What does it cost you to live these days?

Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of...
Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Beautiful but oh so spendy!!! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent New York Times article made clear — again — why living in Manhattan is increasingly for the wealthy:

The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.

Ask people around the country, “Are you middle-class?” and the answer is likely to be yes. But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean.

What many people outside New York don’t know, necessarily, is that many “New Yorkers”, and I include myself in that bunch, have never lived in The City, as we call Manhattan. It’s too damn expensive!

They live on Staten Island or Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn or (as we do) in Westchester or New Jersey or Long Island or Connecticut. We waste hours of our lives trading time for money, commuting an hour or more each way.

Since leaving my hometown, Toronto, in 1986 — where real estate is insanely expensive, (only Vancouver is worse), — I’ve lived in Montreal, a small town in New Hampshire and in suburban New York. I’ve seen huge differences of the cost of living firsthand.

In Toronto, rent/mortgage costs are high, almost no matter where you live. In Montreal I rented a stunning apartment — top floor of a 1930s building, with a working fireplace, elegant windows, two bedrooms, dining room, good-sized kitchen — for $600 a month. It was the 1980s, but my then boyfriend was paying $125 a month to share the entire top floor of an apartment building. I didn’t need a car, food and utilities were reasonable, but the taxes! Holy shit. I moved to Montreal with a $10,000 a year raise, and looked forward to extra income. I only kept $200 a month of that, the taxes were so bad. More to the point, I hated the lack of services I got in return — a high crime rate, pot-holed roads, lousy hospitals and libraries. I moved away within 18 months. (Not to mention a winter that lasted from October to May. Non, merci!)

Rural New Hampshire, with the U.S.’s lowest taxes, was cheap enough, but we needed two working vehicles, plus gas, insurance and maintenance, an expense I never needed in Toronto or Montreal.

Moving to suburban New York, where we bought a one-bedroom 1,000 square foot top-floor apartment, with a balcony, pool and tennis court, allowed us a decent monthly payment, thanks to a 30-year mortgage, all we could then afford on one salary, his, a medical resident.

I still live here, now with my second husband, paying $1,800 a month for mortgage and maintenance combined. That may sound like a fortune, but it’s pennies in this part of the world. We could easily spend that for a tiny studio in Manhattan. He pays $250 a month for his train pass to travel a 40-minute trip one-way into Manhattan.

The larger problem?  Our salaries are stagnant, if not falling. I earned more in 2000 freelance than any year since then.

Gas here in New York is just under $4/gallon — it was 89 cents a gallon in 1988 when I came to the U.S. Food is much more expensive than even two years ago, so we spend about $150+ every week for two people. We do eat meat and I work at home, so I often eat three meals a day out of that.

Our cellphone bill is absurdly high and something we need to lower. Electricity is about $75 a month as is the basic land-line bill. We also pay about $100 for a storage locker and $75 a month for our (unheated, unlit, no automatic door opener) garage.

The local YMCA wants $89 a month, (which I think really expensive) for a monthly single membership. One of the worst issues here? Tolls! It costs $4 each way to cross the cheapest bridge to get into the island of Manhattan, and another is $9 each way. Parking, if you choose a garage in the city, is routinely $25-50 for a few hours, while a parking ticket is more than $100.

These smack-in-the-face costs are only bearable, for me, because I’m self-employed as a writer, and can write most of them off as business expenses.

So why stay?

— My husband has a steady, union-protected job with a pension and a decent salary

— He likes his job

— I have ready access to the editors, agents and others in my industry I need to support my writing career. Online is not enough to build profitable relationships, at least for me

— I enjoy New York City a great deal. I love ready access to Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, fun shops and restaurants and quiet cobble-stoned streets to wander on a fall afternoon

— Where would we go? I have learned (after two deeply disappointing moves to Montreal and New Hampshire) that being happy somewhere is often a complex mix of things: housing (and its cost and quality), access to culture, a liberal (or conservative) environment politically, neighbors who share some of your interests and passions, weather, climate, taxes, government, your job/career/industry.

As several fellow Canadians I know said, “I moved to New York, not the U.S.” I’ve seen a lot of the States, and can appreciate the appeal of many other places here. But almost nowhere has made me feel confident enough to up stakes and start all over again. I was up for a cool job in San Francisco once, but the dotcom collapse ended that. I like L.A. a lot, but Jose refuses. (Next stop? South of France, s’il vous plait!)

