The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 hit many American cities hard — especially New York. The New York Times reported in May that roughly 5% of the Big Apple’s residents, especially in wealthier neighborhoods, had fled the city for less densely populated areas in surrounding states that they saw as safer. Moreover, many of them were considering making the move permanent. According to a Harris Poll released in June, 39% of city dwellers in the United States said the COVID-19 crisis had them thinking about moving to a less populated area.
However, that might not actually be the smartest move for their health. For one thing, a World Bank study of cities in China found that on the whole, the highest rates of COVID-19 virus infection and death occurred not in the densest cities but more sparsely populated areas. And within the U.S., the nation’s second-densest city, San Francisco — which has about 10% of New York’s population — had less than 1% as many COVID-19 cases and 0.03% as many deaths.
In fact, the World Bank report noted that dense urban areas had some advantages in the pandemic. They were more likely to have high-quality hospitals and emergency services that could save people’s lives if they became ill. They were also more likely to have reliable high-speed Internet service and door-to-door delivery services that made it easier for people to stay at home, reducing their risk of becoming infected in the first place.
Moreover, even if leaving the city could definitely improve your health, that doesn’t mean it would make you happier. Health is only one of many factors that affect happiness, including work, cost of living, and lifestyle. All these factors differ widely among urban, rural, and suburban areas. Moving from one of these settings to another could affect your finances, health, and happiness in ways that might not be obvious.
Getting to the heart of the differences between city, suburbs, and rural can be complicated. One problem is that despite the clear differences between urban and suburban areas — including population density, housing costs, and patterns of development — the U.S. government officially considers suburbs just a subset of cities. In fact, the government doesn’t even have an official definition of “suburb” even though, according to Bloomberg CityLab, just over half of Americans in the 2017 American Housing Survey said they considered themselves to be living in one.
However, the 2018 Consumer Expenditures (CE) Survey from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) offers a clue. It breaks down data about Americans’ income and expenditures by “type of area” — rural, center city, and “other urban.” As the top line of Table 17 shows, about 55% of all American households are located in “other urban” areas — pretty close to the 52% of respondents who described their area as suburban in the American Housing Survey.
Based on these numbers and the fact that suburbs clearly aren’t either rural areas or city centers, this survey’s figures for “other urban” areas should offer an adequate estimate of the cost of living in the suburbs as compared to the city and rural areas. Putting them together with data from other sources can give a clear picture of how income and expenses in these different areas break down.
One common reason for people to live in or near a city is job availability. According to a 2019 McKinsey report, most of the nation’s job growth since the Great Recession has occurred in metropolitan areas. The most significant gains have occurred in “megacities” (defined as the largest urban areas in the country, like New York) and fast-growing “hubs” (defined as medium-size cities with high employment, such as Seattle) and in the suburbs of these areas. Meanwhile, smaller cities and rural areas have struggled.
However, living where the jobs are doesn’t necessarily mean living in the heart of the city. A 2019 analysis of BLS data by Bloomberg CityLab found that nearly one-third of all jobs in the U.S. were in the suburbs of large cities, not in the cities themselves. Job growth in these suburban areas outpaced growth in both center cities and rural regions.
A 2018 Pew survey on the demographics of urban, suburban, and rural areas also found that people living in the suburbs were most likely to say there were plenty of jobs available in their area. Only 22% of suburban adults said job availability was a problem in their area, compared to 34% of city dwellers and 42% of those in rural areas. In fact, from 2000 to 2018, the overall number of employed adults between the ages of 25 and 54 actually fell in rural counties while rising in suburbs and cities.
Although jobs are most plentiful in the suburbs, they don’t always pay the most there. According to CityLab, workers in the suburbs of large cities earn less on average than those in the city centers. However, they still earn more than workers in smaller cities and rural areas.
On average, Pew says urban workers earn the most, with average wages of $49,515 in 2016, compared to $46,081 in the suburbs and $35,171 in rural areas. However, the CE Survey says household income was highest in suburban areas in 2018. The average suburban household that year had an income of $86,136 before taxes, compared to $72,577 in city centers and only $54,989 in rural areas. That may reflect the fact that more suburban households have multiple wage earners.
Rural areas clearly lag behind both the cities and the suburbs in terms of earning potential. They also are more likely to have people living in poverty. According to Pew, the poverty rate in rural areas is 18%, compared to 17% in cities and 14% in suburbs.
