Be Curious! / Data

What’s It Gonna Run You?

I live in Austin, but the company for which I work is back east in the DC area. I like DC, too, but I don’t think I’d enjoy the cost of living. It’s high–and higher than I thought, according to, a site which compares everything from the cost of housing to a hamburger and a Coke.


A task for this badge asks scouts to guesstimate how much it costs for an adult or family to live today.  With families nationwide watching every penny that comes in and goes it, this task seemed like a particularly good area of study this week as Congress slogs over the nation’s budget.

Of course, prices and incomes vary according to region, so I took this opportunity to compare the costs of living in all the cities in which I’ve lived, as well as those areas I’ve visited in the last year or expect to visit soon.

In the chart below, cities run left to right based on 2010 home prices — highest to lowest. The red areas indicate the city with the highest cost of living for that product or service; the green represents the lowest; and, the yellow represents the city which is closest to the average of all the areas listed.

Don’t think you’re surprised to see that NYC is gonna set you back some serious coin. I loved living there in the 80s-90s, and it felt outrageously expensive then, but I can’t imagine how twenty-somethings can pull it off anymore. I was surprised that DC has edged out L.A.

But can I just point out that Austin is really affordable based on these measurements. It costs less to live here than it costs to live in Lancaster, PA (where I was pretty much raised), and that was the biggest shocker to me — that, and the fact that Atlanta is not the place to get the cheapest Coke.

Focusing only on cost of living doesn’t take the quality or standard of living into account, however. For that, you have to look at schools, recreation, parks,  health care, services — all of those things that make it worthwhile to step outside your door each day.

So here are a few recent “liveability” measurements, and their sources:

Ten Brainiest Cities in U.S.: This captures a list of cities to which our most well-educated young people are flocking. In addition to affordability, I think it’s interesting to note that we’re looking mostly at warmer climates here. (Source: Forbes, February 2011)

  1. New Orleans, LA
  2. Raleigh, NC
  3. Austin, TX
  4. Nashville, TN
  5. Kansas City, MO
  6. Birmingham, AL
  7. San Diego, CA
  8. Denver, CO
  9. Columbus, OK
  10. Seattle, WA

Best Big Cities for Jobs: Whatever else we can say about Texas (a lot, not all good), business loves the breaks it gets from this state. Our unemployment rate was 8.3 as of December 2010, slightly better than the national average.  (Source: Forbes, April 2010)

  1. Austin, TX
  2. San Antonio, TX
  3. Houston, TX
  4. Northern VA
  5. Dallas, TX
  6. Washington, DC
  7. Fort Worth, TX
  8. Raleigh, NC
  9. Omaha, NE
  10. New York, NY

But What About the Rest?

A low cost of living is pretty meaningless if you can’t afford basic services like health care. This is where a state like Texas (kind to businesses, less so to individuals), falls woefully short. Texas ranks dead last in the number of uninsured — one in four Texans have no health coverage (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation).

And as for public education? As I write this, the Austin Independent School District is proposing 1,000 new layoffs to address a budget shortfall. Schools — some good ones — are set to close, and teachers — some great ones — will probably be forced out and not come back to the classroom.

This is hardly unique, but it appears as though our state wasn’t as “recession-proof” as our governor has claimed. Yes, we have low taxes, but we also have some of the weakest public and safety net services in the country.

And the point of all this?

The true cost of living goes well beyond the price of goods and services. These numbers need to be balanced with those “priceless” qualities that match our values and needs and priorities, whatever they may be — good education, affordable healthcare, relative safety, great parks, world-class arts and entertainment.

And on balance, I’m pretty sure we’re not leaving Austin any time soon. Plus, we’ve got the largest urban bat colony in North America. That should count for something, no?


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