Francisco. Specifically, I moved into the Lower Haight.

Everything was in order for my new glamorous big city life: I had a sweet inner-city pad, complete with roommates from Paris and Brooklyn. I was up to my elbows in my music scene of choice. I lived within walking distance of hundreds of amazing restaurants and bars, and had my tiny little Honda CRX to get me to the thousands more within driving distance. I was a glamorous big-city girl and I was ready to LIVE THE DREAM!

…oh, except for the fact that my $11/hr file clerk job barely paid me enough to cover rent and food. I wasn’t living the dream. I was living the lie of being a young, struggling urbanite.

There’s a lot of pixie-dust that gets sold to all of us in college about how we’re going to move to the big city and make it big. Certainly New York and LA are especially guilty of this crime, since the cities are fueled by selling a dream-version of themselves to up-‘n’-comers of all kinds — but they’re not alone in the deception.

It’s not that I didn’t know that moving to San Francisco was going to be expensive. Of course it was going to be expensive! That’s part of what attracted me to it. The glitz and glamour and nightlife and Easter-egg-colored Victorian walk-ups with their secret garden back-patios. Of course it cost to live amongst all that fabulous.

I knew it cost, so I got myself a good job. I’d been working retail for minimum wage, so entering the white collar work-force with all its vacation time and insurance benefits felt like a MASSIVE step up. My income almost doubled when I moved to San Francisco — I felt confident that this increase would cover my living expenses.

But the cold reality is that, if you’re living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, an entry-level office job just doesn’t get you very far. It’s absolutely a livable wage, but it’s not going to get you the kind of glamorous life that attracted you to living there.

I was in a state of constant budgetary crisis during my time in San Francisco. In fact, my first EVER published article was called SF LOW BUDGE and was all about doing things like stealing toilet paper from public restrooms to make ends meet. When I tried to live within my means, it meant eating at home (which I could have done in Seattle) and not going out (the whole reason I’d moved there!). I tried focusing on free events (parties in Golden Gate Park were awesome!) but lived in a state of constant frustration over not being able to actually enjoy the arts and culture I’d moved to the big city to enjoy.

Now, I don’t want to misrepresent the situation here: this was far from poverty. My point here isn’t to say WOE IS ME, EDUCATED WHITE GIRLS IN THE BIG CITY ARE SOOOOO POOOOOOR, but rather to say that the big city dreams that are mass-produced and sold off-the-rack in small towns across the US (and around the world) just aren’t tied to reality. They are romanticized fantasies, and it’s important to recognize them as such.

Chances are that if you’re in your early 20s and you move to the big city, you will not have the glamorous life of your dreams.

Reality check: Chances are that if you’re in your early 20s and you move to the big city, you will not have the glamorous life of your dreams. (Exceptions for those who sell drugs or skin, have a trust fund, or are independently wealthy, or run a profitable side business.) For most of us in our early 20s who move to the big city, it’s about being in close proximity to glamour, and getting tantalizing tastes of it here and there. Eventually (if you work hard and/or get lucky) you might get to the excitement that pulled you to the city in the first place. But initially? You’ll probably live in a building that looks like this, eat at home most nights, and be frustrated. Or, you’ll wrack up crippling debts. (I did that in San Francisco, too. It took me almost 10 years to pay off the debts I incurred in my year of living there. I do not recommend this method.)

Is this a reason not to move to the city? Well, maybe some of you want to follow Cat’s lead and trade the starving urban artist routine for the non-starving smaller-town artist routine. For me, however, I love my big city life, and the scrappy years were totally a part of the journey. No regrets. (Well, other than the credit card debt. That was just stupid.)

I just wish that someone had told me, in words that I could understand, that scrappy wasn’t like Rent where everyone squeaks by in gorgeously decrepit artists lofts. For me, scrappy was being the bored artist in the office working mundane day-jobs. Scrappy was living in ugly buildings and missing amazing cultural events happening a block away because I couldn’t afford it. Scrappy wasn’t about high city fashion — it was about spending too much of my paycheck on khakis to wear to the office jobs that helped me barely pay my rent.

So this is me saying to all the young Offbeat Homies dreaming of a big city life: it may not be glamorous, but if it’s what you want, it’s so very, very worth it.