On the plus side, poverty isn’t increasing as fast in these rural areas. Between 2000 and 2018, poverty increased by 51% in suburban areas, 31% in cities, and only 23% in rural regions.
While city dwellers make the most money on average, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the highest standard of living. Along with their higher wages, they have higher expenses in many areas — particularly housing.
Urban Housing Costs
Housing costs are notoriously high in cities, especially in some big cities like New York. Factors behind these high housing costs include:
- Rent. According to a February 2018 Zillow report, the average rent for a city home in December 2017 was $1,859 per month. In a separate report from October 2018, Zillow calculates that a city dweller earning the U.S. median income could expect to spend 36.8% of it on rent. That’s well above the 30% of income the U.S. Department of Housing and Development sets as the maximum most people can afford to pay for rent.
- Mortgage. Being a homeowner in the city is also expensive. According to Zillow, the average price of a home in urban areas was $315,988 in December 2017. However, buying a home in the city can still be cheaper than renting. Zillow’s second report found that a person making the median income who purchased a median-priced home in an urban area would spend only 26.5% of their income on the monthly mortgage payment.
- Cost per Square Foot. The high prices you pay for city dwellings don’t get you a lot of space. Zillow’s interactive graph in the 2018 report notes that for home buyers, the average home in an urban area cost a whopping $231 per square foot in December 2017. For renters, the price per square foot was $1.41 per month.
- Property Taxes. Zillow’s report does not cover property taxes. However, according to the CE survey, the average city dweller pays $1,759 a year in property taxes. That’s significantly lower than the average cost for the suburbs — but since suburban homes are often larger, the cost difference for two homes of equal size might not be so stark.
- Other Taxes. As Realtor Eric Sztanyo told Apartment Therapy in 2018, city dwellers often have to pay specific city taxes that suburban residents don’t. For example, he says that living in the suburbs of Cincinnati allows him to avoid the city-specific tax that covers the cost of the stadium where the Cincinnati Bengals play. In some cases, these extra taxes more than offset the savings on property taxes between city and suburbs.
Suburban Housing Costs
Many people who work in the city choose to live in the suburbs because they can get more home for their dollar. Housing costs in the suburbs include:
- Rent. Zillow’s February 2018 report finds that the average cost of rent in the suburbs was $1,583 per month in December 2017. A suburban dweller making the U.S. median income would pay 31.8% of it on rent, according to Zillow’s October report.
- Mortgage. The average price of a suburban home in December 2017 was $234,443. Suburban homeowners making the U.S. median income would pay 20.2% of their income on the monthly mortgage.
- Cost per Square Foot. In terms of cost per square foot, the difference between cities and suburbs is even bigger. The average house in the suburbs costs $138 per square foot, only 60% as much as the cost in the city. The average cost for renters is $0.97 per square foot per month, about 69% of the average cost for city dwellers.
- Property Taxes. One cost that’s higher for suburban dwellers is property taxes, especially around large metropolitan areas. According to a 2018 Bloomberg article, 9 of the 10 counties with the highest property taxes in the country are suburbs of New York City. The CE Survey says the average suburban resident pays $2,645 per year in property taxes, about 50% more than the average city dweller.
Rural Housing Costs
The average cost of housing in rural areas is significantly lower than in both urban and suburban areas. It includes:
- Rent. According to Zillow’s February 2018 report, the average cost of rent in the country in December 2017 was $1,189 per month — only 64% of the cost in the city. The October report indicates that if you earned the U.S. median income, you’d spend 23.9% of it on rent living in the country.
- Mortgage. In rural areas, the average house price in December 2017 was $157,451. That means a rural homeowner making the U.S. median income would spend only 13.4% of their income on the mortgage. However, since incomes are also significantly lower in the country, affordability can still be a problem. A 2019 report by Pew’s Stateline found that between 2010 and 2017, nearly 25% of rural areas in the country saw the percentage of households spending half their income on housing increase by one point or more.
- Cost per Square Foot. Cost per square foot is also lowest in rural areas. The average rural home price in December 2017 was $102 per square foot, less than half the cost of a city home. The average rental price was $0.79 per square foot per month, about 56% of the cost in the city.
- Property Taxes. Although property taxes are lowest in the country, the difference between city and country isn’t quite so stark here. According to the CE Survey, the average country dweller spends $1,151 per year on property taxes. That’s about 65% of the price in the city and less than half as much as in the suburbs.
