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The Hidden Costs of Living in the Suburbs

By Maurie Backman - Feb 13, 2016 at 7:22AM

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These could quickly zap your savings.

It's an age-old trend: As young professionals, we choose city life to take advantage of perks such as theater, fine dining, and proximity to work. But as we get older, many of us flock to the suburbs in search of wide open spaces, peace and quiet, a home fit for a family, and lower living expenses.

But not so fast. While suburban life may seem more economical on the surface, there are several hidden costs involved, and depending on where you live, you could find yourself spending more money to live in the 'burbs than you ever did as a city dweller. In fact, The New York Times did some research and found that the typical suburban lifestyle in the New York City area costs about 18% more than living in the city itself. If you're thinking about making the move to the suburbs, here are some key points to consider.

Your commute will cost more than you think
In most cases, moving to the suburbs means forgoing the convenience of public transportation and buying a vehicle to get around town. Of course, owning a vehicle comes at a cost. Between your car payment, auto insurance, and maintenance, you can easily spend upwards of $500 a month before fuel and toll costs even enter the equation. You may see an even steeper rise in your monthly transportation costs if you're forced to shell out a few hundred dollars for a commuter bus or train pass on top of whatever you pay for the privilege of having a car at your disposal. On top of that, all your shopping, dining, and entertainment destinations are spread out in the suburbs, which means you'll need to spend money on gas to do just about anything.

The Center for Neighborhood Techology (CNT) analyzed 337 metro areas encompassing 161,000 neighborhoods and 80% of the U.S. population, and it concluded that cities are just as economical as their suburban counterparts, or even cheaper, when transportation expenses are factored into the equation. The CNT's data found that overall transportation costs ranged from 15 to over 28% of household income depending on location. 

Though you may spend more money on commuting and transportation by living the suburbs, you can save some of it by taking advantage of the IRS' commuter benefits. For 2016, you can allocate up to $255 per month in pre-tax dollars for parking and mass-transit costs. Let's say you spend $250 a month on transit costs and are in the 30% tax bracket. By signing up for pre-tax commuter benefits, you could save an extra $900 a year.

More space means higher maintenance costs
Perhaps the primary reason so many people move to the suburbs is the promise of additional living space. And who wouldn't want to trade a cramped city apartment for a stand-alone house with a yard? But tempting as it may be to increase your square footage, remember that more space comes at a cost. For example, you'll pay more to heat and cool a 2,000-square-foot home than you will for a 500-square-foot studio apartment. And if you choose to buy or rent a house, you may be shocked to learn that amenities such as sewer service and garbage pickup could cost you more than $100 per month apiece.

Whether you're buying or renting, as a general rule of thumb, you shouldn't spend more than 30% of your income on housing. Keep in mind that this figure is meant to include not only your rent or mortgage payment, but also peripheral costs such as property taxes, homeowners' insurance, and association fees.

As is the case with any new living situation, you'd be wise to pad your budget for unknowns such as utilities. One good way to keep your costs in check is to sign up for a payment plan with your utility company, which lets you pay the same amount every month based on your average estimated costs over the course of a year. This can help you avoid, for example, a huge heating bill if you're hit with a cold spell in February.

While there are plenty of good reasons to move out to the suburbs, saving money isn't one of them -- because there's a good chance you won't save a dime by moving out of your city apartment. What you can do, however, is take steps to lower your discretionary spending so you can sock more money away for things like retirement. Take advantage of your new, spacious kitchen and cook more meals instead of dining out or ordering in. Skip the movie theater and enjoy some DVDs from the comfort of your oversized living room. Plan your errands in advance to save money on fuel costs, and use tools such as GasBuddy to find the cheapest gas stations in your neighborhood. (But for the love of all that is frugal, do not do that thing where you drive seven miles out of your way to save three cents a gallon on gasoline. It just doesn't make sense.)

If you're smart about how you spend your money, you can enjoy a suburban lifestyle that's as thrifty as it is comfortable.

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