— I love the Hudson Valley’s beauty and history

— We have some good friends, finally.

Here’s a fascinating blog post by a Canadian then living in Sardinia, now in the Cayman Islands, about the cost of living there. Many of her followers weighed in, from Hawaii to China.

What are your costs of living these days?

Are you thinking of moving to lower them?

41 thoughts on “What does it cost you to live these days?

  1. I pay a couple thousand every couple of months for tuition and living. However I’m about to move into an apartment with a guy I met through the Jewish organization on campus, which’ll cut down on costs.
    By the way, are any of your editor friends looking for a fiction writer like me?

  2. Dirt cheap where we are now (a college town), within a few miles of my workplace. But soon we’re going to move to one of the most expensive cities on earth…yikes! We’ll go from paying by the month to the week! We’ll dump some costs (like a car) but we’ll take on others (like a council tax). We’ll have to debate whether or not we’ll want things like a TV license, and juggle new sorts of travel expenses. We’ve already agreed that shopping for anything except food is out of the question. Any extra money will go in a travel fund, that’s going to be our indulgence when we get one. We’re good at budgeting but it’s still an intimidating prospect!

    1. London, like NYC, is known for shaking your pockets really hard. I think that many of the galleries and museums (?) are free or have reduced admission days — you must enjoy those. The Tube is crazy expensive. You might enjoy some of the many flea markets. But I find it almost impossible to spend a day in Manhattan that doesn’t loosen $100…a meal or two, the trainfare in, subway or a cab. It all adds up really quickly. But still, what an experience you’ll have!

  3. Lynn Daue

    Our cost of living is astronomical. Our mortgage is over $1800 a month … and that’s considered cheap (ish). Our power bills are thankfully only around $150/month, down from $282 from where we lived before. Gas is roughly $3.30 for the 87 octane, and we have two cars – thankfully, no car payments. We spend $150-200 per week on groceries, plus another $50-100 on meals out. It’s insane.

    1. And the alternative is….? That’s what scares me. The only places where I know we could hugely reduce housing costs are just not places I want to live or could find work that matters to me.

      1. Lynn Daue

        There really isn’t one. The only option I see is to accept the changing landscape and adjust accordingly. For example, my husband worked some magic and occasionally works from home, saving us gas money and frustration with traffic. Sometimes we do a lean week on groceries, either getting creative in the pantry and/or only buying staples like milk and eggs.

        It’s awful, though, that we get used to a certain standard of living and then have to downshift due to circumstances outside of our control. We did it a few years ago, and we’re just now getting used to the idea.

        Or we could move to Colorado. Same lines of work and lots of beauty with a lower cost of living (from what I hear).

      2. It’s not at all what one works one’s ass off for all through life, that’s for sure. I am appalled to be earning less than I made 13 years ago. Nothing costs what it did then…but magazines and papers are either dying or cutting their rates.

  4. I live in the southern part of the Kansas City area. I rent the bottom floor of a two-story Victorian-era house (3 rooms plus kitchen, access to some basement storage, no garage). I pay $550/mo. Water/trash are paid, gas and electric total around $140 (average payment). Cell phone, no land line, is $45 for my share of a two person account. Internet is $28/mo. I spend $20/week at Aldi for my groceries ( but cat food for my two cats, one diabetic, is horribly expensive!) I drive a ’91 Olds 15 minutes each way to both my jobs. I just paid $3.29/gallon tonight. I don’t have any loans at the moment, but have very little savings. All my clothes except underwear and shoes come from Goodwill. But I do get used Birkenstocks on eBay.
    I live in an area with a lot of fantastic cultural attractions, most of which I can’t afford, but at least they are available. I very much wish I were living farther out of the Bible belt (Fred Phelps and other conservative insanity) but without any prospects of work elsewhere, I think I should stay put. I have two library jobs, both of which pay above minimum wage, but even working 53 hours a week doesn’t give me much slack. I do realize how lucky I am, though. I have my family here, and being centrally located does make it a bit easier to travel when I get the chance. Plus I have insurance…
    I guess to answer your question, I don’t think I can move. It’s very difficult to move with two cats anyhow, and I’m in a good location for my jobs even though they are not jobs that will let me advance to a better position (if I pursued a better position I would have to lose the other job with not enough increase in pay to balance it out).
    So I keep trying to sell my artwork to get ahead (not dependable). But I won’t try to downsize any more than I already have. I’d like to save more, but until these cats die, I’m not sure how to do it.

