Can California Be Budget-Friendly?

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Can California Be Budget-Friendly? | Life as MOM

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I grew up in Southern California. Except for the five years that we lived in Kansas (2003-2008), the Golden State has been my home. I love it. Despite its flaws, of which there are many, I know, I never want to leave again. Ever.

Almost six years ago FishPapa and I decided to go for the gusto and make the big move back, something we thought would be impossible to do. We left when the market was at its peak; we returned during the recession with debt still climbing on our back.

While “California or Bust” was NOT our motto, we knew that we would have to be pretty careful in order to live in the Golden State on one income*. It’s been an amazing adventure. One we feel very blessed to have been able to travel.

(*Note: Technically, we are a two-income family now that I earn some money as an author, but we “live” off my husband’s salary and try to bank whatever income my writing brings in. Our practice is to live below our means and without debt.)

I realize that California life may not be for everyone. I get that. For many, “it’s a nice place, but you wouldn’t want to live here.” I totally understand that. I feel that way about 49 states. Besides, there isn’t room for us all to live here.

I do get questions on a weekly basis from readers who for one reason or another are relocating, or even vacationing in California and wonder about how to live or travel on a budget within the Golden State. It can be done! We feed, clothe, and house 8 people for less than 70K per year.

We probably don’t live in the most expensive city in the state. Santa Barbara and the Bay Area definitely have us beat on pricey accommodations. However, San Diego ain’t too shabby!

I contend that it is housing and gas that cost more than in other places. We pay the same or less than other states when it comes to utilities, clothing, and food.

Over the years I’ve posted a variety of posts that relate to California and budget travel/budget living/budget eating. In case you missed one, here’s a peek at some of the good stuff Southern California has to offer:

Can California Be Budget-Friendly? | Life as MOM

Posts in the California on a Budget Series

Can California Be Budget-Friendly? | Life as MOM

 Posts in the Good Cheap Eats in California Series

The California on a Budget and Good Cheap Eats in California series are designed to address any questions you might have. I’ve received many already, but I thought I’d give you a chance to ask some more. Feel free to email me your question (jessica at lifeasmom dot com) or simply submit it in this form. If you are a writer or blogger and would like to write a California-themed guest post, you can submit your contact in this form as well.

Disclaimer: Neither the California Board of Tourism nor the California Realtors’ Association have ever heard of me. I freely offer up my opinions regarding life in the Golden State. I represent the experiences of one family who has lived in four different California counties. My opinion is just that — my opinion. Feel free to disagree. Your mileage may vary.

Is a personal shopper worth it? I know personal shopping can work. This instance worked for me. I know the shopping service can work for some people. It works for my friend.

This is Frugal Friday. In an effort to make these weekly financial discussions more interactive, I’m no longer posting a link-up. Feel free to leave a link in the comments. But better yet, chat with us on today’s topic.

What do YOU think about my beautiful California?

Is the value here for you?

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  1. My husband and I moved out of California over a year ago. We both were born and raised in California. I have a large family there and he has a small family. We decided to move to Northern Idaho for the lifestyle, beauty and a better quality of life. It definitely offers all of those things. More freedom and safer atmosphere. However it cannot replace being near my family. Life is less expensive here for sure but so is the income. We have 4 seasons here. It’s very nice. Winter is mellower and quiet. Summer is bursting with things to do. Overall it’s a better place to live. It doesn’t replace being near family and good old friends. I miss the income I had there, the sunshine and generalbetter weather. It’s a battle I deal with daily. I may move back mostly to be near family.

  2. I am married and have two children. My wife doesn’t work, but I make 100k in Ontario. We own a home. We don’t buy clothes. We don’t eat out. We wouldn’t dream of taking our kids to the movies. No vacations. No Disneyland. We dread when our kids are invited to birthday parties because we have to buy a gift and a card. I constantly fight with my wife because she wants the kids to do extracurricular activities, including music lessons, swimming lessons, soccer, day camps. Last year I paid $1000 to fix the air conditioner on my car. I spent $2000 to fix my home air conditioning. Another thousand to get a new clothes washer. A few hundred for a new microwave, whose door wouldn’t open. $340 for two new bathroom faucets that were leaking. $400 for new rotors for my front breaks on my car. Im waiting for the refrigerator, the oven and the clothes dryer to give up the ghost. Three times my family had to go to the emergency room. With regard to food, we avoid all processed food, antibiotics and pesticides. Because we have small children, we pay $180 per month for life insurance. I just paid $200 to register our two cars with the DMV. Our mortgage plus property tax is $1625. Rising interest will make refinancing less of an option. My wife is in tears when I tell we may need to move to an apartment or a dumpier house. The sad part is that moving to a smaller house won’t help us much, because of moving costs and property taxes (think Proposition 13).

