“I’m right in one of those sane circles,” Dawn Dinegan wrote to me from her four-bedroom home an hour north of Madison, Wis. “Lots of decent housing for $100K … good schools and low crime.”
Those “sane circles” are on a map I published recently listing 100 U.S. communities with jobs, affordable homes, and better-than-average schools. Rural Wisconsin is on the list. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that big cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle are not.
The economics of living an affordable life in America are unforgiving, as I’ve been chronicling in The Restless Project. In many places, people with average-wage jobs can’t afford average-priced homes, making a mess out of family budgets.
While this might be the rule, there are plenty of exceptions, and now I am turning my attention to those places. On my map, they displayed as “sane circles.” Where is the American Dream still reasonably available to folks who work hard and live decent lives? Today, with help from Dawn, we make the case for rural America and, in particular, rural Wisconsin.
Dawn and her husband may be far from Madison (he drives 70 miles one-way to get to his job in corrections), but they are only 2 miles outside a “little burg.”
“(It has) one school, one post office, one gas station, a couple of restaurants, one dollar store and five bars. Hey, it’s Wisconsin, after all,” she said. On the other hand, it is the kind of place where no one worries if they forgot to lock the door.
The family mortgage is less than $1,000 a month, so they live comfortably on his salary, supplemented by Dawn’s work as a long-term substitute teacher.
Dawn grew up in rural Wisconsin, so she knew what she was getting into when she moved back a few years ago. She spent 15 years living in Madison as the couple established their professional lives and started a family. They rented in Madison and looked to buy a home back then, but they never felt comfortable with the prices.
They actually waited, patiently, until they were in their 40s to buy a home, and when they did 15 years ago, it was an easily affordable home in the country. They wanted a simpler life. Even if that meant driving a few thousand miles every month.
“It’s a lot and most people wouldn’t do that,” she said. “But he actually likes to drive. It’s been a ride. But even with all the gas and upkeep, it was STILL cheaper than living near Madison.”
Of course, there are trade-offs. Lots of them. They start with the long commute but don’t end there.
“You have to drive 20 to 30 minutes to do anything,” Dawn said. “I do miss the convenience for certain things. I would also say that it was a little harder for my kids (now grown) to find opportunities for certain things, being in the country. My daughter loves acting, and we were just too far from some plays for her to even audition. My son loved baseball, and though small towns do Little League, etc., when he was older it was almost impossible to find Junior Leagues, etc. But they also got to grow up in the country and breathe the fresh air. Trade-offs.”
Not everyone in their neighborhood, which we are leaving intentionally obscure because they like their privacy, endures such long commutes. The slow, steady march of teleworking jobs has opened up some big-city-like jobs to rural Wisconsinites. Some neighbors do medical coding work, for example. There’s plenty of traditional small-town work, too, such as farming. Folks aren’t getting rich doing that. But there is the small-town feel.
“People here are patriotic, giving and proud of their community, for the most part,” she said. “I can’t imagine paying thousands a month for a mortgage payment, plus the property taxes! I’ll take the simpler life, thanks.”
Dawn has one piece of advice for someone who might be looking at their monthly budget, then looking at one of those “sane circles” in a rural area, and wondering if there’s a way to end the restlessness.
“I’d say to check it out for themselves, talk to people who live there, and really try to analyze what they want and what they are willing to sacrifice to live more affordably. The lifestyle will be different than it is on the coasts, and they need to talk to people who have done it,” she said.
Click the map below for data on each circle