An Efficient Life (In the Suburbs)

Yeah, I know- It’s an oxymoron. There is very little that is efficient about living in a suburban environment. In fact, it is pretty much the poster child of excess and competing with the Joneses. However, its also important to remember that every housing situation has its set of trade-offs. For some cities, living just outside the urban center can provide a set of trade-offs “worth it” for many families. In addition, there are many different lifestyle choices you can make to create an efficient (as possible) lifestyle somewhere between the city center and an isolated hut in the woods. 

If you’ve followed MMM (or the FI community in general) wiring for any length of time, you will understand the general resentment for the excess of suburban life. And it is well deserved. The generalities associated with the car-centric, overbuilt mcmansion lifestyle are easy to see in the western suburban world. The waste, transportation, isolation, and expense are also easily observed. The lifestyle cost can be subtlety expensive for the inefficient. However, for those that make the choice (myself included) it is worth the mental exercise to think though making any lifestyle as efficient as possible.

Not All Burbs Are Created Equal
A few years ago Ms. SE did a rotation at a hospital in downtown Atlanta. We have a lot of family and friends in the area and actually spent four weeks there, each in a different location throughout the city. The final two weeks were spent in a suburban enclave about 15 miles north of the city center. The second day of our stay, there was a traffic jam that caused the 15 mile commute to take about an 1.75 hours to get home. I realized that, for me personally, it would be extremely difficult (if not impossible) for me to be content with a traffic-filled suburban commute. There is not enough money to get me to do that. It was a wonderful learning experience.

This should probably be the starting place for this article. If you are not going to live in one of those trendy walk-able, ride-able, live/play areas of urban design than you will certainly have some choices and trade-offs to consider. Small cites generally do not have to deal with the monster commutes and distances. Large cities generally have a nice variety of different types and price points of suburban living. Choosing the most efficient of the inefficient system is the best starting place. We’ve chosen a relatively small city and a suburban neighborhood about 6 miles from downtown, the city center, and my office. Traffic exists but it is minimal compared to a big city. We are about a mile away from our kids’ future school and a mile or so away from groceries, shopping centers, and dining/entertainment. A small suburban city center with a nice library and coffee shop is a single turn and just a few minutes away. The 3/2 (w/ basement) we purchased is reasonable compared to our income and about as close to town as you can get in the ‘fancy’ public school system we think we desire. We’ll still be spending plenty of the time in a vehicle, but we’ll have our extended family within walking distance and access to plenty of outdoor activity. Our little neighborhood street is filled with young families, bike riding kids, and slow moving vehicles. Being intentional about our specific suburban spot is the best starting point for any efficiency. 

Minimizing Transportation Expenses (time, money, energy)
Owning and operating a vehicle remains one of the most expensive pain points of suburban life. Although people may talk about how much they love their car, the reality is they are the most expensive thing most of us ever buy that goes down in value. We spend an inordinate amount of time in our vehicles that often supplants exercise, time with our family, pursuing our hobbies, or truly relaxing. In fact, spending time in the car is the biggest expense of all. In addition, the enjoyment of a fancy new car is one of the most fleeting sources of happiness in our culture. I’ve owned many different new and old cars over the years and I’m often dismayed at how fast the excitement of a new vehicle lasts. 

Making use of the commute. The first step is finding the right vehicle. I still begin with the notion of minimizing the cost of the commute. I’m looking to drop my cost to an all-in price of about 25 cents per mile (vs the average of 50 cents a mile). We’ve driven hybrids, electrics, and large SUVs. Personally, I like the sweet spot of efficient vehicles between 100k-150k miles. We typically shoot for popular, gas efficient vehicles around 8 years old. Our current vehicle is a Japanese sedan that we purchased for a little under 4k with 120k miles in great mechanical and cosmetic condition. We should be able to drive it for several years with modest maintenance and be able to sell it for 3.5k or so. Most of the depreciation has already happened. We also buy and sell our vehicles on craigslist to avoid unnecessary transaction costs. Buying vehicles from family and friends is also a great way to get a deal and save someone you like from the bloodbath that is a dealership trade-in. You may even be able to benefit from your time-starved suburban neighborhood friends by buying their “old” vehicles.

Although I was dreading my 15/20 minute commute at our new home, I’ve surprised myself by actually enjoying aspects of it. I’m utilizing the in-vehicle time to listen to podcasts, audio books, calling my family and friends, or jamming out to some music. Strangely, the commute, coupled with a nice cup of coffee has become one of the only quiet times in my day. I also utilize the voice dictation memo feature on my phone to dictate blog posts or make notes about topics that I want to write and think about.

