It costs over $84,000 a year for a family of four to live comfortably, but not extravagantly, in San Francisco. (byLorena/Flickr)
It costs over $84,000 a year for a family of four to live comfortably, but not extravagantly, in San Francisco, according to the Economic Policy Institute based in Washington, D.C.. (Lorena/Flickr)

Anyone who lives in the Bay Area knows it’s not cheap. Rents in San Francisco are notoriously high and rising, trickling out to affect housing costs around the region. Then there are the great restaurants that must be tried, the health care necessities that must be paid, child care, transportation — and that all adds up. But just how much does it really cost for families to live in various parts of the Bay Area?

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC, has put together a budget calculator to help estimate the income families need to live modestly, but comfortably, in various places. The calculator consists of seven individual components: rent, food, child care, transportation, health care, other items of necessity and taxes. EPI explains the methodology behind each measure. For example, housing data is based on HUD’s fair market rent (FMR) determination, which is in turn based on five-year American Communities Survey data. The FMR is at the 40th percentile of rent cost, meaning that 40 percent of apartments are rented for less and 60 percent for more.

“EPI’s family budgets offer a higher degree of geographic customization and provide a more accurate measure of economic security,” the budget calculator website says. “In all cases, they show families need more than twice the amount of the federal poverty line to get by.”

In the Bay Area, there’s been a lot of discussion about how feasible it is for families to afford this region.

According to the calculator, it costs $84,133 for a family of four to live in San Francisco comfortably. The numbers are similar, but slightly lower, for San Jose-Sunnyvale at $79,261 and the Oakland-Fremont area at $75,064. The main difference comes from the cost of monthly rent, although there are slight differences in health and child-care costs as well. In San Francisco, about 62 percent of the population rents.

Interestingly, the costs for a single-parent family with two children don’t differ much from a two-parent household. A single parent in San Francisco needs an annual income of $80,703 to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. In San Jose that number is $75,618 and in Oakland it’s $70, 978.

San Francisco residents often complain that it’s just as expensive to live here as New York or Boston. Are they right? Well, for a family of four, New York is definitely more expensive than San Francisco, coming in at $93,502 annually. Chicago is much cheaper, only requiring $69,028 per year. And Boston is right around the same price as San Francisco, at $85,641.

Meanwhile, Federal Poverty Guidelines say a family of four is “officially” poor if it brings in less than $23,550 per year. Even 300 percent of that poverty line, $70,650, falls well below the comfortable threshold proposed by the Economic Policy Institute for Bay Area cities.

Update: Following a number of questions raised in the comments here and on Facebook, we’ve written a follow-up post on the numbers above and if a family of four can live on $84,000 in San Francisco?

  • AJACs

    “The calculator consists of seven individual components: rent, food, child care, transportation, health care, other items of necessity and taxes.”

    They list no savings component, so you either need to work until you are dead, or somehow hope that Social Security will be enough… If it’s still around and if you are willing to move to someplace you probably don’t want to spend your end days.

  • SF Boy

    80K for a family of four in the city?? No way. maybe 80K for a couple of 2.

    • Mr. Rist

      That’s what I’m sayin’.

      • John Dough


        • oaklander

          exactly. we’re a couple of 2 struggling with around that much in income.

    • Bobby Buechler


    • forgot-about-income-taxes

      The article’s author got confused. The calculator’s only showing basic living expenses. Your annual income needs to cover those *and* income tax, social security/medicare, retirement, etc. So to cover 80K of expenses for a family of 4, you *really* need an income closer to 130-140K.

  • Mr. Rist

    I’m a single father with three children, living in Santa Clara, and making about $85k. I’m fortunate enough to have nabbed a subsidized apartment unit several years back. It’s a two bedroom; I give the kids the bedrooms and I sleep on the couch. I’ve been looking to move into a three bedroom, so I can have a room, but the very bottom of the (non-subsidized) rental market would take up nearly an entire paycheck. I’m sure I could swing it if I happen to catch one of these relatively rare bottom of the market units become available, but things will be tighter. Knowing from my personal situation what it’s like in Santa Clara, I have doubts about this report and it’s findings that my income would afford my family a decent standard of living in even more expensive San Francisco.

