14 Mar

Hunting for the Best Early Retirement City

Without a job dictating where we’ll live, we’re able to develop our own criteria. We’d like to live somewhere with a happening downtown core, reasonable cost of living, good weather, bike friendly, open-minded people, decent public schools, and lots of nice trees. Quite the list, right? For our 50th post and the one-year anniversary of this blog, we’re sharing our hunt for a U.S. city to settle down in, with Bruno of course. A place to hang our hat until the next trip starts to take shape.

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Asheville, NC (Joe Franklin)

We’re currently on our drive up from Costa Rica, heading to Nova Scotia. On our journey so far, we’ve driven through Central America, Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Alabama. To help build our list of “Best Early Retirement Cities”, we started with the weather.

A good map we’ve found for identifying great weather locations is this one from Brian B’s Climate Blog that shows the number of “Picture Perfect Weather Days” per year:

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Another great weather map to cross-reference against is the NOAA’s Dew Point map for July, which measures moisture in the air for the hottest month of the year. Exactly how hot and humid does it feel in different parts of the country in July? A dew point greater than 68 °F is considered uncomfortable and greater than 72 °F is considered to be extremely humid:dew_point_july

In terms of sunny comfortable weather, the South West wins hands down. But we also want to have a lot of happy green trees, so the desert doesn’t really cut it for us. The US is so big and has so many potential places to live, it’s a bit overwhelming to build a list of cities to check out. These weather maps provide a good first step!

Cost of living is also extremely important for our retired lifestyle. How much does it cost to live in one city compared to another? Travis had already done a lot of research to narrow down our options; most of which are summarized in the post titled 50 Best US Cities for Early Retirement.

Using our own subjective measurements and with some internet research, we ended up narrowing our search to these five cities in the South East:

Nashville, Tennessee
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Atlanta, Georgia
Asheville, North Carolina
Roanoke, Virgina

Whichever of these cities we like the most, we’re aiming to buy a fixer-upper as our next project. Our home-buying budget will be $250,000. Worse case scenario, if for some reason we change our minds about the city after fixing up the house, we’ll just “flip” the house and hopefully make a small profit. Neither of us are particularly handy, but considering all the work we did on Bruno using YouTube videos, we have nothing but time and patience to develop skills and try new things.

Which city will pass our rigorous evaluation process?? Bring on the candidates!

Nashville, TN (city/metro populations 660k/1.7M), the capital of Tennessee was the first city along our route. It has mild winters, but the summers are a little hot and humid. Travis was excited that Nashville will soon have Google Fiber, and the income tax in Tennessee is minimal since they only tax interest and dividend income.

Nashville has a good sized downtown, which is characterized by The Batman Building (belonging to AT&T). We walked the riverfront parks and the tourist areas, noting that the live music scene is alive and well in the Country Music Capital of the World.

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Nashville, TN (Daniel Dubois)

Similar to Austin, Texas, Nashville has been booming in recent years. It has experienced constant population growth backed by a stable economy, and real estate prices are on the rise. In 2013, the median sale price for a home was $170,000 and now it’s somewhere around $230,000.

We visited the Tennessee State Capitol and the Nashville Farmers Market. We strolled past the Country Music Hall of Fame and the countless bars on Broadway.

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We walked all the way to Vanderbilt University, one of the top 20 schools in the U.S. (annual tuition, a whopping $44,000). Across the street is Centennial Park, which has a full-scale replica of The Parthenon in Athens, Greece. We had high hopes for this residential area with great green spaces and so many students around, but we found mainly condo and apartment living.

Further West is a desirable part of Nashville, but we would be too far from all the action. We liked the feel of some East Nashville neighborhoods, but with its proximity to downtown, the single family homes were a bit out of our price range. We left with a positive impression and were excited to compare it to the other cities on our list.

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Chattanooga, TN (city/metro pop. 171k/528k) is a 2-hour drive SE from Nashville, towards the Appalachian mountains. This mountain range appears to be pronounced ap-uh-“LATCH”-uhn by folks in the South, while folks in the northern Appalachians pronounce it ap-uh-LAY-chuhn. At any rate, the city is nicely located in the junction of the Cumberland Plateau and the southern Appalachians and has some spectacular scenery.

