The path to a million is in reach, even in NYC.
How much money do you have to earn in a HCOL area to become a millionaire in 10 years or fewer?
A few months ago, we released an episode about how much someone would need to earn (and spend) to go from $0 to a seven-figure net worth in a decade, and a few of our listeners from NYC and the Bay Area said, “Good try, but can you triple the spending and redo this?”
I’m nothing if not accommodating, and the question brought up a whole new topic for me: Is living in high cost-of-living areas worth it? Moreover, how much do you really need to earn in, say, Manhattan to avoid slowing your financial progress? If you don’t earn that much, how far “behind” are you likely to be? We’re diving in.
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Katie: My friends in the Bay Area, NYC, LA, and so on, you wanna build wealth even while living in a high cost of living city? I'm gonna go ahead and guess the answer is yes. So that is what we're gonna nail down today: exactly how much you would need to earn and save to get to the magic million mark in these more expensive areas. What the opportunity costs and trade-offs are, aside from $5,000 rent, and what the right move, pun unintended, might be. Let's get into it.
Welcome back, Rich Humans, to The Money with Katie Show. I am your host, Katie Gatti Tassin. And today we are exploring what one #richgirl described in a feedback email as “the giant elephant in the room:” high cost of living areas, or HCOLs. More specifically, how living in a high cost of living area impacts your long-term financial progress, like saving a million dollars over 10 years. On some level, the solution is crudely obvious: Just earn more money. Duh. Better lace up those bootstraps, girly, learn how to code, or defraud investors at scale. But I think there's a lot more than meets the eye to this topic. Specifically, three things.
Number one, the cost of living in places like New York, the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, LA. So prohibitively expensive that it would seem only the top 10% could afford to live in these places comfortably. Admittedly, that might be hyperbole, but the essence of the sentiment here is that only very wealthy people, relatively speaking, can have comfortable lifestyles in these places and still manage to save a sizable portion of their incomes. Is it true that the cities are mostly full of rich people?
Number two: The types of expenses that often exacerbate your inability to afford life are the kind that could be addressed with meaningful policy change in some cases, like the unaffordability of housing and very limited, very expensive childcare. And number three: Despite points one and two, there's a certain point at which the rubber has to meet reality road. We have to contend with the shitty circumstances while also concerning ourselves with our individual situations. We need to explore the trade-offs of living in a high cost of living area, and by extension, having a family in a high cost of living area, if it means we are mostly unable to save for the future. So today you can consider this a making a millionaire exercise, high cost of living edition.
So before we dive into these three little quagmires, let's first define “high cost of living area.” Typically, these are areas where there's a lot of job opportunity, a lot of culture and entertainment. And generally speaking, a reputation for being desirable. We will include a cost of living calculator in the show notes so you can compare the cost of living in your city to another, if you're curious. But these are typically the places that people will go on vacation. So it's understandable why they would be expensive. Now, “desirable,” of course, is subjective. I can't necessarily see myself wanting to live in half of the cities that I'm about to list. So it's not to say everyone wants to live in these places, and there are plenty of US cities that did not make the list that are still really expensive. Hello, Denver.
According to Investopedia, the top 10 most expensive cities in the US are Manhattan; Honolulu; San Francisco; Brooklyn; Washington, DC; Orange County; Los Angeles; Boston; Seattle; and Oakland. Now if we were to plot all of these on a map, you'd probably notice something about them. They are all on the coasts—or in Honolulu's case, the middle of the ocean. And the point is, they're similar in that the land itself is in high demand, and the limits on such land—for example, the island of Maui—are in many ways geographically literal. You cannot make Maui larger. So supply is always going to be constrained to some degree.
If you zoom out from the good old US of A as of July 2022, the most expensive cities in the world are Hong Kong, New York, Geneva, London, and Tokyo. To quote Sinatra, if you can make it there financially, you can make it anywhere. We'll be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode.
