The Opportunity Cost of Moving 23 Times in 36 Years
The U.S. average is eleven, lifetime.
I have moved house 23 times, usually changing cities in the process. (If you want to include dorm switches thanks to college housing lotteries, which I think stretches the definition, add 6 to that figure.) There are a few geographic loci where I’ve cumulatively spent at least five years, but often with long gaps: Dallas (where I was born), Massachusetts (where my parents now live), and London (which I like, but it’s a coincidence). I’m 36 years old. I move, on average, every year and a half, and often change time zones in the process. There are times I stay longer (long, for me, is three years), but there are times I stay three months even though I thought it was going to be longer.
I am not what you’d think of as flighty. I’m a joiner. I like to garden. I’ve had the same best friend for decades, and we talk every day.
- Average number of moves for a U.S. resident, lifetime: 11
- Average number of moves for a U.S. resident, by age 36: 7
- Average number of lifetime moves in the U.K., where I’ve spent a sixth of my life: 7
- Average in Italy, where I live now, but won’t soon, but may later again: 3
- Me, at age 36, not quite halfway through average life expectancy: 23 moves
It took me a while to figure out I was an outlier, mobility-wise. When people said things like “that must be hard,” or “I can’t imagine,” I assumed it was general politeness, the way you tell people “it seems really complicated” when you want them to keep talking about their jobs. I’m guessing listeners similarly assume I’m being glib or stoic when I say “aw, I’m used to it.” But I am used to it.
There’s no obvious explanation. I’m not in the military. I don’t flip houses. I’m not a job-hopper, or someone whose field requires long-term travel. I was only evicted once, when a place I’d recently rented was condemned by the city for dangerous structural problems; the landlord would have preferred I stay. (The same landlord tried unsuccessfully to get me to pay a “repainting/cleaning fee” to spruce the place up “for the next tenant” on the off chance that I wasn’t paying attention when the building was demolished. I suspect he went to jail.)
Essentially, once you’ve moved a lot, voluntarily, it’s easy to continue to move a lot, voluntarily. Your threshold changes. It’s like how it’s easy to cut another inch off your hair if it’s already a pink asymmetrical shag, but you think twice when it’s natural color and down to your shoulders.
Moving is sometimes glamorous, which is often played up in magazines. It’s sometimes complicated and difficult, which is often played up in magazines. I suspect a lot of the “I want to travel” fantasy is less about travel and more about what that freedom implies:
- being financially secure enough to afford the up-front cost
- having no chronic or urgent health problems that require regular interactions with a familiar medical team
- possessing an appearance, bearing, accent, nationality, documentation history, and state of dress which generally receive deference from security guards and bureaucrats
- either needing no income or commanding so much professional respect that you can expect to be hired almost anywhere or accommodated by your current employer
All of which is really nice! But not something you can plan for, or summon at will.
Similarly, if I want to daydream about a different life, there are two levels of dream. In one, I find a city I love enough that nothing could move me. In the other, all my childhood memories are attached to places which still surround me, and all my friends and family live within a few square miles.
With that in mind, I offer this appendix or addendum to the usual “costs of moving to X”— a list of the opportunity costs I’ve incurred as a jet-setting citizen of the world (who is in fact a citizen of the U.S. but has the ink-minded stamina to weather visa-application processes). Opportunity costs, you will remember from Econ 101, are the valuable opportunities you pass up by making choices which exclude them. I get a lot out of being able to go wherever a promising venture awaits. Here’s what I gave up in exchange:
Little kid height charts on the wall.
Never had them. My kids won’t have them either. In general, marking on the wall is frowned upon when you don’t own the wall, but more critically, the wall doesn’t move. I do have a plastic Big Bird wall decal that tracked my height across multiple houses, but it’s not the same.