Comments on The lie sold to young wanna-be urbanites

  1. I’m the opposite. I am living in the greater Boston area and I long to move back to the small town area where I grew up. My husband and I can barely make rent here, and we are unable to keep up with my single friends with five roommates who regularly go to popular and splashy bars and clubs.

    But I couldn’t get a job in a small town. I could only get one in Boston. Like you, it’s not the kind of creative job that I would thrive on. There were no salaried options in the place we wanted to live. So for now, we’re living this way – not by choice; and we are unable to participate in all the cool things that the city DOES have to offer. Because Boston is great, but the most I see of Boston is the view from the T as I commute.

    Sorry to be so bitter but this hits home for me. I think this is a very wise post for so many reasons.

    • Same here…moving to a smaller town was not an option, because there were NO JOBS. None. Unless I wanted to be a supermarket checkout girl, and I wasn’t even guaranteed to get that job as I was overqualified (and yet underqualified for a lot of the cool DC jobs, because the people who got those got them after unpaid internships which I couldn’t afford to take even as a student – I needed to be earning money even then).

      I finally figured out how to make it work by moving abroad!

      • I would love to live in Berlin (my hometown)- but no job there for me in Science Research. I moved abroad to NYC for graduate school (subsidized housing and fellowship). I am very much looking forward to leaving. What works for the 20s can become grating in your 30s.

        Kitty, about Boston: my fiance just moved there, and all he raves is about how nice, and cheap and friendly it is compared to NYC.

        Jenna: Unpaid internships living off the big-city myth are almost worth a whole other post. How is anyone who is not independently wealthy supposed to afford it?

        • The good news about unpaid internships is that now it’s illegal for them to require more than ten hours from you without paying you. So if you can afford the extra time on top of it, it may be worth your while. I was able to complete an unpaid internship at a local arts center in my last trimester of pregnancy, while working part-time at a bank, while my husband went to school, worked an internship and a job of his own.

          My point is not to be all, yay me, I did this–but if you’re interning at a great place with a chill employer, they may be willing to work with you on schedule. It’s worth at least a try if you can swing it. I ended up with three months of valuable experience and an awesome reference.

          • Thank you for your kind and informative reply! Luckily I finished my advanced degree program two years ago thanks to a fellowship (Natural Sciences are better funded than Social Sciences), but a lot of my friends got stuck in internships without benefits. As you point out, there are always decent employers around, and one-day-a-week internships are a very good idea.

          • ..and I forgot, it should definitely be, yay you, since it takes effort to make it work and not be taken in by a sucky situation!

        • Unpaid internships suck but are totally worth it in the end. I am not from money. I grew up in Baltimore City on food stamps in section 8 housing. When I graduated high school I joined the army because the truth of the matter was there was nothing else for me except McDonald’s. After serving in the army I went to college and used my Montgomery GI bill (1,080 a month) to live off of. I chose to apply for one of those nifty work for free internships in DC and I hated my life when I did it but I made it work. I moved into a trailer park in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. I got up at 4 in the morning and took a train into DC then worked all day got back on the train at the end of the day rode 2 hours back into West Virginia getting home roughly at 8pm. I lived on that 1080.00 by couponing (before it was cool) & being “boring”. After I graduated I applied for a permanent position using my degree and intern experience with the Department of Homeland Security. I am now sitting pretty and it was all because of the sacrifice’s I went through to get here. I loved this article because it is very real. Had I not made the 2 hour train ride into DC every day I would have never been able to do it. I just wanted to let people know of my experience with a DC internship if they are thinking it is not possible because it is. Don’t get me wrong it was not all horrible, I had a lot of fun doing the free stuff in DC and people had no idea I was not the big city girl I made myself out to be.

          • I ADORE this. I think that too many people have the idea that success comes easily.

