Cost of Living

Early on in our relationship, my wife and I sat down and had a big discussion about what the plan was going to be if we got married and both had to deal with finding jobs in academia.  It’s an agonizing situation to be in: both people want to find fulfilling careers for themselves, but for academics, the job market is fickle, and often finds candidates moving all over the world to work in their specialties.  Unlike many job seekers, you can’t say, “I think I’ll confine my job search to the Greater __________ Area.” There are simply too few positions and too great a demand, especially in big cities.

This is the story of how I came to live in Australia.  My wife and I decided that, as a physicist, she had a much higher chance of getting a well-paying job, with the best chance of being near enough to a metropolitan hub. So, our plan as a couple has been to prioritize her career over mine, ensuring that she’s in a position to get a stable job.  My career goals are much more difficult to achieve, and even if I achieve them, I will almost certainly not make enough money to be the primary breadwinner.  So, I compromised, trying to carve out some work wherever my wife’s career takes us.

This decision was tough to swallow, at first.  If you had asked my eighteen-year-old self, he would’ve said I was crazy to prioritize someone else’s career of my own.  Granted, The Plan I was following when I was eighteen was to wait until I had secured a tenure-track position before considering settling down and starting a family.  The Plan fell apart years before I met my wife, but my decision to go with the flow of her career over mine was probably the last nail in the coffin.  While I no longer am on the same life plan that I started with when I was 15 (aka The Plan), I still am not ready to admit total defeat and to stop composing/music entirely.  My life plan has now been stripped down to:

  1. Pay off the astounding amount of student loan debt acquired pursuing The Plan
  2. Come to terms with your never being as successful as you want to be
  3. Figure out something else to do with your life that you might be happy doing

I’ve laid out the new life plan, but I’ve been reluctant to get on board with it.  I’m trying as best I can to be as supportive a partner as possible, but it has been difficult for me to sit by and let decisions happen, because I keep trying to assert some backseat control over my life via the career path of my wife.  I think that this reluctance has made it way more stressful on my wife than it would otherwise be.  I’ve become obsessed with the specter of paying off my loans — they’ve become a symbol of years of work not panning out, and of how  the costs of teenage idealism can come back to bite you.  Whenever my wife tells me about a new job opportunity, I invariably ask, “How much does it pay?”  I keep weighing my wife’s career down with my own concerns about financial hardship, and that’s not fair.  Especially since the answer has always been, “more than anything I could make without her.”  I also feel guilty that I am restricting her to finding work near a major city, in case I somehow can find work in music there.  But, I truly believe that I wouldn’t be happy in the country, no matter where that country is, regardless of my status in music.  And of course, cities cost more to live in than the middle of nowhere, which puts additional pressure on her to take the highest paying job, not the most fulfilling job.  Ugh.

Anyway, all of this got me wondering about the priorities people have when choosing where to live as artists.  Originally, I was determined to only live in places that were advantageous to my career and/or cost effective.  Obviously, that’s changed now.  I decided to ask people in the US about why they are living where they are, with the bias of assuming the cost of living was the most important aspect of where people live.  What I found in response was pretty interesting.

I put together a little survey, and had 55 responses (I was hoping for more, but my low attention span demanded that I get this post out before I forgot about it).  I’d like to share some of the more interesting information that I found.

Way more non-students took the survey than students. This came as a surprise to me, as I figured that most of my colleagues were still in grad school, at least.  On the other hand, I was happy with this, as I thought that students might falsely prop up cost of living stats with loans, TAs, etc.


I thought there would be A LOT more roommates. I lumped in roommates with family members and spouses, figuring that the numbers would be much higher.  It turns out that the ol’ myth of the way to afford rent in New York by cramming eight people into a two-bedroom apartment, doesn’t seem to be reflected here.


According to the vast majority of people who responded to the question, it’s much more affordable to live in the US than I thought. Granted, 1) I live(d) in New York, and 2) 16 people skipped this question, but it’s not even close.


There were some people who wanted to qualify their response.  A respondent from Anchorage, AK said:

Cost of living is fairly high, but in my field I am able to make a decent living by doing different types of work.

Someone from San Diego, CA:

I’m lucky and live at an art space that is made as affordable as possible. Few artists are this lucky 🙁

New Orleans, LA:

There aren’t a lot of full-time music gigs. It seems almost everyone is a freelancer. The only full-time orchestra gig is low-paying.

But, the bleakest quote comes from Bellingham, WA:

There is plenty of free food available (soup kitchens) but housing can be tricky.

I threw all the zip code data into Google Maps, and highlighted based off of whether the respondent said living in the area was affordable or not.  Turns out, most of the people who found their cities unaffordable turn out to live riiiiight where you’d expect: New York.

Most artists move where the job is. This isn’t a shock to anyone who’s been on the job market for a while, but respondents considered the location of the specific job/academic institution as the most important deciding factor in where they were going to live.


