How To Afford a House These Days

The other day, an MMM reader stopped by and left the following comment on one of my older posts about the principles of FIRE:

“While I still find some of MMM’s advice relevant, it seems like every FI blogger out there worked in tech 20 years ago, pulled down a 6 figure salary and bought a house for a bag of potatoes before 2019.

I wasn’t smart enough to find FI when I was young so I sometimes feel like a lot of their advice is not going to help me or others who don’t already own a home and don’t have six- figure salaries in this post-pandemic world.

 A lot of the ideas given to young folks are “house hack” “buy a fixer upper” but that is still out of reach and/or complex to navigate with current prices and interest rates. Most townships around me do not want you to chop a house up into ADU’s or multiple units. My cousin owns 60 acres of land but he is not allowed to live on a trailer on that land.

 I don’t know what the next generation of FI bloggers will offer, perhaps they are already out there and I just don’t know who they are, but I’d like to hear from them.”

As with every critique of our ideas, I thought about this comment for a while. Tried to determine if there were any Principles of Mustachianism that were genuinely going obsolete, versus the more common side effects of Complainypants and/or Excuse-itis, two afflictions which have been weighing down our critics since the beginning. 

After all, this isn’t the first time FIRE has gone obsolete. Over my retirement I’ve seen it:

  • written off as just a phenomenon of the lucky winners of the 2000 Tech Boom
  • declared obsolete after the 2009 Financial Crisis
  • dismissed as a temporary fluke of the spectacular stock market of the 2010s
  • and explained away as a Covid-era side effect that came from the taste of freedom that people got from remote work.

So what’s the situation right now? 

Our commenter focuses on two things: the solid salaries of tech workers, and the major increases in house prices (and interest rates) in the most recent four years. 

The first one — high salaries in general – is still a factor and I don’t expect that to change. Some jobs just pay more than others, and there’s a lot you can do to increase your income and switch jobs, and I’m all for it. However, ever-increasing income is not my usual focus here on MMM, because I have seen first hand that most people can waste almost any amount of income and still have very little to show for it. 

In fact, the very existence of software engineers and doctors and other high earners who are my age and still feeling financial stress is proof of this: it’s mathematically impossible to earn so much for almost 30 years and not have an absolute shit-ton saved, unless you are also spending an absolute shit-ton of money the whole time.

So instead, we focus on how to streamline your spending and live joyfully and efficiently without compromise. We focus on reducing waste, while maintaining or even increasing all of the other benefits that come from spending money more purposefully. These skills are essential even for the highest earners, but they become even more valuable as you move down the income ladder.

So now for the second issue: housing. Does the state of housing here in 2024 screw up the whole FIRE plan? 

As with any question, let’s start by looking at the data: how much have US house prices actually risen – adjusted for inflation – since 2019? 

It turns out that our own St. Louis Fed makes this extremely useful  information available here.

So there’s our answer: houses “feel” about 25% more expensive right now than they did at the start of 2019 relative to the average salary and the price of everything else. Although interestingly enough,  they are only up about 10% since the last peak in early 2006, a full eighteen years ago! So housing is a blow, but not a FIRE-extinguishing one.

However, this nationwide data masks some much bigger increases in certain popular cities, including my own: Plain old Longmont Colorado now sports a hilariously high $540,000 median home price. So houses are about triple the price they were when I started writing in 2011, which means they’ve risen much faster than the average salary. Which means houses are much further out of reach for the average person in my area.

House Shopping With Your Middle Finger

The solution to this is the same as most other problems: to stop thinking in the way our culture likes to train us (as a victim of outside forces beyond our control) and go back to thinking like a Mustachian. 

Houses are just like any other manufactured product, and as such they come at a wide variety of prices, subject to supply and demand. 

And just because you happen to live in a certain place (even if you were born and raised there), doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be able to afford to buy a house there. Just as a baby born upon the Apple campus in Cupertino today doesn’t automatically get a new iPhone Pro Max every year. 

With every purchasing decision, you need to go through the same series of choices:

  • Can I afford this thing right now?
  • Do I need/want it enough to buy it?
  • Are there any alternatives to meeting those same needs, and what are their pros and cons?
  • What’s the best way to procure it, after considering all the points above?