  • Thomas

    I think there is a serious flaw in the math here.
    Rent or mortgage on a 3Br: at least $3000 per month.
    Monthly Child Care for one child Pre-K: Approximately $1000 per month

    Monthly Child care for 2nd child Pre-K: Approximately $1000 per month

    That is $5000 per month, $60,000 per year without having a bite to eat.
    Food, fuel, utilities, medical-auto-home-renters -or life insurance, entertainment, a vacation, taxes, and saving for retirement Only $20, 000 per year? I don’t think so.

    Granted once your child is in public school the child care cost goes down but it could easily be $500 per month for each child but that is still a hefty bill.

    Also, finding a 3br in San Francisco for $3000/month is no easy task.

    • Dave

      My guess is that they assume that one parent only works and makes $84K/ year, thus the other parent can stay home and not have to worry about paying child care. That might be doable then. But even $84K seems low to me in SF, I’d say more like $100K for a family of 4 is about right to do okay.

    • Catherine Craddock-Carrillo

      They are taking into account other areas of the Bay Area, where rent isn’t nearly that high. We pay $1,600 rent a month for a nice 3 bedroom house on the El Cerrito/Richmond border.

      • anon

        ssshhh! don’t tell people about the wonderfully affordable El Cerrito/Richmond border!

        • Angela

          How long is the commute into SF out of curiosity? Is it one where the one earner in the family rarely sees their kids because the commute is so long (assuming they’re working in the city?

          • Catherine Craddock-Carrillo

            On Bart, the commute is 1/2 hour. Depending on traffic, in car it could be anywhere from 20 minutes (no traffic at all) to 1 hour.

      • Gemma Tate

        It says “According to the calculator, it costs $84,133 for a family of four to
        live in San Francisco comfortably. The numbers are similar, but slightly
        lower, for San Jose-Sunnyvale at $79,261 and the Oakland-Fremont area
        at $75,064.”

        So it looks like the $84k figure is just for SF.

  • Lisa

    Is this a joke? I’m a single person who makes almost $75,000 and I can’t afford to live comfortably in SF with studios renting for $2000/mo. Granted, I have to factor in student loans and a modest amount of credit card debt, but I definitely don’t live extravagantly. Maybe a family of four could survive in SF on $84,000, but definitely not live comfortably.

  • Claire

    No way! With one child alone we are paying $1300 a month in daycare. I suppose if both children were in public school this could be doable, but my husband and I together make slightly over 100K and we were priced out of SF. We moved to the East Bay and we still struggle to make ends meet some months.

  • SF Native

    This figure is ridiculous. 80K covers a couple, maybe. Perhaps if this were for the whole Bay Area, but not for inside SF. What are they doing? Averaging in ancient rent controlled apartments?

  • purple bunny

    what does ‘live comfortably’ mean?? I have debt stemming from childcare costs, can barely pay my healthcare premium which has no dental or vision and then there is gas, food, mortgage– insane amounts of money go out for just necessities–this calculation is flawed and must assume a rent controlled apartment / no debt/ full health care coverage / public school/ money in the bank and a quasi crappy diet and no vacations or expenditures beyond basics –is that comfortable???

  • Wendy

    This is SO OFF. Are you kidding? RENT for our three bedroom apartment costs almost $5k a month. $1k a month for full time childcare? Where, grandma’s? Really, go out and get your facts straight. Unless “comfortably” means living in the projects.

    • Catherine Craddock-Carrillo

      The Bay Area is made up of places other than San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Have you checked rents in Pinole lately?

      • Snowden

        Rents in Pinole are high too no as high as S.F but they are getting higher

        • Catherine Craddock-Carrillo

          Not even comparable! Tons of three bedroom houses in Pinole for under $2000. And in decent neighborhoods.