Although city dwellers typically pay more to own or rent a home than those in the country and the suburbs, they often pay less to heat, cool, and power it. According to the CE Survey, the average center-city household spends a total of $3,615 per year on “utilities, fuels, and public services,” such as phone service. By contrast, suburban households pay an average of $4,337 per year, and rural households pay $4,014.
One particular problem for many country dwellers is energy costs for heating, cooling, and electricity. A 2018 report from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy finds that rural households spend an average of 4.4% of their income on energy compared to 3.1% of income for metropolitan (urban and suburban) areas. That’s partly because rural households have lower average incomes. However, other factors also drive up their energy costs, including:
- Older homes and older appliances that are less energy efficient
- A larger number of single-family homes, which use more energy per square foot than apartments or townhomes
- A larger number of manufactured homes (trailers), which use more energy per square foot than other single-family homes
- More extreme weather conditions that increase heating and cooling needs
- Lack of money to invest in more efficient equipment
- Lack of knowledge about how to conserve energy at home
Another big problem for rural residents is access to high-speed Internet and cellphone service. These services are essential if you work from home online or want to home-school online, as many have had to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in a 2018 Pew survey on Internet access, nearly 60% of rural Americans said getting access to high-speed Internet was at least a minor problem in their area, and 24% called it a major problem. Only 13% of city dwellers and 9% of suburban residents said it was a major problem for them.
Rural areas are also more likely to lack reliable cellphone service. Coverage maps from Cellular Maps show that all the major cellphone providers have at least some gaps in their coverage in the sparsely populated West.
Other utilities, such as water and sewer service, aren’t always readily available in the country either. Many rural areas don’t have nearby municipal water and sewer lines to tap into, so residents have to maintain their own wells for water and septic tanks.
That creates more work for homeowners, but it can also save them money. According to the CE Survey, country dwellers pay an average of $475 a year for “water and other public services,” compared to $601 in the city and $643 in the suburbs.
It’s also easier for rural residents to save on home heating by burning firewood they cut themselves if they have enough trees on their property to make this sustainable. Those who don’t have trees of their own can sometimes get permission to harvest wood on a neighbor’s property if they give the neighbor half the cut and split wood. However, those who have to purchase wood for fuel can expect to pay $150 to $575 per cord plus delivery fees, depending on where they live, according to Chainsaw Journal. According to the Michigan State University Extension, a cord of wood produces about as much heat as 145 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil, so wood at $300 per cord is only cheaper than oil when fuel oil costs $2.07 per gallon or less.
Food seems like it should be cheapest in rural areas, but in fact, that’s not always the case. For most Americans, food doesn’t come directly from the farm — it comes from the grocery store. People who live in areas with no supermarkets or large grocery stores have to grow their own food, rely on small pricey local markets (often with limited selection) and convenience stores, or drive several miles into town to find larger grocery stores.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calls these areas “food deserts.” A 2012 USDA report found that food deserts exist all across the country — in urban, rural, and suburban areas.
Urban Food Expenses
According to the CE Survey, people in urban areas spend an average of $7,378 per year on food. Nearly half of this — $3,446 — is for eating out. Cities offer access to a wide variety of dining options, and city dwellers spend a larger share of their food budget in restaurants than anyone else.
Unfortunately, eating out can be expensive. According to Priceonomics, a meal in a restaurant costs roughly 5 times as much as the same meal cooked at home. The wide array of eateries in cities, which many residents see as a plus, can also tempt them to eat out more and spend more on food than they need to.
However, even in cities, people don’t eat most of their meals in restaurants. More than half their food budget goes to groceries — and that’s where city dwellers have an advantage. According to a 2014 study in The Review of Economic Studies, food prices tend to be lowest in urban areas, especially large cities. That would explain why the $3,932 city residents spend each year on groceries is less than the figure for either rural or suburban residents.
Food-wise, one downside of city living is that it’s harder to grow or raise your own food. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Even apartment dwellers can often maintain a small container garden on a balcony or in a sunny window. A few neighborhoods even have community gardens where residents can cultivate a larger plot. You can even raise chickens in the city (for eggs or meat) or keep bees (for honey) in some neighborhoods.