    I don’t know how to afford a livable situation. I’m happy for others, though, who can make it work.

    1. Hi Stephen! I understand your struggles. It can be really rough, no matter where you live. Our mortgage in Kansas City was more than yours is.

      You’ve offered some very specific details about your expenses, but you didn’t mention how much you spend on food or paying off credit (if you have debt). Those are two things that can really make or break the budget. AND, thankfully, two things that you can do something about.

      Re: paying down debt, you’ll find lots of ideas here on Life as Mom as to how we paid off debt even with a limited income. Once we did that, our monthly expenses got a lot of breathing space. It’s been amazingly freeing! Part of that process was approaching food costs in a different way, which I address in more detail on my food blog, Good Cheap Eats.

      If you’re looking to pay down debt or even just give your finances a redo, I highly recommend The Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey. It’s what we used to pay off $18,000 in 18 months and then stay debt-free. At the time we finished up, we were a family of 8 making about 65k, living in North County San Diego. We’re not superheroes, but I know that if we could do it, you can! Please let me know how we can help.

      1. Our Costco plus supermarket bills is about $1500. That is more than most people pay. But that includes non food items like paper towels, toiletries, cleaners, trash bags, dishes, cat food, dog food and other items that no one ever mentions in these type of blogs. Without specifics, these advice blogs about “how you can make it on a small income” are completely useless. Last year I had to shell out $3000 because the HOA said our wooden gate needed repair. While that doesn’t happen most years, there’s always something that pops up to make it impossuble to make ends meet. One could always live in a one room apartment with your whole family and eat hot dogs and top ramen and spend all one’s free time at the park or library, but is that living?

  3. My husband and I were born and raised in CA, Long Beach and Cerritos areas respectively and then moved to Buena Park and Irvine when we moved in together. Before we got married 8 years ago, we always knew we would be leaving our family and moving out East somewhere. California just wasn’t our thing after living there our whole lives. We craved true season changes, snow, cooler temps, and cheaper housing. Before our wedding we bought our first house here in IN and moved a few months later. Though we miss so many things from our southern california days: true ethnic foods like mexican and chinese especially, disneyland, vegas, our old stomping grounds and eateries for a few; we have no regrets about our decision to leave.

    We have been able to do many many things that living in CA would have never been possible. We sold that first house 2 years later and built a new home. We just sold that home 6 years later and are temporarily living in an apartment while building our next home. We would never have had the opportunity to build our own home once, let alone twice, living in Southern Ca. Real estate is just way too expensive for what you can get in other parts of the country. Much larger homes for a fraction of the price in southern ca. We have done lots of traveling here since the states are so much closer together, we made an impromptu trip to Ohio just this past Wednesday afternoon. I have been fortunate to be a SAHM to our son, something that would never have been possible for us with wages and costs in CA. Life just seems slower paced and enjoyed more here. In CA, everyone was always rushing from one thing to the next. Traffic was insane there compared to here, commuting to work here even with us living in southern indiana and my husband working in downtown indy, still less than a 30 minute drive. Traffic congestion is relatively unheard of, unless there is an accident bad enough to warrant it. When we were communting in CA, we lived in Irvine and I worked in downtown LA. 1 1/2 to 2 hours of a drive was the norm, which makes me dry heave thinking about how I used to do that! We love all the country and farm land we live right next to, all of the open land and corn fields are amazing to see.

