Unemployment Is Low, Wages Are Up — But Cost of Living in America Keeps Rising

Rising costs are making it harder for Americans to save money.

On the surface, things are going well in America. The unemployment rate — at 3.7 percent — is at its lowest level in decades. Annual wage growth recently hit a nine-year high. And the latest figures from the Commerce Department show that the U.S. economy continues to grow.

But that doesn’t mean all Americans are doing well. In fact, GOBankingRates found that it’s gotten tougher for many people to afford basic necessities. We examined the cost of living throughout the U.S. over the past few years to see how much it has increased. Then, we surveyed Americans to find out how much they’re spending on necessities. The average spending of respondents in each state was then compared with the median income in each state to determine whether people can realistically afford the cost of living where they are.

Keep reading to see the states where Americans can’t afford their cost of living.

Cost of Living in U.S. Has Risen 14% Over the Past 3 Years

The cost of living in America has climbed 14 percent over the past three years, according to a GOBankingRates’ analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index. The index measures the change in prices paid for goods and services, including food, shelter, energy, transportation and medical care.

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We also looked at housing cost data supplied by Zillow. The median home price has soared 21 percent from $215,000 in January 2015 to $260,000 in January 2018. And the median rent has climbed 7.6 percent over the same period from $1,340 to $1,442.

The jump in the cost of living means Americans need to earn more to live comfortably. However, GOBankingRates found that the median household income isn’t keeping up with the rising cost of living in America’s largest cities.

GOBankingRates used the 50-30-20 budgeting rule to determine the income needed in the 50 largest cities to allocate 50 percent toward necessities, 30 percent toward nonessential costs and 20 percent toward savings. In all cities but one, the income needed to live comfortably is higher than the median household income. Across all 50 cities, that gap has increased 20 percent over the past year — even more so in these 10 cities:

10 Cities Where Cost of Living Is Rising the Fastest
City Income Needed to Live Comfortably, 2017 Income Needed to Live Comfortably, 2018 Annual Percent Change
Colorado Springs, Colo. $49,415 $67,011 35.61%
Austin, Texas $54,631 $73,163 33.92%
Columbus, Ohio $44,852 $58,973 31.48%
Fresno, Calif. $44,648 $58,616 31.29%
Arlington, Texas $46,420 $60,592 30.53%
Fort Worth, Texas $53,026 $68,636 29.44%
Virginia Beach, Va. $52,649 $67,568 28.34%
Sacramento, Calif. $56,786 $72,079 26.93%
Wichita, Kan. $43,644 $55,345 26.81%
San Antonio, Texas $46,154 $58,504 26.76%
Source: GOBankingRates ‘The Cost of Living Is Quickly Rising in These 20 US Cities
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San Francisco residents need the highest income to cover the cost of necessities, nonessential expenses and savings — $123,268 in 2018 up from $110,357 in 2017. However, the median income in San Francisco is $87,101, which means there’s a gap of $36,167 between income needed to live comfortably and actual income.

There’s an even bigger gap of $44,476 in New York because the median household income is only $55,191 while the amount needed to live comfortably is $99,667. And Miami has the biggest gap among the largest cities — $53,459.

Americans in These 13 States Aren’t Living ‘Comfortably’

To find out whether Americans can afford the cost of living in the states where they live, GOBankingRates surveyed 5,000 renters about their monthly expenses. The survey asked respondents to share how much they spent per month on rent, groceries, transportation, utilities and healthcare. Then GOBankingRates compared the average amount spent on necessities with the median household income to determine where Americans can’t afford the cost of living.

The survey found that renters in  these 13 states are spending more than 50 percent of their income on necessities:

States Where Renters Are Spending More Than 50% of Their Income on Necessities
State Total Monthly Cost of Living for Necessities Necessities as % of Median Household Income
Delaware $2,283.58 62%
New Mexico $1,963.22 62%
Tennessee $1,612.29 60%
Arkansas $1,735.24 58%
Louisiana $1,619.51 58%
Mississippi $1,517.78 56%
West Virginia $1,569.22 54%
Maine $1,744.87 53%
North Dakota $2,091.04 53%
Alabama $1,835.64 53%
Florida $1,812.68 52%
North Carolina $1,771.13 52%
Kentucky $1,493.69 51%
Source: GOBankingRates survey, Census Bureau
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In many of these states, low incomes are largely to blame, and the average salary isn’t enough to get by in these states. The median household income in all but one state — North Dakota — is lower than the national median household income of $59,039. In fact, it’s actually below $50,000 in seven of the 13 states where renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on necessities: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico and West Virginia.

