Cities have an undeniable magnetism that draws us to their bustling streets. They promise better job opportunities and more convenient transportation, but what really gets us off our couches is the feeling of possibility that they spark in us. As we stroll down the sidewalk, we find that the people who surround us are just as diverse as the architecture that looms over us.
Whether you’re looking for a museum to inspire your creativity, a restaurant to tickle your taste buds, a game to raise your anxiety or even just a special person to share all these experiences with, you can find what you seek in one of the U.S.’s many urban jungles. Yet, these stimulating sights, tastes and sounds can come with a hefty price tag.
Have you ever wondered how much it would cost to call one of these cities your home? If so, you’re in luck – we’ve done the research for you! After scouring and analyzing the data, we’ve gathered a list of the most expensive cities in our country to help you determine if city life is really for you.
Cost Of Living In The US: What’s The National Average?
To accumulate the list of the most expensive places to live in the U.S., we began by studying the cities with the highest cost of living. Cost of living refers to the amount of money required to afford the basic necessities of everyday life.
To identify the cost of living for cities across the U.S., we consulted the 2019 Q2 data collected by the Council for Community and Economic Research. Its Cost of Living Index analyzes the prices of groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services (like dry cleaning, toiletries and movie tickets) in 255 urban areas. These costs are categorized and weighted to calculate a composite score, which shows just how expensive these cities are compared to the national average
While the Cost of Living Index is crucial for determining the rank of U.S. cities, it’s difficult to gauge whether you could afford to live in these cities by looking at the data alone. To provide you with a clearer picture of what life would look like as a resident of these cities, we turned to the U.S. Census Bureau and the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
We sourced data from the U.S. Census Bureau to provide insight into the populations, household incomes and poverty rates of these areas. The population data presented represents 2018 estimates, while all other Census data is based on 2017 figures. We pulled data on unemployment rates for June 2019 from the St. Louis Federal Reserve and returned to the Council for Community and Economic Research for data on the prices of specific items in each of the categories mentioned above. Finally, we adjusted the median household income by the cost of living for each city to show how much money a resident would have remaining after accounting for the varied financial burdens of each area.
But to understand our findings, you must have a better sense of how the city-level statistics compare to the national average. The following figures provide a snapshot of our country as a whole:
- Median household income: $57,652
- Median home price: $311,927
- Median monthly rent: $985
- Unemployment rate: 3.8%
- Poverty rate: 11.8%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.93
By comparing this information with the facts for each city, you’ll be able to discover which (if any) of these cities is right for you. So without further ado, here’s the list of the 15 most expensive cities in the country.
15. Stamford, Connecticut
- Cost of living: 40.4% above U.S. Average
- City population: 129,775
- Median household income: $84,893
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $60,465
- Median home price: $620,880
- Median monthly rent: $2,561
- Unemployment rate: 3.9%
- Poverty rate: 9.3%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.47
While Stamford may be the least expensive city on the list, it’s by no means a cheap place to live. Situated on Long Island Sound and only an hour away from New York City, Stamford hosts a relatively quieter lifestyle for affluent commuters looking to escape the crowded streets of the Big Apple. That said, not all residents commute. The city has become its own booming metropolis due to the migration of hedge funds and high-profile corporations like UBS, Royal Bank of Scotland and Charter Communications. For those who work in Stamford, there’s little reason to ever leave. With convenient transportation including the Harbor Point Trolley, Stamford is a place where big-city attractions meet natural tranquility. But these luxuries come at a price. Residents of Stamford spend about twice as much as the average American to buy a home and 73% more on their home energy costs.
14. Bethesda, Maryland
- Cost of living: 41.4% above U.S. average
- City population: 63,168
- Median household income: $154,559
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $109,306
- Median home price: $821,558
- Median monthly rent: $2,675
- Unemployment rate: 3.4%
- Poverty rate: 2.8%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.21
Although Bethesda may be small – the entire city is only 13.2 square miles – it has a lot to offer its residents. Despite its proximity to Washington D.C., which is about half an hour away by Metro, Bethesda has enough restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues to keep people busy. Bethesda is car-friendly, but the city is walkable and has access to convenient public transportation, making cars unnecessary. While there are many residents who choose to commute to D.C. for work, there are plenty of job opportunities available in Bethesda. The city is home to Lockheed Martin and Marriott International, which are both Fortune 500 companies. Bethesda is a community of highly educated, socially conscious individuals. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 83.7% of residents hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. In spite of being one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., Bethesda’s median household income is among the highest in the country. Residents earn close to 2.7 times more than the national average. Yet, Bethesda’s health care costs and poverty rate are below the national average by 10.7% and 9% respectively.
