Taking the Emotion Out of Deciding Where to Live

It sounds like a strange question at first: Why do you live where you live… or, if you’re thinking of moving, what are the most important things you look for in a future home?

For many people, the answer might seem self-evident: I live here because it’s where I’m from… It’s where I was born and raised, and it’s where my family lives.

That’s not unusual… and it helps explain why around 60% of Americans live in the state where they were born.

Last month, I (Kim Iskyan) detailed four questions to ask yourself before you move. Today, I want to go even further…

If you could live wherever you please, where would you live? How would you figure out where is the best place for you to live?

Overcoming ‘Cereal Aisle Syndrome’

In the breakfast cereal aisle – where you’re faced with a vast number of choices and varieties and flavors – it’s easy to reach for what’s familiar… or the option that the TV doctor mentioned.

But there’s a good chance that none of those gut-reaction choices fit the criteria of what you really value in breakfast fare. What you happen to pick up, based on the emotion of the moment, might not be (say) nutrient rich. You might just be craving Cap’n Crunch, so you skip buying the healthier bran cereal.

Faced with too many choices, it’s easy to lose track of what’s important, and all too often we resort to whatever is easiest. After all, making decisions – even about something as seemingly minor as breakfast cereal – is hard work… and it’s our natural tendency to avoid it.

The risk with figuring out where to live and moving there – where the stakes are a lot higher than an unhealthy bowl of cereal – is similar. The world is a big place and your options for moving seem endless.

To remove (or at least reduce) the role of emotion from the decision of where to live, try this: Make a list of the things that matter to you in a place to live. Think broadly, and don’t leave out anything important.

For example, some broad categories of issues, and a few of the criteria within each, might include…

  • Money and finances… the cost of living and the cost of real estate
  • Family… how close you are to children, grandkids, and friends
  • Living experience… quality of housing, whether you’re close to the mountains/the beach, safety and security, air quality
  • Culture… if you’re a museum maven, or a foodie, or love immersing yourself in other languages and ideas
  • Health care… for example, if you require specialized care, or like knowing there’s a world-class health facility nearby
  • Work and professional opportunities… if you don’t work anymore, or if you can work from anywhere, this will matter less
  • Travel convenience… is proximity to a major air/transportation hub important?
  • Stress… everything from traffic to the ease of getting around and getting things done, to the language that people speak

Doing this on a spreadsheet program like Excel is straightforward. Starting with a pen and paper works, too. To help you along, I’ve created a spreadsheet to give you a good starting point. Download it here.

For each criterion on your list, assign an “importance multiplier” on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 meaning that a particular factor matters more. There are some issues that will matter a lot to you… and others that are less important – suggesting an “importance multiplier” of 1. Deciding how critical each one is to you is key to removing the emotion from the decision-making process about where to live.

For example, if being able to walk out your back door and be on the beach is something that you really want, then give that factor a heavy weighting of 5. If proximity to an airport would be something that’s on your radar but doesn’t matter very much, you’d give it a weighting of 1 or 2.

If you’re doing this exercise with a partner or spouse, it’s important to agree on the importance multiplier for each factor in advance. That might not be easy… but it might help you figure out what everyone involved feels matters the most. And you’ll also need to agree on the list of possible places to live so that you can even do this exercise in the first place. Be sure to include where you’re living now… It might turn out that the place you call home already is the best place for you.

Once you’ve figured out what’s more, and less, important to you in a place to live, score your different “where to live” options (say, on a scale of 1 to 5) for each parameter. If New York City is one place you’re thinking of moving to, for example, and “quality of museums” is a factor that matters to you, you’d likely assign museum-mecca Manhattan a score of 5.

Then, multiply the importance weighting by the score. For example, if you’ve assigned an “importance multiplier” of 4 to proximity to your grandkids, and one town where you might live is a mile away from the family, you might have assigned it a score of 5. So you just multiply 4 x 5, which would give you 20 for that location.

Finally, add up all the scores for each location to get a total score. (I have an example of how you might do this in the spreadsheet I mentioned before.)

The exercise works best if everyone who’s involved in the decision does it separately. That way, you can compare scores and see where and how you differ.

Are some of your differences in scoring based on an issue where fact, rather than opinion, can rule the day (say, cost of living or quality of health care)? In that case, look it up and don’t let an impression trump fact.

Focus more on where there is a genuine difference rather than just a preference. (You might view Kansas City as a foodie haven because of its barbecue, while your partner might play up Paris because that’s “real” haute cuisine.)

Use the spreadsheet and scoring system as a start. Don’t forget to look beyond just the totals of each potential location. This is a great opportunity to dig into what you want – both “nice to have” and “must have” – in a place to live.

Then… let the talking – and compromising – begin.

For Advanced Users

This kind of thought process and tool is used in the corporate world. It’s an important tool in Six Sigma, which is a business-process-improvement framework… The approach I’ve explained here is called a “weighted criteria matrix.”

I checked in with a friend who runs a Six Sigma-focused consulting business and uses the weighted criteria mix with companies that are weighing competing priorities (like someone who’s figuring out where to live!).

He explained that this same approach is a good tool to make investment decisions… for example, to assess different criteria (whether it’s valuation, consistency of return, volatility, or “green” status) and apply an “importance multiplier” to weigh what’s most, and least, important to you.

He pointed out that rather than score in a way that’s linear (that is, which goes up in increments of one… as in, 1, 2, 3), it can be useful to apply scores to different factors that are more pronounced (like 1, 3, and 9, for example).

“That way the real preference differences are clearer,” he says. “The difference between 2 and 4 might be huge but not really reflected adequately in the score, while the difference between 3 and 9 is enormous.”

There are a lot of factors that come into consideration when figuring out where you want to live. And it’s an emotions-driven decision, with huge implications for your future contentment and happiness. But it’s a powerful exercise to think about what really matters to you and apply a number to it… and then see if your emotional decision matches the one supported by the numbers.

Best regards,

Kim Iskyan
September 30, 2021