So when it comes to houses, you run the numbers, then decide between renting or buying or house hacking. You might start by doing the analysis right in your own city, but also keep in mind that there are lots of other cities and even countries in the world, and there are happy people living in all of them. 

But Wait: I don’t want to move to a whole new place!

At this point, people get defensive. We all have ties to our current location, and the stronger the ties the more difficult it becomes to consider moving. 

But there’s a difference between genuine, positive bonds to a place and just plain old fear of change. So it’s my job to at least make you question your assumptions, because not doing so is what got you where you are, and it’s also what got our country where it is.

And on a country-wide basis,  I notice that our general fear of relocating creates a very irrational pattern of house prices. They are ridiculously high in some places and ridiculously cheap in others. There does seem to be a general correlation between niceness and cost, but not a perfect one (especially since everyone has their own definition of “nice”)

And that’s where the opportunity lies.


I moved to Longmont in 2005 because it met our young family’s needs at the time, at the right price with homes about $200,000. Today, at the $540,000 price level (houses average about $450 per interior square foot) it has to compete with a much broader range of cities which offer nicer amenities at equal or lower prices. 

Let’s do a hypothetical search using another amazing tool: FRED’s list of the top 1000 metro areas with price per square foot, and plot some of them based on my own judgment of their desirability: 

I’m biased towards Colorado because I have so many ties there, and I also highly prioritize sunny climates. My chart suggests that if I wanted to save money, I might start looking around in Albuquerque, whereas Denver would give me a nicer life in the same price range as my current city of Longmont. And if I were willing to spend even more on housing to live somewhere even nicer, I should suck it up and move to Boulder.

Just for fun, I pulled the data from that same FRED website into a separate google spreadsheet (which I’ll share here) and sorted it by cost per square foot. Then, I highlighted a band of affordable cities with housing centered on the $100 per square foot range, which would mean a 2,000 square foot house is about $200k.

As an added bonus, I added a column to calculate the change in house prices over the past year, just in case it helps us see if a city is on the way up or getting cheaper at the moment.

A chart like this is just a starting point – you’d need to read more about any place and then go visit in person before considering a move. But the idea is to start with data, and then do some fun research based on what you learn.

The Earth Awaits: Casting a Worldwide Net

House prices are a valuable metric, because they influence the cost of living more than almost anything else for the typical Mustachian. After all, biking and nature are always close to free, Costcos are available nationwide, and we probably care less than average about the costs of other services like valets and salons.

But there’s still plenty of value in looking at the bigger picture, considering more data points, and also being open to renting versus buying your housing. For this, I’m a big fan of a FIRE blogger-created site called The Earth Awaits, and we can take it for a test drive right now with the following search criteria:

Geographic area: North America

My total monthly budget: $0-$6000

Family size: 2

Apartment type: Two bedroom (outside city center)

Temperature range: January lows not colder than 10F

The exact parameters don’t matter too much, as long as you don’t make them too narrow. The important thing is the resulting list, which is meant to give you ideas to research further. For example, that first simple search gave me this list:

Hey, that’s interesting. I like how the site shows the population right on the main list, because that provides a big clue to the “feel” of a city. I personally like the feel of a 50k-200k person town, so I might look into Fayetteville, Columbia or Athens. I’ve also been to Chattanooga and really like that place – who knew it was only about as expensive as Columbus Ohio?

So Should I Move?

In the end, your physical environment – the people, access to nature, urban features and the weather patterns – is probably the most important factor to get right in creating a happy life. The cost of living there is only one of the factors, and definitely not the most important one. 

But if you choose carefully, you can probably slide yourself in the right direction along that “Nice for the Price” scale in order to get more from your life. Even if it just means making a move within your own city to live along a walking path, a little closer to work or to the people or places you care about most. 

The key is just to remember that housing is like almost everything in life: It’s a choice that you get to make, and there are great rewards for putting some solid thought and effort into that choice.

Another Fun Example: Doing the Analysis on Tempe/Phoenix Arizona vs Denver

This is a fun exercise, because I’m currently living in the Phoenix area (more on that here)  that is way different than the Denver metro area where I normally live. We can start with the rough measure of housing cost per square foot across each region:

Phoenix: $272

Denver: $299

In other words, pretty close. Denver metro* is about 10% higher on average, but the variations from one neighborhood to another within any major city are much larger than that anyway.

