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At this time two years ago, Kim and I were in the final stages of preparing to make a cross country move from Pennsylvania to Utah to begin a new phase of life. Our dreams to move west to pursue a life of adventure predated discovering the idea of FIRE and thinking that early retirement was truly possible for us.

Ogden, UT

After more than a decade of dreaming, saving, and planning, nervous excitement was building to a crescendo. We finished loading the moving truck and started driving west.

About six months after making the move, I wrote how all of the change we took on in such a short time led to one of the hardest periods in my life. At times, I was overcome with doubts as to whether we made the right decision.

Now that we’ve been in our new location for two years and had time for the dust to settle, I’m confident that we made the right decision to move. I’m equally confident that we chose the right location for our family.

Many people will debate whether to stay in place or move in retirement. For those that decide to relocate, you must choose where to go. I’ve identified three key questions to help find the right retirement location, whether that means staying put or moving on.

The Three Key Questions

Honestly and accurately answering the following questions are critical to finding the best retirement location.

  1. How Will You Spend Your Time?
  2. How Much Will Your Life Cost?
  3. Who Will You Spend Your Time With?

Because this is first and foremost a personal finance blog, we’ll explore the financial implications of the decision. However, money alone can’t buy happiness, and finances may be the least important consideration of the three. I encourage you to think long and hard about these questions and consider the interplay between them.

How Will You Spend Your Time?

Jobs tend to dominate our time and decisions during our working years. A major decision is where we choose to live. Retirement provides a blank slate to design the life we want. Many people consider relocating. 

The obvious place to start is thinking about the most important things to you on a day to day basis. How do you want your life to look? 

We knew we wanted to move to the mountains. So we created our ideal early retirement mountain town checklist to guide our search.  We wanted:

  1. To live in an outdoorsy mountain town that matches our interests and personalities.
  2. To have access to skiing, hiking, and climbing all less than 30 minutes from our home, ideally living directly in a mountain town to give us optimal access.
  3. Convenient access to air travel. Traveling occasionally is a stipulation for Kim’s work which she plans to continue indefinitely. Also, we want to be able to visit our family back east and have them visit us.
  4. A neighborhood/small town setting in which to raise our daughter.
  5. A small, but nice home for the same price or less than we would sell our prior home (<$300,000).

You can read more about our process in this post from my original blog. Looking back at that post three years after I wrote it brings a smile to my face. Our ultimate location, Ogden, UT, has exceeded our expectations on all five of our key criteria.

How Much Will Your Life Cost?

Many people write about geoarbitrage, moving to a lower cost of living area where dollars stretch further, as a tool to enable an earlier retirement. This is a vast oversimplification.

If you find a low cost of living location that meets your criteria, that’s great. But settling for a lower cost of living area just to retire sooner can be a recipe for disaster.

Low cost areas tend to be cheap for a reason. Conversely, high cost of living areas are expensive for a reason. There is more demand for some areas than others because of economics, geography, weather, and culture.

We faced the challenge of wanting to move from an area with low housing costs to a ski town, where housing is notoriously expensive. As we compared areas, we realized this is an oversimplification as well. Home/rent prices are only one piece of the equation. 

You need to go deeper. Spend time to consider how your lifestyle will change if you relocate and the combined financial impact of this decision. This requires knowing your current expenses so you can make reasonable projections and comparisons.

If you downsize, will this decrease property taxes and utility expenses? If you live closer to desired activities, will it lower travel expenses? Can you eliminate a vehicle? Can you leverage non-financial assets like local relationships, volunteer work, and season passes to do more of what  you want for less cost?

The answer to each of those questions has been yes for us. Despite having moved to an area with house prices that are about double the area we left, our overall expenses have been about the same.

We’ve spent a substantial amount over the past two years upgrading our home and outdoor gear. Once we settle into our new lifestyle, our spending will likely be less here over the long-term.

Who Will You Spend Your Time With?

This may be the most important question to the quality of your life. In my opinion it is also the hardest to answer.  Therefore, I’ll give it extra attention.

We decided to move from the town where we both grew up, where most of our families still live, and where we had 15 years of professional relationships. We moved across the country to an area where we knew no one.

We’ve managed to develop meaningful relationships quickly. Frankly, a lot of this was luck.  Hopefully our experience can provide insights for others who, like us, don’t know who you’ll spend your time with in retirement.

Matching Your Personality and Interests

The first factor that has helped us make friends goes back to the first question. We found a town that fit our personality and interests. In our old town, we knew no one  who shared our passion for outdoor adventure. 

That couldn’t be more different here. On our block alone we have bike and ski sales representatives and two ski patrollers. 

Most houses have garages. Few have cars in them. Instead they’re filled with campers, tents, bikes, skis, snowboards, golf clubs, kayaks, and paddleboards. 

It’s harder to find people who don’t share our interests than those who do. In addition to neighbors, there are multiple Facebook and Meetup groups for hiking, biking, and climbing. It’s a bigger challenge to find time to do all the things I’d like than to find people to do things with.

Neighborhood Characteristics

The second factor that has benefitted us is the type of neighborhood we chose. We moved from a development of newer widely spaced homes to a neighborhood where homes are older, smaller, and more closely spaced. The neighborhood is close to multiple trailheads which attracts people with shared interests.

Like many, we had bought into the idea that bigger, newer, fancier homes are better. In honesty, we didn’t love this house. It was what we could afford without breaking our budget. That has been an absolute blessing.

We lived in our prior house for over a decade. We considered one set of neighbors friends who we talked to and spent time with. Most of the others were people we waved to when walking or driving by. We knew most of their first names, but little else about them.

It’s different here. When moving in, our movers canceled on us at the last minute. A neighbor stopped over to introduce herself and see if there was anything we needed. 