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Katie: How much money do you have to make to live a normal life in New York and still save and invest aggressively? For the sake of the example today, I am going to use the US's heaviest checking account hitter: Manhattan. Hopefully this example will be so extreme that any other expensive city's results could be easily extrapolated. So welcome to New York…question mark? Per Investopedia, the cost of living index on the island of Manhattan is 238% higher than the national average, which means it costs a little less than two and a half times as much to live a certain type of life in Manhattan as it would cost to live the equivalent life elsewhere. Although I see those pictures that my New Yorker friends post of subway rats keeled over next to empty bottles of Jameson…I'm not sure you can recreate a New York life elsewhere. Part of its charm, I'm sure. The median cost of a home in Manhattan, which is probably a 900-square-foot space, is about $995,000, compared to the national median home that costs around $454,900. It's worth mentioning that we're not comparing apples to apples here…pun intended. “Median” in New York still means you are likely talking about a relatively small apartment compared to what the median home’s square footage clocks in at for the rest of the country.
But the financial pain for a New Yorker begins long before they see their paycheck. They pay some of the highest income taxes in the country at both the state and local level. If you are in the income bracket we're going to be discussing today, you are probably going to be in at least the 6.33% marginal state tax rate and 3.88% local rate. All in all, we can assume that we will lose around an additional 10.2% to taxes, beyond our federal and FICA liability. So put that in your back pocket. As of March 2022, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city that never sleeps is $4,331 per month, while the average two-bedroom will run you a horrifying $6,191 per month. I wouldn't be sleeping either.
Despite all my internet digging, I actually couldn't find any official statistics for the average person’s all-in monthly spending in NYC the same way I could for the national averages. But I did think of a workaround. So the 2019 figures pulled from the Census Bureau that I quoted in the “millionaire in 10 years” episode were as follows: A single person spends, on average, $3,200 a month; a couple spends $5,500; and a family of four spends $7,100. Since we know the cost of living index in NYC is 238% higher than the national average, it stands to reason that we could multiply our national average spending figures by around 238% to get a more accurate picture of New York City-specific life.
So that brings our single person's monthly spending to around $7,500, a couple to around $13,000, and a family of four to a staggering $16,800 or so. Now here's the thing: I have no idea if these numbers are accurate. It seemed a little bit high to me, personally…like, I can't imagine many of the singles or married people that I know in New York are spending between $7,500 and $13,000 a month for their lives there. But hey, who am I to question the statistical accuracy of cost of living estimates that I found on the internet? I am merely Google's humble servant.
So to validate my theory, I did post an informal poll on Instagram, as a sizable chunk of my audience resides in New York City, and I asked them to weigh in. Roughly 60% of respondents said this was actually about in line with their spending. 30% said they spend less, and around 10% said they spend more. So all that to say, I'm actually pretty comfortable using these numbers. If anything, hopefully they're a little bit generous. Now we can get a far clearer picture for the type of income we would need to make the sort of progress we want to make.
In the “How to become a millionaire in 10 years” episode use case, we identified how much money someone would have to invest every month to go from $0 to a million-dollar net worth in just 10 years. For reminder's sake, the magic number was $6,050. Using our New Yorker average spending numbers, that means our New Yorkers would need to take home, if they're single, $13,634 per month after taxes, or $163,308 per year after taxes. A couple would have to take home $19,085 per month after taxes, which is equivalent to roughly $230,000 per year post-tax. And a family of four would have to bring in $22,877 per month after taxes, which is around $274,000 total post-tax. Now, we can continue to back our way up to the pre-tax numbers, so using the smart asset income tax calculator, using the 10001 zip code to achieve those after-tax totals in Manhattan, with Manhattan tax rates and all that means, total compensation or salaries would have to be: single, around $260k; couple, around $350k total, or $175k per adult, on average; and a family of four, around $415k, or $207k per adult, on average.
