C2ER’s Cost of Living Index Helps Americans Find the Best Community for Their Budget with City-to-City Spending Comparisons

C2ER’s Cost of Living Index Helps Americans Find the Best Community for Their Budget with City-to-City Spending Comparisons
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Matt Walker
By: Matt Walker
Posted: November 5, 2018
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In a Nutshell: Knowing the cost of living for a city can be an important factor when determining whether or not to move there. The Cost of Living Index, released by the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER), provides an abundance of data that compares the overall cost of living for cities throughout the country. The volunteer-reported information also include facts and statistics broken down into six main categories that are then sorted into a database. The C2ER also supports other research initiatives that reveal important economic and community data. The organization welcomes volunteers for their diverse and evolving database.

When new college graduates reach up to move the tassel from the right to the left side of their mortarboards, a whole new world of potential unfolds before them, including exciting opportunities and difficult choices. For many recent grads, trying to land their first job out of school combines these extremes into one nerve-racking scenario.

Graduates seeking big bucks and ample opportunities for advancement may look to bigger cities where their chosen industry is thriving. Others looking for careers in public service or nonprofits may seek out underserved populations where they can make the greatest impact.

Cost of Living Index LogoWith either of these scenarios, the cost of living is an important factor to consider before deciding upon a destination. A recent graduate from the University of Georgia, in Athens, may be trying to decide whether to accept a job offer in Atlanta, about 75 miles southwest of Athens, or a job in Augusta, around 90 miles southeast.

Both Atlanta and Augusta are classified as metropolitan areas, and both play host to public research universities and have thriving healthcare industries. They both have similar climates and a number of the same cultural amenities. And each city has its many pros and cons. Atlanta has more diverse dining options; Augusta has less traffic.

There are numerous quantifiable and unquantifiable factors that go into making these kinds of decisions, but being able to review accurate and up-to-date cost of living data can be invaluable in making the final choice.

That’s where the Cost of Living Index, published by the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER), comes in.

According to the index, someone earning $70,000 per year in Augusta would need a salary of about $78,300 to maintain a similar standard of living in Atlanta. It should be noted that salaries in larger metropolitan are often a bit higher than suburban or rural areas surrounding them. Nevertheless, the Cost of Living Index helps users put one more piece of the puzzle in place when making these kinds of big decisions.

The Cost of Living Index is published quarterly, and its data is recognized by many notable organizations, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and CNN Money. The index’s data and methodology are reviewed by an advisory board consisting of academic researchers and government officials.

“We’re a very data-focused organization that tries to help communities, regions, and individuals make better decisions through information — it’s evidence-based decision-making,” said Jennie Allison, the Program Manager for C2ER’s parent organization, the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness.

The Cost of Living Index Data is Used by Job Seekers, Chambers of Commerce, and Researchers

The Cost of Living Index is celebrating its 50th year of publication this year, Allison said. Prior to its inception, a similar index had been published by the government and when it ceased to be, some chambers of commerce identified the need to keep making the information available.

Allison said the data from the index is often used by chambers of commerce and tourism boards across the country to help market their cities and towns.

Jennie Allison

Jennie Allison is the Program Manager for C2ER’s parent organization, the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness

“They’re the ones promoting their communities,” she said. “And this data is a great way to do that. They can say, ‘Hey, you can get a great value here, we have good amenities, and a good cost of living.’”

The data set is frequently referenced by human resource managers when adjusting salaries in multiple cities, and it is also used by academic and market researches alike for numerous reasons, including how average prices have changed over time.

The Cost of Living Index is also valuable to individuals for a number of reasons. Not only can it provide solid data for recent college grads who are new to the job market, but it can help in the decision-making process for those who may be looking for a change in scenery or for a community that is better suited to their budget.

“Our index is a great complement to other data points,” Allison said. “When someone is potentially looking for a new job and they have a choice of a few different cities but want to stay within a certain range of the national average cost of living, our data is a great resource.”

Volunteer-Reported Data in Six Main Categories is Sorted into an Extensive Database

Allison said the data included in the index is reported by volunteers in communities throughout the country, and it is broken down into six broad categories: food, housing, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services.

There are approximately 60 individual items within the categories that generally remain consistent from year to year, including the price of gas in the transportation category or the cost of a hamburger in the food category. But the C2ER does make efforts to update the list to change with the times.

Allison said the index recently eliminated landline phones from its list and replaced it with cellphone taxes and fees.

Data Graphic

The Cost of Living Index includes categories for food, housing, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services.

“Also, for our first 50 years, the price for bowling on a Saturday night was included in the index,” she said. “These days, it’s hard to even find a bowling alley in a lot of places, and I don’t think it’s quite what people look to as the first thing to do with their free time.”

Moving forward, instead of bowling, the Cost of Living Index will now include the cost for a one-hour yoga session.

“We think that’s more reflective of what people are doing in their free time, and there are just more yoga studios around the country than there are bowling alleys,” Allison said.

The items are not selected randomly, however. The C2ER chooses them based on the Consumer Expenditure Survey published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, she said.

The end product is a robust database that can be easily sorted to view the information most pertinent to the user and presented in an easy-to-understand format.

The measurement used by the Cost of Living Index makes the average for all participating locations equal to 100. And numbers more than or less than 100 indicate the percentage above or below the average, respectively, for a particular area or category.

Users can view sample data or purchase the full index on the Cost of Living Index website.

C2ER Supports Other High-Quality Community and Economic Research Initiatives

The Council for Community and Economic Research was founded in 1961 with the mission to promote “excellence in community and economic research by working to improve data availability, enhance data quality, and foster learning about regional economic analytic methods.”

The organization seeks to achieve this by conducting training, advocacy, and research; delivering innovative products and services for researchers; and developing professional networks.

In addition to the Cost of Living Index, the C2ER notably curates the State Business Incentives Database, which includes more than 1,600 incentive programs across the country. It also maintains the State Economic Development Expenditures Database, which assesses total resources available for economic development activity across a number of areas and funding sources.

C2ER Logo

The organization also provides training for economic development research professionals, technical assistance in implementing data-driven economic development strategies, and maintains a job listing database containing community and economic development research positions.

The C2ER also offers training and evaluation for professional certification as a Certified Economic Research Professional, considerted the “industry standard for recognizing excellence in community and economic research,” according to its website.

Additionally, the nonprofit is responsible for a number of other publications, including the Journal of Applied Research in Economic Development and an economic development weekly update email.

“C2ER’s quarterly online Journal of Applied Research in Economic Development translates research from academic journals and think-tanks into practical knowledge for economic development practitioners,” according to the C2ER website.

As a member organization, C2ER includes U.S. and Canadian research professionals from numerous sectors, including chambers of commerce, government agencies, universities, utility companies, and community development organizations.

New Volunteers and Communities to Include in Its Data are Always Welcome

Whether you’re a recent college graduate deciding on where to put down roots or simply looking for a community better suited to your budget and lifestyle, the Cost of Living Index can be a useful resource.

Allison said if someone’s city is not currently included in the index, C2ER always welcomes new volunteers.

“Our data comes from volunteer organization researchers usually because their organization is a local stakeholder in knowing what the cost of living should be in their area,” she said. “It’s all from individual researchers collecting data on the ground.”