The Cost of Staying Alive in America

I’ve finally gotten to the age where I’m working full-time, and have to make the decision to move out on my own. I did my own research, deciding on where to live, what would be the greatest value, etc. And then it hit me: living is a lot more complicated than it seems.

I have a pretty good job. Because of that, I could live practically anywhere in the United States and be at least somewhat comfortable. But what I was thinking when I did my research was not about me passing the bar. It was about the bar in the first place.

I’m going to use the cost of living numbers from NerdWallet, since it is the easiest to interpret for my argument. Now, to start off, I’m going to be a bit unfair. Here is the cost of living for the most expensive city in America, San Francisco:

One bedroom apartment: approx $2,064

Food for a month: approx $95 (NerdWallet isn’t super helpful in this regard. I know buying for one person in my city is roughly $75, and NW claims prices on food are 27% higher, hence the number.)

Yearly doctor’s visit: $154

Total for a year: $26,062

Now, I want to put this number into context: this is, quite literally, the cost of living. It is the cost of our basic human needs: food, shelter, and health. No entertainment. Not even transportation costs. It is the cost of survival.

But like I said, I’m being unfair. Let me take the cost of a more average city — let’s say, Denver Colorado:

One bedroom apartment: approx $769

Food for a month: approx $73

Yearly doctor’s visit: $125

Total for a year: $10,229

Well, it’s better than the Bay. But let’s remember what this number represents: the cost of staying alive. Not only the cost of staying alive, but the cost to stay alive for a year. If your income were to go below this number — assuming no savings — you are done. Pack up your bags, and say goodbye. 

Why are things like this? Well, it’s relatively obvious: technology and urbanization increases the costs of survival. In places such as Africa or Southeast Asia, the yearly cost of survival is about as much as an American teenager’s allowance. That’s because, in these places, the traditional rules of survival apply. You can make your own shelter. You can hunt your own food. Perhaps you can say the same in America for relatively rural places like Wyoming or Alaska (sure enough, these places are even cheaper than Denver), but that’s because you aren’t paying a technology premium.

Now, I want to be clear. I’m not saying the technology premium is a bad thing. I’m not saying we should take up the words of Ted Kaczynski and break the chains of technological slavery. Rather, I’m saying just to keep this number in mind. If you are reading this, you have beat the cost of staying alive in America, or wherever else you might be. And that is not an easy feat. Don’t take it for granted. 

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