Two years ago I wrote an article on Buying A House In Benton Harbor, highlighting some of the major reasons why the Benton Harbor area is a great place to live. Just last week Magnify Money released a list of the 10 Best Cities To Retire Early. Benton Harbor MI tied for second place with Memphis TN, and Sherman, TX, just one point behind Knoxville, TN. Benton Harbor was the #1 city in the Mid-West.
My Relationship To Benton Harbor
I grew up just 10 miles north of Benton Harbor and moved to Benton Harbor shortly after graduating from High School. I went to college at Lake Michigan Community College in Benton Harbor, and I worked at the KFC in Benton Harbor for 3 years. I lived in Benton Harbor from 2005 to 2011 and I still own a home there. In 2011 I moved 3 miles down the street to Sodus, MI in order to secure a much larger yard. I still live in the Benton Harbor school district, and needless to say all of the factors that put Benton Harbor on the list, apply to the surrounding area as well.
The study that Magnify Money released judges each area on 3 criteria with 100 points possible per criteria. Those 3 criteria are cost of living, quality of life, and employability. I’m actually surprised that Benton Harbor did not receive a 100/100 for cost of living. 92 points is OK, but I was really surprised to see other cities higher in this metric.
Advantages The Benton Harbor Area Has For Financial Independence/Early Retirement:
Low Housing and Land Costs:
Housing in Benton Harbor itself is quite inexpensive. My first house was a 5 Bedroom 2 Bath house for $48,000. $50,000 can buy a fairly decent place, and $100,000 is a very nice house. My current home a few miles away sits on 3 acres and is a 5 bedroom tri-level, which I paid $145,000 for.
Low Property Taxes:
Taxes in Berrien County vary wildly from 0.9% to 2.3% of the homes value. One major advantage that Michigan residents have over residents in other states is that the yearly increase in property assessments is limited to 5% or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. This year our assessments went up .009%.
Low Cost Education:
Lake Michigan Community College is located in Benton Harbor, MI 3 miles from my front door. Total tuition and fees for an associates degree is $8,580. This is fairly inexpensive for 2 years of college. Benton Harbor school district residents also have an added bonus that kids who graduate from Benton Harbor High School or Countryside Charter School are eligible for a 100% promise scholarship, reducing that $8,580 to $0. Lake Michigan Community College also has partner programs with Michigan State University and Siena Heights University so that students can live at home in Berrien County Michigan and take classes at Lake Michigan Community College, saving a ton of money.
Several Large Employers:
Benton Harbor, MI is the world headquarters of Whirlpool Corporation. LECO corp and American Electric Power are also large employers in the area. The D.C. Cook nuclear plant employs roughly 2,000 people.
Amazing Beaches and Sunsets:
World Class Golf Courses:
I have never played a round of golf and wouldn’t know a good golf course from a bad one. What I do know is what my golfer friends have told me and what our community promotes all the time. Our biggest claim to fame is the Jack Nicklaus Signature Golf Course at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, home to the Senior PGA tournament. There are dozens of other golf courses in the area as well.
Produce and Wine:
Southwest Michigan is fruit country and we have some of the best fruit in the world. Coloma, MI is home to the largest peach ever grown. Wine is also a pretty big deal here, and some of the same conditions that make fruit excellent in MI also make wine excellent.
Proximity To Chicago:
We live just 90 minutes from Chicago, so day trips to one of the largest cities in the country are possible. We routinely visit the Museum of Science and Industry, The Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium. It’s nice to also be close to Bears and Cubs games, as well as Six Flags Great America. Believe it or not, southwest MI, and particularly Berrien County is a vacation destination for Chicago residents! In the summer they flock here to enjoy our small towns and sparsely populated beaches.
The Downside To Benton Harbor, MI:
Benton Harbor, MI for all of its positives is also a very challenged city. The Benton Harbor school systems is in fiscal trouble. For several years Benton Harbor had an emergency financial manager from the state. A large percentage of Benton Harbor’s residents live below the poverty line. There are very few entry level jobs on career paths that lead to high paying jobs in the area. Benton Harbor also has a non-trivial crime problem, with violent crime and property crime being much higher than the surrounding area. This isn’t to say that Benton Harbor should be avoided. There are a lot of positive things going on and many of these negative aspects will hopefully be on a downward trend in the future. Hundreds or abandoned houses have been torn down, the city has a balanced budget, and the police department has been getting assistance from the State of Michigan.
As the #1 finance blogger in Berrien County Michigan (Okay, so I’m the only finance blogger in Berrien County, MI) I certainly agree with Magnify Money that Benton Harbor is overall a great place to live, especially for people striving for financial independence and early retirement. I’m on track to reach financial independence by age 40. It’s fairly easy to live inexpensively while still enjoying a variety of entertainment options nearby. I think financial independence can be achieved anywhere, but it is certainly easier to do in low cost areas.