Do you find yourself treading water financially even with a relatively healthy household income? Even with your new higher-paying job and your spouse’s promotion, do you still find it difficult to get ahead, despite carefully counting your pennies? Does your friend or relative halfway across the country have a better quality of life on less income? If so, the cost of living might be to blame.
The cost of living refers to the cost of various items necessary in everyday life. It includes things like housing, transportation, food, utilities, health care, and taxes.
Single or family of six?
Singles, couples, and families typically have many of the same expenses–for example, everyone needs shelter, food, and clothing–but families with children typically pay more in each category and have the added expenses of child care and college. The Economic Policy Institute (epi.org) has a family budget calculator that lets you enter your household size (up to two adults and four children) along with your Zip code to see how much you would need to earn to have an “adequate but modest” standard of living in that geographic area.
What areas have the highest cost of living? It’s no secret that the East and West Coasts have some of the highest costs. According to the Council for Community and Economic Research, the 10 most expensive U.S. urban areas to live in Q3 2015 were:
1 New York, New York
2 Honolulu, Hawaii
3 San Francisco, California
4 Brooklyn, New York
5 Orange County, California
6 Oakland, California
7 Metro Washington D.C./Virginia
8 San Diego, California
9 Hilo, Hawaii
10 Stamford, Connecticut
Factors that influence the cost of living
Let’s look in more detail at some of the common factors that make up the cost of living.
Housing. When an area is described as having “a high cost of living,” it usually means housing costs. Looking to relocate to Silicon Valley from the Midwest? You better hope for a big raise; the mortgage you’re paying now on your modest three-bedroom home might get you a walk-in closet in this technology hub, where prices last spring climbed to a record-high $905,000 in Santa Clara County, $1,194,500 in San Mateo County, and $690,000 in Alameda County. (Source: San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley Home Prices Hit Record Highs, Again, May 21, 2015)
Related to housing affordability is student loan debt. Student debt–both for young adults and those in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who either took out their own loans, or co-signed or borrowed on behalf of their children–is increasingly affecting housing choices and living situations. For some borrowers, monthly student loan payments can approximate a second mortgage.
Transportation. Do you have access to reliable public transportation or do you need a car? Younger adults often favor public transportation and supplement with ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar. But for others, a car (or two or three), along with the cost of gas and maintenance, is a necessity. How far is your work commute? Do you drive 100 miles round trip each day or do you telecommute? Having to buy a new (or used) car every few years can significantly impact your bottom line.
Utilities. The cost of utilities can vary by location, weather, usage, and infrastructure. For example, residents of colder climates might find it more expensive to heat their homes in the winter than residents of warmer climates do cooling their homes in the summer.
Taxes. Your tax bite will vary by state. Seven states have no income tax–Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. In addition, property taxes and sales taxes can vary significantly by state andeven by county, and states have different rules for taxing Social Security and pension income.
Miscellaneous. If you have children, other things that can affect your bottom line are the costs of child care, extracurricular activities, and tuition at your flagship state university.
To move or not to move
Remember The Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Well, there’s no question your money will go further in some places than in others. If you’re thinking of moving to a new location, cost-of-living information can make your decision more grounded in financial reality.
There are several online cost-of-living calculators that let you compare your current location to a new location. The U.S. State Department has compiled a list of resources on its website at state.gov.