Suburban Food Expenses
Suburbanites spend significantly more each year on food than city dwellers: a total of $8,501, according to the CE Survey. They also spend more on dining out, at $3,636 per year, but this number represents a smaller percentage of their total food budget. Most of their extra spending goes to groceries, which cost them $4,865 per year — about 24% more than urban shoppers spend and 20% more than rural shoppers.
Although living in the suburbs means paying more for groceries, it also gives you more options than city dwellers for growing and raising food at home. A typical suburban yard offers plenty of space for a home vegetable garden, although homeowners’ associations in some neighborhoods may restrict where you can place it. You can also convert your yard from grass to edible landscaping, which includes plants that look attractive while also providing food, such as fruit trees, herbs, and perennial vegetables.
Rural Food Expenses
Surprisingly, getting healthy food is often harder in rural areas than in urban ones. For one thing, grocery stores tend to be much farther away. In its 2012 report, the USDA defined food deserts in rural areas as places where at least 1 in 3 residents has no large grocery stores within a 10-mile radius as opposed to just 1 mile in urban and suburban areas for the same status. And even with this broader definition, it still found over 2,000 rural food deserts in the U.S.
Also, food prices tend to be higher in rural areas — especially for healthy foods. A 2015 report in Health Promotion Practice compared the nutritional quality and cost of foods in four Kentucky counties, two rural and two urban, over 10 months. It found that healthy foods were cheaper in urban areas, and the healthier the foods, the more significant the price difference.
On the plus side, living in the country means you don’t necessarily have to get your food from the grocery store. You have a wide range of options for producing your own food, including:
- Growing vegetables and other food crops
- Raising chickens for eggs and meat
- Raising cattle, sheep, or goats for meat and milk
- Raising other animals, such as pigs, for meat
- Keeping bees
- Hunting, fishing, and foraging for wild food
Of course, producing your own food is more work than buying it. You have to cultivate your garden, tend your livestock, and take steps to protect them both from weather and disease. However, when you live far from the city, taking these matters into your own hands can often be a more reliable way to get healthy food than depending on the supermarket.
The farther you live from the city, the more likely you are to depend on a car. You need it to get to work or school, go shopping, visit the doctor, and in the most remote areas to mail a letter. According to the CE Survey, 93% of rural households and 92% of suburban ones have at least one car, compared with only 81% in central cities.
Owning a car brings a whole host of expenses. In addition to keeping the tank full, you have to pay for insurance, maintenance, and of course, the vehicle itself. People in the city spend significantly less on all of these expenses than others.
The average city resident spends a total of $8,827 per year on transportation — less than both suburbanites and country dwellers. That’s primarily because it’s much easier to live without a car when you live in the city. Cities offer better public transportation networks than both suburban and rural areas as well as more access to ridesharing and car-sharing.
Also, because things are much closer together, it’s easier to get around on foot or a bicycle in many large cities. The practicality of riding a bike depends on your neighborhood, however. Cycling on crowded city streets can be unsafe, but some bike-friendly cities offer dedicated bike lanes and even bike-sharing programs.
However, city dwellers who prefer to have a car are likely to spend a lot on its care and housing. According to Statista, while the average American driver paid $10,288 to own a car in 2018, that number jumped to $14,000 or more in some U.S. cities. Parking in large cities is a particularly steep expense, ranging from $723 per year in Dallas to a whopping $5,395 per year in New York City.
The suburbs are definitely more car-dependent than cities, though not quite as much as rural areas. Most places you need to visit are likely to be within a short drive — say, half an hour or less — but few are likely to be within walking or cycling distance. On the plus side, cycling in the suburbs can be safer because there’s less traffic on the roads.
Many suburbs also offer their residents some access to mass transit. For instance, commuter rail lines link New York City with suburbs in Long Island, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut. That gives suburbanites more options for how to get around, making some trips by car and others by city bus or commuter rail.
Unfortunately, this mix of transportation options costs more than relying on either a car or mass transit alone. According to the CE Survey, people who live in the suburbs spend significantly more on all aspects of car ownership, from car purchases to gas and oil, than city dwellers. Yet they also spend much more on public transportation than rural residents. As a result, suburbanites have the highest overall spending on transportation, an average of $10,352 per year.
The wide-open spaces of the countryside make transportation a challenge. When you live in the country, you may be farther from your neighbors as well as your workplace, child’s school, doctor’s office, and stores. That makes a car an absolute necessity for country dwellers.