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Chattanooga, TN (City of Chattanooga)

Like Nashville, Chattanooga also gets hot and humid for a few months in the summer. The residents seem active and outdoorsy, and there would be countless activities to keep us busy: hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, water sports in the river.

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Thirty years ago the whole area was essentially in economic ruin after the collapse of their manufacturing industry, but due to fantastic management and planning they’ve turned it into a great little city that is well poised to boom and prosper. The downtown is super clean and fun to walk around, with many great walking and biking trails. The city is progressive enough that they implemented Gigabit fiber internet for all residents way back in 2010! The future looks bright and they’re actively encouraging tech startups and entrepreneurs to move to the city.

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It doesn’t take long to evaluate the residential areas within biking distance to downtown Chattanooga. We narrowed it down to two areas we really liked, North Shore and St. Elmo. North Shore is just across the river from downtown with a dedicated pedestrian bridge. It also has its own commercial strip with plenty of eclectic second-hand stores, health food shops and antique dealers. Very bike-friendly and walkable. St. Elmo is south of downtown, a flat 20-minute bike ride away and sits at the base of Lookout Mountain. They are busy building up the neighborhood center with local businesses. There’s a desirable crop of homes in both of these areas.

We spent a full week in Chattanooga at a great Airbnb that had two cats and a dog. Penny, the orange cat was as grumpy as they come, which made us love him even more.

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During our stay, we did some hiking and sight-seeing around town. This included a walk to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo terminal and hotel, and a scenic drive up Lookout Mountain to a historical battle site during the American Civil War in the 1860’s.

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We plunged further south towards Atlanta, GA (city/metro pop. 447k/5.5M). This is definitely the biggest city we’ll be evaluating, but research said it had all the right things going for it: low cost of living, good weather, lots of trees, a bustling downtown, Google Fiber coming soon, and an ambitious city plan for a “Beltline” bike trail that circles the entire city.

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Atlanta, GA (Eric Taylor)

Atlanta also offers serious homebuyer incentives, if your income is low enough (check them out at Invest Atlanta). As we explored the city, we really loved the neighborhoods of Grant Park, Cabbagetown, Edgewood, and Kirkwood. If you are visiting Atlanta, they’re nice neighborhoods to stroll through. Big parks, nice homes, local coffee shops, breakfast places, and the food stalls in Krog Market. We realized pretty much all of these areas are too pricey for our budget, so we ended up zooming in on East Atlanta Village (EAV).

EAV has a small center to the neighborhood with a handful of shops and restaurants. Most homes in the area are priced at the upper end of our budget and we didn’t exactly fall in love with the housing stock. EAV has more crime than other areas we’d been looking at (like burglaries), and it also doesn’t have easy access to the Atlanta subway system.

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We had a great time exploring Atlanta and did our best to see the sights, a sampling of what the big city had to offer. We started at the Georgia State Capitol Building where Jimmy Carter served as Governor from 1971-75, then we walked to Olympic Park in Downtown (Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics in 1996). There’s an Aquarium, the Coca-Cola Museum, CNN headquarters with tours, and a great big Ferris wheel. We had our lunch and watched the kids play in the unpredictable shooting water fountains.

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There is also a lot of civil rights history in Atlanta. We walked through Martin Luther King Jr.’s old neighborhood and saw the Ebenezer Baptist Church where both his Dad and later himself were pastors. There is also a fantastic American Civil Rights Museum, which is guaranteed to put water in your eyes. MLK Jr. is truly a great American hero and here is his childhood home!

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After Atlanta, we headed north into the Appalachians to reach Asheville, NC (city/metro pop. 83k/424k). Asheville seems to have pretty great weather – possibly the best in the South East. Due to its location in the mountains (elev. 2100 ft), it has mild summers that attracts a lot of tourists from the hotter parts of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Having a home in a tourist destination city like Asheville might actually be perfect for us, since we’ve been toying around with the idea of renting out our home for 2-3 months during the year to continue traveling.

