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Here's how much you need to earn to live comfortably in major U.S. cities

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If you want to live comfortably in any of America's largest cities, it will come at a high price, according to a new study.

An individual must earn $96,500 a year before taxes to afford housing, groceries, transportation and entertainment, while also paying off debt and putting some money into savings, according to personal finance website SmartAsset. A two-parent household supporting two children needs a combined $235,000 to live comfortably, SmartAsset said in a study released Thursday. 

Those income levels only apply to Americans living in the nation's 99 largest cities, according to SmartAsset's study, which also noted that it takes an even higher salary to reside in sprawling metros like Boston and New York.

Americans need such high income largely because housing and higher consumer prices have "wreaked havoc on the cost of living in cities," said Jaclyn DeJohn, managing editor of Economic Analysis for SmartAsset.

"This undoubtedly impacts how far income goes in major cities, as wages have not kept up," DeJohn told CBS MoneyWatch. 

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The income figures from SmartAsset are noteworthy considering how a vast majority of Americans don't earn anything close to those amounts. The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the typical American makes between $62,000 and $73,000 a year. One estimate found that the median U.S. household income is $77,397. 

Only 18% of individual Americans make more than $100,000 a year, according to 2023 data from careers website Zippia. About 34% of U.S. households earn more than $100,000 a year, according to Zippia. 

For many higher-earning Americans, meanwhile, earning six figures hasn't created the level of comfort for which they had hoped. Roughly 4 out of 10 Americans earning $100,000 or more are still living paycheck to paycheck, a 2023 LendingTree study found. 

For its analysis, SmartAsset drew on living wage statistics from MIT and applied the "50-30-20" rule of budgeting—the rule of thumb that 50% of one's income should be devoted to paying for necessities like housing and food, with another 30% covering wants (like vacations or a spa day) and the remaining 20% covering debt and savings. 

In looking at individual U.S. cities, SmartAsset found that living comfortably will cost the most in:

  • New York City ($138,570 for an individual; $318,406 for a family of four)
  • San Jose, California ($136,739 for an individual; $334,547 for a family of four)
  • Irvine and Santa Ana, California ($126,797 for an individual; $291,450 for a family of four)
  • Boston ($124,966 for an individual; $319,738 for a family of four)
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Cyrus Purnell, a personal finance expert at Financial Finesse, said he's not surprised by the higher price of comfort in those five cities because most of that extra cost is going toward housing. 

"I've seen cases where couples earning $250,000 a year with a family of four are struggling to find a home that's affordable for them to do all the other things they want to," Purnell said. "If you toss in daycare or private school, that can quickly get into a situation where $300,000 is more comfortable."

To be sure, Purnell noted, there are millions of Americans living in large cities who aren't making the salaries that SmartAsset said is needed to live comfortably. But they're likely working second jobs — often in the gig economy — in order to cover necessities, he said.  

SmartAsset's study is one piece of research among many that's prompting Americans to rethink what type of income it takes to be counted as wealthy in the U.S., Purnell said. 

"In our society, for many years, we've tied wealth to the concept of six figures," he said. "For a long time, you thought, if you hit $100,000, that's probably good. But a lot of it now comes down to where you live and the circumstances of your lifestyle." 

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