The Hidden Cost Of Small Town Living

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Written By Colin Graves

My wife and I are raising our three kids in a small town, about 40 minutes drive from my work in the city. We chose small town life many years ago for several reasons; family supports, proximity to schools & church, general peace and quiet, that kind of thing.

The lower cost of living, town vs. city, was also a big factor.

For example, I would estimate that housing is 25% cheaper where we live, and property taxes up to 30-40% lower, depending on the neighbourhood.

Considering the many advantages of small town life, (studies show that we are far happier than our city dwelling peers, after all), it would make sense that living outside of a large city is a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

That’s because people who live in small towns, myself included, tend to adopt one particular habit that can reduce the low-cost-of-living advantage.

That is, they don’t think twice about driving long distances for just about everything.  

Commuting To And From Work

This one is obvious. People living in small towns often commute to work in a larger centre. I, for example, drive 70 miles to and from work every day. I know, ouch! (this is changing somewhat, more details further down).

It’s no secret that commuting will increase fuel costs. It may also require owning a second vehicle. And the more miles you drive, the more frequently you need to pay for things like oil changes and new tires.

That said, because commuting to work is a consistent activity, the expense is relatively easy to predict.

For example, you know precisely how many miles you need to drive on a weekly or monthly basis, and with a high level of accuracy, should be able to calculate the cost of fuel and routine maintenance.

You can then decide if small town living makes financial sense, when you offset transportation costs with the savings of cheaper housing.


All The Other Stuff

What small town dwellers don’t account for nearly as well, is all the other stuff that they drive long distances for.

People in small towns will drive for just about everything. In fact, mention to a city dweller that you drove 40 miles to get your haircut, and they’ll look at you like your nuts.

Because it is kind of nuts.

Shopping for clothes or groceries, various appointments, kids activities, picking up last minute items, not to mention entertainment (restaurants, movies, concerts, sporting events). All of these are more accessible in a large city, and are things people will drive for.

Driving for Kids Sports

If you live in a small town, driving kids to and from sports can be downright painful, from a cost standpoint.

Unlike large cities, small towns don’t have the population base to form multiple teams within similar age groups. Instead, parents must shuttle their kids to neighbouring towns spread across hell’s half acre.

I remember one particular year when we had to drive my son over 100 miles for some of his hockey games. He played over 50 games that year, 25 on the road.

Driving For Last Minute Items

Parents are all too familiar with those moments when you realize you’re missing an item that you rarely need, but has suddenly become very important. Whether it’s medicine for your child’s fever, or food for lunches in the morning, these minor emergencies arise from time to time.

When you live in a small town, there is a good chance nothing is open after 8 or 9 PM, and if it is, the store may not carry exactly what you need.

Cue the late night run to the city.

What Is A Small Town Dweller To Do?

To me, breaking the habit of ‘driving everywhere for everything’ comes down to two things; awareness, and planning.

This is something my wife and I have had to get better at, in order to save time and money.

In fact, I can’t tell you the number of days I’ve arrived home from work, only to turn around and drive back to the city to run an errand.

Thankfully, we’ve become more strategic with planning our to-do list, and reducing the number of miles we drive.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of some things that work for us.

How To Avoid Driving Everywhere For Everything

Start by keeping track of just how much driving you do on a monthly basis, and how much money you’re spending.

Once you’ve figured that part out, there are a number of ways to save time and money, and regain that small town cost-of-living advantage.

Make a list of the services that exist in your local community. Small town dwellers often overlook their local businesses. For example, after years of driving to the city to have our vehicles serviced, I’ve begun taking them to a garage a couple of blocks from my house. The service is great, and the price is competitive.

If you have errands to run, combine trips. Instead of making extra trips to run errands on the weekend, try to knock some items off the list on your way home from work, or on your lunch hour, saving the additional trip.

Plan ahead for the minor emergency. As I mentioned earlier, most stores are closed by 8 or 9 PM in a small town. Making sure that you have key items on hand will remove the need for a midnight medicine run, or to grab supplies for school lunches.

