Don’t spoil your fresh start by racking up credit card debt due to higher cost of living.

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Last summer, I was almost certain I’d be moving from Kansas City, Missouri to St. Petersburg or Tampa, Florida. I’d already researched housing costs online, and I’d visited St. Pete on vacation. Still, I knew a scouting trip was in order.

So, I booked an Airbnb home in Tampa for the month of June. St. Pete was only 25 miles away, a 20-minute drive, I assumed. I’d be working as a freelance writer during my stay, but I also envisioned daily beach walks to clear my mind and plan my new life. What I got instead was a big dose of reality about what it costs to live in St. Pete versus what I’d calculated from afar.

Here’s what I learned, along with a few money-saving tips for scouting a city before you relocate.

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1. Vacation isn’t reality

Tranquil scenery, relaxing beach, tropical landscape design. Summer vacation travel holiday design

On my vacation to St. Pete the prior year, I sipped coffee during morning beach strolls and gazed at the waves all day. This trip, I was there long enough to get a pelican’s eye view of day-to-day life.

For one thing, my estimated 25-minute drive from Tampa to St. Pete’s beaches was actually a 45-minute commute each way, longer during rush hour. Even with my compact car, I burned through two or three tanks of gas every week.

Tip: When choosing accommodations for your scouting trip, look up the “driving time” to the areas where you’ll spend most of your time on an app such as Google Maps.

2. Look a little harder for the right place to stay

I booked the Airbnb in Tampa because it accepted dogs. However, I learned after I arrived that I could have rented a pet-friendly apartment one block from the beach for the same price. Not only would I have been happier, I’d have saved a couple hundred bucks on gas.

Tip: Search extensively on Airbnb, VRBO, Craigslist, and until you find an affordable rental near where you want to live.

3. Online real estate photos can be deceiving

Close-up of businessman's hand checking house on laptop

During my online house hunting, I found lots of modest but cute homes in the $120,000 to $150,000 range. However, when I toured those homes, I was in for a surprise. Sure, I could get a house for $140,000, but it was wedged close between two neighbors, the homes needed updating and the neighborhoods were sketchy.

Tip: Before you relocate, make sure you tour several open houses or showings first to get an idea of what kind of home you can get for your money. When perusing online listings, check out neighborhood crime and other statistics on sites like Neighborhood Scout and CityProtect.

4. Food prices matter

I thought that if I could buy an inexpensive home, I could work around the higher cost of living. However, I didn’t realize how expensive groceries would be until I lived in Tampa for a month.

At the local Publix, many items were double the price that I pay in the Midwest. Gasoline was about 20 cents more per gallon. I could buy two meals in a moderate restaurant in Kansas City for what I’d pay for one dinner in Tampa.

Find out: The Most and Least Affordable States to Live in America

Tip: Bring groceries if you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen. Also, find the nearest discount grocer. I quickly switched from Publix to Save-A-Lot after paying $5 for a bag of lettuce. Also, ask the locals about affordable restaurants. I found a cheap and excellent taco place by asking a fellow CVS customer where I could get a good taco.

Find out: How to Save Money on Food Without Cooking Every Meal

5. Stick around long enough

I stayed in Tampa for 30 days. By week three, I’d learned shortcuts to avoid traffic, found a favorite coffee shop and explored smaller, inland towns that may warrant another scouting adventure later.

Tip: Stay at least a month if you can, since it takes a couple of weeks to get oriented. By the time I left, I knew my way around and may have warmed up to the area if I’d stayed longer.

Final thoughts

Once I realized how much it would cost me to live in Florida, I flew out of Tampa faster than a seagull diving for a French fry. Before you relocate to a new city, take a scouting trip to make sure it fits your budget. Just don’t forget to save a little money along the way.

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About the Author

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp

Deb Hipp is a full-time freelance writer based in Kansas City, Mo. Deb went from being unable to get approved for a credit card or loan 20 years ago to having excellent credit today and becoming a homeowner. Deb learned her lessons about money the hard way. Now she wants to share them to help you pay down debt, fix your credit and quit being broke all the time. Deb's personal finance and credit articles have been published at Credit Karma and The Huffington Post.

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