The most expensive American cities are costly for a good reason – several, really. Residents are willing to pay extra for everything from housing to food to gas if it allows them to live someplace with great weather. Others are looking for cosmopolitan living, with a host of theater, restaurant and other cultural options on tap.
However, in some cases (cough, Alaska), simple remoteness plays a role. When pretty much everything has to be imported over long supply lines, prices are bound to be higher.
To determine just how much the most expensive cities in the U.S. can really cost, we turned to the latest data from the Council for Community and Economic Research. Its Cost of Living Index measures prices in 256 urban areas for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services (such as getting your hair done or going to a movie). We also gathered data on household incomes, home values and unemployment rates for each city to provide additional insights into the true cost of living for typical residents.
Take a closer look at the 20 most expensive cities in the U.S.
The Cost of Living Index is based on price data collected during the first quarter of 2020. City-level data on City Populations, household incomes and home values come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unemployment rates come from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, as of May 2020. For the purposes of finalizing this list, the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens were treated as separate cities.
- Cost of living: 24.4% above U.S. average
- City population: 291,538
- Median household income: $83,648 (U.S.: $61,937)
- Median home value: $321,300 (U.S.: $229,700)
- Unemployment rate: 13.0% (U.S.: 11.1%)
Everything is more expensive in Alaska. Indeed, Anchorage is the first of two cities in The Last Frontier State to make the list of the most expensive cities in the U.S. Alaska's remote location is to blame.
Anchorage’s living expenses run close to 25% higher than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Groceries are almost a third higher than the national average, and housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are 35% higher than the U.S. median. Health care runs 44% above average, and utility bills are 27% more expensive than what the typical American pays.
More difficult still: Alaska was just coming out of its worst recession in 30 years when COVID-19 hit; the resultant freefall in oil prices pushed the state back over the edge.
Bergen County and Passaic County, N.J.
- Cost of living: 26.6% above U.S. average
- City population: 936,692*
- Median household income: $100,361*
- Median home value: $476,200*
- Unemployment rate: 18.2%
Folks pay a premium to live and work close to New York City. Just ask the good people of Bergen and Passaic counties in New Jersey. A short hop over the Hudson River connects residents to upper Manhattan, and they have the receipts to prove it.
The cost of living in Bergen cities such as Fort Lee or Englewood Cliffs (the home of CNBC) is about 27% higher than the national average. Not all costs are so onerous, however. Utilities and transportation are only 4% and 5% more expensive, respectively. (The bulleted figures above refer to Bergen County only.)
Although Bergen and Passaic counties are pricey by national standards, in the aggregate they're comparatively affordable for a suburb so close to New York City.
* Refers to Bergen County only. Passaic is the smaller of the two counties, with a population of 503,310 and a median household income of just $75,259. Housing prices are more reasonable in Passaic with a median home value of $351,500.
- Cost of living: 27.9% above U.S. average
- City population: 31,677
- Median household income: $61,665
- Median home value: $201,100
- Unemployment rate: 10.4%
Tiny Fairbanks is the second Alaskan city to count among the most expensive places to live. Once again, Alaska's remote location is to blame.
On the plus side, Alaska ranks in the top 10 when it comes to the highest concentration of millionaire households in the U.S., thanks in no small part to its oil wealth. Unfortunately, the Great Alaska Recession that started in 2014 shows no sign of abating thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
Compounding the pain, the long economic slump hasn't given citizens a break on prices. Groceries are more than 23% above the U.S. national average, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research's Cost of Living Index. Health care is 55% pricier in the city on the Tanana River, while utilities are 118% more than the average price paid in the lower 48 states.
- Cost of living: 34.3% above U.S. average
- City population: 652,573
- Median household income: $73,097
- Median home value: $451,000
- Unemployment rate: 11.4%
Oregon's most populous city has long been a magnet for progressive types and folks who love living near the great outdoors. Portland's quirky charms have made it one of the nation's fastest growing urban areas with a metro population of more than a million in recent years, and that has put upward pressure on prices.
Although home-price inflation has moderated recently, it soared between 2012 and 2019, according to Zillow. As it stands now, housing-related costs in Portland sit 84.2% above the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index.
Denizens of the Rose City pay up in other ways, too. Transportation-related costs are a third higher than the national average, while health care that's almost 19% more expensive also helps land Portland among the most expensive cities in the U.S.