      • Agreed. I just moved from a big city (Toronto, On) to a small town about an hour and a half outside of it. My partner and I decided to move after he lost his media related job in the big city. We thought it would be a bright idea to move to a smaller city, where in rent is cheap, not inflating drastically and where we could “settle down” despite not wanting to have kids any time soon. We also figured, much like the article that it was getting to a point where we didn’t go out all the time anyway and didn’t do a ton of stuff because we didn’t have the budget to in the big city. Our lease was up on our shitty, and I mean shitty apartment and we figured it would be more worth while expense wise to move. We got lucky, as we found an AWESOME apartment pretty easily in the small city. One we would have paid double for if not more in T.O. We also gravitated to to this city because it is connected to a lot of cool places and smaller subsets of cities where in we knew we wouldn’t die of boredom because we could just travel around. Plus, we’re only an hour and a half away from Toronto. Our new city includes having a small art house cinema and some cool indie biz’ and having a fairly strong student population in order to keep things “cool”, open minded, and fresh. My partner got lucky and scored a job the moment we arrived, though he is making considerably less then he ever was it’s a job with a lot of prospective oppourtunities. I on the other hand have had the most difficult time finding employment. I honestly made a mistake thinking that because I had built such a strong resume in a large city that I would some how be guaranteed a position here. NOT. If anything, it’s the longest I have been unemployed in my life (5 months) and I have had literally 20 interviews, always get call backs, and everyone assumes I’m over qualified. I had one management position come my way only to have the business then ditch me because they couldn’t afford me, and I get the feeling they were intimidated by me. Despite having stellar references, and a great worth ethic no matter what the job pertains to this has been rediculous. I am not looking for my next career here, all I want is a part time retail position. Which I have also since learned is nearly damn impossible because I now compete with a million students looking for positions. There are literally no mature part time positions for the average woman with open availability. I can’t imagine what it is like for a Mom who needs a job in this city. Over all, I have hit rock bottom and feel like a bum when it comes to talking to my partners family. I am at ends meet. I have another interview Monday for a manual labour position merchandising all day long. It’s semi-permanent. I’m hoping they’ll pity me. Over all, grass is greener is not a good perspective to have. I had the same mentality about the big city and living there from 21 to 28 y/o, only to learn it’s just a different reflection in the small one.

  2. I love my urban life. However, I have to admit that I am often saddened by the number of things happening that I just don’t get to do because of the budget. Whether its going to the theatre, a beer festival, or just out to some cool restaurants.

    That said, there are occasionally free activities that make my city life still feel worth it. I love going to the local arts festivals, even if I know I can’t buy anything. And we have some amazing parks (I hope to make it to Centennial Fountain again this summer), even if I don’t make it out to them as often as I’d like. And of course there are all the free summer concerts I never go to but totally COULD if I were so motivated.

  3. Having grown up in California cities, this is pretty much the story of my life. Without even trying to relocate to a big city, rents have always been out of reach–or out of sync with any other lifestyle goals. Now I live in a boring white box apartment in San Diego, but by sacrificing hardwood floors and charming architectural details we’re able to spend on the good food and entertainment available in our neighborhood of choice.

    Mind you this is after going the stupid debt route (which still didn’t include charming architecture, mind you). We finally paid that off this year. But that’s a whole other conversation.

    • A blogger I read finally jumped ship on California and moved to Alabama, because she was struggling to survive (she’s on disability for health problems). California is really beautiful and there are so many great places, but it seems like a really hard place, too, in a lot of ways.

  4. This is why I moved to NYC and then promptly moved to Detroit. I spent half of my monthly paycheck just to pay the rent in New York, not to mention I still needed to pay back those student loans (which was the other half), so there wasn’t much left for food and I rarely went out and did things that weren’t free. That is such a crappy way to live in this great cultural hub. So I packed a van with my stuff and moved to Detroit where there are still tons of great restaurants, concerts, shows, art, and culture and it costs next to nothing to live here.

    So you all should consider moving to the D (or at least the metro-D) as we have many of the perks of other big cities at a fraction of the cost. (And it isn’t nearly as scary as they make it sound on tv.) But you will need a car or some other type of transportation to get around because the public transit is a huge mess.

    • If we’re making suggestions of great/affordable locales, I have to say emphatically, PITTSBURGH. We moved here from Denver for a year while my husband got his MLIS (we’re going back because of family, not because we don’t like it) and the place has been really good to us. The cost of living is low, the job market is GROWING, and there are dozens of libraries/museums/parks.

    • Haha, I grew up just outside of Chicago and went to college in Grand Rapids, MI. After I graduated I chose to stay in GR and almost everyone I knew responded with “why?” I am able to rent a great apt here for 1/3 of what I would pay in Chicago (also everything else is cheaper), there’s still culture, but I don’t have to plan my day around traffic, and the small liberal-arts college I went to is recognized and respected (so finding a job was much easier). I may move back to Chi-town, or somewhere else, or stick around, who knows? But for now, living in a smaller city has granted me a lot of freedom.