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Asheville, NC (Mike Brown)

We had done a good bit of research on Asheville before arriving, but our super helpful Airbnb host pointed us towards some interesting neighborhoods within our budget to check out. Three in total: West Asheville, South Slope, and the River Arts District. The housing stock in these areas is varied, which makes for interesting streets, each one different from the next. All three areas have their own commercial strip of local shops, restaurants, breweries and art galleries. The neighborhoods are bikeable to downtown, but it’s a hilly landscape and the roads aren’t as bike-friendly as other cities we’ve seen.

During our week in Asheville, we hiked in the Blue Ridge Mountains and enjoyed the clear, crisp day.

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The city seems to be earning a reputation as some sort of mecca in the mountains for liberals in the SE. Internet forum threads comparing the best cities to move to always seem to mention Asheville, and lots of people we’ve talked to in the last year have recommended it. The primary online complaints about the city are that housing is getting too expensive, there aren’t enough good paying jobs, too many tourists, and not enough investment in infrastructure to handle all the people moving in.

What is this mystical place in the mountains? As we explored the city, we had the pleasure of meeting our first blog readers a.k.a. internet strangers! Leah & Prentice currently live in Asheville and are also avid Mustachians. We met them for a picnic at the University of North Carolina Botanical Gardens and peppered them with questions about life in town. We made some friends that day, and there were Good Vibes all around. Thanks Asheville, we had a great time!

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Roanoke, Virginia (city/metro population 97k/308k) was the final city along our route. Historically known as a rail town, much of its tourism is centered around it. Virginia Tech is about 40 mins to the south of Roanoke, and the city surrounded by the Appalachian mountains.

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Roanoke, VA (N. Moreland)

Arguably, this city is a bit sleepy. The economy is not very hot, the real estate market is flat, and there wasn’t much energy when walking around downtown. That being said, Roanoke has a ton of potential as a city. Weather is pretty great, proximity to nature is amazing, downtown is clean and ready for growth.

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The neighborhoods in the city’s South West are bike friendly, have beautiful big trees, and the large homes are very reasonably priced. We really liked the area around Grandin Village and stopped in for a coffee on a rainy day.

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Roanoke, VA (Terry Aldhizer)

All in all, we found evaluating five different cities fairly exhausting and we haven’t even started any type of real house hunting! Life in the South East would be something to get used to, as it does have some significant cultural differences from life on the West Coast. One thing Travis likes is use of “y’all” as a replacement for “you guys” when addressing a mixed-gender group of people. Very progressive!

Without further ado and after much debate, we’ve concluded that Asheville, North Carolina fits us best, followed closely by Chattanooga, Tennessee. We’re certain we’d be happy in either locale and are excited for the future. Cheers to next steps!

  • Hannah Ray

    Hey! Please come visit us in Minneapolis! We bought our house a few weeks ago & are getting it set up to host guests. It’s pretty cold in the winter but come visit in the summer for nice greenery & bike-ability! Looks like you guys had a great time exploring all the cities.

    • Amanda

      We’ll definitely come up through MN in the summer time! It’s conveniently on the way to Canada 🙂 Congratulations on your house! Spring is around the corner… xox

  • Ryan Smith

    Lifelong resident of the SE here (and yes it’s App-uh-latch-uhn!). Out of that list, Asheville and Chattanooga would be my top picks also. Avoid Atlanta like the plague. Compared to your other picks it’s the hottest, most congested and most expensive by far. Asheville is much like my hometown of Knoxville – Great weather, easy traffic, outdoor recreation is top notch and mild winters/summers. I think you would like it there. Not far from Asheville is Hot Springs and Chimney Rock State Park – two awesome places. Check them out next time you come through!

    • Amanda

      Always excellent to have our selections reinforced! Also taking note of the parks. We love recommendations from locals 🙂 Thanks Ryan!

  • Kevin Coppa

    It’s not in the east and its not in the south, but Conde Nast rated Concord California as the best place to retire in the United Stated and seventh best in the world(!). You may be familiar with that exotic locale! Of course the internet never lies.. 😉 Good luck to you wherever you land!

    • Travis

      Thanks Kevin! Interestingly enough, Amanda and I seriously looked into buying a home in Concord back in 2010! Commuting into San Francisco on the BART train would have been do-able for me, and as you know Amanda’s commute would have been less than 10 mins. But ultimately we felt the area was a bit pricey for us. Comparing price per square foot, Concord is almost twice as expensive (at $315) than Asheville, NC ($170). Also Amanda says: come visit us!