In addition to relatively low incomes, renters in some of these states also have relatively high cost-of-living expenses. The survey found that the amount spent on necessities by respondents in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Maine, New Mexico and North Carolina is higher than in half of the states.

Despite its relatively high median income, North Dakota is among the states where renters spend more than 50 percent on necessities is because of the state’s high cost of living. The average monthly amount spent on necessities by survey respondents in North Dakota was the second highest of any state — $2,091. The only state where the average spent on necessities was higher was Delaware — $2,283.58.

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Click to See: States Where You’re Most and Least Likely to Live Paycheck to Paycheck 

13 States Where Americans Are Living ‘Comfortably’

If you live in a state where it’s difficult to afford the cost of living and save for the future, you might want to consider moving. The GOBankingRates’ survey found that the top 13 states where respondents spend much less than 50 percent of their monthly income on necessities are:

States Where Renters Are Spending Less Than 40% of Their Income on Necessities
State Total Monthly Cost of Living for Necessities Necessities as % of Median Household Income
Massachusetts $1,409.43 32%
Wyoming $1,233.73 32%
New York $1,225.75 32%
New Hampshire $1,637.91 33%
Nevada $1,305.00 35%
South Dakota $1,402.37 36%
Colorado $1,609.56 37%
Washington $1,697.92 37%
Alaska $1,855.96 38%
Minnesota $1,606.01 38%
Wisconsin $1,397.49 38%
Virginia $1,601.27 39%
Montana $1,403.97 39%
Source: GOBankingRates survey, Census Bureau

The median household income in about half of these states is higher than the national median. In fact, New Hampshire has the highest median income in the U.S. — $76,260 — and the average spent on necessities is just 33 percent of that income. However, renters in Massachusetts, New York and Wyoming actually pay a smaller percentage of income for necessities — 32 percent — because the cost of living is lower in those states.

Among these 13 states, New York actually has the lowest average cost of necessities — followed by Wyoming, based on the survey findings. Nevada is in the No. 3 spot, and Iowa, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, South Dakota and Wisconsin are among the top 10 lowest cost states.

Rising Cost of Living Could Be Putting Americans’ Savings in Jeopardy

The rising cost of living is likely making it harder for many Americans to get ahead financially. Considering that respondents in a quarter of the states are spending more than 50 percent of their income, on average, on necessities, they’re left with less to put in savings for emergencies or for retirement.

In fact, a separate GOBankingRates’ survey found that a common obstacle to saving money is a high cost of living. And a more recent survey also found that cost of living and low wages are keeping Americans from saving more money each month.

Americans savings habits

This might explain why GOBankingRates found in its 2018 annual savings survey that 58 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. Of those, 32 percent have absolutely nothing in a savings account.

How to Protect Your Savings From Rising Costs

Living in a state where the cost of living is lower and incomes are higher might make it easier to find room in your budget to save.  However, even if you’re in a place where the cost of living is high, there are moves you might be able to make to improve your financial situation.

For starters, analyze your spending to pinpoint expenses you can cut so you can invest that money instead. You might be able to reduce your biggest monthly expense — housing — by getting a roommate or looking for a lower-cost apartment. Then, boost your savings even more by finding ways to earn more money  — such as getting a side gig, selling what you don’t need or finding a higher-paying job.

Click through to see 20 ways you can increase your savings and retire rich.

Try This: Cutting Monthly Expenses and Bills

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Methodology: For the survey, GOBankingRates polled 5,000 adults by asking the following six questions: 1) Which of the following best describes your residential status? 2) How much do you spend on rent per month? 3) How much do you spend on groceries per month? 4) How much do you spend on transportation per month? 5) How much do you spend on utilities per month? 6) How much do you spend on healthcare per month? 

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About the Author

Cameron Huddleston

Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Fortune, MSN, USA Today and many more print and online publications. She also is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances. U.S. News & World Report named her one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named her one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR, WTOP in Washington, D.C., KGO in San Francisco and other personal finance radio shows nationwide. She also has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch and more. She has an MA in economic journalism from American University and BA in journalism and Russian studies from Washington & Lee University.

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