    1. That sounds challenging as hell.

      I knew a woman about a decade ago who was working as a librarian — two, in fact, at my church. The pay was shockingly low, esp. for a job that required (!) a Master’s degree. It’s very frustrating to live in a place with decent culture but not have the means to enjoy it; we are very lucky that Jose has access to cheap tickets for theater, dance and music and I’ve been able to see fantastic Broadway shows (like War Horse) for $35 when the tickets were $65-125 instead. But it’s a rare treat. I spent $67 (!) to see the New York City Ballet last month and came away disappointed. I was extremely spoiled when I lived in Toronto as I used to review ballet and dance and didn’t pay for tickets for years.

      Montreal was the best combination financially — a big salary and very low costs. It’s unfortunate the paper (and the winter) were not a good fit for me long-term.

      1. Oh, I’m not even a librarian. I work as a library page at the county library and as a library clerk in an elementary school. That’s why I’m getting an hourly wage. I could do better elsewhere MAYBE, but the library work fits me in spite of the heavy lifting and too many hours. Spending all those years homeschooling before my divorce without an outside job was in retrospect not a good plan. At least I’m standing on my own two feet. But I don’t have any retirement saved up, so the future is precarious in a lot of ways.

  5. I live with my dad and sister in Nigeria so no rent. That’s a big relief from living in London where you can’t get a half-decent place in a nice neighbourhood that is also central enough for less than $1200 a month. However, I do miss the culture- theatres, shows, night-life, even the simple ability to transport yourself by bike. I often fantasize about moving back but my work is here. If I did move back I would have to shuttle back and forth. Return flights would cost about $1200 on average. I would of course have to transport myself in London so give that $50 for the week. Drinks and eating out could easily come to another $150+, and if I were to crash with a friend or my sort-of girlfriend(as I dream) I would want to chip in for rent and bills coming in at another $300.

    It would be the worst deal I ever made myself, monetarily speaking but I wouldn’t think twice about it if I could afford it. I’ve come to realize that finding a place to live that makes you happy and that is affordable is a very tricky thing.

    My current living costs largely revolve around things that most people out here would consider luxury items. Internet comes in at $114 per month, domestic travel at $100(costs 7 times as much if you fly), food items $120+(I still get food items shipped from the UK but working on adapting soon). I rarely eat out or do anything that is “fun” but if I were to say go out clubbing or go to see performances, I could spend as much as $300 in one night buying drinks(in Nigeria you don’t buy drinks for just yourself, you buy for the whole group and people you don’t even know. Its almost culturally expected from men but of course they also expect something in return. Less so from ladies but I like to pay for myself.)

    1. This is fascinating — comparing NY/Utah/Kansas City and Nigeria (so far!)

      I agree that the balance between where you want to live and where you can afford to live is tricky. I have sometimes wanted to return to Toronto, but was never willing to return and rent yet another apartment. Housing there is so insanely expensive and the quality of much of it very poor for the price. It’s amusing to me that I have a much better deal, I think, living just outside NYC. It’s not what I expected.

      But the niggling costs like tolls and parking really add up and are very annoying.

      I don’t go out in the city that often, but a cocktail can easily run $9 to $15 each. There are free and low-cost things to do, but you have to look hard for them and get out of tourist-y areas. The problem of NY is that the wealthy are so rich that the rest of us are screwed…the economics matter little to people earning millions.

  6. mhasegawa

    Live in Boston which is another expensive city for eating out, parking etc. But there are advantages. We went to one car about 15 years ago and it has been a problem only once or twice. One can always take the T. (public transit). And there are so many things you can do for free: art, concerts, lectures, festivals. If you go to hear free jazz recitals at Berklee or classical at the New England Conservatory, you can then afford a drink or a bite to eat. Now that we are retired, we think about moving once in a while, but we do like living in a city and will likely not leave until we can’t do the steps to our apartment anymore – maybe in 20 years or so!

    1. It’s so true that cities offer a tremendous cultural choices. I love the MFA and always make time to visit it when I come to Boston. I would find it impossible, I think, to live far from a city; when we were in New Hampshire we were two hours from Boston, and could not afford it anyway. It was pretty hellish.

