Relocating for a job isn’t a totally unusual concept. There’s the adventure of a new city, a new employer, new coworkers, and even career change or advancement. But what do you do when you’ve already relocated for a job and you realize, a bit too late, that your shiny new salary isn’t enough to make it in your new town?
That sounds like a bonafide “oh shit” moment, right?
Well, it happened to Amy*.
Amy was living in Omaha, NE when the offer for her dream job came in. “This was a company — the company — I’d wanted to work with since I decided this is what I wanted to do for a living,” says Amy. As a career technical writer, Amy was pulling in around $60,000 a year while living in Omaha. Her dream job was offering a substantial bump to $75,000 and the sunny shores of San Diego. Not too shabby a switch, eh? Amy thought so, too. So Amy made the trip out to San Diego for her interview. Everyone liked everyone and Amy even had a few hours to look at a couple of apartments while she was out there. By the time she returned home to Omaha, she felt good about her decision. While rent would certainly be more expensive (her shared rent with her boyfriend would be going from $800 per month to $1,600 per month in San Diego) the salary bump and shared expenses of a two person household could still make it happen comfortably.
Or so she thought.
There were only two months from the time the position came available until her start date. There was a three week timeline from the day she accepted the offer to their moving date. This left little time to explore San Diego to figure out the ins and outs of daily living before getting into her new work routine.
“The first thing I can tell you is that online cost of living calculators aren’t correct,” says Amy. “They’re a good start, but you’ve got to get out of the house and find out what it really costs to do the things you like to do.” Amy and her boyfriend were shocked at the simple things, like gas in San Diego costing $1.50 per gallon and the difference in grocery prices. “Produce was a lot cheaper in San Diego, but items like milk and meat cost more.”
Then came the shock of eating out in San Diego compared to the Midwest. “A beer was pretty standard at $6, but food was much more expensive in restaurants in San Diego,” says Amy. “A plate of pasta that we would have paid $9-10 for in Omaha was easily $15-16 in San Diego. Talk about sticker shock.”
They were getting blindsided by costs and pretty soon, Amy’s shiny $75k was looking a bit tarnished. With her boyfriend in graduate school, not to mention her graduate school work being done after work hours, they got serious about looking for ways to save.
First, grad school was a fortunate time constraint. “With both of us in school at least part-time, we didn’t go out much,” says Amy. To trim expenses, they traded in their car for a smaller, more fuel efficient car. Next, they both found side gigs that could contribute to their income, and on a flexible schedule. Amy started as a rep for Stella and Dot, an accessories company that let her sell their line in her free time. Both she and her boyfriend started driving for ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft as well.
And then the money was coming in, but it wasn’t much of a life.
Ultimately, Amy stayed at her dream company for just over two and a half years. “The job didn’t turn out to be what I’d dreamt it would be and we really wanted to be somewhere with a lower cost of living,” Amy shared. She and her boyfriend have just moved to Tucson. They had friends from Des Moines already living there and Amy has a sister not too far away. The biggest plus for the move? Amy’s back to telecommuting in a city with a much lower cost of living than San Diego. She’s also up to $95,000 a year and they’re living comfortably in a decently sized city with lots of options for going out.
So, if you’re relocating for a job, what advice does Amy have for you? While she doesn’t regret jumping at the chance to take her dream job in a more expensive city, she hopes people can learn from her mistakes.
First, she wants you to start with a cost of living calculator. While they’re not 100% accurate, they’re the first indication if your new salary will even work in your new city. Try this one from CNN Money or this one from Bankrate.
Next, she wants you to take more time than she did with her move. “You have to get out and do the things you love doing. Look at restaurant menus. They were our first indication that we were in deep. If you give yourself time,” says Amy, “you won’t miss out on cost differences like we did.”
Finally, Amy encourages people relocating for a job to think with their head over their heart. “It’s easy to get excited about a nice salary bump or a dream job offer, but is it your dream job if the money isn’t enough for you to live a decent lifestyle?” she asks. “You have to see what living costs you, not just renting. Those numbers are two very different things.”
*name changed for privacy