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September 25, 2006


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Well, in theory you *may* be right, but real life speaks volumes. I live in SF and know I have a much better quality of life (and more money in the bank) than if I lived in Houston. While housing prices are very expensive, you do not need a car to live here. That alone saves hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime. No car (or two or three), no insurance, no gas, no maintenence. Public transportation is superb here --something you only get in NYC or Chicago. Every other city and suburb FORCES you to own a car.

I happen to work in an industry where I could work anywhere, but I choose to live here. The air is cleaner, the property taxes and utility bills are certainly lower than Houston, I don't have to own a car, the people are diverse, and it's a beautiful setting. Carmel, the Wine Country, Big Sur, etc. are all less than two hours away. It's a no-brainer.

You may have a life you prefer, but there's no denying that it's much more expensive to live in SF than in Houston.

Yes, there are some savings, but you need a lot more than the ones mentioned to overcome the price of real estate, tax rates, and costs of basic items that are much, much higher in SF.

But what's the big deal anyway? That's your choice, which is fine for you. But as a reasonable, thinking adult, you must admit that your choice of cities IS more expensive than most other alternatives.

I have friends in Houston. I've been there a number of times. There's a lot to like about the city.

But I suspect the relatively high salaries there also include a premium for dealing with the highways, which are insane, and the heat, which is even worse. (And my area isn't exactly zephyr breezes in the summer to begin with.)

Also, I can assure you that there are fields in which the vast majority of the work is done in large metro areas. My job happens to be one of them, and if I were to move to one of the three(?) other cities with any depth of employment, I'd actually be moving to a higher cost-of-living area, rather than the reverse. I hope this doesn't sound defensive, because I know I pay more to live here and accepted that long ago. But this job and this town go together.

I would just point out that if you are going to move to a less expensive city, you must first live in a more expensive one. For this reason I would recommend starting out in the most expensive one you prefer and, after building your career, then moving to a less expensive one. You can frequently keep your higher pay as well as have lower costs. Unless you decide you can't live anywhere else, that is.

I just made the move from Boston to San Francisco. In the move, I got an immediate 25% raise that I couldn't get in Boston and should have gotten about 15% more (according to many sources), but I wanted to begin work quickly and not wait the optimum offer.

Furthermore, my fiance's housing allowance (military) nearly doubled and it's tax free. That increase alone is enough to pay for our rent in full - (Housing is actually the same).

I think San Francisco's rating is a little over done. I think it makes the assumption that you buy a home or something. There's a vast disparity between the buying and the renting here. I know that all the other costs of living are pretty standard. They aren't even much more than mid-west when I was there - maybe about 10% if that.

Dear FMF,

I hate you. Hate! This post could have been written to specifically shatter all my dreams. It's almost eery. My annual household income is almost exactly $60,000. I live in a very affordable city (Philadelphia). And I desperately want to move to the SF Bay Area. I keep telling my spouse that our salaries would be 50% higher there so the decrease in our quality of life wouldn't be too bad. He's been skeptical about that for a long time. Seems he was right.

Grrr. Thanks for nothing.

But what a great post.

Awesome post. I really wish more people would think about lower COLA. DH and I are dying to move to a cheaper area. We are hoping to move somewhere lower than where we live. I know that if we do, we'll be so much better off. Our fixed costs will be lower. And so we able to save more because of it! Cheers.

Totally agree with Lazy Man. In the SF Bay Area cost of living is not bad if you rent, and with the salaries here being some of the highest in the nation, you can do quite well. When it comes to buying a home in this market, now that is a different story, but overall these numbers don't seen to take into account the numerous lifestyles possible in this area. You can live very cheaply here, esp. with a roommate and enjoy a very high quality of life due to the natural beauty, cultural resources, public transportation, and high salary.

The cost of food and other expenses are similar to other places; there are all sorts of free activities for entertainment and recreation that you may not have access to in many cheaper places; and it's much easier to find more creative (and thus cheaper) living situations here than in some other areas.

For example, we found cheaper rent here than when we lived in a suburban area on the East Coast that is considered to have much cheaper cost of living that the Bay Area. There, we paid more for space we didn't need, because we couldn't find anything suitable for us that wasn't too big. Here there is much more variety in available housing and our rent went down by finding a smaller place that was right for us while our salaries increased and we did much better overall.

I think all those stats might make sense if you are buying a home, but not if you rent. For ex. research I did on our fields in Austin show our rent would be hardly cheaper but our salaries would be significantly lower and with far fewer jobs to choose from. So though cost of living in supposedly lower according to the stats in reality it would be a bad move for us financially, unless we intended to buy there.

Average Housing costs of Houston and SF according to
Houston 115k
SF 750k

Cost of living looks the same to me - NOT!

Most people don't want to rent nor have a "roommate". However, that's obviously not the case for SF people.

This analysis, while useful, it is not infallable.

I could have lived in city A and made Y dollars or I could have lived in city B and made Y+50 dollars. City B had an on average 33% higher cost of living.