So the other factors are more important. Both are surrounded by beautiful mountain recreation and get lots of sunshine, but the climates are famously quite different. Denver is more compact but Phoenix has nicer towns in the foothills around the outskirts.  In the end it’s just personal preference in weighting these various factors, and right now I kind of like the idea of both (Phoenix in winter but Colorado for the other three seasons)

More Adventurous: Let’s Try This in South America!

Going back to The Earth Awaits, if we repeat our earlier search but in South America, we get results like these:

Many of these spots have nice writeups if you click the “Details” button, and if anything sounds right for you, you can go on to learn much more.

It’s true that moving to a new country comes with all sorts of new learning experiences: citizenship and passports, laws and traditions and driver licenses, and of course having to cross an international border every time you want to return to your home country to visit family. 

But guess what? If this stuff sounds daunting to you, it’s probably a sign that you need to do it more. 

At its core, moving to a new place – even internationally – is just a series of relatively easy Adulting Puzzles. You type stuff into your computer, read the resulting stuff that pops up on your screen, and make the occasional phone call and visit to an official office. I had to do all the same stuff when moving from Canada to the US, alone and just six years out of high school myself. 

Sure, it can feel like a “hassle” if you think of it the wrong way, but you know what’s a way, way bigger hassle? Living in a not-very-good place for life, or working an extra 15 years just to afford the higher cost of living in your current city, because you’re too scared to do a few weeks of work to make a big move to a better place.

If a rules-and-paperwork-hater like me can do it, almost anyone can.

Your Turn: 

While we covered a few examples of actual places in this article, the real purpose was to explain the thought process behind deciding when and where to move. And there are many of you out there besides me who can do the same thing, but better. And we’d love to hear from you!

If you have some favorite cities and countries for good living, or useful techniques for scoping them out, please share them in the comments. I strongly believe that the more we help each other find the right place and enjoy the planet more thoroughly and more efficiently, the better off we’ll all be. So let’s get moving.


* Denver metro on the Fed site includes all the suburbs rather than just the core city which is much smaller and more expensive, but the same is true for the nicer parts of Phoenix so I figure it’s a fair comparison)

  • Dan April 2, 2024, 2:21 pm

    Complaint incoming: having a well-compensated job and 3 children in the NYC metro means that I am essentially doomed. There is no nice, kid-friendly place I can live with a sub-hour commute even if I am willing to spend literally millions on housing.

    The alternatives are, essentially, deal with a soul killing commute, live in a tiny space that is tough with kids, or use said good compensation to retire and move. It’s unfortunate because I otherwise really like living here, and I like my job as well (which would be hard to replicate elsewhere). Pulling the plug and moving somewhere cheap is a great option to have, but it is pretty frustrating that there is no truly good option that leaves me here.

    I generally like urbanist vibes but I find it challenging that the only truly walkable city in the United States is essentially impossible to live in unless you own a hedge fund without serious compromises for larger families. “Well they should build more housing and make Hudson county schools not terrible” is great in theory but doesn’t do me any good!.

  • HRM Coupon Queen April 2, 2024, 2:31 pm

    Being willing to relocate has made such an incredible difference to our finances overall. We moved away from the STL metro area to take a job in the Pacific Northwest. We had no family, no friends, no nothing but a job promotion+relocation to the area. Was the cost of living higher? Yes. Were we bonused in income to adjust for it? Also yes. So a few years later when an opportunity arose to move to the clear opposite corner of the country into a *lower* cost of living area that was also blessedly close to family, we jumped on it. Pay was not reduced to account for the lower CoL. So now our primary income is at PNW rates with SE costs of living. The new house was half the cost of what we sold the old one for. Was it fun to do another cross-country, multi-timezones move again? No. Was it worth it? Absoheckinlutely!

  • Joe T April 4, 2024, 8:00 am

    MMM, I just want to take a moment to thank you for your blog, and for this post. I am 45 on the journey to FI, saving every month as much as I can primarily into VTSAX / VTI and in the low cost index options available via my 401K. I have several kiddos, and while I do save, there are a few times I am tempted to deviate from my plan with a large purchase. Your questions illustrated above within the Principles of Mustachianism resonated with me today, so much so that I wrote them down in an area for me to better reference moving forward. All stated, thank you for your efforts, and my aim and plan is to stay the course.

