New York City

Cost Of Living In The USA Compared To The UK

For anyone wondering about moving to America, the cost of living may well be your sixty-four million dollar question.

10 minute read

For anyone wondering about moving to America, the cost of living may well be your sixty-four million dollar question. If so, you’ll be pleased to hear you can actually get a lot of bang for your buck across the pond. Although the latest statistics from the World Population Review rank the United States as a slightly more expensive country to live in than the UK, it is important to note that this is on average, and the cost of living varies widely across the USA.

It’s difficult to compare the UK with a country the size of America, which is more than 40 times bigger (Texas alone is almost three times the size of the UK and Alaska is more than seven times larger). Across 50 different states there are huge differences in cost of living, so comparing major cities is a little easier; according to website, you need £3,442 a month to live in London compared to £4,239 for the equivalent lifestyle in New York City. However, in numerous less expensive cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis and Pittsburgh, as well as here in America’s deep south, you can live very comfortably on a lot less dosh.

Where’s the most expensive place to live in the USA?

No surprise - it’s New York. The cost of living is 120% higher than the national average, and everything from housing to public transportation and groceries costs more in NYC. So much so that the Big Apple is actually the most expensive city in the world.

Where’s the cheapest place to live in the USA?

Huntsville in Alabama is America’s most affordable place to live, according to a new report. The city is best known as the home of NASA’s US Rocket and Space Center, meaning there’s plenty of employment - this is a hotspot for technology and aerospace jobs. Unless you really are a rocket scientist, average income here is not out of this world (at $55,980) but down to earth housing costs (rent is about $836 and house prices around $192,000) mean Huntsville residents enjoy a very comfortable lifestyle and great value for money. Now that’s something to be over the moon about.

Are houses more or less expensive in the USA?

When it comes to housing, America really can be your home sweet home, as you’re likely to find that the house of your dreams is surprisingly affordable. Hubby and I own a beautiful four bedroom, four bathroom detached home with a double garage and huge basement in the leafy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. We paid cash and live mortgage-free, thanks to the sale of our three-bed semi in Luton when we moved Stateside.

According to Zoopla, the average house price in the UK in October was £325,037, while property website Zillow’s latest data reports a typical house for sale in the USA costs $308,220 (£224,388). Also bear in mind that American homes are usually much larger than you’d find in the UK, so you do get a lot more house for your money as well.

How do salaries compare with the UK?

According to the Office for National Statistics, the average UK salary is £26,266, while the latest data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the average annual wage in the United States is $53,490 per year (about £38,941).

In Britain, the highest-paid professionals are aircraft pilots and flight engineers, earning around £92,330 a year. This pales in comparison to the whopping $294,450 paid to anaesthetists, who top the earnings table in the USA. Other medical professionals command similar mega salaries, compared to around £76,000 for doctors in the UK. At the other end of the scale, the minimum wage in the US varies by state, up to $15.20 (£11.06) per hour in Washington DC, as opposed to the new £8.91 in the UK.

It’s very clear that you can earn a great deal more as a worker in the US. However you should note that health insurance premiums will take a big chunk out of your big buck paypacket, as medical treatment in America is extremely expensive (hence those huge doctor salaries!). Check out our USA British Expat Healthcare Article here.

Tax on your paycheck is another consideration. While UK taxes are higher overall, Uncle Sam will still take a cut - about 23% on average, according to data from The White House. However, you can deduct mortgage interest, charity donations and other expenses to greatly reduce your annual tax bill. Many Americans eagerly await and then celebrate a large tax refund in April every year.

How does the cost of food compare with the UK?

You may well be wondering how much American bread-and-butter is spent on, erm, bread and butter? It is generally accepted that food shopping is more expensive in the USA. Based on my own research, a basic loaf of bread at Walmart here is 88¢ (64p), compared to Asda's own brand at 49p for a larger, better quality loaf. European supermarket giants Aldi and Lidl are starting to pop up across the US, making it a bit easier to compare prices for the same products. Currently, a bottle of Lidl’s Allini Prosecco is $9.99 (£7.27) in America and £5.99 in the UK, while Lidl’s free range eggs at £1.89 a dozen are 25p cheaper than a similar carton in its US stores. It might only be a difference of nickels and dimes, but these all add up in a weekly shop.

How about other shopping in the US?

America is a shopper’s heaven and most items, including clothes and electronics, are much cheaper than back home. When our Brit friends come to visit, we always tell them to bring an empty suitcase for all the bargains they can bag over here. You can cash-in on a pair of classic Levi 501 jeans for about $50 (£36) instead of paying £75 back home. A recent Times report found that identical Apple devices cost up to one third (several hundred pounds) more in Britain than the USA, and comparing the dollar to pound price on the back of any novel will reveal that most books are cheaper here too.

Americans love a bargain, and pretty much every store has a sale all year round, saving you up to 50% on absolutely everything (not just one rack of last season's left-overs that you might be lucky to find in a UK sale). Department stores such as Kohls are famous for their deep discounts and free “Kohls cash” coupons, so you never pay full price. When our friend Steve came over on holiday from the UK, he was gobsmacked to discover he’d saved more money than he’d actually spent at one store alone!

What about sales tax?