Now those are dramatic numbers, but the point is this: don't compare the averages, compare what you will actually do. Because, like it or not, you can't save more than your salary. So an absolute dollar advantage does have its advantages. And I just didn't plunk myself down anywhere in City B. I didn't just randomly walk into 33% higher cost of living. I chose my neighborhood and my home and other things on the basis of being able to live on less than what the cost of living suggests I should be able to do. This clearly doesn't work for everyone. But when you are offered an absolute (not relative) dollar difference, it's worth asking whether you could live in a way (given that city's costs) that allows you to take advantage of it.

"Now, think what would happen if you moved from SF to Houston with the same $60,000 national median salary job. This means you'd go from a salary in SF of $72,720 to a salary in Houston of $62,640 (more than a $10k cut in pay) but because of the cost of living in each city, you're $65,520 better off each year!!!! Now, take that over 30 years at a 8% return and it's $7.4 million!"

Explain me how you save $65K job by moving to a $62K job. You are taking imaginary 'savings for comparable standard of living' as real investment cash flow. Completely bogus. I assume you think you can save $500K a year (over 50 million after 30 years!! Blog about it!!) by moving to Subsaharan Africa.

"Quality of life" is all relative. Sure Houston's hot and humid, but consider this... I live right smack in the heart of downtown Houston. I have the NFL, MLB, the Theatre district, a 12-acre park, restaurants, pubs, and sports bars all within blocks from me. The NFL, Texas Medical Center (world's largest by the way), Midtown (more nightlife!), Hermann Park, Rice University, and the Museum district (more than 18 institutions) are all a light rail hop away. Oh yeah, by living in the nation's 3rd largest downtown, I have an 8-minute commute to work by foot. The cost? Just a two-story penthouse 2/2 condo loft with all the upgrades for under $250K. Again, quality of life is relative. I've been to all the major US cities, and I can say, first hand, that there's no other place I would rather live, work, and play, than Houston. Cheers all!

It's all relative. A few years back I was offered to relo and work in SF/San Jose area. Salary would have been $85k. Rent for a 1-BR shoebox apartment - nearly $2000. Today, I pay $1700 for my 2400sf the Midwest. For a similar salary, I could move to the central southeast (such as CLT or ATL) and enjoy even better cola (taxes, home prices, etc), plus more sunshine :) I am sure that places such as Seattle and Portland also have good quality of life for the cost of living. Good post FMF!

I have found the "you make more in XXX" to be for the most part inaccurate.

However, it does seem this way because there are generally more high paying jobs is Boston than in Cinci.

Interesting article. It's a strategy that I've already employed. But I agree with those who have pointed out the faults. First of all if your goal is to get rich, then you need to save not spend. So it is incorrect to apply your full salary to the COLA. As a college graduate it would be a good strategy to get a job in a high cost of living area and live below your means for as long as you can. Then you might move to a lower cost of living area when you are ready to settle down and buy a house. Having a big salary helps when it comes time to negotiate salary with your next potential employer. Or you might invest in a house in the high cost area and keep it a while with the plan of moving later. Just don't buy in a bubble.

Hey guys,

Here's a hint... move overseas to a low cost of living country and keep earning the same salary as you would back in the US (that's the tricky part)- you will save a ton of money.

SE Asia (with the exception of Hong Kong & Singapore) is pretty cheap. You can enjoy champagne on a beer budget!


I employed this strategy when I moved from New York City to Houston. The cost of living is probably a third of what it was in New York. It has allowed me to enjoy some finder things in life that I couldn't enjoy in NYC. The only thing I miss is the streets of NYC, there really is nothing like it. If I had a choice, I would do it all over again. NYC is just too expensive!!!

I agree with the person below..only from an opposite viewpoint cause Im living it!!..I have been in the High desert for over 30 years. I have seen it grow from dirt roads and 1 supermarket to a congested overpopulated area..In that 30 years I have had numerous jobs but they fall by the wayside cause no company wants to do business in the desert!..I am moving to San Diego with $500 and a backpack, but I am transferring thru my job cause I realize now that small towns have nothing to offer..If you wanna make it anywhere and reach your goals, you can only accomplish that in a major city, otherwise you stay where you are.

I definitely plan on moving to Texas from Florida. Not only is the place we have in mind cheaper, there are more job opportunity as well.

Why stop at Houston when you can move to Somalia and "get by" on $11.62 a year...

Or move to the Amazon Jungle or Australian Outback and cut your annual cost of living to Zip...

Either one or dozens to hundreds of other waterless, treeless, flush-toiletless, utility-less "economicaly-diesireable" places are available if your ONLY critieria is financial...

I think you see my point

Carl Street

Every city has its advantages and disadvantages. But it seems to me some cities are catching up later on like Houston. Houston is 4th largest city in the US and it is one of the cheapest. How can a city so big and diverse be cheap at the same time. This is uneblievable.
That is why Houston also has one of the fastest growing population in the US. If population growth stays same, Houston will turn into a zoo like SF or NY in 30 years. Then people will realize another city is big and cheap and they will move to the next one just like what happened to NY in 1960s. This is a trend that will never end.

What great stuff! I thought I was the only one to do analyses like these!

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