Urban dwellers have long understood there's a financial trade-off to living where they do: If you want all the amenities cities offer, you have to put up with a higher cost of living. If you're a single person with just your own income to cover the bills, making it in the city of your dreams can be even more challenging.
The biggest expense: rent. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in March was just shy of $1,000, according to data from Apartment List. In some of the country's hottest cities, rent can cost much more. The median price of a one-bedroom apartment in Austin and Denver in March was more than 25% higher, according to Apartment List. It was 60% higher in Washington, D.C., and more than double the national median in many cities in California's Silicon Valley.
But some cities are more financially friendly to singles than others, according to a recent analysis from Surety First Insurance Services. Higher monthly incomes more than offset the higher costs of living in these metro areas. That means single residents are left with a fair bit of disposable income that can help them enjoy city life, build wealth, and achieve their financial goals.
Of the 50 largest cities in the country, 12 boast median monthly incomes for single people that exceed the typical costs of living by $600 or more.
The methodology itself is pretty straightforward: Author Jeremy Schaedler, Surety's founder, used Census Bureau data for the median income in the 50 largest U.S. cities and then subtracted from each the typical costs of living, as calculated by the Economic Policy Institute.
The median monthly income is $5,877 for a single person in Washington, D.C., for example, and typical monthly expenses run $4,270. According to Schaedler's method, that leaves a surplus of $1,607 — more than 25% the median income.
Schaedler ran the numbers for both single people and for couples with children, and it turns out many of the top wealth-building cities were the same for both groups.
The analysis stemmed from Schaedler's observations of people who leave the Bay Area to take advantage of remote work. "We were pretty intrigued by it," he explains. It got him thinking about where those incomes were going. "When [workers] take that income from a a high cost of living area like the Bay Area, and it goes somewhere else, it goes a lot further."
The analysis may not offer up a full picture: It relies on data collected before the coronavirus pandemic, and there's evidence that both income and expenses, especially rent, have changed over the past year. It also uses median figures to express broader trends. There are many people in expensive cities who fall on the lower ends of the income spectrum and who struggle to make ends meet.
However, the analysis does complicate the idea that big cities are unaffordable and living in one will prevent you from saving money or building wealth. Even after paying expenses, the top 50% of earners in ultra-high-cost cities will still be left with a fair amount of money they can play with and save for the future, Schaedler's calculations show.
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That saving effect was amplified as rents in big cities fell during the pandemic. "We're really surprised to see a city like San Jose, which basically gets a rap for being a really unaffordable area," Schaedler says. "It turns out it's one of the most affordable in the country."
San Jose ranks third on the list of cities where single people are left with the most discretionary income. The Economic Policy Institute's estimate for monthly expenses in San Jose is just over $5,000, making it one of the highest-cost places in the country. But the median monthly income for a single person in San Jose is $6,300, which means half of the city's single people earn more than enough money to live there.
That's in contrast to a lower cost city like Pittsburgh, where expenses are about $3,100 a month — almost 40% lower than they are in San Jose — but the median monthly income for a single person is only $2,750.
"You would assume [Pittsburgh] is quite affordable," Schaedler says, but "it actually ends up being quite expensive relative to income and expenses." It even leaves the median earner underwater.
Singles who have extra money from living in an affordable city may have any number of financial goals to put those funds toward, such as paying off student debt or building a retirement fund.
But single people should always keep top of mind that, for the most part, they are solely responsible for financing their lifestyles and their futures, says Janet Stanzak, a certified financial planner and founder of Financial Empowerment in Minnesota. That means it's particularly important to save and invest for what she calls "the certainty of uncertainty," or unexpected expenses.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
"For a single person, I think the biggest risk is losing your income," Stanzak explains. "You are your biggest asset."
Having a robust cash reserve can help you prepare. Ideally you'll have enough saved to cover six months' worth of basic living expenses including rent, groceries, and utilities, experts say. That way, in case of an accident or other emergency, you can get money quickly.
"If you're injured, you still have to pay the bills," Stanzak explains. "Make sure you have that good base, because it's all up to you."
After that, single people have more freedom to define their own priorities, like maybe retiring early, and make it happen with their discretionary income.
"If you don't have someone else that you have to plan for," like children or a spouse, Stanzak says, "you can be really intentional with your planning and plan based on your values and your goals or objectives. It isn't that you have to compromise at all, because it's all about you."
That said, it's important for everyone, single or not, to live within their means. For Stanzak, that includes saving and investing. "If there's no saving and investing element in your living, then you're not really living within your means," she says. "Because you're not providing for the years ahead and for things that come up."
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