City to City Spending

City to City Spending

For some, nothing is better than the vibrant energy and seemingly endless possibilities that come with living in the middle of a major city. Big cities can provide broader access to public transit, jobs, friends, entertainment and an abundance of food options.

Despite the surface-level benefits that some large cities can provide, urban living can also be fraught with difficulties: crime, distressed economies and rising costs of living.

Due to these costs, some Americans migrate to more affordable areas. Others change their spending habits – sometimes in dramatic ways. To see which of America’s major cities have seen the biggest changes in spending patterns, we conducted a national survey of city dwellers and combined the results with data from the U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey. Here’s what we discovered:

  • 55% of city dwellers said the costs of city living are worth it, yet only 9.6% want to remain in their current city for the rest of their life.
  • 20 cities analyzed had household expenditures that exceeded the national average.
  • Over one year, Miami, St. Louis and Denver had the largest increase in household spending.
  • Just 8% of city dwellers said they didn’t have to sacrifice anything to afford to live in their cities.

But do these sacrifices pay off? Is urban living worth the financial, social and recreational costs? Continue reading to see how much people in some of America’s most populous cities pay to live the big city lifestyle.

High Costs of Living in a Big City

Is City Living Worth It?

With just over half of respondents saying big city living is worth it, it is interesting to note that when asked, 78% would be open to moving.

Overall, financial security and job salary (which is usually higher in big cities) play a large part in determining whether big city living is right for you, in conjunction with your willingness to sacrifice certain social activities.

By spending less on traditional social activities such as dining out, entertainment and time with friends and family, residents decrease their chances of meeting new individuals, which can harm their mental health, as well as their dating or sex lives.

In addition to cutting back spending on nonessentials like entertainment or dining out, some Americans are forced to give up basics like electricity and water to get by in big cities. While nearly 12% of U.S. households are food insecure, that number rises to almost 17% in New York City.

Urban Budget Breakdown

Essential Expenditures: Spending on Essentials and Nonessentials

Do Americans in major cities spend beyond their limits on essential and nonessential purchases? The 50/20/30 budgeting rule suggests that 50% of your income should be spent on essentials, which include transportation and groceries, 20% for savings and debt and 30% for wants. We found that Americans living in cities dedicated more than 50% of their spending on essentials, but a large portion of those expenditures went to housing.

Another popular rule is to spend no more than 30% of your income on rent and utilities. While 34.9% of expenditures were dedicated to housing, Americans in cities averaged about 27% of their income to housing, well within the bounds of this budgeting guideline.

It is worth noting that even in large cities where you may not need a car, transportation costs still contributed to 14.6% of spending. This cost may indicate that residents are commuting longer distances to live in more affordable housing, or that they depend on ride-hailing services or alternative forms of transportation to get around. For those who live in large metropolitan areas and are looking to cut costs, public transportation can be an attractive option. Some cities are even planning new and progressive additions to their transit systems which could mean improved ridership and access.

Spending on Needs and Wants

Total Household Spending: Essentials vs Nonessentials

Nationwide, Americans dedicated 23.7% of their spending on nonessential purchases such as entertainment, dining out and alcohol. However, 18 cities analyzed spent less on nonessentials than the national average. St. Louis residents dedicated the highest portion of their spending to nonessentials, and Phoenix residents spent the least.

On average, American households in both urban and rural areas put 76.3% of their income to essentials (housing, transportation, health care, groceries and education), which is slightly less than the average amount put toward essentials in the cities listed above (78.5%).

This may mean that some residents in major cities spend the majority of their income on living essentials, leaving little room to enjoy what their cities have to offer through dining and entertainment.

Not All Big Cities Have High Housing Costs

Housing in the City: Housing Cost as a Percentage of Income

In 2017, the national average for income spent on housing was 27% or $19,900. For some, the cost of living is more than justified by the opportunities available in their area. For others, the reverse is true.

In Los Angeles, for example, homelessness is a growing issue due in part to limited opportunities for affordable housing. The Los Angeles Times reported on a proposed budget increase to help the city’s homeless, making the total budget $1 billion.

LA Residents are Happier in their City than New York Residents

High housing costs aren’t necessarily a deal breaker for many LA residents, however. Nearly 70% of residents living in Los Angeles reported feeling happy in their city. In New York City, where residents spend a similar share of their income on housing, just 55.4% of those surveyed reported a happy disposition.

In terms of dollars devoted to housing, San Francisco residents came out on top. On average, they spent $32,700 on housing costs or 26.3% of their income. On the other end of the spectrum, Tampa residents spent $17,100 annually, which is 28.4% of the average income.