These are mostly household incomes that are solidly in the top 10% to 15% of the national income distribution. A single person, a couple, or a family of four making the incomes that I just stated in New York City could spend the amounts I reviewed and still invest enough to become millionaires in 10 years, assuming the average historical 7% annualized return. According to the census, the median household income in NYC is $67,046 as of 2020, which is—shockingly—lower than what the census reports for median household income nationally, at $67,521 in the same year. 17.3% of New York City-dwellers live in poverty, compared to 11.4% nationally, which may explain part of what's happening here. But no matter how you slice this data, it's clear that most New Yorkers are not in the income brackets that we're looking at today, which means most are not able to save enough to do what we were referencing before, which is going to a million dollars from zero in just 10 years.
Still, even if you wanted to take a more realistic approach to hitting your first magic million while living in NYC, so, investing the $2,500 per month over 20 years instead of $6,000 a month over 10, you would still need to earn pretty high pre-tax salaries: single, around $195k; a couple, around $275 or like $137.5k each, and then a family of four, around $340k, or around $170k each.
Any way you spin it, whether you are trying to invest to become a millionaire at rapid speed in 10 years, or you're gonna go in 20, the incomes required are in the low- to mid-six figures range, which I'm sure surprises approximately nobody. In conclusion, I don't think it's a stretch to say that only the top 10% can afford to live there comfortably and still make financial progress. As we can tell from the median wage data and poverty rates, most people are not living comfortably in New York, and even those that are are almost certainly not saving in the way that we just described.
One of my original theses when I started poking around for answers on this topic was that cities are beginning to skew richer; they’re pricing people out who would like to live there but simply can't afford to. I'll never forget a conversation I had with a frustrated Uber driver in San Francisco back in 2016, who told me that all the artists had to leave ’cause it was just too expensive. But interestingly, according to this piece from Grist in 2015, which uses US census data to visually map the wealth of popular cities and their surrounding counties, you find there's actually more wealth around cities than within them. So imagine cushy New York City or Bay Area suburbs. And it makes the point that the whole “the cities are full of rich people” trope kind of rings hollow, save for a few extreme outliers, and when you search US wealth by county, it's pretty obvious that the most affluent portions of the map tend to cluster around the major metro areas. Four of the top 10 highest-earning counties in the US were in Virginia, according to 2020 US census data. Three were in California—all in the Bay Area—and one apiece in Colorado, New York, and Maryland. The wealthiest New York county is Nassau County, outside of Manhattan, and Virginia and Maryland's heavy representation in the top 10 wealthiest counties are largely DC suburbs. Hey, maybe that's where all of our Congresspeople with hundreds of millions of dollars live. Hashtag #eattherich. Anyway, it appears most of the wealth clusters around the urban areas, as opposed to being directly in them, Manhattan being no exception.
But here's the twist: Compared to the cost of suburban living, urban living is actually quite economical. For example, people living in Manhattan often don't have cars. Only 22% of households own cars as of 2018, compared to a range of 60% in the wealthy surrounding suburbs and counties. And the average living space used per person in Midtown Manhattan is 920 square feet, compared to the average home in the US that's well over 2,000 square feet. For introverts who love their space and taking long drives, I might be describing your personal hell, but it's hard to deny that New Yorkers and those who live in urban areas in general tend to make do with less. Less space, fewer if any vehicles, and consequently, less stuff to fill the smaller spaces. You are almost forced into minimalism even if you're doing well for yourself, which has positive implications for everything from the environment to your own shopping habits. All that to say, while the cost of housing and/or the things you need tend to be higher in cities, the way of life itself tends to lend itself to fewer large fixed expenses.
Cities also tend to be densely populated, which I've argued in the past is good for a sense of community, sporadic chance encounters, meeting new people who are likely more different from you than the types of people you'd meet in, say, a Colorado suburb like where I live. And the job opportunities tend to be more plentiful, too.