  5. This article is AMAZING! I come from a lovely small college town and I moved to L.A., San Francisco and New Orleans. I hated living paycheck to paycheck and still not having enough, missing amazing things (I’ve still never been to a jazz festival, ridden a cable car or been basically anywhere in L.A.) because I was too broke. Also, I got tired of living in the ghetto (I actually lived in Compton, Oakland, Alameda, Marrero). After being mugged twice, having my car stolen three times and two different apartments robbed I decided that the urban life was not for me. Ironically, because I live in a small University town, so much of the culture that visits big cities (famous exhibits, speakers etc) comes here FOR FREE! I have a sweet little apartment, with a yard and neat architectural details. I can still walk everywhere, but I haven’t had any acts of violence committed against me and my cost of living is right in line with my college-esque income 🙂

    • I never had my house broken into when I lived in San Francisco for 7 years, but I did have my house broken into twice when I lived in a small college town Davis,CA.

  6. Heh, this article reminds me of my friends in high school, who went on and on about moving to California (they never said where in particular, just the state as a whole) and being a successful whatever their at-the-time hobby or major was (yes, we had majors in high school). Me? I couldn’t care less where I am; as long as I’m safe, happy and not stressed about money/living arrangements/etc, I’m great where I’m living, wherever that is. I’ve never had the desire to uproot myself to go live someplace just because of how I romanticized it out to be.

  7. Yep, this sounds like a good deal of my friends who moved to cities and then BLAM! Recession. Suddenly public toilets and ramen are looking really good to them. I’ll stick to my overpriced suburb thankyouverymuchly. Le sigh.

  8. Yeah, I don’t agree with you. I live in San Francisco – granted, it’s a much less glamorous neighborhood than Lower Height, but it’s within city limits and on public transport. If you consume smart, it’s not as dire as you make it seem.

    • I certainly wouldn’t expect that my experience would be everyone’s. I absolutely agree that if you go move into the city planning to “consume smart,” you’d have a different experience than I did. My goal here wasn’t to say “everyone’s experience will be like this,” but rather to encourage folks to temper their expectations that it COULD be.

      Also, my cautionary tale shouldn’t be taken as a reason not to move to the city — with the exception of one year, I’ve lived in large urban areas for almost two decades. I love it, but I do wish my youthful naivete had been a bit tempered.

    • I completely agree about “consume smart”. I spent my twenties in SF and loved it. I also moved there at 22 after graduating from college and had to share a 1 bedroom apartment with two girlfriends in the tendernob. To make ends meet I had to work 3 jobs, which was brutal, but one was working at the legion of honor, so I got get into all the other museums in the city for free and take a friend.
      After I got my teaching credential I got to move into my own little studio and made enough money to fully enjoy the city. But I still shopped at the mexican produce markets which are super cheap in the city. There are loads of free events like movies in the park and lots of free concerts. The Cat club used to be free if you got there by 9pm,80’s music always makes me happy. Also there are a lot mom and pop ethnic restaurants that are uber yummy and easy on the wallet.
      I made it a point to never shop at whole foods because it was way too expensive, rainbow grocery was cheaper and it’s a co-op so I felt a lot better about shopping there. Although the first year was hard, there is nowhere else I would rather have spent my 20’s. I live in San Jose now and I still miss San Francisco, but there is no way I would ever be able to afford to buy a home there :(.

  9. I am lucky enough to live in San Francisco and make enough money to pay rent on a nice apartment and support my stay-at-home husband and daughter.

    I am not lucky enough to make enough money to buy a house or condo in this or other nice neighborhoods. I feel conflicted about staying. Do I stay and rent forever? Do I move to another city or town where we could afford to buy, but give up the wonderfulness of San Francisco? Elsewhere will also be wonderful, I’m sure…

    • Agreed! I’ve been in SF for about 8 years and absolutely love the culture, the vibe, the politics, the activity, etc. But now that I’m in my late 30s I’m wondering if living somewhere where I’ll always be worried and struggling is worth it. And this is coming from a household income that would be considered upper class in almost any other city! With student loans, it’s next to impossible to live here anymore. Unfortunately, it’s the only place I think I’d be happy in this country. Still trying to get a visa and work permit for the EU…

