Cost of Living in San Francisco

According to the Mercer Cost of Living Survey 2012, San Francisco is now the third most expensive city to live in within the USA. While life in New York and Los Angeles is more costly, San Francisco ranks higher, with regards to overall cost of living, than many other large US cities, including Washington DC, Chicago and Boston.

However, this shouldn’t put expats off moving to San Francisco. There are still many things that the city offers at bargain prices. Expats living in San Francisco will never tire of the well-priced clothing and grocery shopping available in the city. An expat family can buy a week’s worth of groceries for under USD 200 because the Central Valley in California supplies the region with fresh, cheap fruit and vegetables. Meat is also reasonably priced in San Francisco’s grocery stores.

The less affordable aspect of living in San Francisco is the extremely high cost of housing. Many expats will find they spend half of their wages on rent. Buying a property and paying a monthly mortgage is cheaper than renting a property in San Francisco.
However, most expats moving to San Francisco are transient, and don’t want to settle down and commit to a mortgage.

Furthermore, the majority of expats are relocated to work in the hi-tech industries of Silicon Valley, and are in many cases single and childless. The growing expat population of San Francisco has created a high demand for rental properties which in turn has pushed up the prices for rental accommodation, especially in the heart of the city. 

When considering a move to San Francisco, it becomes very much about the salary an expat can earn to maintain a comfortable standard of living. Earning a six-figure salary in San Francisco is rare. The average software developer in San Francisco earns USD 80,000 per year.

Therefore, once an expat takes care of the cost of accommodation in San Francisco, there is usually enough left over to eat well and entertain oneself. The amount one can save ultimately depends on personal preferences and lifestyle choices.

Cost of accommodation in San Francisco

Housing is a big ticket item in an expat's total cost of living in San Francisco. Generally, expats will find that it is not possible to afford a ‘really nice‘ place without compromising on location and size. Many apartment complexes have a shared laundry, and it’s only when you spend over USD 2,500 per month that you would get your own washer and dryer.

For expat families looking to buy a house in San Francisco, the cost of accommodation is even higher, especially for those who want to live in a good school district. House prices in San Francisco are driven by the local public school academic results, so those who want their child to be eligible to attend a good public school should expect to pay more to live close by.

Annual property taxes are also a burden for many home owners as the amount is set as a percentage of the purchase price of your home, usually around one percent. This results in a property tax bill of several thousands of dollars.

Some rental accommodation in San Francisco includes utilities costs, or gardening costs, which can be better value for money. However, with demand for rental properties being so high, many properties are leased within two days of being advertised. Tenants also negotiate the rental  amount, so an applicant that offers to pay more rent than advertised will often get the apartment over other applicants.

Cost of food in San Francisco

The cost of food is comparatively cheap in San Francisco’s supermarkets, especially if you join the various clubs to get automatic discounts of items.

Farmer’s markets and specialty organic food supermarkets can be pricier.

Alcohol is reasonably priced and available at most supermarkets and drug stores.

Eating out at an average restaurant is very affordable in San Francisco, even when you factor in the 20 percent tip that is expected.

Cost of transportation in San Francisco

Public transport is San Francisco is limited unless you live along the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train line. However, fares on public transportation in San Francisco are reasonable. A return BART trip from a location about 10 miles (16km) from the city will cost around USD 9 for full fare paying customers.

Public buses are also affordable. Children can travel to and from school for around USD 30 per month, which works out cheaper than having parents drive.

Because of the limited nature of public transportation in San Francisco, it is common for residents to drive long distances to work each day, which potentially involves paying several bridge tolls at USD 5 each time.  

Cost of education in San Francisco

Public schools in San Francisco are free but parents are expected to cover stationary and excursion costs are required.

While there are endless fundraising events at most public schools to cover the costs of education, all donations are voluntary.

School lunches can be purchased at public schools for about USD 5 per day.

The cost of private education in San Francisco can vary from USD 10,000 to USD 36,000 per annum, depending on the location and status of the school.

Cost of clothing and footwear in San Francisco

Some of the value items in San Francisco are ridiculously cheap clothing and shoes. San Francisco has many discount shopping malls where denim jeans can be found for less than USD 30 and a new pair of branded sports shoes can be bought for less than USD 50.

There are also more upmarket boutiques, but when there is a sale it is definitely possible to grab some bargains.  

Cost of entertainment in San Francisco

The cost of entertainment and leisure pursuits in San Francisco will depend on an expat's personal preferences.  

A trip to the cinema, including popcorn and drinks for a family of four, can easily be done for less than USD 50 in San Francisco. Paperback books can be picked up for less than USD 10 and electronic games and consoles are also very affordable at roughly USD 25 for a video game and consoles on sale for USD 200.

Ticket costs for good museums, musicals and concerts are more expensive, but many theme parks and tourist attractions offer season passes, or group deals that make it affordable to discover the attractions of San Francisco.

Cable TV and Internet access in homes is also competitively priced at USD 40 to USD 100 per month, depending on how many channels you want. Internet TV services offer a cheaper choice for those who don’t want to pay for cable TV.

Our San Francisco Expert

Karina Rook's picture
Karina Rook
United States
I love moving to different countries and spent a year in London in 2008, returned home to Melbourne, Australia, for three...
Karina Rook

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