What Causes Differences in Cost of Living?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

It’s no secret that there are differences in cost of living expenses from one area to another. Several factors come into play that can lead to the standard of living in one area being significantly higher than the standard of living found in an area that is no more than a few hours away. In addition to differences in cost of living expenses between areas, there can even be differences between households, based not only on the amount of income flowing into those households, but also how that income is used.

Buying a home in a rural area may be less expensive than in an urban area.
Buying a home in a rural area may be less expensive than in an urban area.

One of the major issues that can lead to differences in cost of living expenses is location. While not always the case, it is not unusual for the basic cost of living in a metropolitan area to be somewhat higher than the cost found in a rural location. Here, there are a number of factors that may help to create the differences, including the type of taxes that are assessed, the effects of inflation on the local economy, and even the desirability of real estate. If an area is currently experiencing a high influx of new people into that city or town, this means increased demand for living space as well as for other essential services such as food and utilities. This in turn is likely to cause the cost of living to increase somewhat, as the competition for certain resources increase and people are willing to pay more for the limited supply.

Utility costs impact the cost of living.
Utility costs impact the cost of living.

Along with these shifts in purchasing power parity that come with a higher demand for a limited supply of goods and services, differences in cost of living expenses can also be traced back to the way that households manage their income. For people who prefer to live more simply, there is often less of a demand for luxury items, or even big ticket purchases such as large homes or extensive property. In some cases, households that are somewhat frugal when it comes to luxury items may in fact have more income to divert into the purchase of items considered essential. As a result, these households may carry less debt while still having plenty to eat, enough to enjoy a full range of utilities, and even to be able to buy desired items with less stress on the household budget.

When it comes to differences in cost of living, one key factor that applies for both households and for specific geographic areas as whole is the amount of income generated. This is usually reflected as an average level of income that includes all residents for the period of time under consideration. For a household, this has to do with the income generated by individuals living in the residence that work or otherwise generate some type of regular income that goes to managing living expenses. When that income is relatively near or slightly exceeds the average cost of living in the area, this means that many households enjoy a standard of living considered equitable for the area. When the cost of living exceeds average income, there is a good chance that a sizable number of residents are living a standard that is below the considered average or norm.

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - I know it's not convenient for everyone, but if money is tight I would try my best to move somewhere with decent public transport and ditch having a car altogether.

That isn't going to be a choice for everyone, but if you can possibly get away with it, it can cut down the money you spend each week by a huge amount.


@pleonasm - People don't ever think of the cost of time when factoring in these things. If you've got a local job in a small town, then you're fine, but if you or your partner has to commute, you should remember that even an hour per day ends up being five hours every week on the road.

With that said, even living in the city isn't a guarantee that you'll have access to better living costs. Many urban areas are what is known as food deserts, where there isn't a supermarket within a short driving distance. People end up spending much more on groceries because they have to buy basics from convenience stores, or spend more money on fuel.


Don't take it for granted that the cost of living in a rural or small town setting is going to be cheaper than living in the city. It might be true that the rent is less expensive (although not always, since there will be much less choice outside urban areas) but often food will be more expensive. Anything that isn't grown locally will have to be brought in from elsewhere, and very few places have diverse local produce these days.

If you have your own garden you can grow your own food, but not everyone has the time or space to do that. And if you need to commute for your job, the cost of that can quickly exceed the savings from rent.

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