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The Most Expensive U.S. Cities To Live In

10 minute read

Nick Steinberg

By Nick Steinberg

Similar to how you need to have money to make money, there’s a bit of a catch 22 in choosing a place to live. The best financial opportunities are often found in prosperous cities. However, it often costs more to live in one of these places. Finding a balance between living costs and your own income is one of life’s great financial struggles. It only gets further exacerbated if you decide to settle down somewhere with a higher than average cost of living.

Using data from the Council for Community and Economic Research’s Cost of Living Index, we’ve compiled a list of the most expensive cities in the United States to live in right now. This index measures the price of housing, utilities, groceries, transportation, health care, and other goods and services in 270 urban areas across the country. To put it simply, living in certain U.S. cities will cost you a ton of extra cash.

If you’re thinking of relocating but also want to save some money, you should probably avoid the following 15 cities. They have the highest cost of living in the U.S.

15. Portland, Oregon

Cost of Living: 34.3% higher than U.S. average

One of the most popular locations in the Pacific Northwest is Portland, Oregon. It’s great for those who love to be outdoors and has a deserved reputation for being the “Hipster Capital” of North America. Or, in other words, it’s filled with Millennials who love video games, 80s cartoons, and craft beer. So if that’s your scene, you’ll fit in really well.

Unfortunately, it’s not cheap. The median household income is around $73,000, but the average home price is over $450,000. While the overall cost of living in Portland is 34.3% higher than the U.S. average, housing costs are close to 85% higher than the national average.


14. Stamford, Connecticut

Cost of Living: 36.4% higher than U.S. average

For those who can’t afford to live in the hustle and bustle of NYC proper (more on that city in a minute), there’s Stamford, Connecticut. Located roughly an hour (depending on traffic) from downtown Manhattan, Stamford has long been the preferred city for wealthy commuters. Not everyone who lives there works in the Big Apple, though. Stamford is also the home of many financial services firms, such as hedge funds. Xerox and Booking Holdings (parent company of Priceline) both have their head offices there too.

The proximity of high-paying jobs in the Stamford area generally means that everything else is expensive in the area too. The median home value is close to double the national average. Even things like rent, transportation, groceries, and health care are generally more expensive than most other places in the United States.


13. Alexandria, Virginia

Cost of Living: 40.0% higher than U.S. average

For anyone who doesn’t know, Alexandria is basically a suburb of Washington, D.C. (Spoiler alert: D.C. is also on this list.) So it’s no surprise that Alexandria is a high-priced area of highly-educated and mostly wealthier individuals. The availability of government jobs (and industries that support those jobs) means there’s plenty of high earners to pay for the higher-than-average cost of living.

While many everyday expenses in Alexandria are actually close to the national average (transportation, health care, and groceries, for example), it’s primarily booming housing and rental costs that make this D.C. suburb so expensive. It will cost you roughly 125% of the national average just to buy (or rent) a home here.


12. San Diego, California

Cost of Living: 41.4% higher than U.S. average

Many cities in California make this list, and San Diego is just the first. While the sunny West Coast weather and gorgeous beaches make the city an extremely popular choice, it also comes with a bunch of extra expenses. The media house price is over $650,000, pricing out a large portion of the working class.

On the other hand, San Diego’s largest employers are the U.S. Navy, tech giant Qualcomm, and the University of California. So there are obviously some high-paying jobs around to help you support the expensive cost of living. Overall, though, there’s a reason multiple California cities make this list. It’s a highly desirable climate and close to major American industries, like the entertainment and technology sectors. Oh, and it has the highest tax rates out of all the 50 states.


11. Bethesda, Maryland

Cost of Living: 45.5% higher than U.S. average

Remember everything we wrote about Alexandria? Well, most of the same factors apply to Bethesda, Maryland too. Located a short trip from the U.S. capital, this city is home to many well-paid government employees. In addition to federal jobs, Bethesda is also home to the National Institute of Health and the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. In short, there’s plenty of jobs for well-educated doctors, lawyers, medical scientists, and policy makers.

Like most other cities on this list, it’s the housing costs that truly drive up Bethesda’s the cost of living. You’ll pay 133% more, on average, for your house or rent there. Other expenses also run higher than the national average, with one key exception. Due to the extra supply of medical professionals in the area, citizens actually pay 13% less than the national average when it comes to healthcare costs.


10. Los Angeles, California

Cost of Living: 46.6% higher than U.S. average

Home to over four million people, Los Angeles is California’s most populous city. It’s also one of its most expensive. Despite its association with Hollywood glitz and glamor, L.A.’s high cost of living has been boosted not only by rich movie stars, but a healthy manufacturing and tech startup scene as well.

Unfortunately, the median income is $3,000 below the national average. That makes it difficult for most residents to live comfortably. In fact, more than 20% of L.A.’s population lives in poverty. That’s a depressing reflection of the city’s stark economic divide.


9. Boston, Massachusetts

Cost of Living: 48.8% higher than U.S. average

Boasting world class universities and colleges, as well as a thriving economy, Boston is one of the most desirable places to live in the United States. Students from around the world flock to Boston area universities such as Harvard and MIT. Both of those schools routinely rank near the top of the World University Rankings.

Economically, Boston is one of the most prosperous cities on the East Coast. It has a strong presence in industries such as finance, biotechnology, and innovation. The city is home to nearly 2,000 startups. Unsurprisingly, all of these factors have driven Boston’s cost of living up well above the national average. Financial experts suggest you would need a household income of over $84,000 to live well.