  • Cass April 7, 2024, 1:33 am

    Thank you, Pete! I’m Coloradan, I tried buying many times back in 2019, but my ex-husband had zero ambition and never met me halfway with the basics, like fixing his credit, collaborate on a downpayment, or get a degree/better paying job. Guess how that ended…? By the way, thank you for your blog on divorce. It helped me tremendously!

    Long story short, my new partner and I are so in tune with finances, frugality, travel, and having more experiences with my child. My partner has 3 jobs: Business owner, project manager at his job, and has been in the Army Reserves for over a decade. He owns his home and he even has a Costco membership (crying of happiness). We are trying to retire in our late 40’s, I’m brand new to investing, and I absolutely love it all! I just paid off all my credit card debt, leaving me with my student loan and car payment only.
    I’m a school teacher, but I make decent money given my experience, degrees, and the coveted school district I work at. My partner’s mortgage is significantly low that he covers all utilities as well, which allows me to take care of my personal finances and reach my goals faster.
    We’ve talked about selling his home and buying one that’s ours in about 5 years, but I’m afraid the mortgage, even going halves monthly. will stop us from achieving our goals of traveling, investing, maxing our retirement accounts, and college funds for my daughter.
    My other option is to keep contributing to his mortgage, and invest the rest, which is two times cheaper than me renting on my own somewhere else.

    • Mr. Money Mustache April 7, 2024, 10:28 am

      Congratulations on all of that, Cass!

      If we’re just talking about dollars, if the existing house works for you both and has a nice locked-in low interest rate on the mortgage, that could be the ultimate way to speed up FI for both of you.

      Or, even if you want to keep your finances separate (usually wise, sometimes even for married people!), just paying him “rent” as a way of sharing the house expenses would still get you both ahead quickly. This should leave you with more cash left over to finish off your debt and then build up a healthy retirement nest egg of index funds. Owning part or all of a house is not at all necessary for financial independence (although I certainly enjoy it myself)

  • Berdj Rassam April 8, 2024, 12:38 am

    40 years ago the average home price was 3.5x the median salary, today that ratio is 6:1. But to be fair, the average mortgage rate 40 years ago was 13+%, while today it is 7%ish. Save early, save often, build up your nest egg, and buy within your means – then you too will be a homeowner.

  • Neill Slater April 9, 2024, 12:02 pm

    I feel confident that MMM put more thought and work into this post about moving than most people ever do about where they will actually live. And that is a part of the problem. The U.S. is so large, and so diverse, that it is overwhelming. Moving from Colorado to Florida is like moving from England to Greece (other than the language issue). People get comfortable where they are and simply don’t want to believe they have other options.

    I love the practical framework that this article provides, but I think the majority of people need some work on the mindset that would allow such a decision to be made in the first place. How many states has the average American visited? I consider myself well-traveled, but there are around 20 states to which I’ve never been. Even within states that you’ve visited, to how many cities have you been, and how much time have you spent there? I’ve been to Rome, but that doesn’t mean I understand Italy and should dismiss the entire country as a place to live. Just because you’ve visited Austin doesn’t mean you understand Texas and would not have a good life in another part of the state.

    I also believe that we are a lot more resilient that we give ourselves credit for. We can be happy in many different circumstances with the right mindset. When I lived in Chicago, I did Chicago things- baseball games, going to blues clubs, running by the lake, etc. When I lived in Georgia, I did GA things – Football games, water-skiing, joining a rugby club, etc. Now, in Texas I do TX things. I like and dislike aspects of every place I’ve lived in, but I’ve never let the location dictate my happiness.

    Finally, I agree 100% with the discussion about income at the beginning of the article. As a physician, I can tell you that making a high salary doesn’t guarantee financial independence. I think of income like talent in sports. There are a whole lot of athletes who get beaten by less talented competitors who simply work harder and want it more. Yes, there is a baseline level necessary – if you have no talent (no income), no matter your motivation or work ethic, you aren’t going to make it. And also yes, there are some supremely talented people (very high-income) that can skate by and still succeed. However, most of us are in the middle and desire, hard-work, and execution matter. There are a whole lot of talented middle-aged ex-athletes with beer bellies wondering why they didn’t make it (my fellow middle-aged doctors who are still broke).

    Thanks for continuing to write interesting posts after all these years!

