Unless you’ve made a big move, from a city with one cost of living to another with a very different one, you might take things like how much you pay in rent, pay for your groceries each week or budget for fall clothes, as a given.
I did, too: Until I traded one coast for another, relocating from New York City to Los Angeles. Aside from the weather, and the little cultural differences (subways vs. convertibles, avocados vs. bagels, Real Housewives of New York vs. Beverly Hills), it was also a financial wake-up call about just how much location, location, location affects your bottom line.
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My research is derived from the five years I spent living in Manhattan before moving to LA, two years ago. I have long been a budget-keeper (budget following is another story …), so I was able to watch my tally of things like weekly food expenses and monthly electric bills change as I shifted from one city to the other.
Here, broken out by the major spending categories of a single, 28-year-old female, are my findings. And yes I know, this tally would look very different if I were, say, the head of a family of four, but right now, as a newly cohabitating woman, here’s an honest look at what I spent while living on each coast.
Housing Winner: L.A. by a Long Shot
I was fortunate to live in a rent-stabilized apartment in New York’s West Village, so my rent was only $1,000 per month. I know: If you live in a part of the country with reasonable housing costs, your jaw just dropped, but trust me, that was incredibly low for Manhattan. That said, my $1,000 afforded me a closet-sized apartment on the 4th floor of a non-elevator building.
My kitchen, living room and dining room were the same 10×10 foot space (kitchdineliveroom?). When I moved to L.A., I spent the exact same $1,000, but here that got me a 12×14 foot bedroom in a massive house with a backyard. Of note: my L.A. house was also in an equally desirable neighborhood as my N.Y.C. apartment.
Dollar for dollar, the spending is the same, but the value is incomparable. There were much cheaper housing options available in L.A.. I chose to live in a big house with friends, but I could have lived in a larger apartment building with a roommate for $800 a month. You’d have to live in the depths of Brooklyn to pay that little in New York.
Transportation Winner: New York, No Contest
This one easily goes to Manhattan. As a New Yorker I walked to work every single day for zero dollars. Even if I had commuted, I would have taken the subway for $104 per month, unlimited.
Meanwhile, in L.A., my current car payment is $205 per month (which is very low compared to most), plus car insurance of $117. We’re already at $322 per month, and I haven’t even factored in the astronomical price of gas. I fill up my Jetta about two and a half times per month. With gas at $4.35 a gallon, that costs me around $56 a tank, or an extra $120 a month in gas!
Food and Drink Winner: It’s a Draw
There are multiple factors to consider. First you’ve got groceries. Here, L.A. wins by mile. My box of Special K used to cost me $5.15 in Manhattan. Today that same box costs me $3.95. Same applies to things like liquor ($9.99 for a six pack of Corona vs. $6.99) and cleaning supplies ($5.99 for a bottle of Tide in New York vs. $4.99 in L.A.).
But NYC wins at fast food. Yes, there are fantastic, healthy options here in L.A. that won’t break the bank, but no city in the world offers the quantity, variety and low prices of grab-and-go food than Manhattan. If I want Thai take-out here in L.A., I go to the one place in my neighborhood that offers that cuisine. If I wanted Thai take-out in New York I walked out my front door, picked a direction, and had three amazing options within a block.
Then we have the cost of dining out: Here, in my opinion, L.A. is the winner. I think this has something to do with the amount of alcohol consumed with a meal in New York versus a meal in L.A. (because people drive!). I also have a feeling there is simply more availability of fresh food in L.A., so mid-level restaurants can offer incredible meals whereas only the more established and expensive restaurants in New York can do the same.
Clothing Winner: L.A. Every Time
Finally, the most important category in the life of any single woman: her clothing budget.
Bottom line: I now have one wardrobe versus two. Yes, we wear boots and jeans in the winter in L.A., and I do keep two warm coats for cold nights, but my wardrobe has been cut in half since I moved to Southern California. Plus, this is a city of minimalism when it comes to fashion, so the crazy, multi-piece outfits of Manhattan nights out have been ditched in favor of flowy tops and casual dresses. The same applies to shoes. In New York I would wear my shoes ragged after one season of the cobblestone streets of the Meatpacking District. Here I drive, so it’s no contest.
Granted, flip flops are another issue, but they’re just a tad cheaper than a new pair of knee-high leather boots, if you know what I mean.
Conclusion: Overall, L.A. Wins
That’s a different story than calling L.A. “cheaper” than New York. They’re both expensive cities with a higher cost of living than most other places in the U.S., but what you can get for your money on the West Coast is simply more than the East Coast alternative.
To truly make that a reality you need to keep your car costs down and live outside the most popular neighborhoods in town (sorry, West Hollywood and Santa Monica), but you can live an incredibly comfortable life with an herb garden, a lemon tree and an insanely low electric bill (you barely need the heat or the A/C!) if you play your cards right.
Want to play compare and contrast? Unless you call one or another coast home, I bet this will be a fun game for you. I dare you to tell me how much you spend on rent, food and clothing.
And if you’re not tracking your spending in the LearnVest Money Center, it’s the easiest way for a girl to see how her budget’s shaping up, no matter what zip code she calls home.
Jessie Rosen is a writer, branded entertainment producer and the author of 20-Nothings, a blog about her 20-something life.