  • Amanda McPherson

    How about Boise? Or Salt Lake? We also live in Oakland and are thinking about moving eventually for FI so I am enjoying your content. Just checked out your spreadsheet. Geared a little to the SE and Texas for my tastes. I like the west.

    • Travis

      Hi Amanda! We got kinda spoiled after living in Oakland since the weather is so perfect there! Boise slipped off our radar due to the colder winters, and the cultural differences of SLC pushed it further down our list. When your time comes to move, we’d love to hear your analysis of West Coast cities!

      • Amanda McPherson

        Oakland does have wonderful weather! And lots of other plusses. You may want to check out SLC. It’s much more liberal and culturally interesting than the stereotype. A very liberal friend of mine works there, and the city is very surprising. They just elected an openly gay mayor for instance. it was recently voted one of the trendiest hipster cities one can still afford. You can always rent out your house in ski season and Sundance Film Fest time too. I also like that SLC is a hub airport with many direct flights. Boise is cheaper and also more liberal than its state. If you like outdoors and mountains, you can’t do much better. But they are colder. I am from California so have a hard time in humidity and culturally the south seems very different. But Asheville, Chatanooga and Nashville sound pretty nice! I will keep you posted! We have kids so that is part of the equation too.

        • Travis

          Yeah, SLC seems to have pretty decent weather with a nice short snowy season for skiing as well. We’ll definitely keep it in mind if we want to continue exploring after Asheville!

  • Hope “ya’ll” enjoy Asheville if you end up there! 🙂

    I’m partial to North Carolina of course, having grown up here. My extended family all hails from the Appalachian area of NC the next county or two over from Asheville/Buncombe County and I know that area well from visiting with my parents growing up. It’s a great choice for you guys. Nice crunchy progressive residents, good local beer scene, boatloads of outdoors activities (skiing/snowboarding, hiking, biking, kayak/canoeing, rafting etc).

    I recently had a law school friend leave the burgeoning Research Triangle Park (Raleigh/Durham) and move to Asheville to build a homestead and downshift. Can’t say I blame them – it’s a nice city.

    • Travis

      Thanks Justin! If we end up going through Raleigh we’ll drop you a note! We’re going to be your neighbors in the mountains!

      • Please do! It’s really nice in Raleigh now through about May or early June when the heat and humidity kicks up for a couple of months. Best to skip the lower lying parts of North Carolina in July and August when the heat is at the worst. As always, we’ve got a parking spot for Bruno and/or a guest bed inside the house.

        If you guys want a cheap getaway from the mountains, check out the beaches of NC and SC. Starting in September every year the rental rates drop to 1/3 of the summer rental rates. Our family has rented a 4 BR oceanfront condo for around $800-900/wk in the past (I’m sure you could find much better deals for a smaller place or at a hotel/campground).

        September at the NC beaches is my favorite time. A little cooler so you can stay out most of the day without burning to a crisp and the water stays pretty warm throughout Sept and into part of October. Crowds disappear and rental rates drop like a rock. Best time of year to visit the Carolina’s beaches if you aren’t stuck with kids’ school schedule and summertime only vacations.

        In the Asheville vicinity, check out Linville Falls/Gorge. Nice day hikes and beautiful falls. I’ve probably visited there a couple dozen times since I was a kid.

        • Travis

          These are wonderful suggestions, thank you very much!!

  • I’m dying to check out Asheville! Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Er, sorry, “y’all” enjoyed it.

    • Amanda

      Thanks Matt! Congratulations on your first six weeks of FIRE! T-minus 4 days to your road trip departure date? Looking forward to following along with you!

  • Joe

    Wow, nice report. That perfect days report seems too small. Portland and Seattle are overcast most of the year, but our summers are awesome. I’m sure we have more than 20-30 perfect days per year. I would love to travel more and check out those cities on your list. I think we’re more partial to the west coast, though. Santa Barbara is perfect for us, but it is ridiculously expensive to live there.
    We love Portland, but would not retire here. It is too rainy… 🙂

    • Travis

      haha, yeah if we had a time machine we might travel back to the 1970’s and buy a really nice place in Santa Barbara or San Diego when it was cheap.

