Sep 262012

If you have been reading the $50 a Day Project and tracking my economic struggles you are probably wondering why in the hell am I trying to live so cheap in one of the most expensive places in the country?  Well, aside from the obvious, meaning I have wanted to live on this island for most of my life,  I have been able to adjust my lifestyle to accommodate the higher costs of living on an island.  But, are the costs of living here in Key West more than they are say…in my old haunts of Orlando?  Let’s take a look…

Keep in mind my lifestyle is very minimal.  I don’t own much, don’t want for much, and stay somewhat low key.  While it may look like poverty, (it is), in reality, it’s simply living simply.  By living minimally, it makes things a whole lot easier to survive on a rock where wages are low and prices are high.  Let’s start with rent.

I’ve been living in the Keys for nearly 5 years now and have never paid more than $600 a month to keep a roof, or mast over my head.  From Key Largo to Marathon to Key West, I’ve been able to weasel my way into cheap monthly rent.  No easy feat in an land where apartments rents average over $1000 a month.  It helps that I am willing to live alternatively compared to most people, meaning on a boat.  Something that sounds exciting to those who have never done so.  Tell somebody you live in a trailer and you are trash.  Tell them you live on a boat, and you are a pirate and a hero.  If I was to try to get what would be considered conventional housing, I probably couldn’t afford to live here.  But what about Orlando?

In Orlando, in the northeast part of the city where I used to live, alternative housing is scarce.  There are a couple rv parks on the very outskirts of the city and I did live in a couple of them over the years.  They were quite affordable but not very close to anything useful like shopping or jobs.  Living on a boat in Orlando is non existent.  There is a fresh water lake in the north east, Lake Monroe which flows into the St. Johns River, the only river in the U.S. that flows north, that has a couple marinas.  I believe live aboards are allowed on a limited basis and you’ll be sharing a slip with 1500 alligators and mosquitoes the size of eagles, so there ain’t much there.  There are some marinas over in Daytona on the Intercoastal Waterway if you can stand the shit hole that Daytona has become, or head further south along the Space Coast and see what is there.  But more than likely, if you are going to live in Orlando, it will be apartment or house.

I haven’t looked at rents there in years but I suspect you can get a pretty decent size place for $600 a month.  And you may come across the odd smaller place for a few dollars less.  The big draw is there are a lot of places to live.  There are plenty of cookie cutter army barracks apartment complexes all over the city.  And if you find the right neighborhoods, you can get a full size house for what I pay for a slip to keep the Fritter in.  You can even buy a place for a decent price if you don’t mind living in the burb’s and put up with all that comes with home ownership.  On the surface, housing looks to be a lot cheaper compared to what is available down here.  But…

I am quite content with less than 200 sq. ft. of living space.  I have no need for a separate bedroom, garage, or a big yard.  I have no idea what I would do with all that room.  I own no furniture and have no intention of buying any either.  Paying rent for all that extra space seems like a bit of a waste to me.   Plus I took a vow to never ever cut grass, rake leaves, or shovel snow again for the rest of my life.

With a bigger place to live, that also means you will need things like electricity, water, and sewer, to make life just that much more bearable.  As you may have noticed, I have my utilities (internet and phone aside) down to about $25 a month.  Were I living in even a one bedroom apartment, those costs would more than triple.  Trying to climate control 500 to 1000 sq. ft. of living space compared to 100 sq.ft does cost a lot more.  When I used to own a house I always kept the extra bedroom shut off from the rest of the house as I never used it.  Seemed like a waste of resources and money.  Utilities in the Keys are expensive if you live in conventional housing but on a boat, in a rv, or get the right kind of lease that includes utilities, and you are saving some serious cash.  In Orlando, you will rarely be able to avoid the higher costs.  Few apartment complexes or houses use solar, or wind generators.  Everything is tied into the grids, power, water, sewer, cable, internet.  All of it.  And you will pay dearly for the privilege of being able to access it.

As for income sources, you all know of my struggles in the job market down here.  Approaching 60, I have resigned myself to the fact that I am no longer employable down here.  Age discrimination is rampant and the job opportunities are very limited.  Wages are some of the lowest in Florida.  Which is why I am attempting to get my app business into a paying concern.  In Orlando, things could probably be different.  There are way more job opportunities available even in this tough job market.  Wages tend to be higher and some places even offer actual benefits.  You find some manufacturing jobs, retail of course, and service jobs, or head down to the south west corner of the city and try your luck with Disney or the other theme parks.  There are also a lot of tech jobs in the south part of the city including a lot of support for the space program along with big names like Lockheed.  In other words, more opportunities, better pay, and fewer places that are dependent on the tourist dollar to survive.  But, as I said, at my age I appear to be unemployable.  Yeah, I could probably get back into the motorcycle business if I was willing to destroy what little pride I have left.  But I would rather risk my future on my own, working at my pace and living off the fruits of my labor, instead of making somebody else rich.  My app business is quite fluid and I can do it anyplace as long as I have a computer and internet.  Might as well be where I like to be.

