I recently had reason to look up the premise to the movie Idiocracy:
The film tells the story of two people who take part in a top-secret military hibernation experiment, only to awaken 500 years later in a dystopian society where advertising, commercialism, and cultural anti-intellectualism have run rampant and that is devoid of intellectual curiosity, social responsibility, and coherent notions of justice and human rights.
Far from being something we face 500 years from now, I think this perfectly describes Western life in 2015. Not wanting to feed into this, and perhaps showing a few signs of being a grown up, I’ve actually started to give a fuck about some of the things listed above (having thankfully long achieved ZFG status on the many anxieties that seem to plague the younger set). I have become a paid up supporter of a political party, and I’ve started to champion the type of causes (mainly environmental) that would see me burned in a public square by middle New Zealand for being an activist/terrorist/committing treason. I also snap, send, solve things I see around Christchurch city that I feel require the Council’s attention. It would seem I have hit an age and head space where I feel a strong sense of social responsibility.
More recently, and after being regularly frustrated by the constant bleak and miserable reporting and commentary from all quarters on the state of Christchurch, I filled in “A Great Place to Be” questionnaire which sought to elicit from Christchurch residents why they live here, especially the inner city. Next minute, we are doing an interview and photographs with a The Press reporter, and finishing up on the front page of the Monday paper with this story.
I am quoted as saying moving into the central city was a no-brainer. To be honest, however, there was quite a bit of “braining” going on before we made the move back. I have lived in central Christchurch since circa 2002, but for a short stint in Australia, so I consider the central city my suburb. But coming back nearly 2 years ago presented a big challenge – there was hardly anywhere to live in the central city. It did look for a time that we might have to head into the ‘burbs in order to get a nice place (and with 30 other applicants turning up to each place, even that was going to be a difficult task).
We were fortunate enough to stumble on a new apartment block just being completed before we had signed up for anything else. The rental cost on this place was substantially above the level we had been looking at, requiring us to run some numbers before we committed. What became quickly apparent was that while the rent was set to take a greater share of our total outgoing costs, many other costs fell away quite significantly. So much so that it has worked out cheaper to live in a more expensive rented apartment than a less expensive suburban townhouse.
It has been my observation that many people, when renting a home, will set out with the aim of getting the lowest rent possible – which makes sense at face value. But people tend to focus on the compartmental costs rather than the total costs of living (I’ve made similar arguments in the past regarding comparing the cost of individual foods rather than looking at the total cost of all meals and snacks). For us, we absolutely could have found something significantly cheaper in the suburbs somewhere. But this ignores both the financial and time cost of commuting 60-90 minutes each day.
One scenario for us might have been to take a cheaper rental at a greater distance from our workplaces (both in the central city). The shift work nature of Anastasia’s job would necessitate her having the car all the time, meaning I would need to seek alternative transport to get myself to and from work, potentially requiring us to have a second car – quite a common scenario for many couples similar to us.
Two cars, two lots of running costs, registrations, insurance, maintenance, and so on… People talk about renting a house being “dead money”, but when you start running the numbers on cars and their costs (especially given they spend 90%+ of their time empty and parked in one spot), you may as well just burn a handful of $20 notes every day.
As it stands, we live about 3 minutes’ walk from my work and 5 minutes’ bike ride from Anastasia’s. We are 10-20 minutes’ walk/bike to the vast majority of the main services and destinations we access throughout the city (such as food markets). By not using our car for shorter trips, we effectively only use a tank of petrol every 4-6 weeks, with most of that being used for recreational trips rather than commuting and errands. The net effect is big savings for us on transport.
We have also made additional savings on the energy front by virtue of the decision to move where we have. By taking a new apartment, one that is fully insulated, double glazed, north facing, and fitted with high energy-efficiency appliances, we live in a place which hardly uses any electricity. By comparison to other couples we know, our total electricity bill is around 50% of theirs – which becomes quite significant in the winter months.
Even regarding our food and health costs, we have been able to make good savings there too. The fact that we walk and bike everywhere means we don’t need gym memberships to go stand on a treadmill for some exercise. We get our “cardio” just by going about everyday life (we are constantly surprised at the base level of fitness this has given us). We also negotiated with my employer to be able to use some surplus space to set up a strength training area (about 12sqm) in exchange for letting all the staff use the equipment we purchased for this space. Having our own mini Crossfit has saved us a huge amount in annual membership fees.
Living close to our respective work places means that we can have more leisurely starts to the morning, affording us the time to cook a good breakfast rather than needing to get on the road and join the queue of cars in the traffic. It also means I can come home for lunch routinely. Being able to cook three good meals per day not only has a big impact on my health and well being, but saves money by not needing to buy a lot of portable food and carry this around every day (which tends to be more expensive on a per nutrient basis). Our spend at the food markets might be higher than many individuals would feel happy about, but the TOTAL amount we spend on ALL food and drink is substantially less (about $60-75 per person per week less).
The sum total of the above factors is why I said our decision to live in the central city – a decision based largely on proximity to the places we have to go most often (such as work) – was a no-brainer. Our decision to rent an “expensive” apartment, has saved us money in the long run. But above and beyond the financial aspects, there has been something else this decision has given us: time.
By not enslaving ourselves to either the car or the need to utilise other forms of motorised public transport, we have opened up a large amount of additional time into our lives. On any given day, we spend less than 10 minutes “commuting”, and even this is a leisurely and relaxing stroll or bike ride. As a couple, we are able to utilise this time to do things together and to enjoy ourselves in this wonderful city, whether it is walking together while running a few errands around town or to just relax as we take a walk along the river bank. Both of us know this situation would be very different had we ended living further afield.
I am not suggesting that our lifestyle is a model lifestyle for all to follow by any stretch. But what I do hope is that people can look at the factors we weighed up and balanced, the active choices we’ve made and the outcomes of those, and perhaps start to think more about all the moving parts in their life, all the obvious and hidden costs, and see where maybe opportunities exist to make new decisions and changes, weaving them together into a more coherent fit into their lives.
What might seem like a small insignificant choice – such as the location of where you live in relation to your most frequented destinations (especially with the mindset of “I can just use the car” – can ultimately have a very large and significant knock-on effect in terms of personal finances, health and stress. Plan and action those choices well and you might just be able to rent yourself some more time in your life.