      Portland/Seattle rain: There’s actually a different weather map that Brian B created that shows a “Dreariness Index”, you may find this interesting: http://us-climate.blogspot.ca/2015/03/dreary-weather.html

      • Joe

        I think the Dreariness map is about right for the NW, particularly this winter…

  • Norm

    I have a good friend who moved to Chattanooga. She loves it, so I am inclined to side with that one, although I’ve never been there. But they have municipal fiber, so it must be good!

    I’m a creature of New England, and whenever I picture retirement, it’s never any further west or south than New York! I need the four seasons, and I think I have that puritanical streak in me that desires at least a few months of “punishment.” Otherwise I don’t deserve the nice weather months. And besides, I hate the heat. And global warming, right? It’s only going to get hotter down south.

    • Travis

      Norm, it sounds like you’ve already found your slice of paradise! All you have to do now is join your city council and get them to implement municipal fiber like Chattanooga!

  • Those maps are fascinating! And also show me that I live in one of the dreariest parts of the country which is probably why I am always craving the sunshine. Best of luck to you in your search!

    • Amanda

      Thanks, Mrs. SFF! Spring is right around the corner and with it, I hope you see some sun 🙂

  • LeRainDrop

    Welcome to the South, y’all! Congrats on making your decision! I live in Atlanta but also love Chattanooga, Asheville, and Nashville. I think you’re going to love Asheville, too 🙂

    • Amanda

      LeRainDrop – thanks for your welcoming words! We’re excited to make our way back down south later this month and start settling in.

  • Wang Xiuyuan

    Hi there, I am someone from Beijing, China who found your articles very interesting… And I agree that a tour like this must be “exhausting” or even rarely possible if there is day-time job or child to take care of. To find a place for your next home from all over the country(or world) is a great luxury but no small feat. Indeed I am a sort of early retiree too…I went to Raleigh, NC and Myrtle Beach, SC last year in my first tour of the U.S for new ventures…I learnt a lot about the way in the South from the traveling and appreciated the unique experience there. May I ask exactly what the culture differences you mentioned/experienced are between West Coast and Southeast? I have never been to the West Coast and always wanted to venture out to the Bay area one day( When I have had a few bucks!)

    • Travis

      Hi Wang! One of the great things about the US is that it has a lot of diversity, both in culture and geography. If you have sufficient “retirement” savings, I think you may really enjoy California. Although it’s pretty expensive, the whole state is diverse, the landscapes are beautiful and the weather is simply amazing. Also, due to its close proximity to Asia there is a solid demographic of Chinese immigrants on the West Coast. One great tool I recommend using when comparing different US cities is city-data.com. One cultural difference between the West Coast and South East is that the West Coast generally tends to be less religious and also have more Democratic political leanings. I wish you luck on your search!

  • Jay

    Hi! Great choices so you can hardly go wrong. I have lived in TN most of my life and have spent a lot of time in Atlanta and Roanoke too.

    Here are a couple of thoughts for what they’re worth. I think the #1 thing is to think about is what you want to do with your time and find a place that fits your personalities. Nashville is terrific, but yes east Nashville has gone crazy in price, not sure why. There is a great arts/music scene, a lot of young professionals, and more liberal(and conservative) types abound. Nashville has some inexpensive areas, but be careful because location is everything there. Traffic is bad. You cant get around by bike very well, like most big cities. Big arts scene in east Nashville! So much to do there.

    Chattanooga is great for mountain biking and has a great bike scene, 3 state mountain rides, etc. There is a good mix of transplants, and both conservative and liberal, young and old. The mountains are nice as you’ve seen! I always wanted to live there. Not as much to do for work as Nashville, if you are inclined to go back that route. Housing is cheaper. Seems like you want to spend a lot of time outside so this is a great choice with state and national parks all around.

    Roanoke is pretty, but there isn’t much to do, and most of the folks are local with not too many transplants. One great thing I miss about TN was the lack of state income tax – don’t underestimate that! If I were going to live in VA I would look at Radford or Blacksburg, the colleges there make them nice places.

