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Wednesday, May 10, 2006 | Married & Mortgaged

If you Google “smartest places to live,” in the next day or so you’ll find a long list of exultant, braggy newspaper articles from places like Ithaca, N.Y., and Kansas City. That’s because Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine ranks both among the top 50 smartest places to live in its June issue.

You won’t find any reports on the subject in San Diego’s media. Why? Our beloved, sunny city didn’t warrant a ranking. For Kiplinger’s purposes, smartest refers to whether it’s financially smart to live there, not whether lots of smart people do. Apparently, it’s not at all smart to live in San Diego if you’re interested in getting a high quality of living for an affordable price.

Tell me something I don’t know.

But in case you’ve been thinking of cashing out of your overvalued home and settling someplace more affordable, Kiplinger’s has some suggestions, and they don’t include mega metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco or New York.

Think Nashville, Minneapolis, Albuquerque, Atlanta and Austin – the top five smartest places to live, according to Kiplinger’s research, which weighed cost of living, cost of housing, quality health care, low crime, weather, education, economic vitality, cultural amenities and transportation. The essential criteria: “vibrant and fun, and where a dollar still goes a long way.”

The magazine asked well-known database developer Bert Sperling, who created Money magazine’s “best places to live” index and runs BestPlaces.net, to design a database around Kiplinger’s fact finding. The magazine sent its writers out to investigate the top cities, examining housing, neighborhoods, commutes and overall quality of life, and, finally, a panel of eight writers and editors ranked the cities.

Nashville’s delights include: “gently rolling hills,” affordable housing (translation: large, new, three and four bedroom homes starting at about $350,000), temperate weather except for the occasional tornado and a big-city entertainment scene (Nashville’s not just about country.) You can buy a two-bedroom condo downtown near art galleries and other hip places for about $250,000 or even get a slice of Southern California in a neighborhood known as “Little Hollywood,” where brightly painted stucco bungalows are the norm.

I have to say Nashville sounds very nice especially after viewing Kiplinger’s online slide show of affordable homes there. But then I remember my aversion to bugs and muggy weather and the fact that I really, really like San Diego. I’ve only been here three years but I think it could be The One. But this is in no way a financial decision, it’s purely emotional.

I’ve lived in three cities in my adult life, and many more during childhood, and none is as great as San Diego if life pleasures are the criteria. Beautiful beaches, check. Perfect climate, check. Plenty to do, check. Great recreational opportunities, check. I love all the cheery people and awe-inspiring vistas. Perfect weather all year means I don’t need a big house anyway, although I do need a big yard to fulfill my outdoor living fantasies.

So in the spirit of defending San Diego as a smart place to live financially, I’ve done a little research and it turns out we have it easier than our friends in Nashville in two key areas: strawberries and mangos. Both fruits are cheaper to buy in San Diego than in Nashville, according to a highly unscientific study that involved me comparing current weekly supermarket ads in both cities. I also wandered around a Vons just to give the study some authenticity.

For example, shopper’s at Publix, Nashville’s predominant supermarket, are paying $2.50 for 16 ounces of strawberries this week. I can buy four pounds of strawberries at Vons for $3.99 and six pints of strawberries at Henry’s for just $3.98. You get a better price for buying big at Vons, which is strangely charging $2.50 for 16 ounces of strawberries. So if you don’t want four pounds of strawberries, you’re lucky you live in San Diego, which benefits from competition in the grocery business. You don’t have to pay Vons high prices.

And while Publix shoppers are getting two mangos for $1 in Nashville, San Diego shoppers can get four for $1 at Henry’s. We’re paying about the same price for most other things except flowers. San Diego’s flower industry generally provides plentiful blooms for little money, but only if you buy them from the right stores. Think flower stands, farmer’s markets and Trader Joe’s for fresh flowers, not Vons or Henry’s. For example, Vons has two bouquets this week priced at $17.99 and $21.99. Are they nuts?

If cheap fruit doesn’t make you feel better, take heart in the fact that there are plenty of other “best places” lists. San Diego has ranked high in several that ought to be considered in any personal finance analysis given that quality of life can affect how much we spend on medical bills. On that note, Sperling’s Bestplaces.net ranks San Diego the third best large city in which to get a good night’s sleep. This list considered the population’s reported overall happiness and low unemployment, which both lead to good Zs. A few other San Diego rankings:

– Men’s Journal 2005 – San Diego ranked as America’s best big city based on adventure, attractiveness and affordability.

– Prevention magazine – 16th best city for walking.

– Entrepreneur 2005 – 23rd among the magazine’s “Hot Cities” for entrepreneurs

– Fast Company 2005 – One of 15 best places for creative workers.

– BestPlaces.net – 3rd best large city for dating based on an abundance of outdoor recreation and the diversity index, which refers to the likelihood of meeting someone of a different race or ethnicity.

– BestPlaces.net 2005 – 4th best place for teleworking.

– Money magazine 2005 – Coronado ranked 25th among the best towns to live in.

If you still don’t feel great about San Diego, consider this: Nashville ranks 7th on the list of cities with a prevalence of lifestyle and environmental factors associated with migraine headaches. San Diego ranks 99th.

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a freelance writer in Chula Vista. “Married & Mortgaged” runs every other Thursday. You can send a letter to the editor here.

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