Our British visitors are always surprised when prices are higher than they expected at the checkout. Unlike VAT, sales tax is added when you pay, and is set locally by each state and county. Here in metro Atlanta, we currently pay around 7%, but not on items such as food and gas (petrol) which are tax exempt. Compared to the UK’s 20% standard VAT, lower sales tax also partly explains why many goods are cheaper in the USA.

Is eating out more or less expensive in America?

Generally, eating out is much cheaper in the USA. However, when it comes to the classic American burger, website The Travel surprisingly discovered that a Big Mac is almost $1 cheaper in London than New York. Happy Meals aside, you can certainly get your money’s worth at countless buffet restaurants, eating as much as you want for an inexpensive fixed price. And non-alcoholic drinks are usually unlimited too; welcome to the land of free refills!

For a more upscale experience, hubby and I usually pay about $60 for a freshly cooked three-course dinner for two at our favourite local, family-run restaurant Emidio’s. Of course, portion sizes in the US are much larger too, giving you a lot more nosh for your dosh. And don’t forget you can take home any leftovers in a doggy bag, which makes eating out even more cost-effective.

Like many expats, as Brits in America hubby and I still crave our favourite take-away food from home, such as good old fish and chips. Back in Luton, our favourite local chippy The Wigmore currently charges £7.98 for a portion of cod and chips. Here, we are blessed to have a genuine British chippy not too far from our house. Fish and chips at Wrights in Georgia sets us back $12.50 (£9.09). But the price difference is to be expected, as all ingredients and equipment are imported from the UK. As owner Chantelle Wright from Wales tells us, “Shipping and importing costs have gone up drastically, along with the price of protein and meat”.

What about driving in the USA? Is petrol cheaper?

Yes, much cheaper! Even though petrol prices are higher now than ever before.

You can buy a car for several thousand pounds less than the same model back home; a brand new Jeep Compass SUV, for example, has a list price starting at $24,000 (that’s a staggering £10,000 cheaper than its UK price tag). Of course everything is negotiable, and haggling for a great deal is all part of the American car buying process. Nearly all cars here are automatics so you won’t pay extra for the luxury of not needing to change gear, and warranties usually cover you for several years longer on this side of the pond.

Road tax is charged when you purchase a vehicle, and after that you only pay a small amount to register your “title” (a sticker for your licence plate) locally - about $20 a year in the county where we live. There are also tons of free parking spaces everywhere and no MOT requirement, which cuts down on expenses too. But with limited or non-existent public transport beyond major cities, you’ll probably end up driving a lot more often and a lot further than you would in Britain.

How does the cost of private education compare with the UK?

The international school where hubby and I teach charges yearly fees of $29,621 (£21,526) for a 9th grader (14 year old pupil). This is less than the comparable ACS International School in Egham, Surrey, where parents pay £26,860 per year. School fees in New York are pretty much in line with London. It is also worth noting that all religious schools in America are private, due to the separation of church and state.

What about the cost of phone calls and internet?

While you can save a ton of cash buying a new iPhone in the States, your monthly mobile bill will probably cost more than if you were in the UK. But your American plan is likely to include unlimited data and calls all across the US, so no need to worry about long distance or premium-rate number charges. Home internet and cable TV is also more pricey, but remember there’s no TV licence here (saving you £159 a year) and if you cut the cord, numerous streaming services are much cheaper than cable. And of course, a new big-screen telly is a lot less expensive to buy here too.

What else is really cheap in the USA?

Sending a birthday or Christmas card back to the UK costs just $1.30 (94p), compared to £1.70 for a Royal Mail international stamp to the USA. My quick survey of fellow expats revealed that Brits in America also spend less on their haircuts, pedicures, make-up, diapers (nappies), toys, over-the-counter medicine, mouthwash, sheets and towels, craft supplies, wedding dresses, bananas and even Botox.

What’s really expensive in the USA?

You can bet your bottom dollar that healthcare is the number one expense that really breaks the bank for most Americans. Heart bypass surgery, for example, costs at least $78,000.

Going to university here can also cost you an arm and a leg. Unless you achieve a scholarship, top colleges such as Harvard or Yale will set you back around $57,000 a year, compared to the standard £9,250 at any UK uni including Oxford and Cambridge. It’s not surprising that most American graduates are already deep in debt when they start their new careers.

Doing the Math

Right now, prices are rising steeply on both sides of the Atlantic, so many of my examples may be out of date already. If you want to make your own comparisons, here’s a really good website - just enter your hometown to compare costs with different cities in the USA:

Trying to weigh-up price differences between the UK and the USA is all a bit swings and roundabouts - some things cost more, others less. And it all depends where you go; in California, for example, you will find your cost of living is about the same, if not more, than back home. However, even if you pay more Stateside, you generally get more in return.

And my two cents worth, as a Brit in America? Well, earning higher salaries and living in a much nicer home than we could ever have afforded in Luton, hubby and I feel we enjoy a much better standard of living since moving to Atlanta. It seems our money goes a lot further on this side of the pond. And that’s our bottom dollar.

Mary McCarney profile image
Author: Mary McCarney
Mary McCarney is a freelance writer and blogger. She has written for numerous publications ranging from The Times and The Telegraph to NOW…