13. San Diego, California
- Cost of living: 41.5% above U.S. average
- City population: 1,425,976
- Median household income: $71,535
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $50,554
- Median home price: $804,133
- Median monthly rent: $2,428
- Unemployment rate: 3.3%
- Poverty rate: 14.5%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.19
Sandy beaches and sunny skies lead many to view San Diego as an idyllic place to live. The city’s position on the coast provides residents with a gentle breeze that keeps the city cool enough to enjoy year-round. Residents lead a more laid-back lifestyle, spending their days in t-shirts and flip-flops. Free afternoons are spent surfing, hiking and visiting the famous San Diego Zoo, but when night rolls around, San Diegans take advantage of the city’s robust restaurant and craft beer scene. Many take jobs with the city’s two largest employers, the United States Navy and the University of California, San Diego. While the city has a trolley system, trains and buses, very few residents actually use public transportation. The city is vast and far more accessible by car, but residents’ reliance on vehicles makes parking in the city a nightmare. And residents’ utility bills can come as a shock, being 55% above the national average. Although many residents find budgeting more difficult in San Diego, they cheerfully refer to the high cost of living as “sunshine tax.”
12. Los Angeles, California
- Cost of living: 46.8% above U.S. average
- City population: 3,990,456
- Median household income: $54,501
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $37,126
- Median home price: $823,191
- Median monthly rent: $2,776
- Unemployment rate: 4.1%
- Poverty rate: 20.4%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.19
Though recognized across the globe as the home of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, Los Angeles has many eclectic offerings as the second-largest city in the U.S. It’s comprised of numerous diverse neighborhoods that tout unique personalities ranging from ritzy to bohemian. While the various regions of the city present different lifestyles – urban, suburban and beachy – residents tend to find housing close to where they work since commuting in the city can be a struggle. Historically, Los Angeles has been criticized for its poor public transportation and notorious traffic. The average gallon of gas costs residents $4.02, which is $1.32 more than the national average. But what’s really eye-opening is the fact that Los Angeles’s median household income is $3,151 less than the national average while median home prices and rents are approximately 2.6 and 2.8 times higher. This extreme discrepancy helps explain why the city’s poverty rate is just over 8.6% higher than the nation’s.
11. Orange County, California
- Cost of living: 48.6% above U.S. average
- City population: 3,185,968
- Median household income: $81,851
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $55,081
- Median home price: $970,589
- Median monthly rent: $2,218
- Unemployment rate: 3%
- Poverty rate: 11.5%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.19
Another Southern California favorite, Orange County hosts 42 miles of beaches and 39,000 acres of parks within its 948 square miles. Situated between Los Angeles and San Diego, this sprawling metropolitan area is less crowded and has less traffic than its bordering cities. Similar to LA, Orange County is a patchwork of many cities that each possess their own particular vibe. Among the various communities are Laguna Beach (an artsy village), Newport Beach (a wealthier enclave), Anaheim (the home of Disneyland), Irvine (a business district) and Huntington Beach (a free-spirited surfing destination). Orange County residents take advantage of their sunny climate by spending their time outdoors, hiking along wooden, coastal and mountainous trails or surfing in one of the area’s plentiful beaches. Residents’ total energy costs are nearly 10% lower than the national average, but this is little consolation for the O.C.’s steep housing prices. The median home price in Orange County is over three times the national average, costing residents $658,662 more than the average American.
10. Queens, New York
- Cost of living: 49.6% above U.S. average
- City population: 2,278,906
- Median household income: $62,008
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $41,449
- Median home price: $819,600
- Median monthly rent: $2,818
- Unemployment rate: 3.7%
- Poverty rate: 13.7%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.79
Although it’s the largest of New York’s five boroughs, Queens doesn’t have the glitz or glamour of its better-known neighbors. As the populations of Manhattan and Brooklyn have become increasingly dense and the cost of living exorbitant, more residents have turned to Queens in search of affordable accommodations. The city is very diverse and has a large population of immigrants, but it’s begun to gentrify due to renewed interest. Neighborhoods like Astoria and Forest Hills provide a quieter, more suburban style of living for individuals who spend 45 minutes to an hour on the subway commuting into Manhattan. Long Island City, a neighborhood which is slightly closer to Manhattan, has a big-city feel as it’s populated by luxury high-rises, upscale restaurants, craft breweries and art galleries that overlook the Manhattan skyline. In Queens, the median household income is $4,356 above the national average, but median home prices are also greater than the national average by $507,673.