According to the CE Survey, rural residents spend more each year on vehicle purchases than anyone else: $4,421 per year compared to $4,069 in the suburbs and $3,729 in the city. The most significant share of this money goes for used rather than new cars. Used cars are generally cheaper than new ones, but they also wear out faster, especially if you put a lot of miles on them. Thus, the higher price per year that country dwellers pay for cars probably reflects the fact that their vehicles see heavy use and they need to replace them often.
Interestingly, despite their heavier reliance on their cars, country dwellers typically spend less per year for gas, insurance, and maintenance than those in the suburbs. According to a 2019 paper in Spatial Analysis and Modeling (covered in detail in Futurity), gas tends to be more expensive “at the interfaces between urban and rural areas” where suburbs are located than in either urban or rural areas. Auto insurance also tends to be cheaper in rural areas, according to the Insurance Information Institute — partly because their less crowded roads reduce the risk of accidents, and partly because theft and vandalism are less common.
The main reason so many people are thinking about moving out of the city right now is the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people fear that living in a densely populated city puts them at a higher risk of being exposed to the disease. Even New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, tweeted that the density of New York City was “destructive,” and the city should make “an immediate plan” to reduce it.
However, there’s little evidence to suggest that city residents are at higher risk for COVID-19 than those in low-density suburbs. In fact, both the World Bank study and an American study by ProPublica Illinois found that just the opposite was true. And as The Atlantic points out, many of the world’s most densely populated cities, including Hong Kong, Taipei, and Seoul, have done a better job of controlling the virus than lower-density, sprawling metropolitan areas.
In fact, according to The New York Times, denser cities can make their residents safer during a pandemic — and at other times too. Compared to less dense areas, they offer:
- More access to doctors and hospitals
- Better-staffed hospitals with more intensive care beds
- Faster emergency response times
- More stores selling essential supplies, such as disinfectant, painkillers, and toilet paper
- More resources that make it easier to remain at home, such as grocery delivery
- The ability to get around on foot or by bicycle when an emergency shuts down the roads or mass transit
- More ways to interact with others from a safe distance, such as chatting with dozens of different neighbors from a balcony or window
In a 2017 survey by KFF, people living in rural areas were much more likely than urban and suburban Americans to say their community did not have enough doctors or hospitals to meet residents’ needs. They were also more likely to say it was very hard to afford health care for their families and to report having below-average health themselves.
Dense urban environments can also promote healthy behaviors. For instance, a 2015 report from the Office of the Surgeon General notes that people tend to walk more when they use public transit or when their “everyday destinations” are within walking distance. A 2014 study in Preventive Medicine found that survivors of Hurricane Katrina who moved to dense areas were more likely to maintain a healthy weight than those who settled in “sprawling” areas.
All these factors add up to longer average lifespans for city dwellers. A 2016 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (discussed in detail at City Observatory) found that people with low incomes, who have lower life expectancies in general, tend to live longer and healthier lives in places with the characteristics of large cities. These include a denser population, more government spending, more expensive housing, a better-educated population, and a larger immigrant population.
If you have kids, one big factor in deciding where to live is the quality of local schools. Some rural areas are so sparsely populated that there actually is no “local” school. Students living there have to travel to a school in a neighboring town.
There’s currently no available hard data on impacted rural areas. However, according to a 2001 report by The Rural School and Community Trust, in 85% of rural elementary schools across five states, some children had to ride more than 30 minutes to get to school, and in 25% of schools, the longest rides were over an hour. This long commute time takes away from the amount of time students can spend on their actual studies at home.
The quality of rural schools can also be a problem. A 2017 report by the College Board says schools in remote areas often have a hard time attracting the best teachers, they tend to lack broadband Internet access, and they’re less likely to offer advanced placement (AP) courses in high school. According to Frontline Education, third-graders in rural schools who score in the top 10th of their class for reading ability trail several points behind their peers in urban and suburban areas. And according to both sources, while rural students are more likely to graduate from high school than urban students and roughly on a par with suburban ones, they’re less likely to go on to college than either group.
Although rural schools lag behind urban ones in many ways, their problems aren’t always visible to parents. Their relative isolation gives parents less opportunity to compare their local school to others. In the 2018 Pew demographics survey, city residents were more likely to express concern about the quality of local K-12 schools than those in either rural or suburban areas.