          • Snowden

            Ok rent is cheaper in the east bay in general but now your job that nets 80k plus is centrally located closer to S.F. rather than in Pinole. You are now a commuter and that is going to cost you either in time or money or both.

      • Angela

        The article is talking about San Francisco specifically and cites costs in surrounding areas separately.

  • Robert Smith

    First of all, if you can find a place to rent for a family of four you are looking upwards of $50,000 a year. Take in education costs because the public school system is notoriously underfunded and incredibly bad you must then send your children to private schools which can easily add another 10 to 15 thousand dollars. Take in transportation costs, food, taxes, you’re pushing far more than $84,000. Lets be a REALISTIC, the cost of living in San Francisco is wiping out the middle class and the poor. You can not expect a family of four to continue to even be able to find a place to rent let alone buy.

  • Paul Allen

    Is the $84k figure gross or net income? The article never states, although the wording “it costs…” implies that this is the net (after tax) figure. Could someone please clarify?

    • Paola

      Agreed, I think this is the amount you need after tax. So your pre-tax salary would be about 30% higher or $109,200…still pretty low for a family of four in SF.

  • SF renter/professional

    this is utterly flawed and wrong. i make well over 85k and am single. studio hole in the walls are $2000 even in the tenderloin area of town. to have enough money for a family of four, on 85k? that’s absurd.

    • Angela

      If you lived in the Tenderloin, you’d also need to factor in $2000 / mo for drugs and prostitutes, just to fit in, or $2000 / mo for a bodyguard from criminals in the area or enhanced windows and security for your home – just had friends of friend living in bordering area have their home get broken in at 7am when they were sleeping in, and they were mugged at gunpoint by two guys who were seemingly on drugs at the time…

  • rachelieachelie

    There is a major flaw with the calculator – it says housing expenses are $1795 per month for a family of four (two adults, two children). Really? Where in SF can you get an apartment, even two bedroom, for that price? So they are really saying, to be poor and struggling in SF, you need to make at least $84k a year…and anything below that you are priced out completely.

    • You realize that “San Francisco” is not the entirety of “Bay Area,” right?

      • Gemma Tate

        According to the calculator, it costs $84,133 for a family of four to
        live in *San Francisco* comfortably. The numbers are similar, but slightly
        lower, for San Jose-Sunnyvale at $79,261 and the Oakland-Fremont area
        at $75,064.

    • Kathryn

      You can’t find a one bedroom in foster city for that price,

  • rr

    Interesting… Except that the average rent for a ONE bedroom apartment in SF is $2700 ( The only neighborhood with 1BRs averaging at or below the $1795 housing allotment in the budget is Excelsior–a neighborhood with no trains and a 40+ minute bus commute downtown.

    Having spent the better part of the last two years researching childcare, I have *never* seen full-time infant care for less than $1000/month in the city (and that gets you into a very basic home day care way out in the avenues or in a different peripheral neighborhood). Unless they are averaging years of free public education for school-aged children into the childcare costs, I have no idea where they got the childcare numbers. Basically, for average costs for a young family this budget is at least $2000/month off, which means the family budget should be $24k year greater annually. Yes, I can see a young family of 4 being able to lead a modest but comfortable lifestyle for ~$110k/yr (as comfortable as life can be for 2 adults and 2 infants squeezed into a 1 BR apartment).

    But hey, a 2 BART-worker family could pull that off and have some leftovers for savings…

    • rr

      Oh, and that’s $110k gross which is $140k+ pre-tax…

    • My mortgage on my house in the East Bay is far less than that and I never go into SF so I don’t use the BART. SF is not the Bay Area in its entirety. The rest of us outside of SF do just fine.

