Thursday, July 17, 2008

Five Easy Steps to Gauging Cost of Living Differences Between Big Cities

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics: ,

comic 44 - cost of living

There may come a time in your life when you just have to pack yourself up and move to a new place. Sometimes that new place is just down the road from the old one. Other times, you may be looking to relocate to a new city, a new state, or even a new country. Some of you may even desire to relocate to a new planet; I get that feeling at least three times a day.

Moving long distance certainly carries along with it a variety of challenges—finding somewhere new to live (possibly without even looking at the new area first), navigating your way around an entirely different area, making new friends, and much more. But perhaps one of the difficulties many people do not give enough consideration to is cost of living differences between your current city of residence and your new one. For example, you might think you’re getting a 10% raise by taking that new job in New York City, but if you’re coming from Middle of Nowhere, Iowa, you’ll quickly realize that the NYC cost of living is far more than 10% above that of the mid-west. In general, moving from a small town to a big city means you’re going to pay more for just about everything.

But what if you’re moving from one big city to another? All cities are not created equal, and a commodity that is considered cheap in one city may cost a lot more in another. Say you’re a big fan of Florida oranges. If you live in Miami, those things are going to be a lot cheaper there than if you live in San Fransisco. And what about rent and housing costs? These are typically the biggest expense anyone carries, and while sheltering yourself in any big city is going to cost you a good amount, it might cost you a lot more in certain big cities based on factors like how much that city is still growing.

Fortunately computing the cost of living difference between Big City A and Big City B doesn’t require you to compare prices on every item you’ll ever need to buy. In fact, while recently helping a friend compute the cost of living difference between Orlando and Washington D.C., I’ve found that you only need to look at how much five particular things cost in order to get a pretty good approximation of how much more (or less) money it’ll cost you to live in your new city versus the old one:

  1. Apartment rental rates. As we discussed earlier, you’ll be throwing a lot of money at the roof over your head no matter which big city you live in, so knowing how much your monthly rent will run compared to what you’re paying now will tell you right away if that new city is even within your income’s grasp. And if you’re planning to stick around your new city for very long, you may want to check out housing price differences as well.
  2. A loaf of bread at the store. If there’s a single tell-tale grocery item that’ll help you compare cost of living differences, it’s that loaf of rye or wheat or whatever. Even if you’re not a bread eater, the cost of bread seems to be very closely tied to the average cost of other food items and will serve as a good indicator of what your grocery bill will be like in your new city.
  3. The cost of traveling from one end of the city to another. Especially with rising fuel prices, it’s important to know how much it’ll run you to get around in your new town. But just comparing prices at the pump isn’t enough. You’ll also want to take into account any available public transportation options, how bad traffic is, and parking prices. Gas might average 15% higher in your new city, but it might have a more extensive bus or rail system to help you get around for cheaper than driving yourself.
  4. A glass of wine at a restaurant. There are lots of different ways to gauge how much more or less it will cost to have fun in your new city. Even if you’re not a drinker though, a glass of wine at a decent restaurant will serve as a good indicator of how much other entertainment avenues will run you. You could also look at the cost of movie tickets, cover charges at clubs, or a hot dog at a major league baseball game.
  5. A haircut. This is just a good general measure of the cost of living difference between cities. Compare whatever your usual cut or do costs in City A to what it runs in City B and you’ll get a fair idea of how much of a price difference there is in things like clothing, toiletries, and household goods.

One other important thing to keep in mind when comparing cost of living differences. Thanks to the power of internet shopping, you can order a purple lamp shade in a South Dakotan town with a population of 200 at the same price that it would cost to buy it for your $3,000 a month one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles. Geography is becoming less and less relevant to cost of living measures for many items, so just because you see a pair of shoes in downtown Seattle for three times the price as your shoe store back home in Cabin in the Woods, Montana doesn’t mean everything costs three times more in the bigger city. So be sure to do your pricing homework before committing to any big move.

Oh, and for those who’d like to join me in my extra-terrestrial residential aspirations, I hear that there are some nice three-bedroom condos for under 200,000 Intergalactic Credits just outside Alpha Centauri.

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