- Cost of living: 36.4% above U.S. average
- Metro Population: 943,823
- Median household income: $91,079
- Median home value: $435,000
- Unemployment rate: 10.3%
With its close proximity to New York City, Stamford has long welcomed wealthy commuters who make their livings in the Big Apple.
Residents also can earn a good salary closer to home. The metro area, which includes Norwalk and Bridgeport, is the base for many hedge funds as well as prominent public companies such as Priceline parent Booking Holdings (BKNG (opens in new tab)) and Xerox (XRX (opens in new tab)).
Naturally, all those high-paying jobs make Stamford and its surrounding area exceedingly pricey. The median home value is almost two times the national average. More broadly, housing-related expenses (including rents and mortgages) are 89% higher than the national average.
Residents of this part of the state pay significantly more than the average American for transportation, groceries and health care too.
- Cost of living: 40.0% above U.S. average
- City population: 160,530
- Median household income: $101,215
- Median home value: $561,800
- Unemployment rate: 8.3%
Washington, D.C., and its close-in suburbs like Alexandria are a magnet for the highly educated seeking high-powered jobs. Naturally, many of those ambitious folks are highly paid, and the region’s prices reflect that.
Although costs for transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services are only slightly higher than national averages, housing is what puts D.C. among the most expensive cities to live in the U.S. Homeowners and renters in Alexandria pay a whopping 125% more than the average American when it comes to keeping a roof over their heads.
They do, however, get a break on their utility bills, which run about 3% below the average U.S. price.
- Cost of living: 41.4% above U.S. average
- City population: 1,425,999
- Median household income: $79,646
- Median home value: $654,700
- Unemployment rate: 13.9%
San Diego, with its miles of beaches and nearly ideal climate, is paradise for those who love the outdoors. Be it surfing, sailing, hiking, biking, golfing or just exploring Balboa Park, this city on the Pacific has something for everyone.
And for those who prefer more sedentary activities, San Diego offers a world-class zoo, museums, professional sports teams and a wide-ranging restaurant scene.
Top employers include the U.S. Navy, Qualcomm (QCOM (opens in new tab)) and the University of California, San Diego.
So what's not to like? Well, living in San Diego can really stretch a budget. Housing costs are more than double the national average, while transportation costs are higher by 30%.
- Cost of living: 45.5% above U.S. average
- City population: 62,448
- Median household income: $159,431
- Median home value: $449,300
- Unemployment rate: 8.1%
What goes for Alexandria goes for Bethesda, too. Residents pay a premium to live in the upscale D.C. suburb, which is home to the National Institutes of Health, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and a number of other prestigious federal government institutions.
Costs for groceries and utilities are essentially in line with national averages, and health care is actually cheaper in Bethesda by almost 13%. The biggest line item contributing to Bethesda's high cost of living? Not surprisingly, it's housing. Renters and homeowners shell out 133% more for their dwellings than the average American.
Transportation, utilities and groceries run anywhere from 10% to 17% higher.
- Cost of living: 46.6% above U.S. average
- City population: 3,990,469
- Median household income: $62,474
- Median home value: $682,400
- Unemployment rate: 19.5%
Few cities can top Los Angeles for excess and glamour, but most of its residents don't work in Hollywood or shop on Rodeo Drive. While high living expenses make L.A. one of the most expensive U.S. cities, median annual incomes are only about $500 above the national average.
And yet the allure of the nation's second-largest city remains strong. From Hollywood to Beverly Hills to Venice Beach, few cities can claim as many famous locales. For those who seek culture beyond the Kardashians, L.A. boasts a number of important museums and the world-class Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Just be forewarned that L.A.'s notorious traffic helps push transportation costs 34% above the national average.
- Cost of living: 47.8% above U.S. average
- City population: 2,278,906
- Median household income: $69,320
- Median home value: $577,400
- Unemployment rate: 21.8%
New Yorkers priced out of Manhattan used to move to Brooklyn. But now Brooklyn is no longer a bargain either, and that has folks flocking to Queens.
The borough once best known for Archie Bunker and the New York Mets is becoming trendier by the day, and prices are following suit. Housing-related costs are much more than double the national average and groceries are pricier by almost a fifth.
