Getting a Good Value or Why We Pay the High Cost to Live in California

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Frugality is getting a good value for what you pay. That’s how we can live in California and pay the high cost of living. This post was originally published on September 13, 2012. The message still holds true.

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Many people have wondered how it’s possible to live in California which has a reputation for having a high cost of living, especially where real estate is concerned. It’s true, property is more expensive here than many other places. But, there are many metropolitan areas throughout the country that are also equally expensive.

Obviously, my experience is only that — my experience. I can only speak to what we know, what we do, and what works for our family. So take it with a grain of salt.

I think California is worth it.

Currently, we rent a spacious, five bedroom home with four bathrooms. The size doesn’t really matter. Three-bedroom condos rent for the same price we currently pay. Our monthly lease is around $2300 per month, including weekly gardening service.

We consider this to be a great deal considering that most rents are higher for this size house and that our home is in a nice neighborhood with little traffic and little crime.


A friend in Kansas choked when I quoted her that price. True, this is about half our monthly budget. Spending 50% on housing does seem to throw out of whack all the percentages that personal finance coaches would send your way. It does seem quite impossible. But, this is quite typical for Southern California.

And to many people, it might seem like it’s not worth it. And it might not be if we still had debt.

While paying a lot of money in rent doesn’t seem “frugal” on the outset, the benefits far outweight the costs. In a sense, I think that is what frugality is: getting your money’s worth.

Here are our reasons for living in California and paying the price that we do.

1. We love California.

It took a cross-country move to help us see that we are Californians through and through. There really is nowhere else we’d rather live.

I like warm weather. I like being able to go out of my house 365 days of the year. I like that I could grow food in my backyard 12  months out of the year  — if I wanted to. Not that I do, but I could.

Since the growing season is abundant and lengthy, produce prices are pretty sweet.

A group of people walking in front of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia.

2. Our families are here.

We lived in Kansas for five years. In that time my mother-in-law developed cancer and passed away. We regret that we weren’t able to be a bigger, tangible form of help to her.

While we don’t see my parents or my father-in-law as often as we would like to, we know that we could be at their side in a matter of hours simply by hopping in the car. We have been able to get to know my youngest brother in a new way as he lived with us for a time and now pops in from time to time. My other brother and a sister live only a couple hours away, and we’re hopeful that once law school is done, Janel will be moving back to The Golden State.

View of Devil\'s Post Pile from the bottom.

3. California is a destination location.

There is so much to do here! We recently spent three days in the Eastern Sierras, on our traditional fall vacation. We left our home near the coast, drove through the dessert, and seven hours later, found ourselves in the mountains. The landscape and topography of California are so varied that we can see a lot without traveling too far away from home.

This makes vacations more affordable since the things we want to do are practically within arm’s reach.

There is a wealth of historical attractions, particularly those concerning the Spanish explorers, the Wild West, and the Gold Rush. While it’s not the Revolutionary/Civil War setting that kids grow up with in other locales, it’s still rich in history.

Every weekend can hold some kind of “vacation” attraction due to our location. Staycations, especially those at hotels, are extra fun because of where we live. Stellar amusement parks abound. We don’t really want to leave our home state; the fun is here.

Disneyland is an hour away!

4. It’s only gas and land that are expensive.

As I’ve compared California to other places in the US, I’ve come to the conclusion that only gas and land are the expensive things in California. And even then, it depends on where in California. San Diego County is cheaper than Los Angeles. The inland areas are more affordable than the coast.

We rent because we’re not sure the market has hit the bottom. Some day we might buy another house here, but in the meantime, we’re okay with renting, even if it seems expensive. The water heater and the dishwasher both went out this past spring — and it wasn’t our responsibility. That was kind of freeing.

Other costs, like food or utilities, are on par with the rest of the nation and sometimes less. I get screaming deals on fresh produce, like avocados for 39 cents or 3 heads of garlic for a buck. I pay less for food and get better quality than I did in Kansas. My kids are just bigger now and eat more, so my grocery budget is higher.