Technically, I could get these if I wanted to (and have, at times), but they don’t fulfill the same diagnostic role. Part of the point is establishing benchmarks so you and your doctor notice if a reading is elevated or sub-par for you. I have low blood pressure and high HDL cholesterol and a little dent in one of my teeth. They never get worse. They never get better. When I get a physical, it is always with a new-to-me doctor who wants to prescribe treatment. Meanwhile, has one of the moles on my back changed shape dangerously? Who knows.
The perfect couch.
I don’t own furniture, or don’t for long. I constantly give away cool antiques because it’s worth it to me to ship books and costumes around, but not a table.
I started playing concert piano when I was seven years old. I’d banged around before that, but the world had been shielded from it. I was never a genius, but I’ve won competitions and made money as an accompanist. I went to a performing arts high school I had to audition for. Once I hit college and started moving around on my own dime, piano was out the window. (Not literally. It’s at my parents’ house.)
I taught myself classical guitar as a replacement. Easier to transport. Then, when I started moving around internationally, I swapped to ukulele, which fits in a suitcase. This is obviously a downgrade. (Electronic keyboards, even good ones, aren’t what I’m looking for. What delights me is hammers hitting strings; wood vibrating; air whistling through a pipe. Mechanical kludgework is part of the attraction.)
When it comes to my long-distance piano, I haven’t lost my muscle memory or musicianship, but it takes me a couple of weeks of technical exercises to get my hand strength back in order. I can’t just sit down and play something which convinces a new and impressionable acquaintance that I secretly have the romantic soul of Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, or Bill Murray at the end of Groundhog Day. Which I don’t — but you can see this is a missed opportunity.
The one time I lived in the same house for six consecutive years, I picked up orchestral percussion. Unfortunately, tympani and tubular bells are never going to join a marching band.
Nope. I don’t even buy a houseplant until I’ve been somewhere a year and a half. Livestock are completely out of the question, no matter how much I think I’d like to be annoyed by a small and stubborn goat. Exotics like capybaras? Forget it.
I have them! Many of them, scattered across a dozen time zones, and we know how to hang out, and collaborate, and feel vital in each other’s lives. However, they are pretty different friendships than they would be if we were still co-local, and there is not a perfect overlap between my favorite people and folks with pen-pal skills. I suspect my costs in this area are unusually low because most of my friends are writers and multi-national filmmakers, which means we somewhat share a lifestyle and are heckin good at updating social media. Can I guess, before a move, who is going to keep talking to me? Nope! (No judgment; long-distance friendship is its own thing, and not worth the time commitment unless it’s something you inherently enjoy.)
The property ladder.
I have never owned a house or condo or savings account for a down payment. The usual advice is that it’s better to rent if you plan to stay less than five years. Although I don’t plan to stay less than five years, I know my own track record. According to economist Robert Schiller, I’m better off with a mutual fund than real estate, but I also can’t do things like spend extravagantly to re-tile an ugly bathroom with artisan ceramics by telling myself it’s an investment and/or the cost will be amortized. For some people, this is probably an upside. But I am an artist. I grieve the fact that I will never spend a year using tweezers to place glass beads and Barbie shoes in wet plaster.
Get me the usual.
It’s hard to become a regular without putting in the time. Getting your order remembered is the easy part — if you’re a little bit odd for the area, you’ll be remembered, and if you’re an enthusiastic paying customer, people are happy to establish a relationship with you. The hard part is the sense of proprietorship you start to feel about “your” coffee spot and “your” baker and “your” barber, coupled with the knowledge that you are likely to abandon them through no fault of their own. You worry about how they’ll do without you, and no answer to this question seems good. If as a result of you leaving, the business falters, either because it’s taking in less money or because the new customers are less fun, that’s bad. Alternatively, if things are just fine without you because it never really mattered whether you were there, that’s also bad.
Several moves back, maybe seven years ago, there was a security guard who was always on duty when I started my graveyard shift, and we always said hello to each other, which is extremely minor. But we liked saying hello to each other. It was a pleasant start to my shift and a pleasant middle to his. That’s gone now, because I don’t walk by that desk at that time anymore. I say hello to other people in other places. But it’s not the same.
