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California's Cost of Living: NorCal vs. SoCal
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California's Cost of Living: NorCal vs. SoCal

California dreamin’ may be easy, but living here requires planning ahead. Compare the cost of living in the state's most popular cities.


5 min read

September 20, 2020

When thinking about living in California, three things come to mind: sunny weather, appetizing food, and an easy-going culture. If the West Coast has you roped in, do your homework before abruptly moving to the Golden State. California dreamin’ may be easy, but living here requires planning ahead.

The first thing to take into consideration is the cost of living. A state of extremes, California is home to the nation's richest and poorest cities, and the cost of living in California is among the highest in the country. As fast-growing towns and expensive cities continue to define the state, residing here comes at a cost.

The Average Cost of Living in California

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Median home price: $578,267

Median household income: $75,277

When calculating California’s cost of living, there’s a lot to take into account such as housing costs, transportation expenses, utilities, food prices, and more. Since these factors fluctuate depending on the region you live in, determining a rough estimate is difficult. But according to a 2020 cost of living index, California ranked the third-highest state, with an index of 151.7. The Golden State also has the highest gas prices in the country, and the average monthly rent price is $2,775—that number is even higher in big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

Although affordable places in the Golden State remain relatively tucked away, it's not impossible to live here. Since the cost of living in Northern and Southern California varies greatly, expenses will differ depending on where you reside. Compare the housing costs in some of the most popular cities in NorCal and SoCal to see where you might want to settle. 

Northern California’s Cost of Living

The state capital of Sacramento is among the most cost-effective and family-friendly places to reside in California.

Sacramento's Cost of Living

Median home price: $362,400

Median household income: $65,046

Sacramento’s cost of living is 18 percent higher than the national average, with a cost index of 118.2. While transportation, food, and housing prices have increased in the state capital, compared to other cities on our list, Sacramento remains an affordable place to live, especially for families. 

The average annual private school tuition is $10,798 for elementary schools and $10,740 for high schools. The family-friendly city has tree-lined streets everywhere and is surrounded by farms, orchards, and vineyards. The largest certified farmers market in the entire state is found in this region, too. 

Sacramento’s size is also advantageous—not too big, not too small. The metropolis provides the perfect balance of city and suburban life. Although it's considered a family-centric town, Sacramento has also seen a large influx of younger residents in recent years. 

One of the endless reasons to fall in love with San Francisco: the beautiful views of the bustling cityscape.

San Francisco Living Costs

Median home price: $1,447,191

Median household income: $112,376

San Francisco one of the most expensive cities in California. With a whopping cost index of 269.3, the beloved city’s median rent price is $4,500. The good news is that the unemployment rate is just 1.8 percent; major industries include tourism, IT, and financial services. Even though the traffic is pretty intense, you can still easily get around the city on foot. Schools are costly, too: The average private school tuition is $19,986 for elementary and $32,381 for high schools; not to mention, they’re highly competitive.

But the city's pricey neighborhoods don't deter people from living here, and it's easy to see why. With a booming economy, world-class food scene, and fantastic weather, San Francisco is abundant with opportunities for everyone. San Francisco especially attracts young professionals seeking high-paying jobs in the technology sector.

Warmly embracing different cultures, the city is as progressive as it gets and is welcoming to all. On the other hand, homelessness is a big issue here—people with temporary shelters live in tents along the city’s sidewalks.   

The iconic coastline of Santa Cruz is just a preview of what awaits residents in this charming city.

Santa Cruz, California Cost of Living

Median home price: $860,540

Median household income: $65,421

If surfing world-class waves and hiking among towering redwoods is what you like, moving to Santa Cruz might just be for you. Santa Cruz’s cost of living may be high, but it’s definitely worthwhile.

With a cost index of 185, the median rent here is $3,100. Santa Cruz’s highly-rated education system is nationally recognized. Healthcare is also ranked high—92.1% of the population in Santa Cruz has health coverage, with 49.8% on employee plans. The city is quite young, too; the average age here is 29. The largest industries are educational services, healthcare and social assistance, and retail trade. The highest-paying sectors include finance and insurance, public administration, and utilities.

The main reason why people are so drawn to Santa Cruz? The quality of life. The beach town boasts an impressive combination of innovation, top-notch education, natural wonders, and a booming food scene. 

The Cost of Living in Southern California

Though Los Angeles is an expensive place to live, it's hard to beat the scenery of looming palm trees, undulating mountains, and shimmering waters.

THe Cost of Living in Los Angeles

Median home price: $752,508

Median household income: $62,474

The City of Angels is full of dreamers. The palm tree-lined streets and modern mansions attract people from all over the world. As one of the largest cities in the U.S., Los Angeles' cost of living is fairly high yet justifiable. The massive city consists of hundreds of neighborhoods with a median rent price of $3,500.

While certain L.A. neighborhoods can be expensive, the city is a wonderful place to raise children thanks to the wide array of museums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, parks, and other kid-friendly places. Besides being the entertainment capital of the world, Los Angeles has many other thriving industries. Healthcare, food services, technology, and tourism contribute greatly to the city’s economic development. The city is a melting pot, too: It is home to residents from 180 countries.

It might seem impossible to live in Los Angeles without a car, but more and more people are now using the public transit system, doing ride-shares, or simply biking everywhere. Commuting remains a challenge because L.A. traffic is no joke, but the city is an exceptional place, so it's all worth it. You can go on free adventures year-round that make living here worthwhile. 

One of California's best coastal cities, San Diego is a top place to live and retire in the state.

San Diego Cost of Living

Median home price: $679,568

Median household income: $79,646

Undoubtedly one of the best coastal cities to move to, San Diego is (unsurprisingly) an expensive place. The median monthly rent price here is $2,750. A thriving area with a strong economy, San Diego has countless booming local businesses and a plethora of opportunities. People also love living here because of its pristine beaches, family-friendly entertainment, unique neighborhoods, and quality education system.

Although San Diego’s cost of living is high, it's one of the best cities to reside and among the top places to retire in California.

Offering a bustling downtown, highly ranked schools, and countless opportunities for outdoor recreation, Irvine may become your new home.

Irvine Cost of Living

Median home price: $907,185

Median household income: $95,573

Irvine is one of the best places to live in Southern California. Providing a high quality of life for its residents, the city boasts stunning landscapes and a flourishing economy. Here, the median rent price is $3,400. What makes Irvine an ideal city to reside in is its award-winning school district. The city invests in education and ranks among the best in the nation. Irvine has the highest SAT scores in all of California and is constantly included in top-school lists. Year after year, the city develops into a more dynamic place and ranks high in venture capitalist funding for U.S. metropolitan areas. On top of everything, Irvine has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.

Although housing is the biggest factor in the cost of living in this Southern California city, Irvine continues to be one of the best places to raise children. With endless recreational activities and amenities within walking distance, complaints about the cost of living here are rare.  

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