When people say that Seattle is an expensive city, they’re mostly thinking about the cost of housing. That’s understandable, because housing is the top living expense for most people.
But perhaps because our housing costs are so high, it’s easy to overlook the fact that just about everything is really expensive in Seattle. Across the board, we pay a premium for living here.
That much becomes clear when looking at the latest data from the Cost of Living Index, which is published quarterly by the Arlington, Virginia-based Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness, a nonprofit research and policy organization.
When compared with the average costs for the 257 cities included in the data for the first quarter of 2021, Seattle housing is most out of whack, at about 115% more expensive than average. But in every price category — groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and other goods and services — Seattle ranges from 9% to 40% higher than the average.
To illustrate the point, let’s pull out a few data points to compare the cost of some goods and services in Seattle with Spokane, where the cost of living is much closer to the national average.
Need a men’s haircut? You can tack on an extra $8 if you live in Seattle. If your pooch needs to see the vet for an annual exam, expect to pay about $16 more here than you would in Washington’s second-largest city. When it’s time to fill up the tank with gas, you’ll pay about 70 cents more per gallon here. And at the supermarket, just about every item costs a little more if you live in Seattle.
As far as housing costs go, home prices in Spokane are around half of what they are in Seattle, and rents are less than half, according to the data.
To produce the Cost of Living Index, which was first published in 1968, hundreds of researchers collect data at the local level on prices for more than 60 goods and services. For a city the size of Seattle, they collect 10 sample prices for each item.
All the researchers in each location collect their data during the same three-day period each quarter. They’re not hunting for bargains, either. Researchers are instructed to scout for prices with the mindset of a person in a professional or managerial occupation. Researchers are also given detailed instructions on how to select each item (such as brand, size and so on) to ensure the items are as comparable as possible between cities. Taxes are not included in the price.
(Note: For items that couldn’t be priced in some cities due to the shutdown — movie tickets, for example — pre-pandemic prices were carried over.)
There are actually a few bargains in Seattle. Among the more than 60 items included in the latest index, three were below the national average here: mortgage rates, margarine (Blue Bonnet or Parkay, 1 lb.), and a half gallon of whole milk.
Then again, some items were weirdly expensive in Seattle. We pay more than any other city for olive oil (extra virgin, store brand, 18 oz. bottle), at $8.99 — that’s 81% higher than the national average. Toothpaste (Crest or Colgate, 6 oz.-6.4 oz. tube) was also strangely expensive here at $4.39, or 88% higher than average.
Overall, Seattle is the sixth most expensive city in the report, tied with Boston. The cost of living is about 52% higher than average. That much isn’t new. Seattle first moved into the sixth-place spot in 2018.
But some things have changed. In the pre-pandemic world, nearly all workers were tied to the office. If you wanted to escape the high cost of living in Seattle, you could move a couple of hours away and become a “super commuter.” But who really wants to spend several hours a day traveling to and from work?
Now, the prospect of permanent remote work for many professionals has made this option much more appealing. A Redfin survey from earlier this year found that one-third of homebuyers and sellers had already moved to a different city or area, and just as many would like to. Most respondents said they had moved within 50 miles of their former home.
It’s likely that these relocations made possible by remote work will continue.
And it should be noted that one thing that did come down a little for Seattle in the latest Cost Of Living Index is apartment rent. That happened in a number of larger cities during the pandemic.
When compared with the first quarter of 2020, rent was down 2% — but at $2,595 for a two-bedroom unit of roughly 950 square feet in a newer building, Seattle is the 11th highest in the nation.