There’s no doubt about it. Living a nice life in the United States costs money. But how much exactly? How much money is enough to make you happy? That seems like an impossible question. Not least because there are a few things that make the concept hard to standardize.
For a start, there will be huge variations between what individuals consider to be a nice life, not to mention significant differences in what it costs to achieve that in different regions across the nation. Additionally, the easiest thing to build this calculation on is income. And income isn’t always a good indication of how much money you have. Things like inherited wealth or crippling debt can put two households on the same income in very different circumstances.
Money CAN buy you happiness
In an attempt to get an overview, however, I’m going to base my research on the topic from a Princeton University study that investigated how income impacts happiness. The study found that happiness does increase with income, but only up to a certain level. In fact, the correlation seems to stop dead at around $75,000.
Once you’re earning $75,000, there’s a negligible increase in your happiness if you’re then given a pay raise to $100,000. This makes sense given the study was carried out in the U.S., where $75,000 is generally enough to lift you clear of the poverty line and give you reasonable life choices. This means that, at this income level, an extra $25,000 may seem great, but it won’t have anywhere near the impact on your life that a pay increase from $25,000 to $50,000 or $50,000 to $75,000 would.
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Calculating cost of living
The study involved a randomized sample from all 50 states, so I had to make a few more assumptions.
The main one, for the purposes of this comparison, was that $75,000 buys you a nice life if you live in an area with a median cost of living. To find out where that might be I went to numbeo.com, looked at their cost of living index for North America, and picked city number 53 out of a ranked list of 106. (Yes, I realize that my methodology won’t stand up to too much scrutiny, but at this point, I was still doing this for my own personal interest, and I was happy enough with taking an easy route to get a general idea. City number 53 happened to be Olympia, Washington.)
Next, I used this handy cost of living calculator to find out how much a nice life costs in eight different cities across the U.S. based on my previous assumptions. I basically asked it what I would need in each of these cities to maintain a similar lifestyle to the one I was (hypothetically) enjoying in Olympia on my $75,000 salary. I also based it on my own priorities, so seeing as a twice-weekly yoga class is a part of having a nice life for me, that’s factored in. Your priorities may differ. Note that housing costs are averaged throughout the metro area in most cases below, not just within the city limits. Here’s what I found out…
New York (Manhattan): $178,361
It won’t come as any surprise that the cost of a nice life in Manhattan is steep with the median rent for a 2-bed apartment setting you back $5,102, a movie ticket costing over $16, and a yoga class over $20. A 12-inch Pizza Hut pizza costs $12.30.
San Francisco: $140,126
Everything costs more in San Francisco than it does in Olympia, from housing to food to healthcare. The median rent for a 2-bed apartment is $4,128, a movie ticket is around $15, and the average yoga class $21 and change. My pizza now costs me $14.
Costs are dropping, but not by much. Rent is now $3,375 for that 2-bed apartment. A movie ticket is $14.12 and a yoga class $20.20. Pizza for dinner will set me back $11.49. The fall colors are stunning up here though (that’s just a quick reminder that’s there’s more to a nice life than dollars and cents).
Fort Lauderdale, Florida: $82,213
I’ve moved to sunny Florida, where I’ll be living my nice life at the beach whenever possible, but my cost of living is still 10% higher than in Olympia. That two-bed apartment is $2,064, a movie ticket is around $13, and my yoga class is costing me a little over $20. Pizza night is affordable though, at $9.62.
Austin, Texas: $70,798
I’m starting to be able to maintain that nice life for less than I did in Olympia. In Austin, I’m paying $1,520 in rent for my two-bed apartment. My movie ticket costs $11.60. My yoga class is $19.17 and my pizza $11.10.
Pueblo, Colorado: $65,966
Now I’m in Colorado and my nice life includes hiking, camping, fishing, and snow sports. It also includes rent at $1,074, movie visits at $10.82, and yoga classes at a very reasonable $10.00. Pizza night now costs me 8.59.
Savannah, Georgia: $61,555
Costs are dropping even further. In fact, my biggest essential cost (rent) is now just $881. Going to the movie theatre is a fairly reasonable $11.84. My yoga class is $19.05 and that pizza is now $9.99.
Memphis, Tennessee: $57,003
Now I’m living a nice life on a lot less. In Memphis, I’m paying $793 for my two-bed apartment, $12 for my movie ticket, and $17.50 for my yoga class. My pizza is just $8.25.
Caveat: Please use common sense when assessing these figures, especially if you’re considering a move in order to ensure a better quality of life. There are many things that will contribute to a nice life. Your nice life may be big city bustle or being near the mountains. It may be weekends at the lake or at a busy street market.
How much you spend to attain a nice life may also be connected to how much of what you love to do is available for free (or cheap) in your city or region. By including a few inessential costs (movies, yoga, and pizza) I’ve hopefully highlighted that costs for specifics can vary widely, so the cost of what you consider vital to living a nice life is a relevant factor here.
Other factors, such as being near friends and family, can save you money in very concrete ways (think childcare expenditures). So factor in everything before making any sudden moves, but do be aware that exactly what a nice life costs in the U.S. can vary (a lot) from one city to another.
Image Credit: iStock/Sean Pavone