9. Boston, Massachusetts
- Cost of living: 51.2% above U.S. average
- City population: 694,583
- Median household income: $62,021
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $41,019
- Median home price: $719,537
- Median monthly rent: $3,548
- Unemployment rate: 2.9%
- Poverty rate: 20.5%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.11
Known for its historical roots, world-class universities and often parodied accent, Boston is a lively city filled with colorful characters. For Boston, sports are more than just a past time. The city is filled with avid fans who have nicknamed it “Titletown” due to the repeated success of their many major professional leagues. Boston is also a seafood lover’s dream, serving some of the freshest clams, oysters and lobsters in the country. The weather may be mild in the summer, but snowstorms can be plentiful come winter. Although it is a highly walkable city and has convenient access to trains and buses, gridlock is a growing problem for Boston. While median home prices in Boston are 2.3 times more than the national average, they’re on the more reasonable side compared to other major U.S. cities. That said, the median monthly rent in the city is on the higher end, being 3.6 times what average Americans pay. So Bostonians who rent homes in the city spend about 69% of their household income just to put a roof over their heads.
8. Arlington, Virginia
- Cost of living: 52.2% above U.S. average
- City population: 237,521
- Median household income: $112,138
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $73,678
- Median home price: $918,637
- Median monthly rent: $2,843
- Unemployment rate: 2%
- Poverty rate: 5.7%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $3.94
Situated across the Potomac River from Washington D.C., Arlington is another city favored by those who commute into the nation’s capital for work. While it’s only a few miles away from D.C., it can still take residents around 45 minutes to get there via public transportation. Yet, there are plenty of job opportunities in Arlington for residents to take advantage of, particularly for those interested in working for the government. Arlington residents place a significant emphasis on education, and recently its county has decided to dedicate 47% of their tax revenue to grow their school system. Because of the excellent resources, rigorous academics, high test scores and low student-to-teacher ratios, Arlington public schools are among the best in the country. Residents of Arlington are not only highly educated but also very affluent. Arlington’s high median household income is almost two times the national average, and the city’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country, being 1.8% lower than the U.S. mean.
7. Seattle, Washington
- Cost of living: 56.1% above U.S. average
- City population: 744,955
- Median household income: $79,565
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $50,970
- Median home price: $813,020
- Median monthly rent: $2,642
- Unemployment rate: 3.4%
- Poverty rate: 12.5%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.99
Surrounded by water and majestic mountain ranges, Seattle is one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation thanks to Amazon (and to a lesser degree, Microsoft, which is headquartered in Redmond, Wash.). Since Amazon put down roots in the city just over a decade ago, Seattle has seen a huge shift in its local economy. Wages have increased by almost $21,000 on average while the unemployment rate has dropped by 5.7%. With over 100,000 new residents in Seattle, the housing supply has struggled to keep up despite an explosion of new construction. Given the high demand, housing prices have soared. Currently, Seattle’s median monthly rent is approximately 2.7 times the national average, which marks a considerable jump from a decade ago when rents were only about two times higher. Median home prices have seen a similar change, being 2.6 times higher than the national average now compared to 1.6 times higher a decade ago.
6. Oakland, California
- Cost of living: 57.4% above U.S. average
- City population: 429,082
- Median household income: $63,251
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $40,184
- Median home price: $839,663
- Median monthly rent: $2,572
- Unemployment rate: 2.7%
- Poverty rate: 18.7%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.69
Just across the bay from San Francisco, Oakland has become a popular city for creative types and young professionals who’ve been priced out of the 415. And while San Francisco is a short commute away via the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), Oakland is in no way lacking when it comes to job opportunities. The city is home to a number of large corporations including Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, Southwest Airlines and Pandora. Oakland is a socially and environmentally conscious community that encourages residents to think locally by promoting small businesses, sustainability efforts and urban farming. Although Oakland has been a refuge for artists in the Bay Area, rising housing costs have caused local artists to fear that they’ll soon be pushed out. These concerns are not unfounded: Oakland’s median household income is only $5,600 more than the national average, but residents pay over 2.6 times more than the average American to purchase and rent homes.
