Cost-of-Living Escapes

By Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

Every summer, thousands of young people head to Washington for internships or for entry-level jobs on the Hill and in the area's countless nonprofits and lobbying firms.

And within a few years, they all start heading back out, replaced by the next crop of ambitious recent grads.

Brigid Howe thinks she might soon become one of those former Washingtonians, driven away not by disillusionment with how things work in the nation's capital, but by money.

"My husband and I have serious discussions about leaving the Washington area all the time due to finances," she said in a recent e-mail. "We love this area, and I grew up here. But we worry that we can't give our future children the kind of lifestyle we want them to have (a safe neighborhood, a yard, a bedroom of their own, good schools) anywhere we can afford a home in this area."

Their jobs are portable -- he's an academic and she works for a national nonprofit with transfer possibilities -- and they are finding that the pay they could command elsewhere would buy them a much better standard of living. "It would make me very sad to leave my parents, who still live here, but thinking of the large single-family home I can buy for $200,000 in Wilmington, N.C., or Indianapolis makes it a little easier to think about," she said.

Others have already made the decision. A few weeks ago, Jill Lewis and her husband left to escape this area's notoriously high cost of living.

They are in their mid-twenties, and despite "decent" raises at professional jobs they enjoyed, they just couldn't make the numbers work here. "We'd like to start a family, which would require a larger living space than a studio or one-bedroom condo, and even the monthly mortgage payments for a two-bedroom condo would have been a struggle for us, especially if I had to take time off work for maternity leave," she said.

So when an opportunity came up for her husband to transfer to Minneapolis, he took it. She quickly found a job as well. Not everything is cheaper, of course -- she's finding most groceries run about the same as they did in the Washington area -- but the housing market is night and day. "We're paying the same rent for our two-bedroom apartment (which includes most utilities) in an upscale suburb as we were for our one-bedroom in Alexandria," she wrote in a recent e-mail.

And they're even hoping to buy a house in about six months, which would have been unlikely had they stayed here. "We'll be able to choose from a wide selection of reasonably priced, single-family homes in the area. They won't be McMansions, but they'll be more than enough for a small family, and for this time in our lives, that is exactly what we'd like," she said.

"I'm the child of two accountants, and they raised me to be very frugal about finances," she said. Her parents were surprised she wanted to move to the Midwest, but once "we showed them a cost-of-living comparison," they got it.

Doing a cost comparison of your own? Here are a few things to consider:

· Can you transfer? Lateral moves to another office can often be the most advantageous financially. In that situation, you might even be paying those lower housing costs with your old D.C. salary. The same possibility exists for telecommuters.

· Don't expect everything to be cheaper. Lewis was surprised to find that the abundant organic produce she could buy in Northern Virginia is harder to find in the Twin Cities -- and it's more expensive. Also, if your family isn't nearby, consider your new travel costs to visit them. Plane tickets to and from smaller cities can be sharply higher than in the Washington area.

· Evaluate the job market for your specific field. Yes, the state of the overall economy in a town or city matters, but for many jobs, it's more micro than that. For couples, this can be especially tricky. One person might be able to easily find a job in the new town, while the other person might struggle.

Road Warriors

Are you an experienced overseas business traveler? What advice do you have to share with young workers preparing to take their first big trip? E-mail me at . Please include your full name and daytime phone number.

Join Mary Ellen Slayter for Career Track Live, an online discussion of issues affecting young workers, at 2 p.m. July 24 at

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