    • I don’t mean to be one of those crazy “fringe-neighborhood people”, but I couldn’t let one of your points go unchallenged 🙂

      I live in the Excelsior, and BART is pretty close to most points. 30 mins to the Financial District, door-to-door for me. There’s also express buses during the weekdays which take 15-20 minutes to get downtown from me. If you drive to work (and many Excelsior places have a garage), the freeway runs right along it and SOMA is a 10-minute drive away.

      It’s not the boonies.

      • LaughingATuRN

        People act like anything past market going south might as well be South City/Daly city. DUMB. Open your eyes people, you’d save more money and probably be happier.

  • Electric Liberty

    Rent control is a big part of the problem. If you know you won’t be able to raise the rent later, and you know it’s hard to kick someone out of your own apartment that you’re renting to them, then you have to start the rent higher instead. Free markets (were the only role for government is to prosecute crimes of aggression, theft & fraud) work best.

  • Philip W.

    The problem with this data is that for rents it doesn’t take into account what you can actually rent a place for now, which is considerably higher than what it was 2 years ago much less 5 years ago. Rents in those types of surveys are also seriously and severely skewed based on our rent-controlled apartments.

    • Snowden

      exactly, in 2006 I had a loft for under a 1000. I moved away and came back last year that same loft was doubled, and way out of my price range.

  • Sborde0

    What if we’re not talking about the city of San Francisco. There are other areas within the bay area, like Berkeley or Oakland. Would you say 84k was doable for those areas?

    • Catherine Craddock-Carrillo

      Probably not in Berkeley or the nice parts of Oakland, but definitely doable in the East Bay north of El Cerrito (Richmond, El Sobrante, Pinole, San Pablo). We are a family of three who does fine on less than 84K.

  • firefly917

    We are a family of three in Silicon Valley. We have a household (gross) income about twice the suggested ‘comfortable’ figure. We have student loan payments of about $800 a month, but we drive two old, paid-off cars (shared one car until our son was born this year). We live in an 1100-sq. ft. house in a neighborhood with bad schools; we rent the house, and our rent is now less expensive than 2-BR apartments where we live. (Thank God for a long lease, but we expect we’ll be hurting a year from now.) We eat organic food, but we also grow a good bit of it ourselves, and we shop four grocery stores as well as the farmer’s market for bargains. We don’t really take major vacations, though we do occasionally travel to see family back East. When things go wrong, we struggle not to fall into debt, but overall, I feel like we’re doing okay. We’re saving for retirement, though we’re not saving as much as is recommended. I think we mostly fall into the category of ‘comfortable, but not wealthy’ . . . on double the indicated amount. I find the three figures for all three parts of the Bay Area quite suspect. Frankly, I don’t know how people with half our income are getting by here, much less people who are making minimum wage.

  • Roshni Ray Ricchetti

    The rental data is taken from source that bases the rental prices on data over the last 4 years. Looking at the current rental market based on the link in the article, 2BRs typically go for ~$2k more than estimated by the EPI’s HUD FMR calculation ($4k as opposed to <$2k).

    Also, the family of four assumes one pre-K child (age 4) and one school-aged child (6). For a young family just forming, monthly childcare jumps from <$1k/month to ~$3.5k/month for two infants in care (I'm made up $1750/month/kid based on home daycares in the $1200-1500 range averaged with child care centers and nanny shares at $2k+).

    So, to have a *young* family in SF *now* this budget is off by $4.5k/month.

    Really, a young family in SF must bring in ~$140k gross, which translates to a salary of about $180k annually. That's $180k for a family of four, with two infants/toddlers, to live MODESTLY, in a 2BR apartment… A far cry from that silly $84k number.

  • motiver

    Not sure what these guys were smoking when they pulled those numbers. Even in Sunnyvale, those numbers are far from comfortable. Rents are crazy this year. I am assuming those numbers are take home pay (after tax) and not gross pay. Even then it is crazy. Don’t get me started on SF.

  • Scott

    Since this article didn’t mention anything about actually SAVING money — it only focused on what must be spent — you need to add like 20% on top of any numbers in the article. So basically, it tells us what we know if we live in the Bay Area: $84,133 x 1.2 = 100,959. You need to be making 6-figures to live comfortably in the bay area AND have a chance at saving any money.

