Monday, September 14

The economics of geography

Especially in the wake of the subprime loan crisis, we've heard a lot about the variance in housing costs throughout this country. That's not what I'm talking about. Frankly, I don't think I have much to add on the subject.

But there is another facet of the cost of living: geography-based consumer needs. These tend to be wildly different, as you move from one climate type to another. Now that I'm on my third distinct one, I find myself pondering how climate affects the cost of living.

Mostly, it seems to boil down to the creation of new needs. Anchorage may have been one of the more severe examples, in that sense. To survive the winter with all your limbs and digits in tact, a good coat, mittens/gloves, a hat and scarf were all pretty important. Bear in mind that a "good" winter coat generally included goose down. Of course, there are always sales. Usually it was smartest to buy at the end of the season for optimal prices. Even so, you considered yourself lucky to find a coat for under $40. Adults could get away with the same coat for many years, but growing kids made such things, at minimum, an annual expense.

Then there was the cost of boots. Snow boots (we all called them moon boots, since they looked remarkably similar to astronauts' footwear) were important for traction on snow and ice. And if you had to wade through snow -- either to shovel it or to play in it -- you were thankful for the things. And each year for "break up," when snow and ice melted and created a chilly slush, you needed a good pair of rubber boots.

Of course, there were other costs: Warm blankets (sometimes electric), thermal underwear, warm socks, etc. Fur attire, while obviously a luxury, was relatively common. Of course, we found ways around some of these items. My family never had electric blankets, which might short out. Nor did we buy special, heavy blankets for warmth. We just used layers. (Similarly, my parents saved on bedding by never indulging in pop-culture sheets and comforters for me. That meant they never had to replace these items as my tastes changed.)

In Seattle, costs were a lot lower. Still, it was a good idea to have a quality, water-repellent coat. A good windbreaker was also a smart investment. Those were rarely cheap, unless you found one at a thrift store. In that respect, I was lucky: My rain coat was a hand-me-down from my aunt, and my windbreaker was purchased with a gift certificate from another aunt. Otherwise, I would have been looking at a minimum of $50 each.

Here in Phoenix, though, things are a bit different. I'm definitely going to need some quality sunblock. (Interesting, by the by, how you never find sunscreen anymore. Only sunblock. Advertising is full of smart, crafty people.) On the drive down, I applied a store brand spray-on, 50 SPF before we left in the morning, then again two hours later. I often forgot the third application until three (sometimes four) hours had gone by. I burned (lightly) pretty much every day. Eesh.

In addition, if I decide to go for fashion at all, I'll probably need at least one or two pairs of sandals rather than just tennis shoes. I know this isn't a need, per se. More a luxureed. Nonetheless, I'm betting it will happen.

For a lot of people down here, the major cost is utilities. In Seattle, water/sewer/garbage is generally paid by the landlord, unless the apartment coms with a washer and dryer. Not so down here. It's a desert. Water's a commodity. So you pay for it.

Similarly, in Seattle, electricity bills are pretty low. Most people I know pay about $15-30 a month. Before I got on the low-income program, I generally came in around $17 a month -- and that was with being home almost all the time.

Here in Phoenix, though, air conditioners run most of the time. That will suck up a lot of electricity. When Tim was down here the first time, he misunderstood the apartment agreement and thought electricty was paid for completely. (In fact, it was paid for up to a point.) He and his roommate ran the air conditioner constantly, and after one month had to pay $200 -- over and above the flat rate they were normally charged.

I think that these costs are one reason that rents are so low out here. (The other major factor being that minimum wage is about $1.50 less than it is in Seattle.) Sure, you can get a one-bedroom for under $500, but utilities may easily make up the difference.

Since Tim takes two or three showers a day, we made sure to find a place with a flat rate for w/s/g. (And, yes, we checked to be sure that there was no limit on use.) Electricity is included in rent, so we don't have to worry about that. While we may pay a bit more for rent, this means we're probably saving money overall.

Still, there is one aspect of the desert we cannot escape: drinking water. Once upon a time, Tim found out the hard way that tap water out here isn't drinkable. I'm taking his word for it. But it's hard for me to stomach paying for the stuff. I grew up on well water, and the tap water in Seattle was great.

Granted, a gallon of water out here is relatively cheap. I found it on sale for 67 cents, merely by walking into a random grocery store. But when you start to consider how much water Tim and I drank in Seattle... Well, we're going to be guzzling the stuff out here.

I checked into water services and about choked. We'd be looking at around $40/month, minimum. And that wasn't including the water cooler rental -- about $8-10 a month. So I bit the bullet and spent $50 on a four-foot tall cooler on Craigslist. I figured, even if we get a water service, having the cooler will save us around $100 a year.

It turns out, though, we will almost immediately make our money back. I finally had a chance to price the refill stations for water jugs around here. We can get a 5-gallon jug filled for $1. A water service would cost us around $1 per gallon. Even buying an extra 5-gallon jug at retail, we'll save over $20 in the first month. By the second month, the water cooler will have paid for itself and then some.

Doing that math, I felt rather triumphant. I had faced down a new expense and found a way around it. Of course, I don't kid myself that new ones won't pop up. But for now, I've conquered one new environment-related expense. And I'm choosing to focus on that.

What geography-related expenses do you have?

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Blogger Ginger said...

Living in the Toronto, Canada area for most of my life I can tell you that there are certainly geography-related expenses here!

We experience the full 4 seasons and therefore require suitable wardrobes for each. We need the winter boots & coat, the spring raincoat & rubber boots, the summer sandals & hot-weather gear and in the fall a medium-weight jacket.

Our utilities are also affected in that we need to pay for both heating and cooling. Our summers are very hot & humid, and our winters cold & relatively snowy. Our hydro & gas bills go up each season accordingly.

It sucks having to store all of your off-season gear, or repurchase it every so often, especially with the way that fashion changes!

September 14, 2009 at 1:39 PM

Blogger Cat said...

I'm in the deep south, and here it's electricity. Sounds similar to your new town!

September 14, 2009 at 2:44 PM

Blogger FB @ said...

Why don't you get a Brita water filter or a tap filter instead of buying jugs of water?

It seems to work ok on the water here, though it isn't nearly as great as mountain water, but then again.. what is?

Climate definitely affects expenses. I have never spent so much on boots and coats as I have here in Montreal. It's MUCH colder than in Toronto due to being on the water.

The wind is murderous.

September 14, 2009 at 3:46 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the Brita suggestion. Water coolers are notorious for harboring bacteria and filters offer a low cost solution for having fresh water constantly (water that you're already paying for).

September 15, 2009 at 2:51 PM

Blogger Abby said...

FB & Anonymous:

I asked Tim about the Brita possibility when we were in Seattle. He swore up and down that it did not work when he tried it. So we jettisoned the Brita (Mom gave it away on Freecycle) and have already bought the water cooler. As for "water you're already paying for" we're not actually. Water/sewer/garbage is a flat $35 a month, no matter how much we use.

Trust me, I would have vastly preferred taking the Brita along with me, but apparently it would have been in vain. On the bright side, Freecyclers here in Phoenix will now get a whole bunch of filters which Mom had so thoughtfully gotten for me.

September 15, 2009 at 6:05 PM


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