Perhaps the toughest break? Median household income is only about $7,400 above the national average, but the median home value is almost $350,000 greater than the national average. As for renters, people in Queens pay average monthly rent of $2,854, or about 2.4 times the national average.
- Cost of living: 48.8% above U.S. average
- City population: 695,926
- Median household income: $71,834
- Median home value: $575,200
- Unemployment rate: 19.8%
With its unparalleled collection of universities, hospitals, historical sites, and tech and biotech employers, it's easy to see why Boston is such an appealing place to live. And while there's no question the city's popularity comes at a high cost, it's not nearly as high as some East Coast cities that are often mentioned in the same breath as Boston.
After all, the high concentrations of students, recent grads and young professionals require some level of affordability to get by while they're starting out. Groceries, for example, run about 10% above the national average in Boston – less than residents of many other cities on this list pay.
Orange County, Calif.
- Cost of living: 50.2% above U.S. average
- City population: 1,704,670
- Median household income: $75,822
- Median home value: $580,100
- Unemployment rate: 13.7%
Orange County, known as The O.C. for short, is synonymous with wealth – so much so there was an entire TV series made about it in the 2000s.
Several large municipalities make up the county, which abuts Los Angeles to the southeast, including Anaheim, Santa Ana and Irvine. But it’s the smaller, tonier enclaves such as Newport Beach (median home value: $1.8 million) that cement Orange County’s reputation for sheltering some of Southern California’s richest and most famous.
In fact, the average home price for all of Orange County sits at $998,256, according to the Cost of Living Index. That makes it the sixth priciest market in the country, and elevates it to the 10 most expensive cities in the U.S.
Somewhat surprisingly, utilities and health care are reasonable compared with the national averages.
- Cost of living: 50.5% above U.S. average
- City population: 237,521
- Median household income: $122,394
- Median home value: $707,000
- Unemployment rate: 5.9%
Arlington, home to the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery, sits just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.
Like Bethesda and Alexandria, this close-in suburb of the nation's capital attracts ambitious, well-paid people. And it has the high cost of living to prove it. Housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are 2.6 times higher than the national average. Groceries are about 27% more expensive.
On the plus side, transportation and health care costs are pretty much in line with what the average American pays, and utilities are about 3% cheaper in Arlington.
- Cost of living: 53.9% above U.S. average
- City population: 429,114
- Median household income: $76,469
- Median home value: $717,700
- Unemployment rate: 12.6%
Oakland anchors one corner of a sort of Bermuda Triangle around San Francisco Bay where affordable prices go missing. The second corner is San Francisco, as famous for its sky-high real estate as it is for Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf. The third corner is Silicon Valley, home to tech giants handing out six-figure salaries like candy on Halloween.
Compared to its neighbors to the west and south, Oakland might seem a bargain. But consider this: Although median household income in Oakland is about 23% higher than the national level, median home values are more than three times the U.S. as a whole.
Oakland home prices rose 5.7% over the past year, but they're expected to decline 1.1% in the next 12 months, according to Zillow estimates. Small relief there.
- Cost of living: 56.7% above U.S. average
- City population: 744,949
- Median household income: $93,481
- Median home value: $758,200
- Unemployment rate: 9.2%
Once upon a time, Seattle's economy was as hot and strong as its coffee, which put relentless upward pressure on prices. COVID-19 put an end to all that, but a booming tech scene still helps to fuel outsized expenses. Microsoft (MSFT (opens in new tab)) and Amazon.com (AMZN (opens in new tab)) are both based in the area, as are many smaller high-tech companies.
Living expenses are what puts Seattle among the most expensive U.S. cities. Housing-related costs for renters and homeowners are more than double the U.S. average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Happily, they appear to have plateaued. Real estate tracker Zillow expects home prices in the Emerald City to slip 1.7% over the next 12 months.
- Cost of living: 60.7% above U.S. average
- City population: 702,455
- Median household income: $85,203
- Median home value: $617,900
- Unemployment rate: 9.0%
The nation's capital is a tale of two cities when it comes to living costs. Housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are by far the most burdensome at 2.8 times the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index, but other expenses aren't too bad. In fact, D.C. health-care costs are slightly below the national average.
Transportation expenses aren't overly onerous, either. A wide-ranging bus and metro system makes getting to and around the District of Columbia affordable. The Circulator bus, for example, costs just $1 and its routes reach popular spots including Georgetown, Union Station and the National Mall.
