Any list of the least expensive places to live in the U.S. usually includes such Midwestern burgs as Fort Wayne, Des Moines, Moline, Peoria, Grand Rapids and Indianapolis. Interestingly, that’s also a list of the hometowns of half the kids in a Critical Mass ride, or at a demonstration in Logan Square Park.
They know something the number crunchers at U.S. News and World Report don’t: Chicago is just as affordable as the little hometowns they fled, and more affordable than any other big city in this country – at least for renters. For the young and ambitious, no American city offers the same combination of affordability and opportunity as Chicago. The octogenarian essayist Joseph Epstein once wrote, longingly, that “Chicago seems a city for the young, a place where to be in, say, one’s early 30s seems ideal.”
Having spent my early 30s in Chicago, after moving here from Decatur, I can attest to the truth of that. Here are a few reasons living in Chicago can actually be a better bargain than in Central Illinois, not to mention New York or San Francisco.
Rents are lower than on the coasts:
East and West Coasters gasp when I tell them that, for 10 years, I paid $1,000 to live in a two-bedroom apartment overlooking Lake Michigan. (Some residents of Lincoln Park gasp, too.) According to Apartment List, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco is $2,610. In Los Angeles, it’s $2,050. In Chicago: $1,360.
Census data gives different numbers that tell the same story. The median gross rent from 2015-2019 in Chicago was $1,112, compared to a national median of $1,062. In New York, $1,443; Los Angeles, $1,450; SF, $1,895. Houston, nipping at Chicago’s heels in population, is cheaper, but not by much: $1,041, as is Dallas at $1,052.
Other cities more expensive than us include Boston, Seattle, Miami, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Tampa and Austin, which isn’t on a coast, but has warmer weather, better Tex-Mex food, and a better music scene. Using Craigslist, I compared apartment prices in Logan Square with a comparable neighborhood in Boston, Brighton. In Logan Square, prices range from $1,000 to $1,500. In Brighton, they’re in the $1,500 to $2,000 bracket.
You don’t need a car:
There are plenty of Midwestern cities where you’ll pay less for an apartment than you will in Chicago. Flint, Michigan, for example. Everything costs a little less in Flint. A full-course lunch at a sit-down restaurant is $7. A souvenir t-shirt is $12.50. A two-bedroom apartment in the Durant Luxury Apartments, with granite countertops and a stainless steel refrigerator, is $1,028.
Here’s the catch: you can’t live in Flint without a car. It is Vehicle City, after all. And insuring that car will cost you $325 a month! That’s on top of a loan payment, gas, maintenance, and parking fees. So there goes the $300 a month savings in rent.
It’s even worse in Detroit, where monthly auto insurance rates average $502. Add that to an average one-bedroom rent of $890, and you’ve exceeded the cost of a Chicago apartment. Detroit’s public transportation system is scandalously inadequate: the city recently built a light-rail system, the Q Line, but it’s no L or Metra: it only operates along a single street, Woodward Avenue. For obvious reasons, Detroit tries to do everything it can to make its residents drive. For a variety of reasons, Michigan has unusually high car-insurance rates, but Chicago still compares favorably to a lot of other major cities—about $150 a year cheaper than Atlanta or Minneapolis, for example, or $650 a year less than Dallas.
Chicago has the most comprehensive public transportation system in the Midwest, comparable with the much denser metros of New York, Boston, Washington and San Francisco. No wonder so many Michiganders live here. And not just Michiganders. I know a retired couple from Houston who moved to Chicago to be near their daughter, a student at Loyola, and sold both their cars. Housing is more expensive here, but overall, they find Chicago more affordable, because of the savings on transportation.
You can earn money:
Just for starters, the minimum wage in Chicago is $13.50 an hour. Do you know what the minimum wage is Indiana? It’s $7.25, which is the federal standard, and it would be zero if Indiana could get away with it. That’s life in a Red State. Wisconsin is the same. Missouri ($10.30) and Michigan ($9.65) do a little better.
Chicago’s minimum wage is not as high as Washington, D.C.’s ($15.20), but our cost of living isn’t as high as in the nation’s capital. Of course, everyone wants to earn more than minimum wage, and in Chicago, you can earn a lot more. According to Deutsche Bank, Chicago has the fifth-highest average monthly salary of any city in the world, at $4,062, exceeded in the United States by only San Francisco, New York and Boston.
You can get there from here:
Chicago is the nation’s transportation hub, which means it’s cheap to fly anywhere. I went onto Orbitz.com and compared round-trip Fourth of July weekend flights to New York City from Bloomington and Chicago. The cheapest flight from Bloomington is $544.70, and requires changing planes in O’Hare and Washington, D.C.’s Ronald Reagan National Airport. The cheapest flight from Chicago is $327, and it’s direct.
The taxes are not that bad:
Chicago’s sales tax of 10.25 percent is pretty high. A big reason for that: Chicago has no city income tax. Unlike New York, which starts at 3.078 percent and goes up to 3.876 percent. Or Philadelphia, at 3.8712 percent. Or Detroit, at 2.4 percent. Illinois’s flat income tax rate of 4.95 percent is lower than most states charge middle-income earners.
So tell your friends in Bettendorf and Fond du Lac to move to Chicago, where it’s easier to make ends meet. But there is one thing that makes Chicago more expensive, at least than Miami or Los Angeles: you have to buy four seasons worth of clothes.