  10. I am living this reality currently. I live in Brooklyn, NY, and NEVER in a million years thought I would live in NYC ever. EVER. But I moved here for love, a sacrafice totally worth it because I am with the best partner I could ever ask for. However, my “job” is more like an unpaid internship, and so I am supported by my wonderful boyfriend who pays the rent. He thrives on the millions of goings on at any hour of the day, and cultural vibrancy this city has to offer, but I find it hectic and frenetic, where everyone is hustling to get by. (This observation led me to the revelation that I am NOT a hustler, and move at a much slower pace then New York seems to require for “success”.) While I have made friends and found a supportive community rich in art and expression, the fact remains that I am unable to enjoy this city fully, as I am plagued with feelings of guilt for not being able to contribute my share in rent/living expenses, and feeling in shock and overwhelmed by the amount of debt I am racking up when I do try to pay my way and engage in what this city offers. I’ll add that we live in 450 sq. feet, eat at home most nights, don’t frequent the bars/clubs very often, and are generally pretty frugal. The cost of living is still astronomical. A recent trip to Arizona put it in perspective when a visit to the grocery store cost about 1/3 (if not less) of what it would cost in NYC. Am I advocating a move to suburbia? Not yet. But ask me again when I’ve doubled my debt.

    • Don’t feel bad about not loving the fast-paced frenzy of a big city. I’ve never been to New York, but I’ve been to Chicago twice, and while it was cool to visit, I knew I would never want to live in a place like that. All the people and the hustle made me anxious and antsy. I need space and sky. I currently live in a suburb of Denver, next to the foothills. It’s probably one of the least glamorous places in this area, but I love it! Everybody is different, and I really think it’s an innate personality trait whether or not you like big cities.

  11. I grew up on a farm outside of a town of 4,500 people then went to university in Montreal. I did the crappy, small apartment in the weird neighbourhood and the constant scrimping for grocery money. Then after some bad choices/weird goings-on, I ended up moving back in with my parents and ended up meeting my now-husband who lived 30 minutes away in a small city of 85,000 people. I never thought I’d end up this close to home, and in this industrial city my artsy degree is useless and earns me a minimum wage call-centre job… but oddly enough, I am happy here where everyone is friendly and walking alone at night is safe and we can afford an older 3 bedroom house in a good part of town. Who knew I’d end up here and be happy?

  12. I had one of those entry-level jobs in Washington DC and I wouldn’t say it was a livable wage. I ate a lot of carrot smoothies, cabbage, beans, tuna and rice (at least I knew where to get bulk Indian spices and so could indulge in a big pot of curry made with canned tomatoes because I couldn’t afford fresh, and the beans always tasted good despite making me fart a lot in my crappy office job).

    I made ends meet after the first year by getting a second job, which meant I missed all interesting cultural events on weekday evenings, but at least had enough money to live a stable life and save up a bit to get out of there. If I hadn’t gotten that job I too would have huge debt on top of my student loans…and if you need to go into debt to live in a place I wouldn’t say that the wage is livable.

    I once actually told my boss this (I know. You’re not supposed to do that. But I did. Live and learn). She said that I should get a car, because I couldn’t stay late during crunch times as I had to make the bus, I always seemed in a rush and my long commute on the bus made me chronically 5 minutes late and always tired.

    “I can’t afford a car. I don’t earn enough to make that happen.”

  13. I grew up in Georgia (state, not country), lived in the UK for five years, and have now lived in Boston for a year.

    A very, very expensive year. It’s… rough. I go back and forth on whether or not being able to live car-free is worth the astronomical rents of anything close to the T.

    Added fun factor: I’m a large dog owner. HA! Oh, me.

    … yeah, I kinda want to cry now.

    • That’s the problem in DC too – if you can’t afford a car, living near the Metro is super expensive and you can’t really afford that either. If you move away from the Metro, you have to get a car which you can’t afford (and the difference in rent, while substantial, is not enough to cover car costs). I struck a balance and lived a mile-long walk from the Metro and had some options for buses, too. It was inconvenient, especially walking home uphill from Pentagon City station through a parking lot which felt really dodgy at night, but I kinda made it work. Kinda. I sure walked a lot.

    • I’m not sure it is worth it…I live in Allston where rent is $750/mo-ish and the T is still $2 or $1.25 every trip, one way. I feel like I am spending so much more than I ever did on gas for my tiny little car.