    Obviously, growing up in CA we have fond memories and affections for it. But, we desire to live elsewhere and visit when we can. The choice of ethnic foods and restaurants is so much better in CA, we had our favorites like Don Jose’s, Mama Cozza’s, Heroes, boba drinks, cheap chinese…we miss these! We use to make impromptu trips to disneyland all the time, we miss disney a lot. We aren’t really beach type people, not a fan of sand. But, it was nice to see water and go for a stroll when so inclined.

    1. Yep. I think your experience is a very doable one, if you like the new state you move to. We lived in Kansas City for 5 years. The house was really the only cost difference for us. Everything else was the same or more expensive for us. And we really missed California weather. It’s definitely not for everyone. Sounds like you’ve really made it work for you. Great job!

  4. I’ve lived in SD for a year, and will never forget it. Best place EVER. If I could choose a place to live, it would be in CA, even if not San Diego. The one reason why I don’t move to SD is that the US make it hard for immigrants! (I am from Brazil) lol
    And if you think California is expensive, try to live in Rio de Janeiro!!!!

      1. I did, but then I got married and moved to Belo Horizote (inland – no beaches…)…Still go to Rio a lot though 🙂

  5. Oh sister! California ROCKS!!! I’m always trying to find a way to move to SD!;)

  6. I am born and raised California! I have lived in the Bay Area my entire life and it is expensive. I love living here though, a majority of my and his family live here. You’re right though it is possible to be frugal in California though it can be difficult.

  7. I always adore your California posts. I need to get out there sometime. I’ve been to tons of states, but I’ve never made it out there! So much of what you write on this topic has me nodding along because it’s true for pricey Connecticut, too. (There are, of course, differences, but the crux remains the same. 🙂 )

  8. I love CA! I lived there when I was single, after college, before grad school, during grad school and after grad school. I would love to move back – I’m so jealous of people who grow up in CA and have the heritage of being Californians. But with 3 boys and one income, my husband doesn’t think we can move to CA. I get it. It is a lot of pressure for him to support us financially there and the kids are 8 and under and already eat us out of house and home! But I do love CA.

    1. I think it really depends on the one income. We’ve been a live-on-one-income family forever. We even moved back with debt and two houses left to sell. (We were crazy, I know.) Anyway, I know lots of one income families, it just depends on what that income is.

      1. My family wants to move back to California! Jessica we are in a much better position than you were at the time of your move. But I’m pretty confused and insecure of taking the leap. Our kids are grown. One daughter is married but they want to come . . . How can a young couple survive even if they have two incomes but their incomes are low? My husband and I would come and he’d be searching for a job unless he secured one before the move. Our other daughter could live with us and transfer her part-time job to there. We are willing to rent an apartment for a year or so and figure it all out. Job’s, best location etc. we do want to live within 30 min of the beach ( when there isn’t traffic) previously we grew up ( my husband and I) in Corona and the Inland Empire. That is not where we want to be. Looking in San Diego or OC County. Thinking SD County would be more affordable in the long run. Would love to hear from you! You bravely took the leap for the same reasons we want to. Traveling and exploring California – a day break at the beach, there is just so much to get to see and do and feel like you’ve gone somewhere in just an hour even. We need that back in our lives now. I just want to make the right decision. So many say California is not the place to go because of water, taxes and taxes and everything else. . .

        1. It is definitely not perfect, but for us, it’s home. We don’t love renting, but we do so in order to keep a 2-year emergency fund on hand. That is really important to us. 30 minutes inland is pretty affordable. That would be like Escondido, Valley Center, Temecula. A little hotter in the summer, but much, much cheaper than being on the coast. I think it’s doable. We came with a job waiting though. I think that’s important. And unloading as much debt as you can beforehand.

  9. Since much of my family lives there, I hear you! However, I also agree totally! My mother lives outside of Sacramento (and I have been able to live there on one salary with 4 kids), but has a place in the Bay area during the week for work. Her parking spot costs more than our mortgage!!! My sis is down in San Jose, expecting child #2, one salary, and quite comfortable. It can be done. I think people really do misunderstand the prices in CA (where did the reputation come from). I have found cheaper food prices, especially on produce, in CA than in the midwest sometimes!

    1. I think we buy fewer, less expensive clothes, too. I had to buy so much when we lived in the midwest. Plus, heating and cooling costs were through the roof.