Our home doesn’t even have an air conditioner because temps are usually pretty moderate where we live. The thermostat does read 82 in the summer heat, but I used to set the A/C to that anyway. We run the furnace from December to February, but our heating costs are much lower than they were when we lived in Kansas.

California living is pretty good.

We pay a higher price to live and drive in California, but there are so many more benefits that are practically free. While I’m not trying to convince you to move here, I want to reassure you that if you are moving to California for work, school, or military reasons, you really can make it work. Want more details, check out my California on a Budget series.

If you’re happy where you live, but discouraged by the high prices, consider the hidden benefits you might find in your locale, the cheap or free ones.

Frugality doesn’t mean “spending no money”. It’s getting a good value for your money. For us, California living is just that.

This post was originally published on September 13, 2012. But the message still rings true.

Today’s Frugal Friday!

Time to swap ideas and inspiration for saving money and getting good values.

jar of money on concrete by grassy lawn, with text overlay: Frugal Fridays.

How do YOU save money?

This is Frugal Friday. In an effort to make these weekly financial discussions more interactive, I’m no longer posting a link-up. Feel free to leave a link in the comments. But better yet, chat with us on today’s topic.

Disclaimer: Neither the California Board of Tourism nor the California Realtors’ Association have ever heard of me. I freely offer up my opinions regarding life in the Golden State. I represent the experiences of one family who has lived in four different California counties as well as the midwest. My opinion is just that — my opinion. Feel free to disagree. Your mileage may vary.

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  1. It’s like you took the words right out of my mouth! I spent the first half of my childhood in Orange County and the rest in the Victor Valley. Back in 2006, my husband and I moved to the Manhattan, KS area. We stayed for as long as we could possibly stand. 5 years! We are back home in the desert of CA and if feels good! I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. It was not cheaper living in KS. The food was more expensive and it was taxed. And they wanted to tax you for everything out there. And like you said, there was the cost of the constant heating and cooling during the extreme weather seasons. Our family is out here, the weather is awesome, there’s sooo much more to do and see and we are just spoiled Californian’s through and through 😉 Not to mention, the food out there couldn’t compare to here.

  2. Greetings I found your article true, but unfortunately as great as California was for us, we finally threw in the towel. My husband and I both had to work full time and as an IT consultant my husband had to start traveling to LA from Rocklin (a suburb of Sacramento) so I became a working full time mom of a 4 year old pretty much doing it on my own for over 6 months before we decided enough was enough. This last year hit us pretty hard we took a look at our tax bracket and between the federal (25%) California (9.3%) and property taxes (2%) not including our utilities which are higher since we do have to run the a/c for a large part of the year or mortgage, child care, gas, food, etc. we were not keeping up. I love California we left California for the mid south and I am homesick. We left family, friends, memories, our home everything because we could no longer keep up with the rat race. A few of our other friends actually left California for that same exact reason: taxes and cost of living. California is not a family friendly state and the wages we have found are not that much different than in other parts of the country. Its sad to see a state that has so much to offer but unfortunately people are still leaving in droves and its particular to the middle class working families. I would not encourage anyone to move there unless they are single and retired and can afford it. If you have a family and want to work really hard and sacrifice your paycheck to taxes go for it, but for yes I only hope that one day California will become affordable again like it was 20 years ago and maybe we will move back. Until then we are sick of getting taxed to death just to live. And all the places you mentioned are wonderful but because we both worked full time we never found the time to really take any trips. Our goal was to take our son to Legoland, but it never happened we never had enough time or could coordinate our schedules between both of our full time jobs. Now i no longer work we are taking a trip to the bahamas we just purchased a home twice as big as the one we used to have and our taxes decreased by 10% between the federal and the state. This does not include gas, utilities or entertainment expenses. I used to take my son Devin to the Sacramento Zoo just between the 3 of us it cost $40 to get in. I took my son to the zoo out here much nicer and it cost us $20. We now live in Tulsa and are finally making progress towards maybe one day retiring and owning our home outright. I miss California but can you lobby for cheaper real estate (there is plenty of land to build on, its expensive to buy a home because of all the permits you have to pull and the cost of getting those permits).

