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U.S. Cities With the Highest Cost-of-Living Adjusted Salaries

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a surge in geographic mobility. According to Pew Research Center, 22 percent of adults in the U.S. have relocated during the pandemic or know someone who did. Interestingly, this reverses a longstanding trend in which Americans were staying put.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that prior to COVID-19, Americans were moving a lot less. In 1981, 3.4 percent of Americans moved to a different county within the same state while only 2.8 percent moved to a different state entirely. By 2019, those percentages dropped to 2.1 percent and 1.5 percent, respectively. The share of Americans moving across county lines has remained at a relatively flat, low level since 2010.

Chart1 Moving across county lines has been trending down for decades

As people think about where to move during COVID-19 and beyond, job prospects and earning potential will be top of mind. Median earnings for full-time workers in the U.S. was $50,078 in 2019, a 20.6 percent increase since 2010 in nominal dollars. However, the relative cost of living in a given area impacts purchasing power and should be an important factor when weighing employment opportunities. There is significant regional variation in cost-of-living adjusted earnings across the U.S., with residents in the Northeast and Midwest generally faring better than those in the South or West. For example, median adjusted earnings range from a low of $41,063 in Florida to a high of $58,029 in Massachusetts.

Chart2 Northern states tend to offer higher adjusted salaries

To find which metropolitan areas offer the greatest purchasing power, researchers at Smartest Dollar calculated cost-of-living adjusted earnings using data for full-time workers from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. To improve relevance, metros were grouped into the following categories based on population: small (100,000–349,999), midsize (350,000–999,999), and large (1,000,000 or more).

Similar to the statewide trends, the small and midsize metros offering the highest adjusted earnings are concentrated in the Midwest and Northeast. Unlike the state-level trends, the large metros with the best pay are scattered throughout the country, with similar levels of representation in the Northeast, West, and Midwest. Here are the metropolitan areas with the highest cost-of-living adjusted earnings.

Chart3 Small and midsize metros with highest adjusted salaries

Large Metros With the Highest Adjusted Salaries

15 Ohio Columbus KH4JT5
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15. Columbus, OH

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $55,530
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $51,032
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 19.2%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): -8.1%

14 Pennsylvania Pittsburgh KCH540
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14. Pittsburgh, PA

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $55,798
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $51,948
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 24.5%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): -6.9%

13 Ohio Cleveland KKEKP1
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13. Cleveland-Elyria, OH

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $55,892
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $50,359
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 18.8%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): -9.9%

12 Colorado Denver T0EB17
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12. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $55,894
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $58,633
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 23.6%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +4.9%

11 Missouri Saint Louis ENGN68
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11. St. Louis, MO-IL

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $56,624
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $51,528
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 21.8%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): -9.0%

10 North Carolina Raleigh EN5EED
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10. Raleigh-Cary, NC

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $56,934
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $54,998
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 19.7%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): -3.4%

09 Ohio Cincinnati F9M906
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9. Cincinnati, OH-KY-IN

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $57,222
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $51,500
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 19.8%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): -10.0%

08 Maryland Baltimore GYFB3E
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8. Baltimore-Columbia-Towson, MD

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $57,575
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $61,432
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 20.5%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +6.7%

07 California San Francisco HPEPA5
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7. San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, CA

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $58,331
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $76,764
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 31.5%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +31.6%

06 Minnesota Minneapolis GTFB1H
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6. Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $58,512
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $60,033
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 21.3%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +2.6%

05 Washington Seattle DAEA6A
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5. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $58,573
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $66,129
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 28.2%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +12.9%

04 Massachusetts Boston EAYKR2
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4. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $59,046
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $67,430
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 24.3%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +14.2%

03 District of Columbia J9CXE7
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3. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $59,993
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $70,672
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 17.0%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +17.8%

02 Connecticut Hartford ETY5T6
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2. Hartford-East Hartford-Middletown, CT

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $60,357
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $61,625
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 18.1%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +2.1%

01 California San Jose P9BWCC
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1. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

  • Median earnings for full-time workers (adjusted): $63,727
  • Median earnings for full-time workers (unadjusted): $82,463
  • Percentage change since 2010 (unadjusted): 30.7%
  • Cost of living (compared to national average): +29.4%

Methodology & Detailed Findings

While unadjusted wages are generally higher in more expensive locations, cost-of-living adjusted wages show no significant correlation with living costs. This means that there are both highly expensive and highly affordable metropolitan areas offering strong purchasing power for its workers.

In general, the more expensive metros with strong purchasing power tend to be located in coastal areas, while the more affordable metros with strong purchasing power are located in the Midwest. Furthermore, the normalization of remote work during COVID-19 could have broader implications for where Americans want to live and work if many are no longer tethered to an employer’s office. 

Chart4 Both high and low cost metros offer strong purchasing power

Earnings statistics used in the study are for full-time workers, retrieved from the U.S. Census Bureau 2019 and 2010 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. Cost-of-living statistics are from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis Regional Price Parities.

To determine the locations with the highest and lowest cost-of-living adjusted earnings for full-time workers, median earnings were adjusted using the Regional Price Parity for that location. Earnings in locations with above-average living costs were adjusted down to reflect lower purchasing power, while earnings in locations with below-average living costs were adjusted up to reflect greater purchasing power.

All locations were ranked by their cost-of-living adjusted earnings for full-time workers. Only metros with at least 100,000 people and available data from both the Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis were included. To improve relevance, metros were grouped into cohorts based on population: small (100,000–349,999), midsize (350,000–999,999), and large (1,000,000 or more).