    • Scott

      And to add to that — $100K is for ONE PERSON. It’s a joke to think this could sustain a family of four “comfortably”.

  • sftosj

    Seriously, was this article written during Happy Hour. The credibility of the writer and the data is at stake.

  • jam

    Its obvious the writer, Katrina Schwartz, has not a fricken clue….

    • Inkspots

      Oh, she has a clue. Do you have any idea what journalists earn? College-educated, experienced journalists with multimedia skills pull down around $40,000. That’s me. Reading this article I felt hopeless.

  • Rd1

    Um. Did anyone actually pull real numbers or visit SF before writing this article?? We bought our place in the 90’s and still pay more than that in housing! And childcare that cheap? nada- I was a stay at home for awhile but even then. And 600 for food for a family of three? What are they eating pasta and peanuts? Survive is a key word, not comfortable.

  • zinfandelbarbera

    Remember, folks, that the “Bay Area” also includes Solano County (where rents are closer to Sacramento rents) and places like Santa Rosa.

  • bsaunders

    An unspoken dimension of this problem: where housing costs are extremely high, the family-of-four use case is misleading.

  • Eli

    Majority vote : This MATH and their STATS are FAULTY. At the most I MIGHT believe this, to find they included the outer parts of San Francisco (Ocean Beach, UCSF, and parts of South San Francisco, etc..). But at rent rates NOW, I’d still be doubtful $80,000 would be enough for a young family of 4.

    • bonkerslite

      I wouldn’t want to try it, that’s for sure. At best one could squeaaak by, with almost nothing going into savings, retirement or college funds.

  • Mark

    You mean $184,000. Right?

  • J

    The first link this article, shows that median rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in SF in $4000. That’s $96k/year. So how is a family of 4 supposed to live “comfortably” on a salary that can’t even afford rent? Maybe “comfortable” means the whole family sharing one bedroom…

  • Michael SJ

    Hahaha, that’s funny. Let’s see the EPI guys try to live by those figures in Washington DC. I live in “relatively” affordable San Jose and there’s no chance you can live comfortably for a family of 4 on $84K gross income. You can barely scrape by and squeeze your family of 4 into a low-rent condo in San Jose with those figures for SF.

  • Jeremiah Boehner

    I would agree if they had zero debt other than a mortgage or rent. But I make a little less than that it’s tough.

  • al_pal

    I was going to say that Sunset and Richmond districts still have affordable rents–but then I checked CL and found that the number of 3BR places with rent around or under 3k was very low indeed. Used to be plenty of 3 & 4 BR places in the Sunset for 2500-3000, not that long ago. A few are 2700, but not that many. Less inventory now since it is mid-month, but still. Dang.

    • Angela

      We’re in Sunset. Rented in 2012. We pay more than $3500 and less than $4000 (rent without utilities) for a 3BR / 2 BA. It was the lowest cost I could find at the time last year. Most 3 BRs were well above $4500 /year.

  • SFDweller

    Where in the world is this family of 4 living in SF that they pay a mere $1700/month in rent?

  • kim

    We have a combined 150k annual income and one child and were forced to leave SF this year for Oakland when we added a 2nd child. There was literally no appropriate housing available (rental) and YES we were planning on putting the kids in one room. Also, I can’t help but add that the stroller in the photo above costs a thousand bucks.

  • julieg

    I moved out of San Francisco to Pittsburgh, PA a few months ago because housing costs are about 75% less here. I am so much more relaxed now that I don’t have to pay so much for rent on a small place.

  • Scott

    What this article shows is how bad the budget calculator is. Either that, or someone plugged in the wrong numbers.

  • Kelli M

    I’d really like to see what neighborhoods they’re talking about. Sure, you can find places that cheap, but you *really* don’t want to live there.