  3. I also was born in LA county.Covina. Moved to the high desert Victorville area in 1985.Here you can still buy a 5 bedroom 3 bath for 150,000.00 . We live on 20 acres with lots of kids and dogs. ….For us we need the tax right off on our house…..I do have to agree on the fruits and vegs compared to the midwest. We have a vacation cottage in Mo. We hope to be moved out there in the next 3-5 yrs.We love the 4 seasons,slower pace in life and the people.Out here in Ca they flip you off rather then wave to you. We will miss the awesome mexican food we have out here though.

  4. My husband and I were born and raised in Southern CA. After we got married, we moved to IN and absolutely love it! Sure, there are tons we miss from Cali like the choices of food when eating out, fresh produce (you would think we would have more choices and variety living in the middle of farm country..but no), the beach, our old stomping grounds. But, there was much we knew we wouldn’t miss leaving like the weather (yes, I know we are crazy like that…we were bored with the same weather practically day in and day out. We LOVE snow and cold), the mass amount of people, the long commutes, the cost of housing. But, as you touched on, the cost of groceries and the pay salaries are pretty universal really. But, when you look at the cost of housing it is astronomically different. The cost of rent here is crazy cheaper, as is the purchase of a house. When we first moved here, we purchased our first house outright sight unseen before even leaving Cali’s shores. We lived there for 2 years, then decided to build our own. We never ever would have had those opportunities in CA. Plus, for us…we just love the open wide fields, less people, less traffic and the small town feel of it all. CA will always be “home” in my heart because that is where I grew up, but now that we have our first baby here in IN…there was a reason God brought us here and I will forever be grateful.

  5. Holy cats! My husband just got a job opportunity in California — last night, and we pondering the move. Could this be a sign from the universe?

    1. I dunno about the universe, but it’s so helpful to get different perspectives when you’re making that kind of decision. Just avoid LA. 😉

      1. Do you mean the city LA or surrounding areas as well. We’re considering a move to the Ontario area (San Bernardino County) and if you know something about this area I’d love to hear it! You said you’ve lived in 4 CA counties, which would those be please? I’m curious if you’re willing to share!

        1. I was born and raised in LA County. There are lots of great things there, but the roads and traffic are pretty awful as well as the smog. I’ve also lived in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and San Diego counties. I don’t know much about Ontario. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. Where are you moving from?

          1. We’ll be moving from Bakersfield. I’m over the summer temps and got a sweet taste of Seattle for about two years. It was nice to be somewhere cooler even though we had to deal with the rain. From what I can tell the Ontario area can get warm but not as HOT as where we are now. We’re also excited to be closer to the theme parks!

  6. Had to comment on the rent thing… $2300 for a 5 bd/4ba??? Awesome!!! Seriously!
    We’re in Northern CA, we pay $2400 for a 4bd/2ba. And that’s considered low for our area. (sigh)… off to read the rest of your post.

  7. Amen & amen!

    We just hit our 10th anniversary of moving to Texas from California for graduate schooling (which is done! yay!), and will be moving back in a few months. I didn’t think God would move us back, but He is. Hurray! And, yes, I’ve done the math, too, and you’re right on with the housing and gas being the most expensive parts. When we were there in April, I noticed produce and dairy were THREE TIMES CHEAPER than what I pay here in Texas. I’m a NorCal girl and prefer rain and parkas. Can’t wait to be back and go HIKING!! *happy sob*

  8. I love that you gave the actual $ amount, because I’ve heard amounts for condos & such for around that & then wondered what a house would run to rent. I’m glad to know that it’s the same.

    I also love how positive you are about the benefits of living there – my CA experience has been almost all in LA & I hated it. (I know, all of CA is not like LA.)

    I’ve lived in the South, West, and now Mid-West, and there are benefits and drawbacks to every place. Right now I love where we live, even though it’s not perfect. It’s where we are and I’m focusing on what is great about it (and there is a lot that’s great about it.)

