It’s the quintessential American story: A small-town guy or girl packs up an old car and heads west or east to seek their fortune. From 19th century pioneers to modern-day families looking for a lower cost-of-living, some Americans have always chosen to move somewhere new without finding a job first.
In 2009, MU30 Founder David Weliver made a decision to move to Portland, Maine (see below). Of course, this happened to take place in the midst of the worst economic recession our country has experienced in decades. Nine years later, the labor market is tightening and wages are on the rise. So what about today? Is choosing a location before you find a job a good strategy?
To get the pros and cons as well as practical advice, I interviewed three friends from different backgrounds who have made big moves in recent years. Read their stories and learn how you can use their tips to successfully execute your own relocation.
David Weliver: Moving for family
When Forbes named Portland, Maine the most livable city in America this year, it didn’t surprise my wife and I or any of Portland’s other 64,000 denizens. With a low cost of living, great culture and dining (we were also named Bon Appetite’s “foodiest small town”), and easy access to the ocean and mountains, Portland freaking rocks.
The only big thing Portland lacks for well-educated, ambitious young folks? An abundance of career options.
Finding a job is tough anywhere in this economy, but it’s always been tough here. Especially for college grads who want a professional career. It’s not as hard to get a retail or service gig here in town, but higher-paying jobs are few and far between.
When my wife graduated from law school here a few years back, we had a decision to make. We weren’t married yet, and I was living two hours south in the relatively employment-rich suburbs of Boston. We could live in Massachusetts. I could continue my career in publishing and my wife would have plenty of job opportunities to choose from.
Or I could move to Maine. My wife had career options thanks to her networks from law school. But I would have to leave a job for the prospect of never having a job in my field again.
As you already know, I moved to Portland.
When it came down to it, we agreed that our quality of life was more important to us than what we did for a living. That’s not to say career isn’t important to us—we are both ambitious and take great pride in our work. We just really wanted to live here in Maine.
Karla Markwardt: Across the country and back again
Karla grew up in Wisconsin and has followed the “location first, then job” strategy more than once. Overall, she says, “If I don’t love the job I have, and I’m not in a committed relationship, I’m always interested in moving somewhere new.” Thus, she identifies her main motivations for choosing a new location as restlessness, a breakup, and/or job dissatisfaction.
Philadelphia was Karla’s first big move, when she left home to attend Temple University. She says she only applied to colleges on the East Coast because she wanted to get out of the Midwest. After graduating with a degree in Finance and spending several years living and working in the Philly area, Karla found herself longing to return to the middle of the country. She wanted to remain in a big city, so she chose Chicago and moved there before looking for a job. Several years later, Karla wanted to experience life on the West Coast. A friend from Philly was about to move to Seattle, so Karla followed her there.
Kelly Broxton: From West Coast to East
Kelly grew up in the Bay Area of California and was living in Seattle as an adult when she decided to move across the country. She says, “The East Coast appealed to me because I had spent my entire life on the West Coast and liked the idea of living in a place with tons of greenery and real seasons.” Plus, “I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom to my (at the time) one-year-old son, and then later my daughter. The cost of living in Seattle was way too high for just one income so we decided to move somewhere that could work. And…I was looking forward to a ‘fresh start’ in a new location with my new family.”
That new location ended up being Hillsborough, NC, a small town near Chapel Hill and Durham. Kelly’s decision-making process combined personal preferences, family history, and happenstance: “I come from progressive areas and politics is important to me so I wanted to find a place that was also somewhat liberal, preferably close to a college town. I was a little familiar with the area around UNC Chapel Hill because my parents attended and met there and I had visited a few times. Also, my aunt and uncle are in Winston-Salem. So we ended up in Hillsborough–not because it was our first choice, but simply because it was the closest town to UNC Chapel Hill, where my husband was hired after applying for a job—where we could find a nice house for the amount of money we were able to put down and good public schools.”
How to choose a location first
Karla and Kelly’s stories show us that most location choices aren’t completely random. In David’s case, his wife was attending law school in Maine and they decided to settle down there together.
Karla has always wanted to live in different cities, and since she doesn’t have a spouse or kids, she has the freedom to pick up and move whenever she gets the itch.
For Kelly, family history and the presence of relatives in North Carolina helped her zero in on the state; her husband’s job offer cemented their choice of town. These moves can also be viewed in the context of big life transitions such as going to or graduating from college/grad school, starting a family, or moving on after the breakup of a relationship.
If you’re in a similar situation and contemplating a location-motivated move, here are some guiding questions:
- Do you have friends or family in any other states or cities? Knowing just one person, even an acquaintance or distant relative, can help you get settled in and feel less lonely in your new town.