5. Washington, District of Columbia
- Cost of living: 63.4% above U.S. average
- City population: 702,455
- Median household income: $77,649
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $47,520
- Median home price: $1,069,329
- Median monthly rent: $3,002
- Unemployment rate: 5.6%
- Poverty rate: 16.6%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.45
Although many working in the nation’s capital used to retreat to the suburbs at the end of the day, Washington D.C. has become a vibrant city with many full-time residents. The city’s population has grown by over 100,000 people in less than a decade. With an abundance of jobs in the government and private sector, D.C. attracts a younger crowd of hardworking individuals. Currently, the median age of D.C.’s residents is 33.9. But as new eager residents continue to arrive in the city, the housing supply has struggled to keep up due to restrictions on building heights. Following a law passed by Congress in 1910, the heights of new developments may not exceed 20 feet more than the width of the street in front of it. Because D.C.’s buildings are restricted to roughly 11 stories, housing costs are high: The median home price in the city is 3.4 times the national average and the median monthly rent is commensurate.
4. Brooklyn, New York
- Cost of living: 83.2% above U.S. average
- City population: 2,582,830
- Median household income: $52,782
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $28,811
- Median home price: $1,346,308
- Median monthly rent: $3,320
- Unemployment rate: 4.4%
- Poverty rate: 19.8%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.68
When the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957, it seemed like the end for the New York borough. Manufacturers moved out of the city, the Navy Yard closed and the streets became overridden by poverty and crime. But as the city entered the new millennium, devastated, industrial warehouses were redeveloped into luxury lofts with exposed brick, floor-to-ceiling windows and spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline. Gradually, Manhattanites began flocking to this outer borough in search of more affordable housing. Two decades later, the median home price in Brooklyn is now 4.3 times the national average. Meaning, Brooklynites spend over $1 million more for their homes. Median monthly rents aren’t much better, being almost 3.4 times the national average. Meanwhile, despite the city’s outrageous housing costs, residents make about $5,000 less than the average American. So, even though Brooklyn’s unemployment rate is marginally higher than the national average by less than 1%, the poverty rate is 8% greater.
3. Honolulu, Hawaii
- Cost of living: 91.4% above U.S. average
- City population: 980,080
- Median household income: $80,078
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $41,838
- Median home price: $1,391,767
- Median monthly rent: $2,941
- Unemployment rate: 3.1%
- Poverty rate: 8.3%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $4.41
Honolulu may seem like a dream with its laid-back lifestyle and incomparable beaches, but its prices are more like a nightmare. A half-gallon of milk costs nearly 2.3 times the national average, while a five-pound bag of potatoes is almost 3.3 times more expensive at $10.28. Although Hawaii is working to increase the amount of food produced in-state, groceries in Honolulu cost 63.5% more than the national average because most food items still need to be shipped or flown into the area. Much of the food imported spoils before reaching the consumer, so waste coupled with the electricity costs required to keep food fresh are driving up the prices even further. Meanwhile, residents pay 94% more for electricity than the average American. Although rents are high, purchase prices for homes are what make Honolulu housing so expensive. The median home price is almost 4.5 times (or $1,079,840) more than the national average due to the fact that Honolulu has low inventory, little new construction and lower-than-average mortgage rates. So while housing is scarce, qualified buyers are plentiful.
2. San Francisco, California
- Cost of living: 101.7% above U.S. average
- City population: 883,305
- Median household income: $96,265
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $47,726
- Median home price: $1,344,190
- Median monthly rent: $4,323
- Unemployment rate: 2.3%
- Poverty rate: 11.7%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.65
San Franciscans may have unusually high salaries, but they also have exorbitant living costs. When San Francisco’s median household income is adjusted by cost of living, it drops by 50%. Yet, both the poverty and unemployment rates in San Francisco are lower than the national average due to the strength of the city’s industries – specifically tourism, technology and financial services. As the 415 has evolved into a tech hub, high-paid software engineers have moved in, driving up housing prices considerably. Now, the median home price in the city is 4.3 times more than the national average while the median monthly rent is almost 4.4 times more. And since San Francisco is surrounded by water, the city can build up but not out. The issue is exacerbated by zoning laws that restrict building heights to 40 feet in most districts. So as the housing supply has struggled to keep up with increased demand, many residents have been priced out and forced to flee the city in search of cheaper pastures.