    Even if my teen-aged Florida-girl self would be horrified to learn that I was happy to be living in Indiana.

  9. This is a great deal. We live in the DC area and our 3 bedroom apartment is 2k/month. We don’t have a yard, although it’s within walking distance to the Metro. We do use a lot of AC during the summer but our highest bill is 160/month for electric.

    Anyways, that is a fantastic deal for such a large home in California! I would’ve expected that you guys were paying 3k/month.

    1. I know what you are saying; I lived around DC my whole life (Gaithersburg), and my mom is in San Fran now. We couldn’t rent a hovel for our mortgage in the midwest, but we know one day we will move to either coast simple to be near family!

  10. I live in Carlsbad by the coast and LOVE it!!! We don’t even have A/C because it rarely gets over 75 degrees. I love having all my windows open almost all year around. I love all the organic health food stores and farmers markets. I love walking along the beach. I am truly blessed to be able to live here! Bessings, Lori

  11. I guess it’s all about what you value. I lived near Los Angeles for years . We used to have “smog alerts.” The traffic was deplorable. It took hours to get anywhere by car. Property prices and real estate taxes alone were really burdensome. While there are some good entertainment venues, I don’t think it’s a great place to raise kids. For that reason, many people in the entertainment industry have moved from there. (Just my opinion) If you are truly happy, I guess that is what counts.

    1. I grew up in LA County, so I totally get what you’re saying. Honestly? We avoid Los Angeles like the plague. That would be my one caveat. Thank goodness, LA is not California. The state is so vast and varied, it’s not defined by the City of Angels. 😉

  12. Great post! I completely agree. We live in New Jersey and could probably move somewhere else for dirt cheap, but we love it here. Our families are here, our friends are here. It’s where we grew up and where we want our son to grow up. It’s home!

  13. Plus, when you homeschool and spend all your time (or a lot of it) at home, it is good to have a nice place to be. My husbamd works from home also, so a somewhat spacious place was important for us since we share our home 24/7. We moved from Bakersfield to Bishop last year and we pay slightly more but it is SO worth it to be near places like Devil’s Postpile. 🙂

    1. Ha! We drove right by you this weekend. And yes, it’s so true to love where you are if you’re there all the time.

  14. I agree 100%!! we’ve been comparing costs for our move, and after living in AZ, it’s all about the housing cost. But we rent a 2400 sq ft home in Phoenix (Surprise) for $1,100 (negotiated from $1,300) and our summer utilities run $500. Gag!

    Love that you’ve worn your heart on your sleeve and let your figures be known. Your honesty is appreciated!

    1. I hear you Allie. We live in Sierra Vista, AZ. We bought our home as the housing bubble bursted around here and still pay $1400 for rent and $400 a month for AC during the summer. We also don’t have any of the fun attractions like you do in Phoenix or in California for that matter. I have been dreaming of the day when I can go home to Tennessee with grass, trees, and four seasons. This desert stuff is for the birds. Plus, I cant wait to have a yard that the kids can play in and I can garden in.

  15. I’m a Midwesterner through and through and your post resonated with me.
    12 years ago, my then future brother-in-law from Tennessee saw the real estate info for the townhouse I was buying in a Minneapolis suburb and pretty much told me I was crazy for spending that much. When I sold it (to move south) after owning it less than 2 years, I had made a sizable amount of money on my investment. All that is to say that real estate expectations are so relative!
    There are trade-offs wherever you choose to live.

  16. My husband used to live in California, and he loved it there! My frugal self does sort of flinch at the idea of living there, but then again, the East Coast isn’t particularly cheap either.

    We visited CA this year (I’d never been before), and I have to say, I missed the green-ness of my side of the country. It wasn’t until we got up to San Francisco and the Sequoia forest that I felt more at home…there was some lovely dark, lush green up there!

    1. When did you come? Our green time is the winter, kind of the flip-flop of everywhere else. Summer is brown. 🙂

  17. I live in Philly. For $2300, you can get a 900 square foot row home with a postage stamp yard. (Less desirable neighborhoods will run you a lot less, of course, but many of them are quite unsafe). I think your place sounds like a great deal!