In short, it totally tracks that young people, especially, who typically find themselves lower on the income distribution, would want such an experience. Moreover, if increasing your income isn't an option for whatever reason, there are other ways to lower structural expenses in cities that tend to be more challenging in suburban areas. For example, you can leverage public transport rather than owning a car or Ubering. You can get another roommate or move to an outer borough, in the case of New York City, that may have cheaper housing than the 10001 zip code, while still offering easy access to the city via public transport. We'll be right back after a message from the sponsors of today's episode.
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Katie: And when I talk to those of you who live in places like these, aka New York, DC, Hawaii, I often hear you lamenting about two major expenses in particular: unaffordable housing and the cost of childcare. To this day, I am still shooketh to my core at the dad who DMed me from Boston to tell me their childcare expenses each month are more than $4,000. My guess? The unaffordable housing and expensive childcare costs are reflected in these wild monthly spending estimates, like $16k per month for a family of four in Manhattan, in that meaningful policy change would help to address both of these things. We've talked about these topics on the past in this podcast. I don't wanna spend too much time here today, but until our local and national political leaders make shelter and childcare policy priorities, it is likely something that we are going to continue to have to plan around ourselves.
Living in a high cost of living area is all about making financial and lifestyle trade-offs. So let's quickly review what we know so far, using New York City as our specific example. Number one: Cities tend to have higher poverty levels and lower median incomes than their surrounding suburbs, where the wealth tends to be clustered. Number two: Life in cities, while expensive in some ways, often lends itself to going without things like cars or extra rooms that you need to fill with furniture, which can help serve as a bit of a release valve. Number three: Young people like living in cities because they're densely populated, they're full of culture, entertainment, and they often offer more promising job and networking opportunities, depending on your industry. And number four: To go from a $0 net worth to a million-dollar net worth within 20 years while living in NYC and spending the what we've calculated to be the average amounts, a single person needs to earn at least $195k before taxes, and a married couple with children each need to earn between $137,500 and $170k each pre-tax.
So what are the trade-offs? If you plan to live in an expensive city like New York for the long term, as in, you would like to settle down there, have a family in Manhattan, there's almost no way around earning more money if you want to retire. Or obviously, you could live far more frugally than what we calculated the average New Yorker spends. But if you're someone whose time in the pricey Apple is capped at, say, 10 years, and then you think you'll get it out of your system and you'd be prepared to move somewhere where the cost of living and tax rates are lower, it may not matter as much. For example, if you're able to save modestly—say, a few hundred dollars per month for those 10 years, and then you exit stage left, pick up a bungalow in Dallas, and start saving more aggressively with your lower-cost lifestyle, it'll take you longer to save as much, but perhaps not by much. So let's quantify it.
Nelly New York decides to live in Manhattan for the first 10 years of her career, and she can only save $200 a month, for example. Darcy Dallas starts her career and settles down in Dallas. She saves $2,500 per month. As a refresher, that's gonna put D-Town Darcy on track for the “millionaire in 20 years” scenario. Now after 10 years, both assuming a 7% average rate of return, New York Nelly has about $34,000 in investments. Darcy Dallas has about $419,000 in investments. That's a gap of about $385k that New York Nelly now needs to close, but it's our assumption that Darcy Dallas would be saving more if she could be. So we'll assume she continues at the same clip, right? New York Nelly having now transplanted to Texas (so maybe we should call her Lone Star Nelly now) probably will find her cost of living is lower than it used to be, but how much lower does it need to be in order for her to catch up to Darcy?
Here's the kicker. Nelly would need to invest about $6,800 per month, or $81,600 per year, to slide into year 20 with roughly the same amount of money that Dallas Darcy has, since Nelly only invested $200 per month for the first 10 years, while Darcy was shoveling money into savings like she was drilling for oil. Texas, y'all. But—and here's the important part—if Nelly were A) able to invest a little more while she was in New York, or B) okay with catching up to Darcy a little bit later, it is less extreme. For example, if she had moved to Dallas and started saving the same amount as Darcy, $2,500 a month, she would be just about eight years behind Darcy, despite effectively losing the first 10 years to Manhattan expenses. So to clarify, that means, what Dallas Darcy can do in 20 years, it takes New York Nelly 28, because New York Nelly left New York after the first 10 years.
