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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Dan Burrows, Contributing Writer
| April 26, 2019
The most expensive U.S. cities are usually expensive for a reason. Residents pay higher living costs in exchange for favorable geography, climate, culture or economic prosperity -- or all of the above. In some cases, however, simple remoteness plays a role. Longer supply lines often translate into higher prices for goods.
To determine just how much the most expensive U.S. cities 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 270 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 U.S. cities.
The Cost of Living Index is based on price data collected during 2018. City-level data on populations, household incomes and home values come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unemployment rates come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the St. Louis Federal Reserve, and represent January 2019 rates. 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: 28.3% above U.S. average
City Population: 31,644
Median Household Income: $60,658 (U.S.: $57,652)
Median Home Value: $199,000 (U.S.: $193,500)
Unemployment Rate: 6.7% (U.S.: 4.0%)
Everything is more expensive in Alaska. Indeed, tiny Fairbanks is the first of three cities in the The Last Frontier State to make the list of America’s priciest places to live. 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, a three-year-long statewide recession, which is projected to end in 2019, gives Fairbanks a comparatively high unemployment rate even as its citizens get no relief from high prices. Groceries are more than 25% above the U.S. national average, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research's Cost of Living Index. Health care is 50% pricier in the city on the Tanana River, while utilities run more than double the average price paid in the lower 48 states.
Cost of Living: 28.9% above U.S. average
City Population: 294,356
Median Household Income: $82,271
Median Home Value: $304,500
Unemployment Rate: 6.3%
Anchorage's remote location and limited local resources mean you'll pay a premium for most goods and services. Add it all up and Anchorage turns out to be one of the pricier U.S. cities in which to live, with living expenses running close to 30% higher than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Groceries are 34% higher than the national average, and housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are 43% higher than the U.S. average. Health care runs 44% above average and utility bills are almost a quarter more expensive than what the average American pays. Lower oil prices have sunk Alaska into its worst recession in 30 years, which explains Anchorage's elevated unemployment rate, though economists expect the state to escape its economic funk by the end of 2019.
Cost of Living: 31% above U.S. average
City Population: 647,805
Median Household Income: $61,532
Median Home Value: $352,700
Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
Oregon's most populous city has long been a magnet for progressive types and folks who love the great outdoors. Portland's quirky charms have made it one of the nation's fastest growing metro areas with a population of more than a million in recent years, and that's put upward pressure on prices. Although home-price inflation has moderated recently, it soared between 2012 and 2017, according to Zillow. As it stands now, housing-related costs in Portland sit 82% 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 17% higher than the national average, while health care is 12% more expensive.
Cost of Living: 34% above U.S. average
City Population: 32,094 million
Median Household Income: $90,749
Median Home Value: $343,100
Unemployment Rate: 5.6%
Everything is more expensive in Juneau, the third and final Alaskan city on our list. Once again, you can chalk it up to the remote location of Alaska’s capital, which is tucked away in the southeast corner of the state hard against the Canadian border. Housing costs 50% more than the U.S. national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Groceries are almost 50% more pricey, utilities are more expensive by about a third and health care runs 53% above the U.S. national average. On the plus side for Juneau, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Alaska is the most tax-friendly state in the union. Not only is there no state income tax, but the government actually pays residents an annual stipend ($1,600 in 2018).
Cost of Living: 44.7% above U.S. average
City Population: 130,824
Median Household Income: $84,893
Median Home Value: $516,000
Unemployment Rate: 4.7%
With its close proximity to New York City, Stamford has long welcomed wealthy commuters who make their livings in the Big Apple. Residents can also 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 and Xerox. Naturally all those high-paying jobs make Stamford and its surrounding area exceedingly pricey. The median home value is 2.7 times the national average. More broadly, housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are more than twice the national average. Residents of this part of the state pay about a fifth more than the average American for health care and transportation too.
Cost of Living: 45.0% above U.S. average
City Population: 160,035
Median Household Income: $93,370
Median Home Value: $537,900
Unemployment Rate: 3.7%
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 takes a big bite. Homeowners and renters in Alexandria pay a whopping 138% 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 7% below the average U.S. price.
Cost of Living: 45.2% above U.S. average
City Population: 63,168
Median Household Income: $154,559
Median Home Value: $877,300
Unemployment Rate: 3.6%
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 8%. The biggest line item contributing to Bethesda's high cost of living? No surprisingly it's housing. Renters and homeowners shell out 131% more for their dwellings than the average American. Indeed, median home values in Bethesda are among the highest in the country.
Cost of Living: 47.0% above U.S. average
City Population: 1.4 million
Median Household Income: $71,535
Median Home Value: $523,600
Unemployment Rate: 3.8%
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 and the University of California, San Diego. So what's not to like? Living in San Diego can really stretch a budget. Housing costs are 130% above the national average, while transportation costs are higher by more than a fifth.