Numerous museums and historical sites are free to visit, too.
- Cost of living: 80.5% above U.S. average
- City population: 2,582,830
- Median household income: $61,220
- Median home value: $759,400
- Unemployment rate: 20.5%
Technically, Brooklyn is one of the five boroughs that make up New York City, but in recent years it has emerged as something of a metropolis onto itself. Indeed, if Brooklyn were an independent city, its population would be on par with Chicago, the third-largest city in the nation.
Not so long ago, Brooklyn was considered a viable alternative for those who couldn't afford to live in Manhattan. Not anymore. Housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are 240% higher than the national average.
And yet, the median household income in Brooklyn is actually lower than the U.S. median. It's also $24,000 below the median household income in Manhattan.
- Cost of living: 94.7% above U.S. average
- City population: 883,305
- Median household income: $112,376
- Median home value: $1,195,700
- Unemployment rate: 12.5%
Years of relentless growth driven by high-paid tech workers have given San Francisco some of the highest living costs in the country, meaning even those with fat paychecks can struggle to make ends meet.
Houses are famously expensive – an obstacle for aspiring homeowners. The average home price is a staggering $1.3 million in San Francisco, according to the Cost of Living Index, and the median home value is the highest among the 20 most expensive cities in the U.S.
Renters fare little better. The average rent for an apartment in San Francisco is $4,140 a month. That's about 3.5 times the national average.
- Cost of living: 97.6% above U.S. average
- City population: 347,403
- Median household income: $71,247
- Median home value: $705,400
- Unemployment rate: 12.5%
To enjoy the perks of living in such a remote Pacific paradise, Honolulu residents pay more than they would on the mainland for pretty much everything – and it's not hard to understand why. Most goods sold in Hawaii must arrive either by boat or by plane, which jacks up the price considerably.
Honolulu has the most expensive groceries of all 270 urban areas surveyed for the Cost of Living Index. A can of tuna, for example, is 38% more expensive than the U.S. national average, while eggs are nearly three times the price. Even bananas go for nearly three times the national average.
Bills take a big bite as well. Utilities are twice as pricey as they are on the U.S. mainland.
- Cost of living: 145.7% above U.S. average
- City population: 1,628,701
- Median household income: $85,066
- Median home value: $1,013,400
- Unemployment rate: 16.0%
If you've ever been to Manhattan, you don't need us to tell you that it's an expensive place to visit.
But it’s even more expensive to live there.
With space at a premium and location paramount, the median home value in Manhattan is second only to San Francisco on our list of expensive cities. Typical rent for an apartment averages a stunning $5,102 a month, blowing away every other city tracked by the Cost of Living Index. Meanwhile, the average home price is $2.2 million.
The budget-busting doesn't stop there. Residents pay a premium of 44% at the grocery store, while transportation is 47% above average. Want to see a movie? Ticket prices are 50% higher, on average, than is the norm in the rest of the country. All of this conspires to make Manhattan the most expensive city in the U.S.
Oh, and you'll need to like crowds if you hope to make it in the Big Apple: Manhattan packs in 71,886 residents per square mile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Dan Burrows is Kiplinger's senior investing writer, having joined the august publication full time in 2016.
A long-time financial journalist, Dan is a veteran of SmartMoney, MarketWatch, CBS MoneyWatch, InvestorPlace and DailyFinance. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Consumer Reports, Senior Executive and Boston magazine, and his stories have appeared in the New York Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News and Investor's Business Daily, among other publications. As a senior writer at AOL's DailyFinance, Dan reported market news from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and hosted a weekly video segment on equities.
Once upon a time – before his days as a financial reporter and assistant financial editor at legendary fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily – Dan worked for Spy magazine, scribbled away at Time Inc. and contributed to Maxim magazine back when lad mags were a thing. He's also written for Esquire magazine's Dubious Achievements Awards.
In his current role at Kiplinger, Dan writes about equities, fixed income, currencies, commodities, funds, macroeconomics and more.
Dan holds a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College and a master's degree from Columbia University.
Disclosure: Dan does not trade stocks or other securities. Rather, he dollar-cost averages into cheap funds and index funds and holds them forever in tax-advantaged accounts.
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