And one other big trade-off to keep in mind: It's worth remembering that our “job opportunities in cities” note was not just a matter of preference. It is possible your career will advance more quickly in a place where your industry is very relevant and you have a chance to network more casually and frequently. New York Nelly may spend her 10 years in Manhattan climbing the ladder and far surpassing Darcy's earning potential. This is a risk; it's not a guarantee, but it is probably silly to ignore the career opportunities you may have from being where it happens, especially if you are a career-minded person and you're pursuing your bag with reckless abandon. While the increasing prevalence of remote work makes being physically present less necessary, if I had to place bets on who would be further in their career after 10 years, someone in the New York headquarters of a company or someone in the Dallas satellite office of the same company, all else equal, my guess would be the New York employee likely would have an easier time making moves. And while it's hard to quantify, that is worth something.
In conclusion, life constantly presents us with choices and trade-offs. There are no right answers, though I do hope today's episode has given you some things to chew on with respect to the cost/benefit analysis worth running when you're deciding if you should live in a high cost of living area.
So there are a few questions I think that are worth asking. Number one: How much can I realistically afford to save? And am I okay with delaying my financial independence by several years if I don't end up earning enough to keep pace? Number two: Do I have family and friends in this area who will measurably improve my quality of life? Number three: Is my job or industry popular here, and do I think I'll have an easier time maintaining employment and advancing my career and earning potential, if that is important to me? Number four: Do I see myself living here forever, or just for a specific period of time? Number five, and maybe this one is the biggest: Does living in this place measurably improve my quality of life? Or do I spend more time stressed about money than enjoying it?
Welcome back to Rich Girl Roundup. As a reminder, we take listener questions about every month. So we'll put out a call for questions on @MoneywithKatie Instagram, so follow along, and then we'll pick one that feels interesting. As my standard disclaimer, I am not a licensed financial professional. This is not financial advice. This is just “What would Katie do?” And now from our sponsors. Paid non-client of Betterment. Views may not be representative. See more reviews at the App Store and Google Play Store. Learn more about this relationship betterment.com/moneywithkatie. This segment is brought to you by Betterment, the online investing platform that gives you the tools, inspiration, and support that will help you become a better investor.
This week's question is from Christina. “Hi! I am currently trying to pay down credit card debt, pay my bills, car, et cetera, and pay rent, but I still just barely scrape by. I'm trying to look for a new job with a higher salary. But in the meantime, what do you recommend I do so I can stay afloat, be aggressive with paying down debt, and also still have a life? I already don't do much shopping, eating out, or travel, and I feel like I'm missing out. Any advice is appreciated.”
First, I wanna validate that this is, sadly, a very common occurrence for median earners in the US, because as we have discussed on this show before, the cost of things one needs to live a decent life have all risen faster than nominal wage growth for the 90%, namely housing, education, healthcare, and this year, food and energy.
I also wanna commend you for actively looking for a higher-paying job, because at the end of the day, this is just a math equation of income minus expenses. So if you are having a hard time cutting expenses, increasing income is a fantastic lever to pull. Now, I don't know how much you earn or how much your rent, car note, and credit card debt amounts to by comparison, but it sounds like you don't have a ton of discretionary spending to trim. So this can make typical budgeting advice relatively unhelpful, because usually we say, well, stop spending money on things you don't need. But if you're already not doing that, there's very little to trim to begin with. So there's no silver bullet solution, but it sounds like you are experiencing what I would refer to as a cash flow crunch. So how I approach situations like these is by attempting to home in on what specifically could be the lowest-lift lever to pull to buy back some breathing room, like, where can I make one change that can have a really big impact, versus trying to make 15 tiny adjustments that may not move the needle as much.
