The northeast is an expensive place to live, of course it is also far and away the wealthiest part of the United States. When AreaVibes.com gave Springfield a D+ in the category of “cost of living” I was still surprised. The methodology page does not go in to detail when describing the cost of living category except to say that government data is used in its calculation.
The temptation for me is to get too anecdotal too soon, but I will hold off on that for a bit while I deconstruct the data which AreaVibes uses as a starting place. When you click on the “cost of living” tab to delve deeper into that category the overall score is given and you are shown the cost of pizza, coffee, and gas. Given that these categories are used as examples, I can only assume that they play a role in the final determination of affordability and so they must be looked at in detail.
Gas prices leap out as a significant part of the average family’s cost of living and therefore a legitimate and necessary element within the collection of goods making up an analysis of affordability. There is, however, one other part of the calculus that needs to be taken into account, and that is the quantity of gasoline people need to use in order go about their daily lives. If gas costs $20 a gallon, but you only need to use two gallons of gas a month to go where you need to go and do what you need to do then it will be a less significant part of your budget than for a family which lives in a region with $2 a gallon gas but which needs three tanks a month to live. Once again this gives a dense region with lower energy use no advantage in the calculation. The densest parts of the densest regions use the lowest amounts of gasoline per person and provide the most alternatives to automobile use.
On the map look at the gasoline use in Texas, Arizona, and Florida. Now compare that to southern New England and New York. In place rating you get punished for the cost per unit, but not for how much you need.
It would be easy to mock the inclusion of pizza and coffee as too whimsical to include in a serious methodological comparison of cost of living by city. I think I understand the overall goal which was to include low end and high end locally prepared food products with “pizza” being the classic low cost family food product and coffee being a (often) luxury individual type purchase.
The problem, of course, is coffee is not coffee, and pizza is not pizza. They are products which can vary greatly in size and quality. While I have been to all 48 contiguous United States, I would only consider myself qualified to comment from first hand experience on living in New England and, of all places, Utah. In this case, however, I am in luck as Ogden, Utah is listed as the most affordable place in the United States to buy pizza. I will try to go out of my way here to be kind, but I must be accurate: Utah is an awful place for Italian food. It’s a great place for Mexican food…but it’s just awful for Italian food.
During my first month at Brigham Young University I got together with a few guys and we ordered a large pepperoni pizza for delivery to the dorms at Helaman. When it arrived, from some place called “Dominos”, a tiny box revealed a tiny pizza and I immediately started to head for the door to protest that a small pizza had been delivered instead of a large. My dorm-mates, apparently already familiar with this Dominos franchise from their lives in California, Utah, and Washington state, insisted that it was, in fact, a large, and that we were in possession of a large pizza. My protests and explanations that not just truly “large” pizzas, but extra large pizzas, family size, and even party sized pizzas actually existed and could take up entire kitchen tables and would cost about what we paid for, what ended up being, a pretty awful, really tiny “pizza”.
Today, in Utah, Pizza Hut, Dominos, and Papa John’s are the most popular pizza places. In Springfield we (proudly) don’t have a Papa John’s, the only Pizza Huts are attached to Taco Bells (Tacos Bell?), and Dominos are few and far between. What AreaVibes is comparing then is, say this “large”…”pizza” from Dominos:
To this large pizza from Red Rose:
When this medium:
is larger and, do I have to say it? Obviously much better.
Pizza is not pizza. That people in places without real pizza overpay for mass produced pseudo-pizza, but manage to pay slightly less for what’s called a “large” doesn’t really change the fact that you can get better pizza for less here…unless you want to buy Dominos…then there is one somewhere in the city…I can’t imagine going there.
Coffee is interesting, as I think it must be looked at with the same caveats as pizza with one additional point. More affluent areas are more likely to have a greater number of people who are willing to “overspend” on a convenience item like coffee thus raising the average price per cup (with all the same issues as to size classifications as pizza). Just in my neighborhood there is a Starbucks where many people choose to spend HUGE $ on a product I make at home for pennies (at my wife’s insistence, always organic fair trade…still cheaper), and which is available for a buck just a block away at Buckeye Brothers. When it comes to coffee, people with money will overspend, but we all know they don’t have to.
The two most important elements of the cost of living equation in the United States are transportation, already dealt with here, and housing. At AreaVibes housing is both included as 30% of the overall cost of living calculation and is also given its own separate category. I will deal with it by itself, but if the manner in which it is calculated in its own category bears any relationship to its 30% here, it has no objective value whatsoever. To be continued…