That may be because, unlike rural residents, city dwellers are comparing their local schools to those in the neighboring suburbs. According to a 2018 study in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, both rural and urban public schools fall behind suburban ones in terms of test performance and the number of students living in poverty. The College Board says suburban schools are the most likely to offer access to AP courses, including courses in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math). However, urban schools aren’t far behind. However, students in suburban schools who take these AP classes are significantly more likely than both rural and urban students to get a score of 3 or better on the AP exam.
Schools aren’t the only government facilities that are often hard to get to when you live in the country. If you need to take your car to the Department of Motor Vehicles, talk to the county clerk about your property tax bill, or just check out a book from the library, you may have to drive a distance.
By contrast, in the city, many government facilities — the library, the post office, the courthouse — are within easy walking distance. You can usually reach those that aren’t by mass transit or a short drive.
In the suburbs, access to government resources is mixed. In small towns, which have low density but a distinct town center, the library or town hall may be small, but it’s usually within walking distance. In more sprawling suburbs, you typically have to drive to get to a government office, but it’s not that long a drive.
Many people love living in the city because it offers such a wide variety of entertainment options. The larger and denser a city is, the more likely it is to have concerts, plays, museums, sports, large public libraries, and a wide variety of restaurants, all within a short distance of your home.
Because cities have more entertainment choices available, they are also more likely to have affordable options. Despite the notoriously high costs of specific types of urban entertainment, such as Broadway shows, city dwellers pay significantly less each year for entertainment than people in either the country or the suburbs. According to the CE Survey, they spend an average of $2,759 per year, compared to $3,473 for rural residents and $3,491 for suburbanites.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do in the country. For those who prefer outdoor pursuits, rural areas offer a wide range of interesting activities, including hiking, camping, geocaching, fishing, hunting, bird watching, mountain biking, boating, and horseback riding. Some of these are activities you can pursue for free with only a modest upfront expense for gear, such as a good pair of hiking boots or a set of binoculars.
People who live in the suburbs can most easily take their pick of both outdoor and indoor activities. A short drive can take them either into the city for a show or out to the country for a fishing trip. Suburban areas are also good places for particular activities, such as youth sports.
Like entertainment, shopping is often easiest in the city. No matter what you’re looking for, there’s likely to be a store that sells it — if not right in your neighborhood, then somewhere else you can reach by bus or subway. Venues for low-cost secondhand shopping, such as thrift stores and flea markets, are also easiest to find in urban areas.
By contrast, in the country, going to the store often means getting in the car and driving, often a fairly long way. Mail order and online shopping can be easier, but unless you limit yourself to stores with free shipping, they often come with hefty delivery fees for isolated rural addresses. For some types of shopping, such as online grocery orders, delivery may not be available at all.
The suburbs are more of a mixed bag where shopping is concerned. They don’t tend to have as many obscure little specialty shops as the big city, but most mainstream goods — clothing, appliances, books — are likely to be available at a nearby mall.
Amy Dacyczyn, author of “The Complete Tightwad Gazette,” notes that suburbs are also the best places to find yard sales. They’re seldom found in the city, and in the country, hitting multiple sales in a single weekend tends to involve a lot of driving. By contrast, in suburban areas, a search on Yard Sale Search or Craigslist can often turn up dozens of sales within a radius of 10 or 15 miles.
Lifestyle & Attitudes
Lifestyle is one of the most significant distinctions between the city, the country, and the suburbs — and it’s also one of the hardest to pin down. There are many differences between the way people live in urban, rural, and suburban areas that you can’t easily put a dollar value on, such as:
- Diversity. Rural areas are less diverse than cities and suburbs. In the 2018 Pew demographics survey, 69% of country dwellers said all or most of their neighbors were the same race or ethnicity as themselves compared to 53% in suburbs and 43% in cities. People who live in cities were also the most likely to say they valued living in a racially and ethnically diverse place.
- Political and Social Views. The 2018 Pew demographics survey also found that people in cities tend to hold more progressive political and social views than other Americans, while those in the country are more conservative. On some views, such as abortion, race relations, and the size of government, these differences were mostly a matter of partisanship, since people in the country are more likely to be Republicans. However, location also made a difference within political parties. Rural Republicans were more likely than urban ones to oppose same-sex marriage, while urban Democrats were more likely than rural ones to favor immigration.