I mentioned my food bill earlier this week.  At $13 a day I eat pretty good.  The grocery stores keep a sufficient variety of food in stock and the prices are about as reasonable as you can expect.  I haven’t shopped at a Publix on the mainland in years so I have no idea how much more expensive the food is down here but I doubt there is much difference.  As for eating out, something I don’t do much of, there are some good restaurants on the island.  Most are unique one of a kind places that have their own special character you don’t find anyplace else.  In Orlando?  All chains.  Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Appleby’s.  The usual corporate suspects.  The food is edible and cheap enough, but these places are lacking in character and charm.  Oh, there are a few out of the way spots here and there.  I used to go to a beat up old fish camp along the coast where the catch came in from the docks out back and straight to the grill and too your plate.  It was dirty, noisy, and had the best seafood short of my own cooking.  But for the most part, eating out is no different than any other suburb in the country.  Nothing special.  However…

Though the rents may be lower, and jobs more plentiful, and food a bit cheaper, there is one flaw in this mainland lifestyle that cannot compete with living on an island.  Have you guessed what it is?

Living in the city or the suburbs means you will have to own a vehicle.  No two ways about it.  You will absolutely have to have a car to get around.  Orlando is a car centric city.  It is impossible to survive without a vehicle.  Well, yes, there is public transportation, how good I don’t know, but you are way more better off with a car.  That means things like, car loans, fuel, insurance, maintenance, and parking.   And the traffic.  You haven’t lived until you have dealt with rush hour traffic on I-4 which is the main interstate running through Orlando from Daytona to Tampa.  The side roads are no better.  Like all cities, Orlando is made up of a dozen or so communities, each with their own special way of enforcing traffic laws.  And more than likely, wherever you wind up living in Orlando will be across the city from where you work.   When I lived up there I had a 30 mile one way commute through the worst traffic every day.  Stress levels were very high back then.  Orlando is built to accommodate vehicles.  Clusters of apartments or housing developments in one place, shopping in another, industrial or business, someplace else.  And as for living with just a bicycle to get around?  Forget it.

While the city, county, and state governments have put together a pretty nice system of bike and walking trails around the city, these trails are geared towards recreation as opposed to being viable commuter routes.  You may be able to pedal close to where you need to go but eventually you will need to hit the streets and those streets are not bicycle friendly.  Nope, to live in Orlando, means owning a vehicle.

Go back to my expense chart and look at what I have spent on transportation so far this year.  Even with replacing 2 bicycles and repairing the one that went for a swim, I have spent less on transportation than I spent in previous years on car insurance alone.  I was dropping over $5000 a year to keep a vehicle, and that was with a vehicle that was paid for.  I can’t imagine being saddled with car payments right now.  And as for fuel, gas in Orlando runs about $.40 cheaper than down here.  Up there it would cost me $50 to fill up the jeep, usually every week or two, depending on my commute.  Down here, I haven’t spent a dime on gas since I sold the jeep.  If there was one aspect of living in Key West that beats out the “lower” costs of living on the mainland, not needing a vehicle would be it.

So over all, would moving back to Orlando be any cheaper for me to live than staying here on a rock at the end of the world?  Not likely.  I would have to change my lifestyle considerably and revert to some old habits that I worked very hard to give up.  I have been able to adapt my lifestyle to one of less stuff, less stress, and less expenses, and do it someplace where I have always dreamed of living.  And I should throw a caveat out here…Yes, there are other places to live besides Orlando.  I use Orlando as an example simply because I lived there for 25 years.  I know the area, have friends people that tolerate me, and if some bizarre turn of events should occur, I could return there and start a new life.  But I don’t want to and have no plans to.  The Keys are the first place I have ever lived that I can call home.  Despite the costs, the downsides, and the struggles, it is everything I have wanted and expected.

I have been able to survive down here where it’s considered expensive because I was able and willing to adjust and downsize my lifestyle.  Owning less, wanting less, being happy with less, means I can live just about anywhere I choose.  And right now, I choose Key West.  Where the future will take me eventually, I have no idea.  But where ever I end up, I will be able to adapt to the costs much more easier after the lessons I have learned over the past few years down here.

So given that my cost of living is about the same as living on the mainland, why Key West?  Do you really have to ask?

Capt. Fritter