Nothing's been easy about the Ashleys' relocation--especially not the money
(MONEY Magazine) – Less than two months after moving to Savannah, Angela Ashley got the kind of call every parent dreads. As she was leaving work to pick up her son Kyle, 10, after school, her 13-year-old daughter Avery called, sobbing so hard that Angela could barely understand her. Avery, at home alone, had fallen and hit her head; blood was gushing from a cut behind her ear.
But Angela, whose husband couldn't be reached at work, knew no one in her new hometown whom she could call for help. What to do? Pick up her son first and leave her daughter alone longer? Or go straight to Avery and strand her 10-year-old? "I was so scared," says Angela, 39. "It made me realize how much we used to rely on family and friends for support."
Luckily, Avery was okay. Angela, the director of communications at Savannah College of Art and Design, raced across town to pick up Kyle, talking to the teen by cell phone until she got home. A quick trip to the E.R. revealed it was a shallow wound that didn't even need stitches. By 9 p.m., when dad Keith, 42, a professor of anthropology at the same college, arrived at the hospital, calm prevailed.
But Angela couldn't stop thinking that she would never have faced this dilemma in Jacksonville, where she and Keith had lived for the previous 15 years. There, Angela's best friend lived down the street, her parents were a short drive away, and Keith's family lived across town--all ready to help on a moment's notice.
In fact, nothing about life in Savannah is proving to be quite what the Ashleys had expected when they decided to relocate for new jobs--especially their finances. Their combined pay, just under six figures, is about 5% less than they had been earning in Jacksonville. But prices on everything from groceries to houses are higher. "We didn't run the numbers before we moved; we just took a leap of faith," says Angela, who feels guilty about uprooting the family and overwhelmed by the move. "Now reality is setting in."
The strain the Ashleys are feeling isn't unusual. More than 1.5 million Americans, 75% of them married and nearly half with dependent children, move for a job each year. "Most people underestimate how stressful it is when the whole family has to start over," says Cris Collie, an executive vice president at Worldwide ERC, which tracks relocation trends. The spouse with the new job has to hit the ground running at work. The kids must adjust to new schools and make new friends. The trailing spouse is often stuck with the responsibilities that come with moving: finding housing, unpacking, re-establishing a support network and, perhaps, job hunting in an unfamiliar city. The longer it takes for the trailing spouse to find work, typically, the greater the financial and emotional challenges.
The Decision In this respect, at least, the Ashleys were lucky, since both Keith and Angela came to Savannah with jobs in hand. Keith, who had finished his Ph.D. in anthropology in 2003 and was a visiting professor at the University of North Florida, had been looking for a permanent teaching position for a solid year. Then last August, Angela, who had worked in communications for Bank of America for 15 years, came across a job posting for a new director of communications at Savannah College of Art and Design--a school that just happened to be looking for a professor to teach anthropology too. Angela had always dreamed of applying her communications experience to the art world, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity. By fall they both had job offers, and they quickly said yes.
Friends and family were immediately supportive. Not so Avery and Kyle, who were unhappy about leaving their friends. The children were also upset to learn that their mom had to start her job right away and live in Savannah during the week, while they stayed with their dad to sell the house and finish the semester.
In fact, those few months were rough. Angela rented a small apartment and commuted home every weekend until they sold the house in December. Two days after Christmas, the family joined her in Savannah for good.
The Transition Settling into life in Savannah hasn't been much easier. Until they find a house they can afford to buy, the family is renting a two-bedroom townhouse--a far cry from their spacious four-bedroom home in Jacksonville. The kids each have a bedroom, while Angela and Keith are bunking in the family room, where their bed doubles as the household couch. Most of their belongings sit in boxes in the garage. "Every time I need something, I have to figure out what box it's in and dig it out," says Keith. For now, their golden retriever, Riley, is staying with Angela's parents. "Everyone misses the dog," says Keith.
But the most difficult challenge is juggling two careers and the kids without any help from family and friends. Keith's teaching load keeps him at school four nights a week until nine. So Angela drives the children to school on the way to work, skips lunch so she can pick them up in the afternoon, oversees their homework and makes dinner. Keith, meanwhile, feels guilty. "Angela is carrying the bulk of everything," he says.
They're also concerned about money. Although they netted $57,000 on the $247,000 sale of their old house, Keith and Angela worry they don't have enough for a good down payment on a new house. A comparable home would cost around $300,000, and they had hoped to use some of the proceeds to pay off $6,000 in credit-card debt and build an emergency fund. They're also worried they aren't saving enough for their kids' college needs and their own retirement plans.
The Advice To help the Ashleys, MONEY consulted relocation experts and financial planners. Their advice:
• GET SERIOUS ABOUT HOUSE HUNTING Buying a home should be the Ashleys' top priority, our advisers say. "It's very stressful for the family to live in a temporary situation," says Denise Mast, director of client services at SIRVA, a relocation services company. "They can't really settle into their new surroundings until they bring the dog home and put their own paintings on the wall."
• CONSIDER CREATIVE FINANCING OPTIONS With their combined salaries, the Ashleys should be able to afford a $300,000 home with a 20% down payment, the planners say. If they're reluctant to use the entire proceeds from the Jacksonville house, they might consider what's known as an 80-10-10 loan: 80% of the new home's price would be covered by a 30-year fixed-rate first mortgage; 10% by a 15-year second mortgage; and the remainder by a 10%, or $30,000, down payment. "At recent rates, this makes a lot of sense for them," says Atlanta financial planner Helga Cuthbert. The Ashleys would then have enough money to pay off their credit card and put aside $20,000 in an emergency fund, while only raising their mortgage payments by $125 a month.
• FOCUS SAVING IN RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS The planners urge Keith and Angela to enroll in their 403(b) plans at work. Then, Cuthbert suggests, the Ashleys should each open Roth IRAs. Roths can be tapped for higher education costs without penalty and offer the same tax advantages as 529 plans. So Keith and Angela would still be able to use the money for their own retirement if the kids don't need it for college. That's a distinct possibility: Since both Kyle and Avery are interested in art careers, they may end up attending the arts college where their parents work, so tuition would be free.
In the meantime, the family is slowly adjusting to life in their new hometown. "We like the quaintness," says Keith. The kids still call their friends in Florida a few nights a week, and the family drives to Jacksonville many weekends. But Avery and Kyle are making friends in school, and in the spring Keith will be teaching daytime classes, so he can pick them up from school and make dinner. "Some days are exciting, and other days aren't so good," says Angela. "But then we remind ourselves that everything in Jacksonville wasn't always perfect either."
EXPOSING THE HIDDEN COSTS OF A RELOCATION
If you're considering moving for a job, compare the cost of living in both places before you decide. You can find most of the data you'll need at moveourhome.com (click on Live, then Neighborhood Reports), run by relocation specialists SIRVA. If costs are higher in the new locale, factor that into your salary negotiation.
NOTES:  100=national average.  Median price of a 2,000-square-foot home.  Average one-way commute in minutes.  Percentage of population with a bachelor's degree.