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What Lifestyle Can You Afford on $50,000?

How Far Can $50,000 Go?


Median household income in the United States has hovered just over $50,000 for the past few years, according to research from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the lifestyle you can afford on that income varies significantly depending on where you are, as anyone who lives in New York City or San Francisco can tell you. It's not just housing prices that vary, the cost of everything from eating out to getting around can fluctuate a lot from one place to another. Here’s how far $50,000 goes in eight cities across the country — from Huntsville, Alabama, to Los Angeles.

Atlanta, Georgia


Atlanta has long been a hotbed for business and industry, and as the home of several universities, Coca-Cola and CNN, it attracts hip, progressive professionals and the shops, restaurants and entertainment they prefer. The Georgia state capital was also particularly hard hit by the Great Recession and housing crisis, which has made it a more affordable place to live well on $50,000.

Based on the traditional economic advice of spending no more than 30 percent of household income on housing, home ownership is more manageable in Atlanta than many other major cities. In part because the city was hit hard by foreclosures after the housing market bust, home prices have dropped 18 percent since their peak. The median home price is now $143,000.

If you choose to drive to work by car, as most Atlanta residents do, you’ll spend a hefty chunk of income on fuel and vehicle maintenance, as Atlanta is known for its overcrowded highways and traffic jams. However, the MARTA, Atlanta’s public transportation system, services most areas of the city and is available for $2.50 per ride.

Median income: $54,628
Median home price: $143,000
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $12

Boise, Idaho


With a median housing price of $120,000, owning a home is within reach for many of the 212,000 people living in Boise. And it’s the type of place where many people like to put down roots and settle in — it has a reputation as a city of laid-back, friendly residents with good schools and excellent skiing.

Boise’s traditional agricultural economy — based on logging and potatoes — remains important to the area, but a growing number of high-tech jobs have diversified the city’s economic base. For instance, the city’s largest employer is now Micron Technology, which makes microchip processors for computers, automobiles and mobile devices.

Public transportation is available in Boise but many residents drive their own cars. After work, the city offers a wide range of affordable entertainment, including highly-ranked restaurants, theater, music and college athletics.

Median income: $48,968
Median home price: $120,000
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $10

Chicago, Illinois


The largest city in the Midwest, Chicago is at the intersection of two rivers and is known for its diversity and heartland values.

With a median home price of $231,000, Chicago is affordable for residents earning $50,000 per year. While you may not be able to purchase a Frank Lloyd Wright bungalow in Chicago’s Oak Park neighborhood on that salary, there are a lot of affordable housing options in less expensive neighborhoods like Edgewater. And no matter where you live, you can stroll through the city’s historic neighborhoods and enjoy the architecture free of charge.

Public transportation is readily available via the Chicago Transit Authority and costs a lot less than driving and parking in the city. There are plenty of entertainment options at every income level, with 3,000 hectares of city parks and a wide range of local theater, music and restaurants. And while tickets to Cubs, Bears or Bulls games can be steep, residents can always mosey into a pub and watch the home team for free with a crowd of other fervent supporters.

Median income: $59,261
Median home price: $231,000
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $10

Detroit, Michigan


It's been a tough decade for the nation’s automotive capital. After accumulating $18 billion to $20 billion in debt and seeing nearly a third of its residents move away (and, with them, tax revenues), the city declared a financial emergency this spring then became the largest municipality in history to file for bankruptcy in July. The financial troubles have left the city with diminished services and a surplus of empty or foreclosed homes. On the bright side: That means it’s very affordable for mid-level earners to purchase a home. With a median home price in the city of $124,000, even higher-end homes are within reach.

Transportation is also relatively inexpensive in Detroit. Commuters by car don’t have to save money for tolls, as there are no toll roads in Michigan. Public transportation by bus and monorail is also available and affordable. There is a relatively vibrant arts scene, and a range of reasonably priced entertainment options including theaters, museums, parks and zoos. And the city has begun to turn around. The unemployment rate fell from nearly 25 percent in 2009 to about 16 percent this summer, and civic leaders and city planning experts have been working on plans to revive and rebuild the city.

Median income: $50,310
Median home price: $124,000
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $10

Huntsville, Alabama


As the center of rocket propulsion and military technology research for NASA and the U.S. Army, Huntsville is a hub for jobs in technology and engineering. The home of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Redstone Arsenal, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the second largest research park in the United States, Huntsville attracts many companies that work in government contracting. But its location in the deep South, with rural areas close by, makes living in Huntsville affordable.

The median home price is about $150,000, making home ownership affordable for those making $50,000 per year. Most Huntsvillians commute by car, meaning fuel and vehicle maintenance will be an added expense. Public transportation by bus is available but not easily accessible from many neighborhoods.

Huntsville offers the amenities of city living but on a smaller scale, giving it the feel of a small town. Fewer than 200,000 people live within the city limits, but Huntsville’s population is expected to grow 5.8 percent over the next five years (faster than neighbors Atlanta and Nashville).

Median income: $48,000
Median home price: $150,000
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $8

Los Angeles, California


Living in southern California offers sun, sand, sophistication and stars. It can also offer a good life for people making $50,000 a year. The median home price in L.A. is $425,000, but lower-end homes and those located in nearby suburbs are within purchasing range for mid-level earners. A wide range of apartments, condominiums and single-family homes are also available for rent for around $1,300 or less.

Affordable public transportation is available through Metro shuttles and buses throughout the Los Angeles region, though most Angelenos spend their time driving those extensive L.A. freeways, which can be costly (in terms of money and time). Residents also pay more for staples here than in other cities. Utility prices are 15 percent higher than in the rest of the country and food prices are 10 percent higher, according to Best Places.

Median income: $51,017
Median home price: $425,000
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $12

New York, New York


For most mid-level earners in New York City, owning a home is out of reach. While rentals are available, you won’t get as much for your money as you might in a smaller city. The least expensive studio apartments in Manhattan are in Harlem or far uptown, and rent for around $1,500 a month, which would be well over one-third of your monthly paycheck. If you choose to live in another borough, such as Brooklyn or Queens, you can save some money and may get enough space to recruit a roommate and split costs.

However, what New Yorkers lose on housing, they gain in convenience and entertainment. Affordable transportation is available via subway and bus, and a new Citi bikeshare program. Cyclers, walkers, runners and nature enthusiasts have plenty of space for recreation in the city’s varied parks, with Central Park being the largest. In addition, discount tickets and freebies are frequently available for Broadway shows, museums, restaurants and the wide array of cultural attractions that embody New York.

Median income: $56,951
Median home price: $806,000
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $15

San Francisco, California


In San Francisco, the median home price is $706,300; so, with a $50,000 salary, renting may be the only reasonable option. If you spend about one-third of your monthly income on housing, you can live in a nice one-bedroom unit in the city or a larger rental in the suburbs.

San Francisco residents can save money on fuel and vehicle maintenance by opting to use public transportation or bicycling to work. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) provides high-speed rail service throughout the region, and there are also buses, trolleys, streetcars and the city’s famous cable cars available.

While you may spend more on rent in San Francisco than in most U.S. cities, you can make up some of the difference in groceries, utilities and other regular purchases. According to Numbeo, the consumer price index for San Francisco is 9 percent lower than in New York City.

Median income: $74,922
Median home price: $706,300
Average price of an inexpensive restaurant meal: $12

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