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The Habits of Highly Effective Small-Town Residents

Updated: Mar 10, 2022

Eva shopping local in Julian, CA.
This photo is copyright of Jennifer Gutierrez. © 2019 - 2022 by Jennifer Gutierrez.

Living outside city limits comes with its own set of challenges. Inconveniences can really disrupt things. We can’t stop the unexpected circumstances that happen. With preparation, though, we can be ready when unforeseen situations transpire. Small-town residents are full of tricks to make life easier. As you settle into your new hometown, you will slowly learn the habits for success. By developing effective habits, you can improve your rural lifestyle.

Community Interdependence

Small towns are not self-sustaining. It takes a dedicated community willing to donate time and money to grass-roots operations. The biggest lesson I learned while growing up in a small town is that what you put into the community is what you get out of it. The sooner you get involved, the quicker you will adjust. Neighborly interdependence is a real thing. We depend on each other for information, help in all forms, and friendship. You will never know when you need a helping hand, so get to know your neighbors and treat them with respect (and maybe some homemade sweets). Getting involved is also a great way to make some great friends and learn their effective habits, and you’ll probably come to love your new hometown as much as the “old-timers” do.

San Diego Backcountry residents can learn about all the local organizations here.

Become a Planner

To protect your sanity, learn to plan everything in advance. Buy a calendar and notepads right now. When the closest grocery store is at least thirty minutes away, you can’t just rush to the store. Keeping running shopping lists is a good way to ensure you won’t forget to buy something. Trust me, every rural resident has returned home from a shopping trip only to discover they forgot something. You will also need to plan errands, prepare for storms, and learn to live among the wildlife.

Shop in Bulk

Bulk shopping dramatically cuts down on time spent driving. Natural disasters, temporary road closures, and living far from stores are just a few reasons you need to buy extra. As COVID has taught us all, having an emergency supply of necessities is critical. At our house, we try to buy enough staples and commonly used items to last at least two to three weeks. In addition to food, this includes things like hygiene items, car oil, and laundry soap. Greeting cards, gift wrap, flash drives, batteries, chargers, and other last-minute and regularly forgotten items that are not sold locally should likewise be included in your stockpile.

Make Driving Time Productive

It doesn’t matter how much planning you do, driving is inevitable. I love listening to podcasts and audiobooks to make the time in the car productive.

Turn Your Car into a Mary Poppins Bag

My car is like Mary Poppins’ satchel. I keep a bin in my truck with commonly needed items including water, snacks, oil, jumper cables, a blanket, a jacket, snow chains, and a flashlight. I also have tissues, Advil and other medications, and a trash bag. Keeping a hidden spare key isn’t a bad idea. Yours truly locked her keys in the car at eight p.m. during a city shopping trip. An alternative option is leaving a spare with a friend near the places where you shop most frequently.

Check Sell-By Dates

In sleepy little towns like my hometown, things move at a slower pace. That includes the merchandise on store shelves. Independent store owners have a tough task trying to keep a large variety of fresh options on their shelves. Out-of-date items often fall through the cracks. (I’ve also received out-of-date items from big box stores, so it’s not solely a Julian thing.) It’s best to get in the habit of checking dates before you buy items. For some newcomers, it’s a bit of a culture shock, but in the big scheme of things, it’s only a minor inconvenience.

Keep a Full Gas Tank

A full gas tank ensures you won’t get stranded. I always fill up on my way home. Keep in mind that you should not go below a fourth tank mark because that's about how much gas you will need to get to the nearest gas station.

Invest in a Good Vehicle

Investing in a reliable vehicle is worth every penny considering the amount of stress it will save you. Getting stranded on the side of the road is never fun—help is always delayed. A car with good gas mileage can help cut down on your expenses. The catch is, most commuter cars are not reliable for those who live outside the city limits. Backcountry roads and weather conditions usually require residents to own a 4x4 or all-wheel-drive vehicle. I advise those who live in a four-season climate to choose an all-weather vehicle over an energy-efficient one.

Obsess over Your Mailing Address

Outside city limits, the mail system can be tricky to navigate. In the San Diego Backcountry, the United States Postal Service (USPS) delivers mail only along state highways and to the post office. Because of this, residents have to always make sure both their physical address and Post Office box number are listed everywhere. To learn more about mail delivery in the San Diego Backcountry, click here.

Navigating Small Town Talk

In small towns, everyone knows everyone or at least knows of everyone. It creates a sense of security because residents know when something is off-kilter. Look out for your neighbor, and they will look out for you. Small-town talk is one of the main ways important information spreads, whether it is catching a criminal or finding a reputable person for the job. Nevertheless, small towns are notorious for town gossip. There will always be flat-out false rumors flying around. From my experience, the majority of people constantly being discussed in the rumor mill are being talked about because they air their dirty laundry. If you don’t want the whole town talking about you, don’t give them something to talk about. As you get to know your community members with time it will become easier to filter rumors and truth. You will also quickly learn who to trust and who is the town's gossip girl. A word from the wise, be very careful of what you say and who you say it. You never know who is related/friends with who. Most importantly, when you do something wrong, there's no hiding it. Make your wrongs right by taking responsibility for your actions.

Find a Hobby...Maybe Two or Three

Living in a town with the closest "you-name-it" over an hour away, the internet is slow, and nightlife is non-existent means that entertainment is a luxury. Residents discover how to entertain themselves. To help fill the time find a few hobbies.


Habits Julian Residents


The following tricks are specific to residents in the San Diego mountains.

Shopping in Temecula

Most of us take Highway 79 south or 78 west to shop near El Cajon or Poway. My recently discovered hack is to shop in Temecula. Taking Highway 79 north is about 20 more miles but totally worth it. The drive is way easier because this route usually has less traffic and safer passing zones. When you factor in the curves and slow traffic on Highways 78 and 79, you can get to the central shopping center in Temecula in about the same time. Bonus: Riverside County has a lower sales tax than San Diego County.

The Brawley DMV

It is common knowledge that California DMVs have ridiculous wait times. For San Diego mountain residents have an additional two-plus-hour drive added making a trip to the DMV an all-day boring errand. One thing working to our advantage is the Brawley DMV. Every time I have gone, I have been helped in a matter of minutes. Is an extra hour of driving totally worth skipping a 3+ hour wait time at any one of the San Diego County DMV? I absolutely think so! PS. There's also a Walmark nearby to do your normal shopping.

Sometimes it's the simple things that really make your life more enjoyable. Rural living humbles people. It forces you to stop and smell the roses. I hope you find your own habits for success in this lifestyle.


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