Housing Cost Fluctuations

Changing Housing Costs

Between 2016 and 2017, spending on housing changed significantly in Minneapolis, dropping 6.7%. In Miami, spending increased by 8.2%. These fluctuations can be attributed to multiple factors, including changes in the housing and job markets.

Miami saw the greatest increase in housing spend between 2016 and 2017. Housing costs there are rising at a rate disproportionate to local wages. The Miami New Times reported that in Dade County, mortgages cost more than 45% of an individual’s income; by comparison, in Brooklyn, New York, the typical resident would need to spend 134% of his or her income to cover a mortgage.

When we asked one Miami resident to describe her feelings about life in the city, she said, “It is fun for vacation but a struggle to live and work here with low wages.”

Where rents are high, salaries are not always proportionate, which impacts recreational spending. In some of these cities, rent prices are actually falling due to an abundance of available apartments.

Entertainment Costs Vary by Region

Percentage of Income Spent on Entertainment

Although 37.2% of city residents sacrificed spending on entertainment to afford to live in their city, Americans nationwide spent an average of $3,200 on entertainment annually.

To put that figure into perspective, $3,200 could send you and two friends on a Caribbean cruise or to Disneyland for almost a month.

Tampa residents spend the least ($2,100), followed by Miami residents ($2,200) on entertainment. Residents of San Diego ($4,500) topped the list, and the inhabitants of Minneapolis, Anchorage, Denver and Seattle trailed close behind at an average of $4,300 annually.

Entertainment spending in Miami could be lower than in other cities due to the abundance of beaches and outdoor spaces, where people can relax and have fun for free. One Miami local surveyed said, “I love the city. There are a lot of things to do, parks, water sports, etc. Plus, I have lived here for a long time and have friends and family here. I really feel connected to my city.”

Shifts in Entertainment Spending

Changing Entertainment Costs

On average, spending on entertainment between 2016 and 2017 increased in half of the cities examined. Washington, D.C., residents had a 15.6% increase in entertainment spending, the greatest increase of all cities according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey.

Spending on entertainment decreased in Detroit by 16.3% in the same period. Although there are many efforts to revitalize the economy of Detroit after its bankruptcy, these efforts have not yet had a significant impact on nonessential entertainment spending.

Dining Out Can Eat Away at Income

Cost of Dining Out

Dining out is both a luxury and convenience, but not a necessity. The national average percentage of income spent dining out in 2017 was 4.6% or $4,400.

Residents in major cities spend anywhere from $3,400 (Dallas) to $6,000 (Seattle) eating outside of their homes.

Those living in Seattle, San Diego, Anchorage, Honolulu, Denver and Boston spent the most on dining out. Population-dense cities tend to have more fine dining options, which could contribute to more expensive dining experiences.

It can be fun to explore all of the food options your city has to offer, and you can do it without breaking the bank. One way to do this is to visit dining establishments during happy hour or lunch, where there may be specials, which can help you maximize your dining budget.

Nationwide Changes in Dining Out

Dining Out in Decline?

Between 2016 and 2017, only three cities studied had an increase in spending on dining out: San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Houston. Spending on dining out declined for the rest, with Baltimore’s population spending 0.2% less on the lowest end, and Anchorage residents’ spending plummeting by 40.4%.

To afford to live in their city, 41.5% of city residents surveyed said they reduced their spending on dining out, sacrificing some social, communal aspects of gathering with friends, family or romantic partners outside of the home.


Living in a big city can be fun, exciting and enriching, but urban living can come at great costs and with difficulties.

We found that residents of big cities often have to sacrifice nonessentials like dining out and entertainment to afford the cost of living in their respective city.

Although most people living in a large city reported it was worth the sacrifices, many considered moving in the future. To get the most out of life in the city, it’s important to plan ahead financially and take your time when hunting for housing.

If you’re considering moving to an exciting new city or a peaceful rural area, take the time to explore housing options and crunch the cost of living numbers. Whether you’re renting your very first apartment or your 15th, Rent. is here to help you find your dream rental at a price that works for you.


For this study, we analyzed data from the 2016 and 2017 Consumer Expenditure Survey, conducted annually by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For a full description of items included in each purchase category, click here. We analyzed all 22 of the metropolitan areas they included in their study.

To find the percentage change between 2016 and 2017 expenditures, we accounted for inflation based on the value of the U.S. dollar in September of 2016 and September of 2017. To find the inflation rate (1.02), we used the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.

We also conducted an independent survey of 573 people living in 1 of 10 U.S. metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Fair Use Statement

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