Don’t overindulge on entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with splurging for dinner or a movie every once in a while, but the resulting drain on your pocketbook can be significant, when you factor in how much it costs to travel to and from. Try to limit the number of times you travel to take in entertainment each month. Substitute nights on the town with activities in your neighbourhood, or at home.

Invite friends over to your place. Often, people end up driving for a night out with friends at their behest, for fear of either missing out, or because they feel pressured to participate. Instead, invite friends for a games night or dinner at your place. They’ll probably be very receptive, and it will cut back on transportation costs.


Shop online. There can be a danger to all that online shopping, but it can also save a lot of time and money, especially if you have to drive an hour to get to the nearest mall. Because almost anything can be delivered to your door these days, you can be forgiven for scouring Amazon every once in a while.

Take advantage of carpooling opportunities. Often, people who live in the ‘burbs, or even further out, carpool with co-workers who live nearby. But carpooling doesn’t have to be limited to driving to and from work. Next time you’re making that Costco run, invite a friend along. They’ll likely return the favour at a later date.

Work closer to home. People work in cities because it’s where the jobs are, not to mention the higher incomes. But if you have the ability to work and live in a small town, or even from home, the financial rewards can be significant.

Just this past week, I left my job in the city, and transferred (to the same job) in a neighbouring town. It’s a move that will cut my annual commuting costs by hundreds of dollars, not to mention almost 10,000 fewer miles of driving.

Steer your child towards school sports programs. It’s important for kids to be active, and participate in minor sports programs, but when you live in a small town, this can mean a lot of driving.

Recently, our youngest daughter mentioned that she prefers participating in school-based sports. Not only is it great for her development, but it requires far less driving, as most of the transportation to and from games is via school bus.

It’s something I hadn’t given much thought to in the past. For parents with active kids, school sports are a cost effective way to save on transportation costs.

Do you prefer living in a big city, or small town?  Why is that?

Do you have your own tips to prevent small town dwellers from driving everywhere for everything?

Please share your experiences and ideas in the comments below!


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14 thoughts on “The Hidden Cost Of Small Town Living”

  1. I live in a small town but so was my work. I made better than big city wages living eight minutes from work, five minutes from Walmart(open 24 hours) and five minutes from the emergency room. I buy my most of my clothes from Amazon. My kids never traveled for sports, they weren’t athletes but they were brainy and got free college due to their grades and entrance exams in part because of the excellent public schools here. Our housing and property taxes are cheaper than almost anywhere else in the US. I’m trying to find a downside to living in the sticks but in my case the ones that apply to you just don’t apply to me. It is a pain to fly because the airport is two hours away but we do most of our trips by car so that is a very minor gripe. We love to cook and rarely eat out, but we travel often enough to do that anyway. Our hobbies are outdoors and we don’t like sharing them with crowds so the proximity of a big city would be a huge negative to ever finding any solitude in nature. I think your points are all valid to people who work in cities and commute from distant small towns, but many of us in the sticks work here too.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Steve. It’s nice that you have some big-box retail options so close by as well. You’ve definitely designed your family’s lifestyle around small town living, and in most ways we have as well, save for the fact that I commute to work. My son is now 18 and has graduated from playing minor sports. As much as we miss those days, not having to do so much driving has been a relief. 🙂

  2. Most of the time, when I hear people live in a suburb and work in the city, I’m cringing of the cost and time it takes to commute. But around here, driving into the city via car usually takes 1hr 10 minutes to 1.5hrs each way. So while city living is expensive, I challenge a little bit on whether they did the math. Often it’s a lifestyle choice, rather than purely financial. And that’s totally valid.

    Of course the shorter the commute the better, but with your ability to get to work within 40 minutes, it sounds like you found a combination where the cost of the commute and lower small town cost may actually be cheaper than living in the city. So you get a rare happy medium. And you’re optimizing to limit car use outside traveling to work, which is a huge win.

    Aside from basic services close by home, another thing that others can look for if they’re considering this option: outdoor activities family can do on the weekend that doesn’t require driving (or very little) and putting yourself in a situation that keeps a household to one car. Living in a small town, there were less options to go out (restaurants, bars etc) so it forced me to look at other ways to entertain myself. Often turned out to be less costly and easier to save.

