By Jack Lee
In April 2019, I got a call that changed the course of my summer. On the other end of the phone, someone said I had been accepted into an internship program in a prestigious newsroom in Washington D.C.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the exciting summer ahead- the prospect of working in the fast-paced journalism-driven city, where I could spend my down time immersed in the culture and take in the history and the magnitude of the things going on. To a lesser extent, I was happy because I would be making the most money I’ve ever made.
Up to this point, I had never made much more than Missouri minimum wage, which sat at around $8.60 an hour when I took that phone call. So, when I heard I would be making $15 an hour (in my mind, nearly double what I was making) I began thinking about all the ways I could spend (and invest) my extra income.
However, nobody told me $15 an hour was in fact minimum wage in the nation’s capital. And what came next was a brutal lesson in cost of living.
Of course, I knew living in Washington D.C. would be more expensive than living in Columbia, Missouri, but I didn’t know how much more.
My first reality check kicked in when I began looking for somewhere to live. In Columbia, four-digit rent prices for a single person are almost unheard of, unless you’re living by yourself in a one-bedroom apartment in a downtown high-rise. But when I started looking through rent listings, four-digits seemed to be the standard, even when sharing a space with several other people. In the end, I settled on a two-bedroom apartment with three roommates, paying four times the rent I do on my similar sized apartment in Columbia with just one roommate.
Once I got to Washington, the increased spending didn’t stop. My groceries every month cost 20 percent more than they did in Missouri. Eating out was at least 30 percent more expensive between comparable restaurants. Some expenses that previously were such small portions of my budget- like entertainment, toiletries and personal spending- were suddenly grabbing my attention in my accounts. Even trading in my gas-guzzling Jeep for a Metro pass for the summer cost me more per month.
In retrospect, the drastic difference in the cost of living should not have surprised me. The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center shows Missouri is consistently in the bottom 10 states when ranked by cost of living. Washington D.C. is ranked second only to Hawaii (although it is important to note this ranks Washington D.C. as a city against entire states).
When comparing Columbia to the Washington D.C. metro area, the NerdWallet cost of living calculator shows cost of living in Washington is 80 percent higher than in Columbia. At the same time, my pre-tax wages in Washington were about 75 percent higher than in Columbia.
Even though I came into my internship thinking I was making nearly double what I did in Missouri, in hindsight, I had about the same purchasing power in Washington as I did in Columbia. I was saving the same percentage of my paycheck, and I didn’t really have that much more expendable income.
The summer I spent in Washington D.C. was a wakeup call for me. Money doesn’t go as far some places as it does in others, so knowing ahead of time how my wages will compare in one city versus another will always be an important step before making a move.
Lee is a junior at the University of Missouri.