  14. What’s funny in a “ha ha sad” way is that now I live almost downtown -I can walk to the student hub in the southern part of my city which is hopping with music, cafes and events, or take a ten minute bus ride. I pay something like 10% of my income on an apartment (it’s not a very nice apartment, but still). I can walk to the subway in less time than it takes one song to play on my iPod and live very close to a bus stop hub. My area isn’t hopping with cultural events but a ten-minute bus ride to get to those events is no problem, and taxis are cheap and plentiful. Because of the cheap taxis I can stay out as late as I want – long after the subway has closed – and lower living costs mean that I can afford that extra beer. I can even afford that extra Belgian beer. My neighborhood has a day and night market, tons of restaurants that are quite good, friendly neighbors who say hello, outdoor food stalls, a supermarket, a hiking trail, a bike trail, it’s near the river (no view though) and other useful day-to-day shops. I do earn more money now (more like $30 an hour – maybe I shouldn’t announce what I make but it’s a consultant-type job so it varies anyway). The neighborhood is not hugely glamorous but it is extremely safe. Robberies, pickpocketing, street crime etc. are unheard of. I have enough left over to save and travel abroad for about a month every year.

    What’s the secret?

    I don’t live in the USA.

    I live in Taipei, Taiwan (which is not nearly as scrappy and industrial as you may think it is – actually it’s quite thriving and surrounded by gorgeous, hikeable mountains).

    It’s kind of sad that one has to move out of the USA to make things work, but there you have it. I’m happy I left. I don’t mean to complain – hell, I love it here and just being abroad in a far-off country is glamorous in itself, and my Chinese is nearly fluent – but really, it makes me wonder what the USA got wrong that other countries are starting to get right.

    • There are so many places outside of the USA with super expesive cities (London and Tokyo immediately come to mind) that I don’t think this can be blamed on the American system.

      • I disagree. London, tokyo, bombay are exceptions, not rules and I can name several specific issues the USA has not dealt with as well as other countries. First and foremost is public infrastructure including transit, which is why you get young folks who can’t afford to live near a transit hub or afford a car. If, relative to size and population, NYC had the public transit budget that is the average in many cpuntries, it would be $22 billion? Systems that are so bad that you need to own a car even in the city or be severely restricted in movement (including being unable to accept metro area jobs because they are not near enough to buses and subways) is not a good system. So I am soery, but I disagree – a few exceptions does not prove the rule, and anyway many of those places (Tokyo, Bombay but not London) have cultures where young urbanites stay with family until marriage if they have any family in the city, which combats costs somewhat for locals even if we Americans would generally not want such an arrangement.

  15. I guess it all depends on your career choices, life goals, hobbies, interests, and all those little things that make you happy… look at where you’re living and ask youself if you can get all that and more without going into debt and what you’re willing to pay a premium for… some locations might require some sacrifice, and that’s when knowing your priorities is important.

    Knocking big towns or small towns, USA or abroad doesn’t teach anyone what their options really are. I make choices about where I live based on what I want out of my life and where I think optimal happiness can be achieved. Plus, I’m willing to budget appropiately.

    I live in L.A. and love what I’m making of my life… and every time I visit my hometown in Iowa, I have old friends and family trying to put down a city they’ve barely visited and trying to justify their choice of never moving more than 30 miles away from where they were born. Which is cool, I don’t criticize their choices if they’re really happy.

    But moving to a big city, being broke for a while, and overcoming obstacles can make you a more well-rounded adult if you’ve never been exposed to that kind of lifestyle. A young person with a sheltered childhood could gain valuable perspective … and the nation just might gain a more sympathetic voter. Even if someone doesn’t want to live in a big city their whole life, a few years trying on a different hat might prove to be a learning experience at the very least.

    • TOTALLY agree with your final paragraph — I love my almost 20-years of city living and wouldn’t change it for the world … but man those first few years were tough in ways I hadn’t expected.