    • Hey Melissa, thanks for stopping by! You make a great point about being in a situation to only own one car, it certainly makes a difference. We made it work for almost 10 years, before getting a second vehicle. With my upcoming job change, my commute will be cut in half to about 20 minutes each way, and we’ve discussed the possibility of becoming a one car family again. I couldn’t imagine a 1.5 hour commute, btw.

  3. I can totally relate to this post. My wife and I moved from the suburbs to a small town about 10 miles from the suburbs about 4-1/2 years ago. The biggest adjustment for us was not having all of the stores within a few minutes drive from home. As you mentioned, we’ve had to learn to plan ahead and combine trips to cut down on driving time. Amazon Prime has also become very popular in our house. I can’t even imagine how many trips into town it’s saved us over the years! Although there are definitely some ‘hidden’ costs with living in a small town, we truly like where we are living. I especially don’t miss all the traffic. Although I do have to put up with some of it going to work….

    • I’m fortunate that most of my commute is on a lightly travelled, 4-lane highway, so while it takes time, it’s a stress free drive. I love the energy of big cities, and I have lived in a few, but very happy living where we do.

  4. Another small town living fanboy here. This is never a pure financial decision in my opinion. I tested myself on staying longer in a capital city, it lasted three days. I live currently in the suburbs of a city with a population of roughly 100k and even this feels too much for me. This could change in a couple of years. Maybe my upbringing caused this but I cannot imagine family life and raising kids in a big city. I need nature, space and the not light-disturbed starry sky above my head. Even if it would cost more I would blame that on luxury indulgement and call it a day.
    The only tip you did not covered in detail is the power of the community. You need a ladder? Borrow it from the neighbor. You need fever medicine for the kid in the night? Call a friend with kids of similar age. Need a babysitter? Call Grandma! I honestly think that community and especially the help from family/friends nearby would outweigh the downs of living in a small town. Even financially. As you wrote the key is in awareness and planning.

    • That is such a good point, community is everything in a small town. It reminds me of the day we moved into our first home, several years ago. We turned on the water, and noticed that the hot water tank was leaking. My father-in-law said, “I’ll run over to the restaurant on Main Street and get Bob (the local plumber) to come by when he’s finished lunch.” I was perplexed, and asked him how he knew that he would be at the restaurant. He said, “He’s always there. All the trades guys meet there for breakfast and lunch, if you need one of them, just go to the restaurant.” He was at our place within 30 minutes, fixing my hot water tank. Lol

  5. Thanks for the hookup MMM! I am SO glad to hear you have switched locations and will have a shorter commute. That is a serious quality of life upgrade. As an urban dweller, being able to walk or take public transportation most places is my favorite perk (that and numerous food options). But you have some great tips for your fellow small town dwellers to be able to enjoy all their special perks, of which there are so many. The things I most envy are more space, yards and gardens, the chance to know most people in your community and – now here the thing that I would give anything for – the ability to take your whole family to a baseball or hockey game and not have it set you back financially for weeks! Assuming you can even get tickets. That was my city rant.

    • Isn’t the price of sporting events ridiculous? We have an NHL team close by, but we never attend games as a family, it would cost at least $600. My company has season tickets, so occasionally I’ll snag a couple of those, otherwise I would never go. It was so hard to leave the people I work with, as I tend to get emotionally attached, but it’s a lifestyle adjustment that’s been long overdue. Change is a good thing.

  6. If you live far from work, you can request to telecommute a couple of days if you have a reliable home office setup and have childcare arranged. These days a lot of companies have that option. I’d stay in a company with slightly lower pay if they provide telecommuting options for a few days/week.

  7. I lived in Tahoe City for a while and I definitely experienced some of this. Tahoe City is an expensive place to live, but I’d say the happiness level of people there is very high (because it’s paradise if you like outdoor mountain activity). To do any serious shopping, the options are Reno (about 45 miles away) or Sacramento (about 100 miles away). There are limited options at the lake and you pay a premium for many things if you don’t want to drive.

    • Thanks for reading Jon…that sounds so familiar to my situation (minus the outdoor mountain paradise) :). I think that just being aware of the fact is half the battle. By the way, I checked out your site, I love it. Side hustles are close to my heart!


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