- How portable is your career? David knew he would likely not find a similar publishing job in small-town Maine. Similarly, Kelly gave up her job as Digital Content Manager in the Entertainment Department at Starbucks before moving, though she was able to work remotely for the company in a part-time, one-year contract after she arrived in Hillsborough. For Karla, finance and business jobs are fairly easy to find in any big city. She is currently an Account Manager at Trupanion, a medical insurance company for pets.
- If your career isn’t portable, what else can you do? David worked in a coffee shop and built his blogging business. Karla earned money as a dog walker and pet sitter through Rover while searching for a full-time job. The friend who moved with her to Seattle took a temp job in a university while searching for a permanent position. Kelly “upsold” items she found in local thrift stores on eBay and Poshmark and started an online screen-printing business, Cheeky Moon Shop, where she sells t-shirts and tank tops with a politically progressive focus.
- What are your personal preferences for location? Kelly mentioned wanting to live in a liberal area with four seasons, Karla prefers to stay in big cities, and David mentioned the low cost-of-living and foodie options in Portland, Maine. Make a list of the qualities you want to find in your new town and do some research. You may end up with more options than you would have identified on your own.
Financial considerations when you move without a job
All moves are expensive to some degree, but moving to a new state or city without a job lined up can be especially hard on your bank account. Take stock of your resources in advance and figure out how you will pay for the move itself as well as living expenses for the month or two (this is how long it took Karla to find full-time jobs in Chicago and Seattle, respectively) it takes to find something permanent.
- Property you can sell: Do you own a house with equity? A car you won’t need or don’t want to take to your new home? From these big-ticket items to smaller possessions such as clothes, books, and furniture, sell anything you can in advance to build a stockpile of cash for your move. The upside of selling things is that you won’t have to pay to move them, although you may still need to spend money furnishing your new place.
- Liquidate savings, investment, or retirement accounts. Karla says she cashed out her retirement plan to fund her move to Seattle. This isn’t necessarily the best decision from a personal finance perspective, but if you’re determined to move and this is your main resource, it might be a good option.
- Look for a lower-cost moving service. Kelly is actually the person who turned me on to PODS, which my husband and I used to move from North Carolina to Pennsylvania. Because you can load and unload your own stuff, it’s cheaper than a full-service moving company. Other businesses offer a similar self-serve experience. And of course there’s always the option of renting your own truck or trailer, a la U-Haul. These companies also provide storage in case you’re not ready to unpack as soon as your belongings reach your destination.
- Live with roommates: Karla now has her own apartment, but she sublet a place with roommates at first. Living with others keeps your overhead expenses down and can help you make friends and get oriented to your new city.
- Do you need a car? If you move to a city with great public transit or biking infrastructure, you can avoid the expense of maintaining a vehicle.
- Stick to a budget: Leave room in your financial plan for the unexpected expenses that inevitably accompany a move. And once you create a budget, stick to it. Karla acknowledges the temptation to sightsee and generally spend more money when you are new to a place and not working full-time. However, you’ll be better off in the long-term if you don’t put yourself into debt or at least keep it to a minimum.
- If you’re going to use credit cards…You already know you shouldn’t rack up charges you can’t pay back at the end of the month. Still, many people do it anyway, especially in periods of transition such as moving or temporary unemployment. If this is you, be smart about it and choose from our best credit cards of 2018. From a low interest rate to cash back and rewards, you want to make sure you’re at least getting something out of your credit card usage.
Reasons to find a job first
While the “leap before you look” approach ultimately worked out for David, Karla, and Kelly, there are still good arguments to be made in favor of looking for a job first.
- You may be able to land a relocation stipend if you get a job offer in another city. This happened to my family when my husband accepted a new job in North Carolina shortly after our first child was born. The stipend didn’t cover every last cent of our move from Philadelphia, but it certainly reduced the cost by a lot. When we decided to move back to PA a year later, we had to cover the moving expense on our own.
- Housing is another reason to secure employment first, as landlords may be reluctant to rent to someone who is new to town and doesn’t have a job yet.
- Finding a job first is certainly the safer route, and it can still enable you to relocate to the area of your choice. However, it can be difficult to job hunt from afar and some companies will be reluctant to contact a person who isn’t living in the area yet. You can begin your job search remotely by reaching out to people on LinkedIn and trying to build a professional network before you move.
Overall, I can think of plenty of other people I’ve known who’ve moved without a job at least once in their lives and they all landed on their feet eventually. If you can handle uncertainty, you can make it work.
When I asked Karla if she had any regrets about her various moves, she said she’s never sorry she tried something new. Kelly’s parting advice is to “figure out your priorities, not just in this moment but long-term, and plan accordingly.
If your priority is to be with your children when they are young, as it was for me, do it. Choose a location that you can find employment in but also one that matches your cultural and aesthetic interests.”
Have you ever moved without finding a job first? Share your experiences and advice in the comments.