I explained our situation and asked if her husband could help me move a couple of the heavier things that evening. Within a couple of hours, she organized a crew of neighbors. They showed up and completely unloaded the truck in less than an hour.

Since then, we’ve been helped in countless ways by neighbors. We try our best to reciprocate. It’s a rare day where we don’t talk to the neighbors or our daughter isn’t out playing with neighborhood kids. 

There was definitely an element of luck in finding particularly good neighbors. There is also a take home lesson to get a feel for different neighborhoods. Finding a neighborhood where we live in close proximity to many people with similar interests has helped us develop relationships quickly.

College Towns

Another key for us finding things to do, ways to do those things inexpensively, and people to do those things with was choosing a college town. Ogden is home to Weber State University.

Universities provide a number of perks to their surrounding communities. Most universities provide affordable programming open to the general public.

The university, in cooperation with local businesses, puts on the annual Ogden Climbing Festival featuring some of the biggest names in climbing, experiences for people of all abilities, and volunteer opportunities within the community. Last spring, I got the opportunity to hear best-selling author Ryan Holiday speak at an event hosted by the university’s entrepreneurship center.

The university also provides community education opportunities which provide affordable opportunities to learn new skills while connecting with others who share your interest. For example, I participated in an avalanche safety and rescue course sponsored by the university last December. Our daughter has regularly participated in their kids’ swimming program ever since we moved here.

FI Enthusiasts

Early retirement means you’re going to have a lot of free time when others are at work. In a society where few people save and plan, it also means if you’re reading this you’re probably a bit… weird.

I was intentional about seeking out like minded people in our local Choose FI Salt Lake City group. I joined that group on Facebook before we moved from  Pennsylvania. They helped us hit the ground running. Members helped find an insurance agent, shared opinions on the best places to find affordable groceries, and showed me local trails.

Book Signing

I’ve enjoyed meeting a lot of interesting people at group meetups since moving here. Scott Sherman, our local group administrator, organized an event at a Barnes & Noble to support the launch of my book last October.

The group turned out in force and helped sell out our full allotment of books. They even bought up $100 worth of my daughter’s bookmarks that she sold to benefit the local animal shelter.

The group has also given me the opportunity to give back. I’ve met with younger people just getting started on the path to FI and with several other people considering a move to Ogden.

I highly recommend everyone find and join your closest Choose FI local group. You can find them here.

Finding Other Early Retirees

Something I didn’t give much attention to is moving close to a military base. The military provides two major benefits that are not available to the general public, pensions and affordable retirement health care.

Consequently, there is a disproportionately large number of early military retirees in our area. I’ve had some great conversations with military retirees about shared non-financial struggles that accompany early retirement, like finding meaning and purpose after your career is over. A few of those conversations have turned into lasting friendships.

Deep Meaningful Relationships

When we decided to relocate, we assumed we would be able to meet people easily. But we had genuine concern about developing deeper relationships. 

Who would we trust enough to leave our child with so we could have time for our relationship with each other? With whom would we feel comfortable enough to discuss our most intimate concerns? Where would we find relationships that provide deeper meaning?

Religious Organizations

I have never been religious. While Kim has a stronger faith than I do, neither of us had ever been involved in a church community. 

However, we decided that we wanted to spend more of this phase of life giving back to others. We sought out a church that shared our values and provided opportunities for service. 

In Ogden, we found an incredible church that has welcomed us with open arms. We were impressed by their clear commitment to serving the less fortunate, including giving second chances to those recovering from addiction or getting out of prison. They are also dedicated to serving Ogden’s homeless population. 

The church provides many opportunities for us to serve, and  it’s helped us develop a number of meaningful friendships quickly.

Other Volunteer Opportunities

Volunteering with other charitable organizations was another thing I was hoping to do more in early retirement. Like churches, there are good charitable organizations that need your time and money in every community.

However, I’ve found (maybe selfishly) I quickly lose interest if I’m not fully committed to an organization because I don’t share their mission. Living in a community that so closely matches our personalities means there are more opportunities to find the right match of our interests with other’s needs.

For the past two winters, I’ve spent Tuesdays at Snowbasin participating as a volunteer with Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports (OVAS). While I’m frequently told that they appreciate my dedication and insights as a physical therapist, I believe I take far more than I give to the organization. Every week I leave feeling inspired by the amazing administrators, guides, and clients who I have the honor to work with.

I had a great conversation with one of OVAS’s administrators (who is also a military early retiree) about plans to expand the program and opportunities to get more involved in the future. I also was planning to start doing more with the Ogden Bike Collective before COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into everyone’s plans.

Going forward, I’ll continue to explore opportunities with these and other organizations in our community to help others lead happier, healthier, and more active lives while making meaningful personal connections and developing relationships.

Stay or Go?

Answering these three key questions will give insight on whether you should stay put or relocate in retirement. For those who decide it is time for change, it will also provide a framework for some key things to consider when starting the search for your retirement destination.

If you decide to relocate, there is  a world of possibilities from which you can choose. I’ll explore the process to find the best location for your retirement in an upcoming part two of this article

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[Chris Mamula used principles of traditional retirement planning, combined with creative lifestyle design, to retire from a career as a physical therapist at age 41. After poor experiences with the financial industry early in his professional life, he educated himself on investing and tax planning. Now he draws on his experience to write about wealth building, DIY investing, financial planning, early retirement, and lifestyle design at Can I Retire Yet? Chris has been featured on MarketWatch, Morningstar, U.S. News & World Report, and Business Insider. He is also the primary author of the book Choose FI: Your Blueprint to Financial Independence. You can reach him at chris@caniretireyet.com.]

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