1. Manhattan, New York
- Cost of living: 142.5% above U.S. average
- City population: 1,628,701
- Median household income: $79,781
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $32,899
- Median home price: $2,045,349
- Median monthly rent: $5,133
- Unemployment rate: 3.8%
- Poverty rate: 16.3%
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.79
In the 19th century, hordes of immigrants flocked to Manhattan, galvanized by the mistaken belief that the streets were paved with gold. Today, the city still attracts swarms of residents (roughly 71,371 residents per square mile) who dream of making it big but find that their relatively modest salaries fail to offset the Big Apple’s extravagant living expenses. Manhattan’s median household income is just $22,129 above the national average, but it falls by 41% when adjusted by the cost of living. While everything in this borough is pricey, it’s the housing market that really makes Manhattan prices crippling for individuals. The purchase price of homes in Manhattan is 6.5 times what average Americans pay. So the difference between Manhattan’s median home price and the national average is $1,733,422 – this number alone is greater than the median home price of any other city on this list. Manhattan rents are also far more costly than any other city, being 5.2 times the national average.
The Hidden Costs Of City Life
After reviewing the most expensive places to live in the U.S., you probably noticed that housing is the most significant determinant in a city’s cost of living. Cities’ dense populations put an enormous strain on the housing supply. Since demand is so high and residents of these cities tend to make higher salaries, landlords can drive up rents and charge whatever they think residents are able to pay.
This tendency has a tremendous impact on purchasing power. Individuals may make more money by living in more expensive cities, but their income doesn’t go as far because the dollar has less value. The value of the dollar impacts the cost of all goods and services sold in a city. So if a city’s housing costs are excessive, you can be sure that all other expenses are inflated too.
Even when you determine a city’s cost of living by looking at the price of housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services, there are going to be hidden costs involved in city life that go unaccounted for.
When raising a family in one of these cities, the cost of living increases dramatically. In many cities, child care costs can be nearly as debilitating as rent. According to Care.com, the average cost of sending two kids to a child care center in San Diego is $20,036 a year, but this number can be as high as $32,094 in San Francisco.
Parking is another significant fee that’s often disregarded when calculating the transportation costs involved in big-city living. In cities where space is limited, parking can be an enormous drain on residents’ disposable income. According to INRIX, residents of Seattle spend an average of $1,274 a year on parking. In New York City, this number quadruples: Residents of the Big Apple pay a staggering $5,395 a year to park their vehicles.
But not all hidden costs of city life are monetary. To gain a better sense of the burdens of living in an expensive city, you must also consider how much your time and well-being are worth.
Although big cities may provide more job opportunities, residents often find that their salaries don’t compensate for the time they have to spend commuting to work each day. When analyzing the most congested cities in the country, INRIX found that individuals in Los Angeles spend an average of 128 hours a year stuck in traffic. This number may not be surprising given that LA traffic is notorious. But in Boston, a place that doesn’t have the same reputation, residents actually spend an average of 164 hours stuck in their cars.
The most expensive places to live also take an emotional toll on residents. Since life moves faster and money doesn’t go as far, residents tend to experience higher levels of stress.
As a result, the most expensive cities in the U.S. tend to be transient ones, where individuals move out almost as often as they move in. According to a new report from Redfin, 8,543 residents were motivated to leave Washington D.C. in the first quarter of 2019. In New York City, where the cost of living and population are dramatically higher, a whopping 26,938 residents looked into jumping ship.
So, what should we make of these numbers? It’s clear that the most expensive cities in the U.S. have their perks, but they also have drawbacks that can greatly impact your quality of life.
When considering migration, you must reflect on your priorities. You may find that the access and convenience that expensive cities provide outweigh the financial, temporal and emotional costs. If you do decide to pack up and move, be sure to have some savings in place. You may make more money in your new urban surroundings, but your salary won’t go nearly as far. But don’t fret – even in a big city, there are always ways to stretch a budget.
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