Cost of Living: 48.2% above U.S. average
City Population: 4.0 million
Median Household Income: $54,501
Median Home Value: $549,800
Unemployment Rate: 4.5%
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. Despite high living expenses, median incomes are roughly $3,000 below 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 19% above the national average.
Cost of Living: 49.8% above U.S. average
City Population: 3.2 million
Median Household Income: $81,851
Median Home Value: $620,500
Unemployment Rate: 3.3%
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: $1.7 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 $938,441, according to the Cost of Living Index. Only San Francisco, New York City and Honolulu boast higher average home prices. Somewhat surprisingly, Orange County’s living expense excluding housing aren’t too much above what average Americans pay.
Cost of Living: 50.0% above U.S. average
City Population: 685,094
Median Household Income: $62,021
Median Home Value: $455,100
Unemployment Rate: 3.2%
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 just 9% above the national average in Boston, less than residents of many other cities on this list pay. The median home value, while high relative to the U.S. median, is low relative to comparable major cities.
Cost of Living: 52.6% above U.S. average
City Population: 2.4 million
Median Household Income: $62,008
Median Home Value: $481,300
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 more than double the national average and groceries are more than a fifth more expensive. Perhaps the toughest break? Median household income is only about $4,400 above the national average, but the median home value is almost $288,000 greater than the national average. As for renters, people in Queens pay average monthly rent of $3,050, or three times as much as the average American.
Cost of Living: 53.1% above U.S. average
City Population: 234,965
Median Household Income: $112,138
Median Home Value: $643,300
Unemployment Rate: 2.3%
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 2.5 times higher than the national average. Groceries are about 25% 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 8% cheaper in Arlington.
Cost of Living: 54.5% above U.S. average
City Population: 425,195
Median Household Income: $63,251
Median Home Value: $564,500
Unemployment Rate: 3.1%
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: The median household income in Oakland is only about $5,600 higher than the U.S. median, yet median home values are nearly three times the U.S median. Oakland home prices slipped 1% over the past year, but they're expected to climb 2.5% in the next 12 months, according to Zillow estimates.
Cost of Living: 54.8% above U.S. average
City Population: 724,745
Median Household Income: $79,565
Median Home Value: $537,800
Coffee isn't the only thing that's strong in Seattle. The local economy is, too, and that's putting upward pressure on prices. As one of the nation's fastest growing cities, Seattle's housing market is hot, driven in part by a booming tech scene. (Microsoft and Amazon are both based in the area, as are many smaller high-tech companies.) 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 0.2% over the next 12 months.
Cost of Living: 62.6% above U.S. average
City Population: 693,972
Median Household Income: $77,649
Median Home Value: $537,400
Unemployment Rate: 5.4%
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 2.7 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. A wide-ranging bus and metro system makes getting to and around the District of Columbia affordable. The Circulator bus, for example, is free and its routes reach popular spots including Georgetown, Union Station and the National Mall. Numerous museums and historical sites are free to visit.
Cost of Living: 81.7% above U.S. average
City Population: 2.6 million
Median Household Income: $52,782
Median Home Value: $623,900
Unemployment Rate: 5.0%
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 more than four times the national average. And yet, the median household income in Brooklyn is almost $5,000 below the U.S. median and $27,000 below the median household income in Manhattan.
Cost of Living: 89.7% above U.S. average
City Population: 988,650
Median Household Income: $80,078
Median Home Value: $626,400
Unemployment Rate: 2.7%
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 40% more expensive than the U.S. national average, while eggs are more than twice the price. Even bananas go for over two times the national average. As for energy prices, gasoline is about 36% pricier in Honolulu than it is in the continental U.S.
Cost of Living: 96.3% above U.S. average
City Population: 884,363
Median Household Income: $96,265
Median Home Value: $927,400
Unemployment Rate: 2.6%
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 $1.2 million in San Francisco, according to the Cost of Living Index, and the median home value is the highest among the 20 most expensive U.S. cities ranked here. Renters fare little better. The average rent for an apartment in San Francisco is $3,821 a month. That's about 3.5 times the national average.
Cost of Living: 148.5% above U.S. average
City Population: 1.7 million
Median Household Income: $79,781
Median Home Value: $915,300
Unemployment Rate: 4.4%
If you've ever been to Manhattan, you don't need us to tell you that it's an expensive place to visit. 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 $4,888 a month, blowing away every other city tracked by the Cost of Living Index. The budget-busting doesn't stop there. Residents pay a premium of almost 40% at the grocery store, while transportation is 27% above average. Want to see a movie? Ticket prices are nearly 60% higher, on average, than is the norm in the rest of the country. Oh, and you'll need to like crowds if you hope to make it in the Big Apple: Manhattan packs in more than 69,000 residents per square mile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.