  18. I want to second the “Amen, Sister!” My husband and I are born and raised Californians, but are in CO now. 5 years today! While we are trying to “Bloom…” we long for CA, the weather and our families. Don’t miss the traffic, though. 🙂

  19. This was a great post! We used to live in NJ, so I, too did not flinch at your rent. Kudos to you for being so open with us, though I was thinking that you should not have to explain to anyone why you choose to live where you live; like you said, you need to be where your family is happiest. *Sigh*, now we live in Minnesota, and I am wondering what the temperatures are from December to Febuary in SoCal. 🙂

    1. Thanks for your kind words. I think we shouldn’t have to explain a lot of things. LOL. But, I wouldn’t if I didn’t think it were helpful. I think a lot of folks are in the same boat.

      As to your other question, check out the climate chart here: It does not get as cold as Minnesota, that’s for sure. But, the chart appears to reporting the daytime low, because we do get a hard freeze here.

  20. Hi Jessica!

    I moved to Missouri eight years ago from the San Francisco bay area. I miss it so much! Everything you talk about it exactly why I loved(LOVE!) California and when my only son graduates high school next year, we’re moving back! High real estate prices be damned. Like you said, it is well worth it.

    The next time you’re at the beach, Legoland, Disneyland or some other most wonderful place, breathe a big deep breath for me.

    Thanks so much for a wonderful post!

  21. I {big puffy heart} this post. I could substitute “Connecticut” for many of your California statements. Your rent cost didn’t make me flinch because, as you noted, we’re in one of those other “high cost” areas. But I live in the gorgeous mountains, surrounded by trees and waterfalls. We hike for miles and see all sorts of wildlife. Yet NYC, Boston, Philly, and DC are all within six hours of us. The beach is only an hour away. School systems are top notch. Are our taxes slightly obscene? Yes, indeed. But we reap the rewards. 🙂

  22. We live in Canada, but I could identify with what you said in a different way.

    When we bought our house in the country (3 acres, backing on woods and a river, great village close by) we could have gotten a 3 bedroom townhouse in an iffy part of the city for the same price! We got real value for our money, and after 12 years I’m still grateful.

    Yes, my husband’s working at a different place now, so he has a longer commute, but not much longer. And we get most of our veggies for free by growing them. And our home is a destination place just like your state; people who visit us routinely point out that we don’t need to go away fro a vacation! 🙂

    Thanks for reminding me how good I have it!

  23. I’m guessing you also get paid a lot more than your friend in Kansas. It may not completely make up for the difference in rent, but I’m willing to bet it helps dramatically? 🙂

    1. I’m not really sure. Perhaps. The friend in question actually lives in a very small town.

      But, comparing Kansas City to here, I think incomes are about the same, job for job. We rented for a short time in KC and paid $1700 for an equivalent house (9 years ago).

  24. This is a great post, and you describe many of the reasons why we live in Charleston, SC. Being happy and finding a place you love is worth it! Also, we rent too – I was nodding my head “yes” through your entire post.

  25. While I have never been to CA, I love your take on frugality. I think that is why it is important for each family to choose what really is important to them and find a way to make the most of their money to get that. Percentages, and such only work to a point!

  26. I totally agree! We’ve lived in San Diego for two years now and just love it. We’re paying just a little less than you per month for a two bedroom apartment, but the weather alone makes it worth it! We don’t need a big house because we can spend so much time outdoors.

  27. My husband and I lived in Sacramento when we first got married. We loved it there, but were glad to move on when the time came. We loved the proximity to Tahoe and skiing, the Bay area and shopping, and everything in between. We love Iowa right now, but your post really makes me miss California! I went to my first In-Out Burger there and my first Trader Joes. I would LOVE to have those places out here!! 🙂 Fun post. Thanks for making me smile. And I loved the picture of your family!!

    1. Bloom where you’re planted, friend! God has you in Iowa for a reason. And you never know where He’ll take you next. 😉

      And maybe TJ’s will move to Iowa, too….