THE RISING COST OF EVERYTHING: Taking a Risk on a Fresh Start

As inflation impacts single-parent families nationwide, educator takes a leap of faith

By Melissa Thomasma

Special to the Wyoming Truth

Lilly Willa is quick to smile as she recounts the uncertainty of the past few months. The 33-year-old single mother of two recently arrived in Jackson Hole from Whatcom County, Washington, eager to start her new job as a secondary-level language teacher in the Teton County School District.  

Her motivation to relocate: The chance to give her children, ages 7 and 9, a better life.

Lilly Willa, a 33-year-old single mother of two, restarts her life in Teton County. She recently moved from Washington state for a higher-paying career as a language teacher in the wake of rising inflation and a sinking economy. (Courtesy photo from Lilly Willa)

“We [were] experiencing the same rise in prices in the Puget Sound area,” Willa said. “It’s almost impossible to survive as a single mom out there. I knew with one income I was never going to be able to get ahead.”

Willa applied for jobs in Montana, Nevada, Idaho, South Dakota, North Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming, and she received an offer in Cheyenne. “But when I flew out there, the schools were lovely, but there’s no trees,” she said. “I can’t do it, having lived in a temperate rainforest my whole life. Jackson ticked all the boxes. But I knew coming into this is that it’s extremely expensive here. It’s not a typical town.”

Though estimates place the overall cost of living in Jackson Hole around 39% higher than the Bellingham, WA, area, salaries are higher as well. The average teacher salary in Whatcom County hovers around $56,000. But for the 2022-23 school year, educators in Teton County receive a starting salary of $62,500 per year, and depending on their education and experience, can earn over $108,o0o annually.

In the notoriously brutal Jackson housing market, Willa struggled to find a place to live. But in an eleventh-hour stroke of luck, her employer heard about an available apartment, and Willa was able to officially accept the job offer. The timing, she said, couldn’t have been more down to the wire.

“I had to be really careful about living as small as I could to save every penny,” Willa said regarding her budget management amid soaring gas prices and inflation this summer. “Things happen. Just yesterday, my brakes went out on my car and that was an unexpected cost. It’s how life happens.”

Willa noted that while food prices are higher in Jackson than Washington, she is finding creative ways to lower costs.  She shops at farmers’ markets, utilizes the dollar store and keeps her eye open for opportunities like picking extra fruit from trees that locals don’t want. “I also use Thrive Market, which is a really awesome way to get packaged snacks and stuff like that at a better price than I would get in town,” she said.

Willa eliminated activities that carry a price tag, instead opting for free family entertainment, such as visiting lakes and hiking. “In Washington, we would go to the trampoline zone or a movie,” she said. “We don’t do those things here, because it’s just not worth it.”

Her kids are far from disappointed, though. “They don’t even notice,” Willa said. “I never tell them, ‘Oh, it’s ‘cause I don’t want to spend the money to do that.’ They’re young enough that they don’t really realize. They just want to have a good time.”

Regarding personal splurges, Willa has slashed them from her budget entirely. “There is no way I would do something like get a haircut,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s not peanuts. It’s $200 here or a hundred bucks there. When it comes to my next haircut, I’m probably going to just ask my parents for it for Christmas.”

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