One of the first things you might do when thinking about moving (or actually moving) to a new place is get a rough estimate of how much it costs to live there.
Any number of cost-of-living calculators might help you find that out, considering how far your current salary might go, or even comparing the costs of groceries. But if you want to project a little farther into the future, try taking a look at the Economic Policy Institute's (EPI) budget fact sheets and family budget calculator.
The EPI's data measures how much money a family might need "in order to attain a modest yet adequate standard of living." You might be surprised at how much your financial outlook changes as your household grows.
Elise Gould, a senior economist at EPI, and Zane Mokhiber, a research assistant at the organization, point out three key areas to keep in mind.
EPI releases new family budget data roughly every two years, and a lot can change in that time. One thing that has remained consistent across states, Gould says, is the astronomical cost of childcare.
"We have the dual problem where childcare actually should cost a certain amount of money because you want to pay workers well and provide high-quality care to children, but at the same times, families' incomes have not kept up with those rising costs," she explains. "People start saving for college when their kids are really young, but when do you start saving for the cost of childcare, especially for an infant, which can be more than college for some. Even public universities can be less expensive than the cost of full-time, full-year infant care."
Additionally, looking at the New York metro area, for example, going from a two-adult household with no children to a two-adult household with two children more than doubles the cost of living, with the biggest increases in food, childcare, healthcare, and taxes.
New York and Washington, D.C. residents may justifiably complain about their beat up transit systems, but having a wide-reaching public transportation option can help defray one of the major costs of living in a city — sometimes.
This year, EPI partnered with the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) to come up with figures for Americans' transportation costs. Mokhiber says the nonprofit helped them come up with a more comprehensive look at this expense, which has nuances that drivers and underground dwellers alike can overlook.
"The cost of auto ownership is really very high, and I think a lot of people just look at just car payments and gas," he says. "Regular maintenance, insurance, and general wear and tear have to be taken into account and like you mention, especially in rural areas where you kind of have to own a car."
Even if you don't live in a more remote location, choosing to reside farther away from city centers can take an economic toll, Gould adds. (Think of NYC's multi-fare riders.) "When you think about where some people have to live to get more affordable rents, sometimes they might have to travel farther to get places" — and pay several times over as a result.
Savings & Debt
A glaring omission in EPI's data is savings. Gould says that was intentional — but is not out of mind.
"These are really basic family budgets in the sense that there's no [section for] savings or paying off student loans — just your ability to live paycheck to paycheck and pay your bills. We don't call these 'secure budgets' because you would need to have that savings for that," she says.
As a result, Gould urges people to think about their take-home pay and whether that would give them the savings they would need to pay off any loans, have an emergency fund, or support themselves in the event of a job loss. Those costs will be individualized but are just as important.
And on a macro level, think about who does business in your community and how that might impact you, she adds. "If you're in a city and are trying to decide whether you think it's a good idea to spend tax dollars enticing [certain] businesses or not, you would want to consider the kinds of wages that would help families make ends meet," Gould says. "Think: In this area, why should we spend tax dollars encouraging businesses to come to town that don’t pay enough for families to be able to support themselves?"
You can take that question outside of your household, whatever its size, and to your community board, in some cases, to chew on.
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