First, I would look at what's likely my highest expense, of housing. I would tally up how much I'm spending every month on my shelter. So this includes internet, utilities, rent, any fees associated with trash, cleaning, et cetera. See how much of my take-home pay that accounts for. If it's more than 30%, that is a signal to me that my housing expenses might be part of the reason why I'm feeling strapped. Obviously, moving is expensive, so it may not be the ideal first line of defense, but if you don't have a roommate or you live in an area that's ultimately too expensive for what you're earning currently, it may be worthwhile to suffer the short-term pain of a move for the long-term gain of freeing up extra income every month. House hacking also can be a good long-term solution, but that's not probably something that sounds like we're in a good position to try right now just yet, while we're trying to alleviate short-term pain and get some breathing room. But in the interest of just edification, house hacking is where you buy a home and then you rent out part of it to cover part of your mortgage. So like I said, long-term solution—probably not something that's gonna be a good idea in the short term.
Next, I would look at my other large bills. So you mentioned a car note, you mentioned credit card debt. For the car note, I would add up my car payment, insurance, gas, maintenance fees, all of that, and see how much of my take-home pay is being sucked into that category. So if it's more than 10%, it might mean that I'm in a car that I cannot currently afford, whether because of the car itself, or the interest rate on the loan, or both. The average monthly car payment in the US is between $515 and $667 per month as of fall 2022, which, after insurance and gas, means an all-in monthly cost of between $700 and $800, I would estimate, which is only moderately comfortable and affordable for someone earning between $90,000 and a hundred thousand dollars per year.
So it's certainly possible you need the car for work. It might not be something that you can, you know, immediately or easily get rid of, but if not, you may consider going carless for a while if you live in a walkable or bikeable town. Again, we're not necessarily looking for permanent, long-term solutions. We're just trying to find those big-ticket items in our monthly expenses that create a lot of strain and prevent us from being able to get ahead of the game, that we could potentially go without for a short while. This is why the Recommendations tab of the Money with Katie Wealth Planner breaks down these various categories and their subcategories to help shed light on where things may be going off the rails a little bit.
And then lastly, I'm keyed in on the credit card debt. So credit card debt is a top priority since the interest rates are so high. So I'd probably be asking myself two questions right now. Number one: Am I actively adding to the debt? If so, I would probably try to go on an all-cash diet if at all possible, and stop actively using the card that I'm trying to pay off, just so that I can actually see the progress I'm making. This means either only using a debit card, or if you wanna get super hardcore for the short term, physically withdraw the cash you've decided you're comfortable spending, and it'll create a little bit of extra friction between you and a potential purchase, which can help slow down spending.
Number two: Is a balance transfer possible? Depending on how much credit card debt you're dealing with, a balance transfer may be a good short-term solution for getting some extra breathing room. So you'll typically pay 3% on the balance to transfer the debt from one credit card to another new credit card, with 0% APR for usually between 12 and 18 months. From there, you can aggressively attack the debt, but without that 20 percent-ish interest rate piling more on top every month. If you go this route, be sure to do some math to figure out how much you need to pay each month to wipe out the entire balance, or most of the balance, in the allotted amount of time that you have that 0% interest rate.
At the end of the day, depending on your income, geographical area, current expenses, it really might not be your fault that you are having a hard time making the numbers work. The wage stagnation and cost of living data are pretty clear that things have been getting measurably more challenging for your average American, but running some of these numbers can help home in on where specifically the squeeze is coming from in your situation. And hey, if none of these items end up being the problem, it might mean that you are spending more on discretionary expenses than you realize, and that can be a valuable revelation too. I know when I first started buckling down financially, I thought I was a fraud victim every single month when I got my credit card statement in the mail, but things just add up, and sometimes we're not really even aware of how much we're spending until we actually begin tracking it.
All right, y'all, that is all for this week. I will see you next week, same time, same place on The Money with Katie Show. Our show is a production of Morning Brew and is produced by Henah Velez and me, Katie Gatti Tassin, with our audio engineering and sound design from the talented Nick Torres. Devin Emory is our chief content officer, and additional fact checking comes from the lovely Kate Brandt.