  16. Thanks for the post, its good to know that it’s not just like that in the UK – where I am at the moment. We’ve been in the uk for nearly 7 years now, before that we lived in zimbabwe, and it’s hard to persuade people &family back home that it really is hard here! Alot of people assume that the grass is greener, and because its england, we can have a better lifestyle.
    But seriously, it took us about 6 years of living in rooms of about 12 square meters sharing a bathroom and kitchen with several other strangers who are often less than hygienic, today we finally have some space of our own. OK so we have less than 5 pounds left over every month after paying bills, rent and buying food, and we count pennies when we do food shopping, we don’t ever go out (like our last night out was in March) but we are standing on our own feet and that’s a good thing!

    I don’t want to whinge, because we are happy although we struggle and are considering looking for a better quality of life, and hoping that one day we will have friends and a lifestyle that we want.

  17. Ah yes, I remember trying to explain this to people when I moved to Montreal for grad school. Montreal: Canada’s exciting, “bad” party city, full of culture. People back home would say “what’s it like living in Montreal?” eyes all wide and excited. And I’d have to point out that the tourist’s Montreal is not the student’s Montreal.

    The tourist goes to Montreal and sees the museums, has a buggy ride through the old city. They eat at lovely restaurants, sip coffee in cafes listening to all the melodic french around them and buy fabulous bagels. And they love Montreal.

    The student lives in a crummy basement apartment where nothing works (heat, lights, roach traps), spends most of her life in the windowless computer lab on campus and works two part time jobs so she can splurge on cheese occasionally.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved the city. I got out to the free stuff and eventually got a third job so I could get into a nicer apartment and actually go to some of those restaurants and cafes myself. So it’s not impossible.

    But it’s true that the insta-glamour myth of a big city is a myth. It takes money and if you come to “take the city by storm” it takes more than a movie montage of work to make it happen.

    And, no, the movie and television industry does not help since they depict students living in palatial apartments in New York and artists buying designer clothes.

  18. I moved from a mid-sized southern city (Memphis) to New York City, then to San Francisco, then back to Memphis. I would give my left tit and half my right to be back in the Bay Area. Maybe because I have no interest in owning a home, or in marrying and having children, but I was able to do most of the things I wanted to do, in both “big cities”. The main reason is, I had no problem living in “the ghetto”. I grew up in a middle-class suburb, but most of my family is pretty poor, so I was always in and out of the neighborhoods that scare other people. I never had any issues in Brooklyn or in Oakland – in fact I preferred them to Manhattan and San Francisco. Even now, back in Memphis, I live in a marginal neighborhood. Those are the neighborhoods with more renters than owners, who have scary-looking dogs, and frankly where some of your neighbors might be working in the “alternative economy” – drugs dealers, or artists. But I have never had any problems in those neighborhoods. My neighbors speak to me, and offer me bootleg copies of movies and music for free (which makes me laugh inside). I’ve been broken into twice in my adult life, and only once was anything stolen (my stereo and some cash I had lying around) – that’s less than some my friends in the “nice” neighborhoods. By living in the marginal neighborhoods, the working-class neighborhoods, I consistently pay 25-50% less in rent than people just a block or two over (where I live now, the people across the street pay at least $200 more a month than I do).

    Be careful of your neighborhood, don’t live somewhere where you are constantly afraid (believe me, there are MANY places in Memphis and Oakland that I would NOT live in), but also, don’t listen too closely to what people say. That guy walking the pit bull wearing the grungy t-shirt and pants hanging off his butt might be a drug dealer – or he might be a mechanic who will happily give you a hand when your car doesn’t start one morning.

    • I totally agree with this! My partner and I have learned that we’re actually way more comfortable in neighborhoods that even some of our friends judge us for living in. We did live in Manhattan, but in Harlem and then Washington Heights, and we loved it. Now we live in Minneapolis and it was a pretty eye-opening experience when some of our friends couldn’t believe the neighborhood we moved to and made constant comments about how we were going to get shot. But for us, these neighborhoods are more interesting, more vibrant, full of culture and interesting food and little corner stores and families and different languages. And of course, they’re cheaper, which lets us do things in the city we’d never be able to do if we lived somewhere else!

  19. Thank you thank you thank you! Your post is exactly what I needed today.

    I’m a 24 year old interior designer going the ‘Cat’ route — living in bumblefuck NJ where I make decent money and can afford to live, instead of Philly or NYC, where I’d much rather be.

    It’s not easy, but it just makes sense for me. It KILLS to be so far away from the city (No nightlife! No decent beer bars! Strip mall galore! McMansions!)… but I make almost double what my city friends make, with half the commute and twice the living space.