  • chrismiss3 April 26, 2024, 2:36 pm

    Thanks for another great thought-provoking article. I appreciate the research. In looking at the locales mentioned, four of them are very close to where we live. One could say that we hit the jackpot on housing just by virtue of where we were born and raised. When I was younger, I remember my Dad saying we had the great advantage of affordable housing where we live. At the time, I thought he was just saying that to convince me to not move far away when I was old enough to move out. I’m glad that not only was he right, but I had enough sense to stick around and not move too far away. There are great opportunities for both work and play if people will simply take the time to look and decide what is best for them.

  • Rich May 6, 2024, 5:05 pm

    Great analysis. I would say to the younger folks to change one variable – size of house. Median home sizes have gone from approx 1,000 sqft in 1920, to about 2,300 feet today. That’s a lot of space to build, heat, cool, furnish, maintain, and pay taxes & purchase insurance for. All that cost for a place you only really spend a few hours a day enjoying (assuming you sleep 7-8 hours, go workout, and go to work…even if you work from home, you aren’t enjoying the space for 8+ hours a day while you are glued to a screen). When people ask how I got rich, I tell them my first home was brand new at 1,450 sq ft in 1998 way out in the suburbs (a low-cost location we found very much like your analysis above). I paid it off in 2 years and when my company offered to relocate me to another low-cost area, with a promotion, I turned this one into a rental, before selling it 20 years later to fund my early retirement (along with a few others I collected along the way). My friends who bought the McMansion “home of their dreams” at age 25 dug themsevles such a hole that they are still working the salt mine to pay it off while I enjoy my life.

  • Caliban May 10, 2024, 1:54 pm

    On the income side, I think there is an inflection point around $100-120k where you get more bang for your buck reaching for more income below that and reducing expenses above that. It is a pretty malleable point on the salary curve. It will be lower for lower cost areas and higher for larger families. There is a zone around it where it pays to use both practices.

    Generally, it is much easier to live on 50% of net income if you gross 200k than if you make 50k. Your smoothed lifetime happiness will probably increase if you spend more of a lower income immediately because you are doing without more enjoyable things or you should at least invest in yourself to make your life easier.

    On the housing side, there are good times to buy a house and bad times. The good economy and desire for more house due to work-from-home drove up prices. High rates piled on. Now is a bad time to buy. Both of these are relatively short term constraints. As economists say, in the long term everyone is dead. Everything else is short term. Who know how long the condition will last? But the dam will break.

    I found the FIRE movement over 10 years ago through MMM, and I felt the same then. I had about 80% of a single high powered salary at the time, and I had been practicing many of the frugal practices and self directed investing practices already. I graduated college with substantial debt, and I lived in New England where housing was expensive. It took longer to retire, mid 50’s, but it worked.

  • Kelly May 13, 2024, 1:37 pm

    The US is huge, there are probably dozens of places any given person could live and be happy. Might as well see what the cheapest version of that is, for you. That of course is assuming that you can find a good job there, or work remotely. If you’re willing to have a winter, I can personally recommend Erie PA. I live in a walkable neighborhood close to a revitalizing downtown, we’re adding bike lanes, we have a wonderful public library on the waterfront, and we have excellent summers to make up for the winters. It’s not perfect, but I enjoy being part of making an up-and-coming city even better. Just bought a 1924 gem of a house in fair condition, 3600 square feet, for $220k.

  • Anna Kirsen May 14, 2024, 5:13 am

    If we encourage elderly people who live alone in 5 bed houses to downsize, we would free up hundreds of billions of dollars worth of real estate.
    A lot of them are living in million dollar homes, worrying about the price of butter!

    • Mr. Money Mustache May 14, 2024, 6:16 pm

      Hey I like this plan! It does seem like the type of thing where an organized program could actually help – because it’s a matter of education and helping people feel comfortable rather than scared to make such a jump.

      If you can help an older person find a right-sized house or apartment (maybe even in a better and more convenient area for their current lifestyle), make the move, deal with all the hassles and procedures efficiently, and then they get to keep the majority of their profits from the move to help fund the rest of their golden years, then everybody wins.

      As old age sets in, we get comfortable and set in our ways (this is even happening to me at 49!), and it gets harder to imagine making life changes like this because, meh, I’m already comfortable. But a nudge from an organized person telling me the benefits of getting off of my ass can really make the difference.