- Gun Ownership. People who live in the country are much more likely to be gun owners. According to a 2017 Pew survey, 46% of people in rural areas own guns compared with 28% in the suburbs and 19% in the city. Over half of rural gun owners say they keep a gun for protection (for instance, from wild animals), and nearly half use one for hunting. That doesn’t mean you have to own a gun to live in the country, but you need to be comfortable with neighbors who do. If you don’t currently own a gun, buying one and learning to use it safely is a substantial expense. A reporter for GQ found in 2018 that, factoring in the cost of the gun, ammunition, accessories, shooting lessons, and permits, going from complete novice to responsible gun owner would cost more than $1,000 (in some cases, almost double that).
- Time Spent at Home. A 2020 study by the University of Virginia Darden School of Business found that people in cities are more likely to go outside the home for things that people in rural and suburban areas do at home. For instance, they eat out more often instead of cooking at home and take their clothes to the coin laundry instead of washing them at home. That makes the city a better environment for people who like being around other people, while the country and the suburbs are better for homebodies.
- Time Spent Outdoors. A 2015 study in Environmental Health found that country dwellers spend more time outdoors than city dwellers — an average of 0.7 more hours per day for children, 1.2 hours for adults, and 0.9 hours for seniors. This study did not look at people in the suburbs, but a 2015 study in Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences did. It found that children in rural areas spend more time outdoors than those in both urban and suburban areas.
If you’re just looking for the cheapest possible place to live, that’s easy to figure out. The CE Survey shows that people in the country have the lowest overall spending — an average of $49,065 per household per year. Urban households spend an average of $57,525 per year, and the suburbs are most expensive at $65,460 per year.
However, if you’re looking for the most affordable place to live, the calculation is a little different. While country dwellers spend the least on average, they also earn the least — just an average of $49,701 per household after taxes compared to $62,191 in cities and $73,168 in the suburbs. Subtracting a rural household’s average spending from their average income leaves them with less than $650 per year in savings. By contrast, city dwellers save an average of $4,666 per year, and high-earning suburbanites save $7,708.
But if you’re looking for the best place for you to live, there’s no single number that can answer that question for you. It depends on what matters most to you in life and what you’re willing to give up to get it.
You Should Live in the City If…
Some people dislike cities because they’re crowded and noisy, with too many people and too much going on all the time. However, others see these features as advantages, not drawbacks. They love the hustle and bustle of the city along with all the amenities it provides. And for these people, it’s worth paying a four-figure rent on a small apartment with no yard to get these perks.
Living in the city could be a good choice for you if:
- You Don’t Need a Lot of Space. Homes in the city cost much more per square foot than suburban and rural ones. That means an affordable home in the city is likely to be quite small. If you want a home bigger than a small house, you’ll have to pay a hefty premium for it.
- You Want to Spend Less Time Driving. Only cities offer the mix of other transportation options — walking, biking, mass transit, ridesharing, and car-sharing — that make it easy to go everywhere without a car. Owning one is still an option, but you don’t need to rely on it the way you do in the country or suburbs.
- You Want Top-Notch Health Care. Cities have more health care resources than rural and suburban areas. There are more doctors, hospitals are better staffed, and they have more facilities. Even during a pandemic, cities can be a safer place to be than rural or suburban areas, and they definitely improve people’s health outcomes at other times.
- You Want Lots of Amenities. Cities offer the best array of dining, shopping, and entertainment options. You can eat a different cuisine every night of the week, buy just about anything at a local store, and go to all kinds of plays, concerts, museums, and sporting events.
- You Want a Diverse Neighborhood. Urban neighborhoods are much more racially and ethnically diverse than those in suburbs and rural areas. Living in the city gives you the best opportunity to be exposed to languages, cultures, and ideas different from your own.
- You Like Being Around People. Living in the city means doing a lot of things away from home surrounded by other people. Your daily commute is likely to take place on a crowded bus or subway, and you might have to spend laundry night at the nearest coin laundry rather than in your own home. To be really happy in the city, you need to be comfortable spending time around strangers.
- You Like the Urban Landscape. The city isn’t the best place for nature lovers. You can get some sunshine and exercise by walking to work, but you’ll spend most of your time surrounded by tall buildings, not grass and trees.
You Should Live in the Suburbs If…
The suburbs have a reputation for being dull and conformist — in the words of songwriter Malvina Reynolds, just a series of “little boxes, all the same.” Yet the fact that over half of Americans have chosen to live in suburbs proves they have their attractions. For many people, they offer a desirable compromise between the crowding of the city and the wide-open spaces of the country.
