Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
There may be another metro within a day’s drive where the costs of living are a lot lower and salaries go a lot further. Is is worth moving?
Towns with positive job growth, where residents get the biggest bang for their salary buck, are not your New Yorks or San Franciscos. They’re places like Duluth, Minnesota; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Lubbock, Texas. And even if you’re not about to up and move away from family and networks for these perks, there may be another city less than day’s drive away that has a lower cost of living.
A new analysis identifies those places and their relative benefits by salary and cost of living. Jed Kolko, the chief economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, compares cities based on their average annual salaries in the time period from July 2017 to June 2018. After controlling for the difference in the types of jobs available in each city, he finds that a city like San Francisco—unsurprisingly—offers salaries that are 19 percent higher on average than, say, San Antonio. The problem, though, is that this comparison doesn’t account for the fact that the cost of goods and services—especially, housing—is far higher in San Francisco. After adjusting for that cost, San Antonio’s average paycheck ends up being 11 percent higher than San Francisco’s. In other words, each dollar in a San Antonio resident pocket goes a lot further, all else being equal.
Here’s a table of the top ten metros with at least 250,000 residents where cost of living-adjusted salaries are highest:
But here’s the bad news: Kolko points out that metros with the highest adjusted salaries aren’t typically the ones brimming with jobs—and may not be in the future either. Brownsville’s 7 percent unemployment rate, for example, is way higher than the national 4.2 rate. To produce a list of top ten metros that have high salaries, low cost of living, and positive job prospects, Kolko excludes those with below-national average unemployment and projected job growth. That’s how we get Duluth, Wilmington, Lubbock, and San Antonio:
As the map below shows, the towns with the best adjusted salaries tend to be smaller cities clustered in the nation’s interior.
Americans, especially lower-income ones, are moving less than ever. But it may not take a drastic cross-country move to live in a metro with similar job opportunities where salaries go further. Kolko also provides a list of metros with cost-of-living-adjusted salaries of metros that are less than 500 miles apart, and largely overlap in the kinds of job openings available. Birmingham, Alabama, for example, offers salaries are, on average, 22 percent higher than in Tampa, Florida.
“These are moves that get you a higher standard of living and similar job opportunities—all just a short flight or day’s drive away,” he writes in a blog post about his research.
|#||Higher adjusted salary of the pair||Lower adjusted salary of the pair||Difference in adjusted salaries|
|1||Birmingham-Hoover, AL||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||22.4%|
|2||Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA||Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA||20.9%|
|3||Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA||San Diego-Carlsbad, CA||17.6%|
|4||Columbia, SC||Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL||16.2%|
|5||Sacramento-Roseville-Arden-Arcade, CA||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA||15.7%|
|6||Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN||Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD||15.5%|
|7||Birmingham-Hoover, AL||Jacksonville, FL||15.2%|
|8||Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH||New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||14.7%|
|9||Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT||New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA||13.9%|
|10||Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL||Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL||13.7%|
As with any comparative analysis of local economies, this one comes with caveats. The salaries data comes from the repository of annual salaries on Indeed.com, which may not be comprehensive and don’t factor in jobs listed by hourly wage rather than salary. For an apples-to-apples comparison between cities, Kolko and his team accounted for the different mix of professions in their salary averages. But in reality, the premiums offered in certain occupations will be much higher than in others. And finally, the cost of living data come from Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates from 2016, which means that they may be slightly different today. Still, the analysis gives a sense of how metros differ when it comes to the economic opportunities they offer.
Of course, the capacity to move to another city with lower costs is in and of itself often a luxury, whether because of family obligations, moving costs, or other factors. For other transient workers, so is staying put in any one place. Living in a city where the same salary goes much further has an obvious benefit: savings. But it’s important to note that the appeal of places that offer low cost-of-living-adjusted salaries may lie elsewhere. In Honolulu and Miami, it may be the beaches and wonderful weather; in New York City, it may be the diversity, professional opportunities, and access to various amenities. For many residents, those factors more than balance out the high rents.
In fact, some economists see location as an “asset” in and of itself. Even if living in expensive areas yields sparser real savings right now, it can be a beneficial “investment” for the future because it provides greater access to cultural benefits, educational opportunities, and jobs. In other words, a host of factors come into play when you’re evaluating the tradeoff of living in any place—and how they’re weighed depends on what we, as individuals, value.
“All else equal, a higher adjusted salary is better than a lower one,” writes Kolko. “But in job hunting—like so many other things—all else is never equal.”