  • MJ May 16, 2024, 2:02 am

    Great article. Makes me gutted that I live in the UK, post Brexit, and aged 41! Quite difficult to get out now. Though I’ve been lucky in the past, living all over the UK, ROI, and Hamburg. Id love some time living in America, Ive only ever actually spent time in Boise (5 weeks at Mountain Home Air Force Base), I loved every minute of it!

    On a side note, I started reading these articles a few months ago, from the beginning. At the end of this article I realised there were no more – and I’m absolutely devastated. They’ve been a great help to me. I always felt something in my life wasn’t right, but had never realised FIRE was a thing. Thats now my aim (albeit LEANFIRE). Thanks to this site, Ive been massively overpaying on an 11% loan (bringing it down from 3 years to around 11months!), then will be the next one of an 8% loan, which again will be from 3 years to around 18 months total (only around 4 months after the first loan is paid!). I had £1000 in a ‘managed’ S&S ISA, which I have now transferred to Vanguard VWRP (I realise I should probably just use this to pay off more of the loan, but I like seeing it increase, even just slightly, which is inspiring me to want to get more in there in the future.)
    We still have a large mortgage, and due to having to remortgage in November, the rate will be around 7.1% APR, which will be a killer. But our plan is to sell up in around 4 years, go travelling in our Campervan (Not a 100grand model – but a simple self converted Sprinter) for 2 years, before buying a Narrowboat and exploring the British Canal System for the rest of our lives.

    This blog has also made me realise I shouldn’t pay somebody to cut my (30metres in length, 15metres in height) conifers, and should just do it myself (started at the weekend and though it was hard work, it felt good), and that I should also sort out my broken guttering on the house (will be getting done when we have better weather), and that instead of saving to pay for a new kitchen to be fit, we should buy from IKEA and do it ourselves (when the high loans are paid off of course!)

    So, once again, just wanted to say thanks for all the posts, really enjoyed them. And thanks to all the commenters as I have been given some great ideas and inspiration.

  • Alex May 29, 2024, 1:42 pm

    Great tips, but important to note the job situation in other cities. The houses are usually cheaper because there is less work in the area, making your income to expense ratio worse. Another thing to consider is the tax situation in another province or state, it can make a big impact to your net income.

  • Yusof May 31, 2024, 3:08 pm

    You guys are lucky (literally). here up in Canada the wage are lower, 10 times less population hence large cities and unless you want to live way up north with winter as cold as -58F with 3-4 months “summer” yeah any single family house costs $2M in big cities (which we have about 5?) and 500-600 sqft apartment from 60s goes for $500K-700K. this is one time bragging does not feels good. we got so much land and pity so little options. FI through realty is not a reality for most.

    • Mr. Money Mustache June 1, 2024, 1:33 pm

      I happen to agree that Canada isn’t quite as easy a place as the US to reach early retirement (one of the many reasons I left there myself to move here to the US), although it’s certainly still possible – as many readers here will be able to tell you!

      If I had to do it all again and was forced to stay in Canada, my strategy would probably be:
      – get a remote job working for a US-based tech company to collect that juicy USD equivalent salary
      – get a house in or around one of those quiet beach towns along the shore of Lake Erie. Some of the nicest weather in the country and also way cheaper as soon as you get outside of commuting distance to Toronto. Summer temps in the area are usually under 30C/86F, and winter average high is about 0C/+32F.
      – if I wanted to live in the big city, I’d rent instead of owning: rents are still irrationally cheap there compared to purchase prices.

      Good luck either way Yusof!


Leave a Reply

To keep things non-promotional, please use a real name or nickname
(not Blogger @ My Blog Name)

The most useful comments are those written with the goal of learning from or helping out other readers – after reading the whole article and all the earlier comments. Complaints and insults generally won’t make the cut here, but by all means write them on your own blog!


welcome new readers

Take a look around. If you think you are hardcore enough to handle Maximum Mustache, feel free to start at the first article and read your way up to the present using the links at the bottom of each article.

For more casual sampling, have a look at this complete list of all posts since the beginning of time or download the mobile app. Go ahead and click on any titles that intrigue you, and I hope to see you around here more often.

Love, Mr. Money Mustache

latest tweets