    I dont know as much about Ashville except for the few days I’ve spent there but its beautiful and trendy. See Biltmore House. I just couldnt live in Atlanta due to the traffic.

    We ended up in Northwest Arkansas for work reasons, but its very pretty in the Ozarks. Even if you don’t work, think about what you are going to do with your time and who you’d like for friends/neighbors. It needs to be a good fit. Dont worry about the heat in these places – yo you’ve been in Central America, you’ll adapt!

    Cant wait to see where you end up(and think about that tax thing!)

    • Travis

      Really great comments – thanks for sharing! Yeah, in the end we felt that Asheville fit our personalities the most. We’re heading down now to check it out more and actually start looking at houses that come on the market. We’ll keep you updated!

  • Jubilantjill

    Ah, I love Asheville. If I wasn’t such a die hard rock climber (I want minimal rain and rocks within 30 minutes of my house) I’d move to Asheville in a minute. I grew up in Boone, NC just north of y’all, but sunshine has drawn me West (Bishop, CA). The Appalachians are so wonderful. More species of deciduous trees there than anywhere else in the world- or so I’ve heard. Best place I’ve ever lived to raise kids too if that’s in your future.

    • Amanda

      Travis wanted more trees in the next place we lived, and he’s certainly got that in the Appalachians! The color boom right now is different shades of green, and should be even more incredible in the Fall. Hard to beat California, though. It has a special place in my heart!

  • Freedom35

    You guys might be us, our criteria and list of locations overlap a lot. Thanks for doing the research ahead of time. It’s nice when people do all the work for you 🙂

    • Amanda

      No joke! Our background stories are eerily similar LOL. If and when you make it back East, we should meet up!

  • Linda Walker

    I just discovered your blog and wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying reading about your adventures! I too recently moved to Asheville (October 2015) from the Washington, D.C. area after retiring at 50 years of age. I am extremely fortunate to have retired from federal law enforcement with a pension and about the same amount that you started with in savings. You guys make me feel more than a bit silly for worrying about running low on money. I admire your courage to stop working to live off your savings. I don’t think I’d have been brave enough to retire/stop working even with a million in savings if I hadn’t also had a known steady “check” coming every month. I am currently renting, but exploring the options of buying or building a house. I like the convenience of renting (no maintenance, amenities, no commitment), but worry about where rent costs are going to go in the future. I am very interested in hopefully hearing what your housing costs end up being (taxes, home owners insurance, maintenance costs). And I look forward to reading more about your continuing adventures!

    • Amanda

      Hi Linda! Thanks for reading. We’re currently renting as well, until we can move into the home we bought. We had to go outside the city limits in order to find affordable rents and we’re missing being central to the action. We’re also finding that we are driving more than we’d like to and our gas costs are higher being in a non-friendly bike or walking area. I’ll try to remember to put together a post with our monthly costs later in the year when our expenses smooth out. We’ve been buying so much furniture lately, we’ll have to offset that with a few quieter spending months. Have a great summer!

  • Christian

    Any suggestions for places to stay, eat and see, from a couple of Calgarians driving through in about a week? 🙂 Great blog btw, very inspirational!

    • Amanda

      Hi Christian – glad you’re enjoying the blog! Assuming you’re talking about driving through Asheville – if we had our rental rooms ready to go, we’d offer them up, but unfortunately the toilet is out on the porch at the moment. When we were guests here in February, we stayed at an Airbnb 15 mins north of the city in Leicester. We had our own car, and it was worth the lower per night cost to drive into the city ($40 vs. $60+). We recommend our friend GW: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/9471157

      Hiking in the mountains and driving the Blue Ridge Parkway are our favorite getaways. The views are incredible and there are several hikes to choose from. I like this website: http://www.hikewnc.info/

      As you can tell from the blog, we don’t eat out a lot, but our new neighborhood is the River Arts District with its galleries and funky stores. There are many eateries that have been recommended to us: 12 Bones Smokehouse, The Wedge Brewing Co., The Bull and Beggar, All Souls Pizza. West Asheville also has Haywood St., which is full of shops and restaurants. The downtown core has most of the breweries and there is always live music (often free, if you do your research!). We hope you have a great time.