  • DFinMA

    The figure is cost, not income. To have $84k to spend you’d need an income of, like, $125k.

  • Offended SF Resident

    I’d guess that you are all full of poo. Yes… poo.

    I happen to have a family of five. We have a small, but comfortable home that we rent in the Lower Haight. My children attend Public schools and public school after school programs. I work for a local company. My partner works for the Federal Govt. We bring in LESS that 75K a year and are QUITE comfortable and would consider OUR income and way of life to be modest.

    dear NPR… thankyou for offending all of the hardworking working class families living in San Francisco who have the necessities, cable, and nice toys to play with who DON”T consider themselves to be living something LESS than a modest life.

  • Angela

    What type of diligence did EPI do for their estimates and when were these estimates valid? It’s very difficult to find 3BRs for rent in SF. When we moved here in March 2012, there were fewer than 10 through the entire city (via – otherwise, we’d have paid more for broker fee) and none that were less than $3500 /mo… most were $5000+. Assume you’re able to find an “affordable” 3BR for a family of 4 for $3500, or $42K a year (take a look – it’s doubtful you’ll have good luck finding many rentals for $3500 that are reasonably-sized for a family of four. Assume you pay 30% all-in income taxes (CA state taxes are HIGH) ~$25K. Just these 2 items only total $67K, so there’s $17K remaining. Then, there’re utilities for the house / mobile phone cost, insurance, maybe a car and its expenses (maybe not if you want to chance public transport all the time. My husband takes the train and approx once a week is significantly delayed getting home to see kids before they’re asleep due to issues with the train… factor in $700 / year for Muni pass), food, preschool at $10K / year (good luck with getting into a free public option), health care, etc. Yes, agreed with another commenter, they must assume the $84K is earned by one parent and the other stays at home. Child care is about $20k / year if you send your child to a center or “nanny share”. I guess living “modestly” in this definition doesn’t mean there’s room for retirement savings or anything except the barebone essentials. Not an ideal or even comfortable way to live for $84K for four people in this city these days.

  • Angela

    Wow, looking at this article further… I can’t believe the estimates are from July 2013 from a non-profit “think tank.” Good you’re making no profit from this work, but really are your operating expenses even justifiable?? Katrina, you’ve got to work these numbers better. Have you been out to SF? Done any primary research? The act of Thinking should include critically thinking and analyzing data in a much more diligent manner than what’s been done here. It’s disappointing this article came through via an NPR social media feed. NPR is one of the last moderately credible news sources I follow, and this type of article does nothing to support credibility.

  • David Winslow

    This is bogus. I’ve been living on about 24k while working full time for about a decade. I’ve done it by leaning on family and collecting dozens of roommates, sometimes 12 at 1 time. Adding 3 people and multiplying the income by resident wouldn’t help much. I suppose it all comes down to how you define “comfortable” and “necessary”. Flophouses and co-ops are great once you get past the noise and fleas.

    • Anonymous Stranger

      Just because you put up with terrible living conditions doesn’t mean it would be suitable for a family to live there.

  • Excelsior fam

    I am only the working parent, with a little toddler and I can barely make it. We are 3 persons living in one bedroom apt in the cheap Excelsior
    neighborhood. Currently we stay home with baby, but we will probably leave city soon as baby grows older and will need daycare on a daily basis. I think most low income families here in SF live in cramped spaces and in less ‘desirable’ neighborhoods. They share housing with several other family members, uncles grandparents etc and put several kids in one bedroom, and even convert the livingroom to another bedroom… I bet there is very little money put away for savings, vacation, retirement or and health insurance. Don’t even mention student loans!!

  • You guys raised a lot of good questions and we wrote a follow-up post here:

  • Sunny Despite

    More accurate rental prices on San Francisco.

  • laurel heights

    i finally hit about 300k a year, between my wife and i. we rent a small 1 bedroom that you don’t envy. we just now feel comfortable as san franciscans – by no means rich at all. like… comfortable middle…. slowly, getting there.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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