  7. Jess

    I purchased my 425 ft studio apartment in Brooklyn 5 years ago. I recently visited a friend in Colorado. For about 20 grand less than what I paid, they purchased a 2 bedroom home with land and views of the rocky mountains.

    But they have no take-out Chinese restaurants by them… soooo… I win?

    1. I know, right? My sister-in-law lives in a big-ass house near Dallas…and paid less for it than I paid 25 years ago for my apartment. You make your choice(s) and you live with the consequences/pleasures. I could live on pennies in some shack upstate — and die of boredom, professional isolation and loneliness like I did in NH. So, there you go.

  8. Vancouver–Rent: $2,800 (and we’re lucky because it hasn’t been raised in the almost four years we’ve lived here, comparable downtown apartments are now going for $3,200+). Gas: Almost $5/gallon. Pretty much everything else: expensive. Vancouver has many great attributes and it’s very pretty, but the cost of living doesn’t balance. Middle class here means living in one of the burbs–Richmond, Burnaby, Surrey–because you can’t afford to pay millions of dollars for something in the city. Investors rule the roost here. If we had everything that Manhattan has, you wouldn’t hear a peep out of me. But, sigh, that’s just not the case.

    1. Thanks for sharing — I was really hoping you would weigh in on this one as YVR is SO DAMN expensive!!!! I simply cannot fathom how anyone can afford it. And, yes it is gorgeous, but culturally….not nearly enough there going on for my taste. That rent is simply killer.

      Do you think you’ll stay there long term?

      1. No, we don’t plan to stay here forever. Vancouver is also too sleepy for my taste. We’re sort of in a holding pattern at the moment, trying to figure out our next step. Because my husband completed his residency in South Africa, he can’t work in the U.S. without redoing the whole thing. After years of medical school, residency and then exam after exam for full Canadian licensure, you can imagine that spending 3-5 more years in residency (and competing for very limited foreign doctor spots), more exams and huge insurance liabilities are not the most appealing prospects. But we would both prefer to live in the U.S. for a variety of reasons so, unless Obama loosens up on these uber restrictive policies, it looks like that’s the way forward. U.S. doctor shortage + Draconian foreign trained doctor policies = a possible story idea for you?

      2. Hmm, maybe.

        I hear you…the my first husband was an MD so I lived with some of the same stresses. An American, he was in his final year of med school at McGill when we met in Montreal…but he went to NH for residency at Dartmouth. I could not stand rural NH life so we went to NY halfway through it. But he had to leave Canada or go work out in the boonies for years.

  9. In Berlin, I pay €300 rent, including bills every month for a beautiful, spacious room which came fully kitted out with antique furniture, a TV and even a record player. I pay €75 for transport which allows me to ride any buses, trains and trams without limit. I pay about €100 a month on food. I sometimes treat myself to a coffee or cinema trip but otherwise live very frugally. Now, freelancing here would earn you a tiny fraction of what it does in New York, but I think proportionately it works out. I have no family commitments and my big expenses are going to visit my boyfriend in Scotland and my family and friends in Ireland every two or three months. But even then, if my job allowed me to plan ahead, that expense wouldn’t be too great either. Berlin is catching on though and rents are increasing fast as wealthy people from abroad invest here. I probably won’t get such a good deal in September, when my lease is up. But I’m so grateful to be here. Dublin offers a much poorer standard of living, few career opportunities and rents are much higher. I love my country, but graduating into an awful recession and then landing a wonderful opportunity here in Berlin just seems like a no-brainer.

    1. I am dying to visit Berlin and your comment is a fascinating insight into the choices people are having to make in the recession; I heard a BBC report last week about five Spanish nurses moving to Germany because there are simply no jobs for them at home.

      Your transport costs seems very low, as does your food budget. Are there lots of free or low-cost activities to enjoy there as well?