8. Orange County, California

Cost of Living: 50.2% higher than U.S. average

This city is so synonymous with wealth and privilege that Fox made a hit TV drama about it. Orange County (or simply “The O.C.”) unsurprisingly lands in the top ten most expensive U.S. cities to live in. Technically, we’re cheating a bit with calling Orange County a city. It’s actually a large metropolitan area consisting of multiple cities.

Anaheim, Santa Ana, Irvine, and Huntington Beach are the county’s most populous cities. Smaller, affluent areas like Newport Beach and Laguna Beach are what truly drive up Orange County’s high cost of living. You’ll find some of the most valuable real estate in the country here. In fact, average home prices in Orange County trail only San Francisco, New York, and Honolulu as the country’s highest.


7. Arlington, Virginia

Cost of Living: 50.5% higher than U.S. average

Arlington isn’t a place that generally springs to mind when one thinks of America’s most expensive places to live. However, when you consider its close proximity to the nation’s capital, Arlington’s high cost of living starts to make sense. Located just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., Arlington is technically a county, not a city. In fact, geographically it’s the smallest self-governing county in the U.S.

Arlington is also home to the Pentagon. Naturally, that means a significant portion of the county’s population is comprised of well-paid government workers. As such, the cost of living in Arlington sits 50.5% higher than the national average. Residents can expect to pay 2.5 times more for housing-related expenses like rent and mortgages.


6. Oakland, California

Cost of Living: 53.9% higher than U.S. average

California’s Bay Area is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States. Although Oakland’s cost of living isn’t as exorbitant as nearby San Francisco, the city’s proximity has driven real estate prices through the roof in recent years. Oakland and other cities in the area have effectively become suburbs for Bay Area tech workers who can’t afford to live in San Francisco.

As a result, the whole area has gentrified considerably. That’s bad news for most Oakland residents. The median household income is less than $10,000 higher than the national median, but home values are nearly three times the U.S. median. At least Oakland residents have a fun baseball team to root for!


5. Seattle, Washington

Cost of Living: 56.7% higher than U.S. average

The city that brought us grunge music and the biggest coffee chain on the planet has become one of the most desirable places in the U.S. to live. Yes, even with all that rain. Seattle is one of America’s fastest-growing cities, with many high tech companies (including giants like Amazon and Microsoft) based in the area. Unfortunately, these economic factors mean you’ll have to pay a premium if you want to live in a city that sports both ocean and mountain views.

The cost of living is 56.7% above the national average. In recent years, Seattle has experienced a luxury real estate boom that has only driven prices up higher. While the market did plateau a bit in 2019, Seattle’s status as one of the most expensive cities isn’t going away anytime soon.


4. Washington, D.C.

Cost of Living: 60.7% higher than U.S. average

With its large number of free museums and national monuments, the nation’s capital makes for a surprisingly affordable vacation destination. Unfortunately, actually living in Washington, D.C. is a wildly different story. Much of Washington’s 68 square miles are occupied by federal agencies, lobbying firms, national parkland, and other government offices.

Due to this (and a number of other factors) housing prices in the capital are obscene. Rent and mortgages run 2.7 times higher than the national average. Although median household income is still quite high at $85,203, you’d need to earn about $143,000 a year to live comfortably.


3. San Francisco, California

Cost of Living: 94.7% higher than U.S. average

San Francisco has become notorious for having an absurdly high cost of living. So it should come as little surprise to see it near the top of this list. Driven by a booming tech industry, San Francisco boasts some of the highest household incomes in the country. However, even programmers pulling in six figure salaries have found themselves priced out of a real estate market where the average home value is around $1.34 million.

Renters don’t have it much better. The average apartment goes for $3,821 a month — about 3.5 times the national average. Those who can make it work in San Fran enjoy the highest quality of living of any city in the United States, but at a cost few can realistically afford.


2. Honolulu, Hawaii

Cost of Living: 97.6% higher than U.S. average

Living in a Pacific island paradise doesn’t come cheap. That’s reflected well in Honolulu’s staggering cost of living, which is 97.6% higher than the national average. Unlike most of the country’s most expensive cities, Honolulu’s high cost of living isn’t centered around housing costs. While rents or mortgages certainly don’t come cheap in Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu residents pay more for pretty much everything.

Due to its remote location, groceries cost 55% more than in the average U.S. city. Likewise, utility costs are 71% higher. Honolulu does enjoy a high median household income and low unemployment rate. However, unless you hold down one of those high-paying jobs, it’s one of the most difficult cities in the country to make ends meet.


1. New York City, NY

Cost of Living: 145.7% higher than U.S. average

Topping the list of the most expensive U.S. cities to live is New York City. You know, the city where a 600 square foot apartment has to be shared between three people just to make the rent affordable. Like any city, what you pay is all about location, location, location. New York takes that popular real estate quote to its most extreme conclusion.

Manhattan is easily the most expensive of New York’s five boroughs. It’s also the most expensive place to live in the entire United States. Manhattan’s cost of living sits 145.7% above the national average, which is reflected in its staggeringly high rent.

Just a few decades ago, relocating to Brooklyn was considered a viable option for those who couldn’t afford Manhattan. While Brooklyn is indeed a less expensive alternative, it’s become a trendy place to live in its own right. It now has a higher cost of living than Washington or Seattle. Queens has since become the place to flock to for New Yorkers who can’t afford Manhattan or Brooklyn. However, even that strategy isn’t exactly viable when you consider rent in Queens is still three times the national average. No matter what part of New York City you live in, life is expensive. However, that fact has done little to deter the 8.3 million people that call it home.

New York City SkylineShutterstock
Nick Steinberg

Freelance Writer

Nick is a writer based in Kitchener, Ontario and has worked in online publishing since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @Nick_Steinberg.


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