  20. This post so hits home. My friends laughed when I turned down the usual NYC/Chicago/DC/Seattle/California in general routes and moved to Cleveland. But I love it here, and actually get to save money while they all complain about barely getting by. The weather isn’t great but the architecture, history, and culture are so much more than I expected.

  21. I agree with this. I used to live in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and moved to Melbourne, Australia for university thinking I would be in the city clubbing every night.
    The truth is that, with crippling international student fees, and that it costs half my fun budget just to TRAVEL to the inner city, I haven’t really been able to do much at all! Having said that, I do get the occasional opportunity to splurge on trips to the city, which makes the trips more memorable.

  22. The other day I was looking for info online about moving back to my home city of Denver (not exactly San Fran or NYC in terms of cost but still expensive) and the consensus was that you couldn’t be comfortable there at an income of less than 300k per year.

    Honestly, it sounded to me like the same kind of scare tactic used when people get married/have children/go back to school/whatever. It’s totally unreasonable.

    I think it’s important that this post noted that it is difficult to move to a big city and have that experience of living frugally, but it’s not impossible, and you don’t need to be independently wealthy/make 300k a year. My best friends just bought a house. He works at the Apple Store and she works at a gym and a restaurant. It can be done.

    • TOTALLY agreed. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from moving the the big city (I LOVE THE CITY), but just to say … it might not be the glamorous like you’re hoping for. At least for a couple years.

    • What?!? 300k a year to be “comfortable”?? I guess their definition of comfortable is different than mine. Granted, we’re out in the ‘burbs where it’s cheaper (closer to both our jobs), but combined we make half that (and I still think that’s a lot of money), and I consider us pretty darn comfortable.

  23. I just about died inside reading “Sleepy Seattle.” Having been obsessed with Seattle since puberty, and having daydreamed about it more frequently than anybody ever realized… and now having moved there from the Midwest, this place is anything but sleepy.

    I don’t know whether a person who’s always lived so near a *real* city like Seattle can understand it until/ unless they live in a place like River Falls or Eau Claire, WI (better yet, try Boyceville or Spring Valley!). Seriously. When 2-4 hours to St. Paul/ Minneapolis is “within driving distance to a big city,” suddenly your definition of a “big city” is very, very different.

    The rest of the article is pretty much dead-on, though.

    • To be fair, Seattle may strike me as “sleepy” because I’ve lived here most of my life. It’s a big city to be sure, but it feels like small town when compared to NYC or LA, and I still feel like San Francisco is more internationally known for its culture.

    • I had to laugh at the “sleepy” part, too. I grew up in a small farming town in the middle of Michigan (pop around 4,5000 now) and Lansing (pop ~120,000) was our “big city.” Detroit was about 2hrs away and that always seemed impossibly big and busy. I went to college in Ann Arbor and it always felt so metropolitan to my bumpkin self. 🙂

      Oddly enough, I now live in LA. 5 years here and I’m ready for something smaller. Not pop 4,500, smaller, but we’re moving to Nashville and I’m super pumped. 🙂

  24. CHICAGO!! I lived in Chicago from ages 22-26, did a volunteer program, lived in an intentional community and still managed to have reasonably decent social life.

    The cost of living is so manageable in that city. Sales tax is pretty high but rent is very cheap in many exciting neighborhoods. Public transportation is excellent, though expensive. It is a very bike-friendly city though. With 3 million people there is always something going on for your brand of weird. Chicago is a mecca for all the small town people in the mid-west sold on the dream of the big city, and it actually delivers. There are free concerts and festivals every weekend all summer long.

    After four years I have moved back to Boston to be closer to my home and family. Boston lacks some of the pizazz of Chicago and has a much higher cost of living. Still, I prefer it to the suburbs.

    City living has forced me to be resourceful and have a low standard of living. I will most likely always have roommates and no cable. My kids will play in parks rather than their back yard. They will learn bus routes before they learn to drive. That is just fine with me.

  25. As someone who now lives in the DC metro area (about 1.5 miles from a metro like another poster) I would love to see a follow-up article on how tips to make the most of a slim budget. I’ve lived in the DC area most of my life, but once I had to fend for myself I have limited my excursions to our museums and zoo out of fear of ruining my budget.

Read more comments

Join the Conversation