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?