Minimize Hours Worked
This one is tough- many upper middle class families move to the burbs because they feel like they don’t have enough income to live the same lifestyle in town. However, the trade-off of living far out reduces the amount of time you have to spend doing what you enjoy. Commutes are brutal- they often suck up hours a week. There is simply not enough margin to work long hours (including our commute), be an available spouse and parent that is needed, maintain our health, and pursue our passions. Somethings got to give. For the 50-60 hour work week type jobs, adding an additional half hour commute each way simply doesn’t leave enough time to do everything else. In addition, being time-constrained elevates the need for convenience consumption in all other areas.

Simply minimizing the hours away must be contemplated and addressed to have a semblance of an efficient suburban life. Accounting for vacation and holidays, myself and Ms. SE work a little over 36 hours combined a week. Add in an additional two hours (weekly total) of commuting and we’ve somehow managed to find a pretty good balance of time away from the home. However, all of this was done intentionally and at the expense of ‘climbing the corporate ladder’, additional income, or taking jobs with significantly more travel/demanding hours. Having plenty of hours to be home allows us to be consumer economists and dramatically reduce our expenses. We simply have the margin to mostly cook from scratch, fix things that are broken, and spend time with our kids and each other. Minimizing hours worked will always be a priority for us especially if we must add in the time for commuting. The emotional costs of hours away from home gets really expensive after 50 and brutal after 60. 

Food, Energy, & Chickens
This section can be a little tricky. We personally picked a neighborhood that was pretty liberal on rules and didn’t have a restrictive HOA. We are relatively free to utilize the land we purchased to do what we please. We’re free to have a large garden, a nice mini chicken coop, and a solar system if desired. Although we had similar options in our previous in-town home, we’ll have a bit more space to grow food year round and better exposure for generating electricity. We have a little creek in the back yard and plenty of wood to cut for our fireplace. I love the idea of growing most of our summer produce, planting plenty of fruit and nut trees, and dabbling in a winter garden. Our birds will provide year round protein and mostly roam around the yard to find nutrients. Our food scrapes will become compost (and sometimes chicken food) so we can minimize the need for added fertilizers. We’ll be able to eat lots of healthy food with little effort from a few packs of seeds. Although not for everyone, utilizing some of the suburban green space to grow some healthy foods is another way to build a little efficiency if living outside of town.

All The Extras
As I was writing this article, I kept coming back to the notion that I have more to say. There are just so many topics that almost warrant their own post about micro-efficiencies of having extra space. Just another set of examples: AirBNB opportunities for extra or underutilized space (like our basement rooms), creating a simple home gym, buying a house where every area is used, choosing an efficient large home, or DIY fixing areas like garages and ample space to create a nice little etsy or ebay shop. The last additional notion is building a community, just as one would anywhere else. Meet the neighbors, invest in the people around you. Have a block party and grill out. Making even casual acquaintances with the people you see most days begins awkward but is necessary for building community. Ultimately, wherever we live, its always important to be aware of our surroundings and building efficient systems to maximize the enjoyment we get wherever we live.

3 thoughts on “An Efficient Life (In the Suburbs)

  1. A house with a Creek in the garden, 36 hours total working between you both per week. Minimal commute. Family nearby. Sounds like the ideal life to me, as efficient as you can get while still enjoying a luxurious western lifestyle!

    Keep it up 🙂

  2. I stumbled upon your blog as I was researching the Athens area. My family and I are considering leaving Atlanta and moving to Watkinsville. My husband and I are specifically looking into that area because of the schools as we have 2 young children. We are also looking for a place that isn’t as busy as our intown neighborhood and with more green space. I was hoping you could give me some insight into good neighborhoods for open minded families with access to great schools. Thank you!

    • That is pretty cool. We are officially Watkinsville residents now but I have still have a heart for downtown Athens (I suppose we are only a few miles away). We too choose Watkinsville for the schools and the slower pace. We are on the Athens side of the city about about 5-6 miles from downtown. The little neighborhood we’re in has 3/4 acre lots with mostly 1980s brick ranches. Price points are in the 150-200k. We were basically looking for great schools, easy access to athens/atlanta and lots of woods (we back up to 150 acres of woods). We really like the Athens area suburbs if you don’t have to go into Atlanta too often.