I put myself on them, because I like to keep my options open, but generally by the time it’s my turn, I’m not there anymore. In general, I avoid organizations that prize seniority. This is not an intellectual stance; I appreciate returns to experience, and don’t think everything needs high-turnover shakeups. I like it when a person who has been working and waiting gets their turn to lead. However, that’s not me, for purely structural reasons.
For me, patience has no reward. In general, I will do better in a competitive environment, where I can very quickly demonstrate that I know what I’m about, either by acing an audition or by beating someone head-to-head in a game, and then by being nice about it. Is that naturally what I’d gravitate toward if I’d always lived in the same place? No idea. It doesn’t seem to me that competitiveness is a core character trait of mine. It does seem like an odd way of making friends. But it works. And it’s not a coincidence that I’m more likely to be involved in theatre shows (rolling auditions) than music ensembles (annual auditions).
Adoption and foster care.
When I was a tiny kid, I was obsessed with the movie Annie. I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence, but for as long as I can remember, I have assumed I would someday adopt a non-infant. It seems like a moral imperative: there are children without safe homes, and I could provide one. Several of my friends were adopted as children old enough to remember their adoptions, or have brothers and sisters who were, which makes it seem even more urgently important.
If you spend time looking at adoption and foster care websites for prospective parents of children currently in state custody, you’ll notice two things fairly quickly. One is that for a lot of the kids, it’s recommended that they be the youngest in your family. Makes sense; the newest kid is the newest kid, even if “new” is 12 years old. Less psychologically complicated. The second is that a lot of the kids have — and want to maintain relationships with — existing friends and extended family members. Again, makes sense. You’ve just lost your parent(s) in one way or another. You don’t want to simultaneously lose your support community.
That need for geographic stability knocks me out of the running. At the moment, it’s not crucial, because I’m not in a place, fertility-wise, where I can guarantee an adopted kid would be or remain the youngest. That’s not going to be true for many more years. Eventually, I’m going to have to either pick a place to stay, or default on this obligation. (It’s not an obligation for everyone. But for me, it is.)
Many a politician has succeeded by running as a rebel outsider who will bring fresh eyes to old problems, unbeholden to existing political structures. However, that is pretty much pretend. An outsider candidate is only likable when he (and I do mean he) reflects the self-identity of the voter; an office-seeker will always be vulnerable to “not truly one of us” challenges. “Carpetbagger” is not a compliment. Nor, increasingly, is “elite.”
Could I overcome that if I wanted to? Probably. Depends on the place and the office. It’d be a lot easier if I was a hometown kid.
I haven’t ever tried. I’m not sure I want to. So far, I’m pretty comfortable as a staffer, advisor, or journalist, depending. That goes way back. A lot of people remember me as having been on student council in high school, and again in grad school. I wasn’t. I’m always and ever a shadowy power broker, where “shadowy” means “is standing right there and remembers where the folding chairs are stored.” This is another of those situations where I have trouble telling whether something is my preference or an emergent property of another aspect of my lifestyle (the one where I move around a lot).
Meanwhile, I miss out on some votes. With big national ones, I’m covered. For little tiny school board elections, I sometimes miss out because of a lag between when I move and when my legal residency status is established. I have never served on a jury, because every time I have gotten a jury summons, I have already moved outside of the jurisdiction. I’m looking forward to this August because I got a summons at an address where I haven’t physically lived for two years (although I still vote and pay taxes there), but by coincidence I will have moved back to the same address just in time to serve on the jury!
They probably won’t pick me. But I feel tremendously civic to know it’s even possible.
Romie Stott’s essays have appeared in The Billfold, The Awl, Atlas Obscura, The Toast, and Strange Horizons. She sometimes plays fictionalized versions of herself in movies. Her absurdist western, “Outlaw Story,” will appear in the August 2017 issue of Grasslimb.
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