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How an urban expatriate realized her slower-paced dream

A lot of people talk about taking the next exit out of the rat race, yet few actually do it.

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Some simply aren't serious. Others fear the unknown. Or maybe there's an inexorable human drive to spend, spend, spend that can only be sated by living in an urban area where it costs mucho dinero to live.

Whatever the obstacles, trading a hectic life for a simpler one is possible. I know. I'm one of the lucky escapees.

Six years ago, my husband and I relocated from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Bozeman, Mont. The key: downscaling our lives. We now make do with less. In return, we've gotten back a lot more personal time. Things have slowed down and life is good.

Starting the slow down
If you're considering a similar move, the best way to start is by recording everything you spend. Think of it as a cousin to the food diary that people keep before going on a diet.

Your fiscal diary should answer the question: What does my family spend money on? Following the money trail will make it easier to figure out what matters to you and what you're willing to part with.

In addition to evaluating expenses, look at the money you have coming in and what it costs to earn. Some two-income households, for example, are shocked to find that when they subtract child care, prepared meals, commuting costs and dress-for-success dry cleaning, both parents working doesn't make strict financial sense.

Keep your spending diary for at least two weeks, and ideally for a month, before you review it. Then be realistic when deciding the parameters of your new money diet. It really is like trying to lose weight. If you vow to only eat raw vegetables and drink water, you won't stay on a diet very long. Determine a reasonable way to cut your expenses that won't starve you, financially or emotionally.

Prioritize your spending
Let your priorities be your guide. Look at what you're spending money on and what you'd be willing to skip.

Easy items to take off the menu include buying name-brand foods or products, going to the movies, eating out, ordering in take-out, buying books, spending money on new clothes and purchasing the latest and greatest, whether it's a brand new car or a hot new bicycle.

Substitute your spendthrift ways for frugality. From the above list, here are some low-cost substitutions:

  • Going to movies: Watching Shakespeare free in the park
  • Eating out or buying take-out food: Cooking your own meals
  • Buying new books: Borrowing from the library
  • Buying new clothes: Visiting second-hand shops

Taking the time to shop also can actually help save money. If one supermarket sells butter cheaper, stock up on dairy goods there. But head to Safeway if that's where you can get the best price on meat. Bring a calculator along so you can determine the true costs of what you buy. You may be surprised to find that some industrial-sized household goods bought at discount warehouses may not produce the savings you think.

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