What surprised me about this, and I guess what gets down to the heart of the matter for me, was just how low the cost of living mattered to people who responded to the survey.  I figured that most people shared my terror of being poor.  To be fair, the other options are pretty career-focused: potential for career advancement, proximity to other artists, and potential employment opportunities are still pretty high up there.  All in all, it looks like artists are pretty pragmatic when it comes to life decisions after all.

Missing family, friends and loved ones sucks. But the climate here is just as bad. Climate and proximity to family, friends, and loved ones were neck and neck for the worst attributes of where artists lived.


To finish up, I’ve put down an interactive Google Map with responses from survey takers based on where they live, and whether or not they think their city is affordable. If you click on the tags, you’ll be able to see any advice they’ve given people looking to move to their area.  Green is “Yes,” red is, “No,” purple is “It’s Complicated,” and grey is “Skipped.” Hopefully, it’ll give you some help if you’re in the market to move.

  3 comments for “Cost of Living

  1. 01/21/2015 at 4:15 am

    I definitely understand the disparity between looking for career fulfillment and financial security.

    I’m currently on the other end of the spectrum, location-wise: I’ve moved with my fiancee to her hometown: Marquette, MI. Located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it’s a cute, smallish harbor town with far more culture than I anticipated — theater and music via the university, a couple of excellent breweries, various festivals in the summer. The opportunities that I’ve found here were slim, and all of them self-made: pairing up with the dance department and a choreographer to put together a new ballet that I’m composing, writing arrangements of Christmas hymns for my fiancee to sing at church, etc. That being said, the opportunities here are slim for both of us (she’s a director and costume designer,) and we both understand that more would be available in larger cities.

    The two things that keep this arrangement viable for us:

    1. The rent is cheap. We landed a sort-of sweetheart deal, which is something that not everyone can count on finding, but we’re literally *not paying rent* — only paying utilities and tax, which routinely only adds up to about $300 — to live in a *house.* Not a tiny studio: a whole house. Neither of us make beau coup bucks at our jobs, but we’re still making enough to begin paying off loans and build some semblance of financial pillow to take with us when/if we do move to a larger city. Which leads me to:

    2. I’m still doing things in big cities, even without living there. Although it’s certainly not the quickest, simplest way, the beauty of the present is that we have the internet to make long-distance collaborations much, much simpler. Even though I’m living in what sometimes feels like the barren tundra, I have projects happening in four states and eventually in London, simply because I keep throwing ideas at people to see what sticks. It’s a constant task — hustling the next project and keeping the ember alive long enough to make a fire — but it allow me to create ripples elsewhere, even from my remote igloo.

    We don’t plan on staying here forever, but for now, it’s a perfect staging location. I’ve learned from watching at least eight of my college friends that I cannot afford to walk blindly into a large city: they’ve all trotted off to NYC or Chicago to make their way, only to return sheepishly more lost than when they left, tail-between-legs, more broke and more broken. The two of us will move to a city when (or if) we find an opportunity that takes us there, but before then, we’ve found that it’s best to be patient and smart about our options.

    Thanks for writing this! It’s a subject that too few people are really up front about.

  2. alane
    01/22/2015 at 2:32 am

    Luckily, Joel has a really good job. But as for my music career….

    I decided to go back to school (community college) to get the prerequisites to apply to dental hygiene school. I still have my entire life to play the clarinet and audition for orchestras if I choose. I can always make that career change down the road. But right now, I would be much happier if I had a good job and made money so I could pay off my loans and have kids in the next 5 years. Yes, I will have to take out a huge amount of loans if I get into dental hygiene school, but the base salary is more than adequate to have the loans paid off in a few years, and there is actually an existent job market.

    It really sucks sometimes to make changes to your plan, but ultimately for me, it will be a good thing. It means starting a new plan. A plan with a much greater chance for success.

    Note: you should move to Portland 🙂

  3. 03/05/2015 at 10:44 am

    Great article J.M. I can relate to how financial security can trump artistic pursuits. Crushing student loan debts, cost of living, and consistent work output are inevitably at odds with one another. I myself have wanted to go to graduate school for composition but I feel I’ll be crushed even more by the opportunity costs. If I go to a private conservatory, I’ll get little-to-no financial aid, thus more student loans. If I’m lucky, and get into a place like Princeton, Columbia, SUNY; there’s a chance I can get a fully-funded deal, but it’s not all smooth sailing….if I spend 5-7(or more) years at grad school, the opportunity cost of me not working is huge; I can instead work those 5-7 years, and be completely out of student loan debt. I would be making the sacrifice of not going to grad school for composition, but I really think getting out from under this debt would really clear up a lot of psychic and emotional energy needed to fully compose freely, even if it means I skip advanced training in an academic or conservatory environment.

    Thanks for the article.

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