Living in the suburbs could be right for you if:
- You Want to Maximize Your Income. These days, there are more job opportunities in the suburbs than in cities. And although urban workers earn more than suburban ones on average, suburban families have higher household incomes.
- You Want a Sizable Home Near the City. In the suburbs, you can get a lot more space for your rent or mortgage dollar than you can in city centers. At the same time, you’re reasonably close to the city and all its amenities.
- You Want to Grow Some Food, but Not Most of It. In the city, many homes are apartments with no land at all, and in the country, homes tend to sit on large tracts that can produce quite a bit of food. By contrast, a suburban yard gives you enough room for a modest home vegetable garden or a chicken coop.
- You Prefer a Mix of Transportation Types. You need a car in the suburbs, but you don’t need to use it for everything. You can make some trips on foot or by bicycle, and you can usually get into the city on a bus or train.
- You Want the Best Schools. Suburban schools often have better resources than those in either urban or rural areas. Students in these schools tend to perform well on tests, including AP exams, and are very likely to graduate and go to college.
- You Enjoy Both Outdoor and Indoor Activities. In the suburbs, you’re just a short drive away from both the city’s shopping and nightlife and the country’s wide-open spaces. You can easily spend one weekend hiking and fishing and the next shopping, dining out, and going to a show.
- You’re Willing to Pay for These Benefits. The overall cost of living is higher in the suburbs than in either the city or the country. While housing costs less per square foot than it does in the city, many other things — including utilities, food, and transportation — cost more.
You Should Live in the Country If…
There’s a certain romance associated with country life. Books from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series have painted glowing pictures of the beauty of the countryside and the simpler way of life it offers. However, this simple life isn’t always an easy one. Living in the country means giving up a lot of the conveniences of city or suburban life and doing more work for yourself.
A country life could be right for you if:
- You Want to Live as Cheaply as Possible. Country dwellers spend less money overall than either urban or suburban residents. The main reason is that homes are cheapest in rural areas. A country life offers plenty of options for saving money, such as growing and raising food and cutting and burning firewood.
- You Like Fixing Things Yourself. In remote rural areas, it’s not as easy to take your car to the mechanic if it breaks down. Likewise, hiring professionals like plumbers, electricians, or auto mechanics often means paying a hefty service fee if no one in town offers the services. As a result, it’s often preferable to rely on your own skills for simple home and car repairs. You’re also likely to have more things on your property to maintain in the country, such as a well or septic tank.
- You Want to Produce Most of Your Own Food. Rural homes come with the most space for growing and raising food. Even if you’re not farming for a living, a rural homestead offers plenty of room for growing vegetables, planting fruit trees, raising animals, or keeping bees.
- You Don’t Mind Driving a Lot. In the country, you may be farther away from most workplaces, schools, doctors, government offices, and stores. Even if you’re not or make a lot of things for yourself, you’ll spend a lot of time each year behind the wheel of a car.
- You Put a High Value on Privacy. Homes in the country are typically surrounded by more land than those in either the city or the suburbs. They give you plenty of privacy, as you’re often farther away from your neighbors. That makes the country a good choice for people who prefer to spend time alone or with just their immediate families.
- You Want to Spend Lots of Time Outdoors. One thing the country gives you plenty of is nature. If you love outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, canoeing, or hunting, a rural life will give you lots of opportunities to indulge in these hobbies.
No single location — urban, rural, or suburban — gives you the best of everything. Instead, the city, country, and suburbs each offer their own unique mix of benefits and drawbacks. Figuring out which is best for you involves weighing lots of different factors — including the cost of living, schools, health, and lifestyle — and deciding what’s most important to you.
All in all, choosing where to make your home is a complex decision that will affect your whole life for many years. It’s not a decision to make in a hurry — especially not based on a temporary disease outbreak. The density that makes cities seem scary to many people also brings perks such as mass transit and local businesses that will remain valuable long after the pandemic is over — if that’s what you’re looking for.
The bottom line is: Don’t let a single event, like a global pandemic or a natural disaster, determine your choice about where you want to live. Instead, choose the setting that offers you the closest thing to your idea of the good life — not just this year, but for the long term.
Do you prefer urban, suburban, or rural life? Why?
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