  10. If someone is making a nice, or very nice, living doing what they love to do, well, I don’t think they’ll top that arrangement, regardless of where they live. A person can be thankful and appreciative for what they have without being complacent. As to the high prices, low salaries,
    etc… I don’t like it, or agree with it, but that’s free enterprise and capitalism. And, I certainly don’t mean this to be critical of what’s going on as time passes, but maybe it’s time for all of us to count our blessings instead of the cost of living. Ask the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the parents of the kids in Newtown, Ct., the survivors of Katrina what it cost to live these days…

    1. “that’s free enterprise and capitalism”…aka greed run riot. Just because people need to make a profit from our labor (as they do), there is a limit to how crappily we should be paid for bringing them these profits through our skills. Corporate profits are at all-time highs and hiring is stagnant as are many people’s wages and freelance incomes. I weary of greed.

      It’s very difficult for victims of natural disasters and shootings, but, with all due respect, that’s another issue from having an important larger conversation about how we are surviving, or not, in a time of hideous income inequality. I want to hear how people are dealing and coping, not just wring my hands over tragedies. I do take your point, but to me that is a separate conversation.

  11. Montreal can still be had on the cheap! When I left last year I was paying $530/month for a two bedroom in a very central (if a bit impoverished) ‘hood. Probably the reason it’s such a haven for great art and great artist. With the new PQ government, rents are sure to stay low.

    1. That’s astonishing — but not for Montreal. I think there is a very clear correlation between cheap cost of living and the quality of creativity possible when you have time and energy to spare — not working like a dog to make a four-figure sum for housing every single month.

      Lucky you!

  12. Life in Zurich was extremely expensive as well (it ranked second on the World’s most expensive cities). But the salaries are high too. My fiancé worked full time as an engineer and I was a freelance teacher there, and we could afford a very comfortable lifestyle and frequent trips abroad.

    Now we’re Christchurch: life is less expensive, but salaries are much lower too. I have a feeling that while we could save quite a lot of money in Switzerland, it will be more challenging here.

    1. It’s interesting how differently people live in different parts of the world! Canadian salaries are now, to my eye, shockingly low in comparison to what some Americans are paid. Much as NYC prices drive me insane, I am still (somehow) able to carve savings out of my income. When I come home to Canada — where we are right now for two weeks — many things seem more expensive, from stamps to magazines, and the 15% HST (tax) is a big hit on the wallet.

  13. I live in Vancouver; last week voted the most expensive city in the world after Hong Kong. A magnificent place on a sunny day, sadly boring as hell. My home is rented, we pay an astoundingly low $2000.00 a month for a large house in a desirable neighbourhood. To put this in perspective, my daughter and her roommates pay $2500,00 a month for a run down, former crack house. You can’t buy a home in Vancouver for under a million dollars.

      1. Let me explain. When Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, wealthy residents panicked and bailed to YVR. There is so much Asian money here Mandarin is an elective in school. On my block at least half of the houses are empty. It’s the same all over the city, purchased by Chinese money because they had to put it somewhere.At the high school my kids attended, of the 2000 students about 300 were not Asian. The parking lot full of Mercedes, BMWs, and Range Rovers.I’m starting to get bulk mail flyers written without any English, Chinese characters only. Condo developments sell out before the ground is even broken.All fueled by Chinese money.Almost half YVR residents do not have English as a first language.

      2. Shriek. I wouldn’t live there for a minute.

        We hate the Chinese today — a lot — as the NYT is reporting that they hacked into the Times’ computers and that of more than 50 reporters’ personal computers in retaliation for a series that portrayed the Chinese leadership negatively. For four months. Including my husband’s work computer.

  14. I posted a while ago about Chinese ghost cities, within half an hour they were on me like white on rice! Rather shameful, as it took the FBI almost 2 hours to compromise my email after I wrote about D.B. Cooper. 🙂

  15. I’ve firmly dug myself into a nice, little rutt in mid-town in Toronto, it cost me more than half of my take-home pay, and it’s tough to keep myself here, but I needed someplace safe, and a place where I didn’t feel like I was being watched. My family lives in a small city near Hamilton, and every time I walk the dog I see the neighbor peeking at me from behind their curtains, watching to see that my dog doesn’t mess on their lawn I guess. I find it so exhausting to be watched like that all the time. I feel so much more comfortable in the city because I feel annonymous here, no one even notices the dog and I, and as I said, it’s safe, I never worry, even if I’m out after dark.

    1. I hear you. I enjoy the anonymity of city life. When I stayed in Port Hope at my Dad’s, a neighbor with clear sightlines commented (!!) on how early I got up. That’s too much observation for my taste.

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