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How much do you think the typical American family spends on a modest lifestyle? Photo: pdpics.com. 

Most people are perfectly content taking the Goldilocks approach to lifestyle -- not so frugal that your family is uncomfortable, and not so extravagant that you become entitled.

But how much does this lifestyle cost? And how much does location matter in funding such a lifestyle?

The answer: Costs vary a great deal, because location makes a huge difference.

Consider that the typical family of four -- with two children under age 4 -- living in Atlanta will need to earn roughly $64,000 per year for a "modest" lifestyle. But that same family, transported to Washington, D.C., will need far more -- over $106,000 -- for the same standard of living.

And differences go beyond the inflated real estate prices in our nation's capital.

A trove of data reveals surprising differences
The Economic Policy Institute recently published a calculator that attempts to put cold, hard numbers down to help us evaluate the costs of a modest lifestyle. Using data from a number of government and non-profit organizations, you can simply type in your ZIP code and family size, and you'll get a breakdown of costs in seven different categories.

I went in and broke down the numbers for the 10 largest urban areas in America. The results -- assuming a family of four -- follow.

Unsurprisingly, both housing and taxes vary wildly. But it's important to note that the calculator automatically assumes that both children are below school age, meaning they require child care.

Childcare costs were the most influential factor in determining where it was cheaper or more expensive to live a modest lifestyle.The Economic Policy Institute found out that in 500 of the 618 geographical areas it measured, child-care costs for a two-child family exceeded housing expenses.

The differences are astounding and show why many who are starting families may want to carefully consider where to set up camp -- and how far away free babysitters (a.k.a. grandparents) are. For instance, in Washington, D.C., the typical family can expect to pay a whopping $31,200 for child care -- while one living in rural South Carolina (not included in the chart) will spend just $6,000 for the same care. 

When you throw in the added transportation costs and taxes paid, a Washington, D.C., parent would need to earn around $40,000 to economically justify going to work instead of staying at home with the kids.

The view beyond child care
If, however, you are lucky enough to be able to afford letting one parent stay at home, or you have children who no longer require such care, costs drop significantly. In fact, the cost of a modest lifestyle drops 30% in D.C.

We could sit here until we're blue in the face talking about whether the costs assumed in this calculator truly reflect what's required for a "modest" lifestyle. In reality, there are as many definitions for "modest" as there are people who will try the calculator.

People like hard numbers, which is what makes such a tool attractive. At the end of the day, however, there are two undeniable takeaways for readers looking to afford a modest lifestyle for their families. First, where you live matters. Second, it's important to devote a significant portion of your budget to child care, if you'll be requiring it.

Beyond that, I heartily encourage readers to investigate where their own level of "Enough" is, and attempt to stay at that level of spending as time goes on. Save and invest the difference, and funding a "modest" retirement -- and possibly your kids' college tuition -- might be easier than you think.

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