How Do People Afford to Live in California? [11 ways]

Wondering how people manage to afford the high cost of living in the Golden State? You’re not alone—navigating the financial hurdles of life in California can seem like an Olympian feat. But before you dismiss the dream, consider this: countless individuals and families do make it work, and you can too. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll reveal the tried-and-true strategies for making California living more affordable. Don’t miss out on the secrets that could unlock your own California dream. And if you’re scratching your head asking, Why is California so expensive?—We’ve got you covered with an in-depth guide.

Living affordably in California is achievable through smart strategies like choosing to reside in smaller cities, embracing remote work, and optimizing household expenses. From sharing living spaces with roommates to utilizing public transit and planning meals wisely, Californians make targeted choices to enjoy the Golden State without breaking the bank.

11 Ways How Do People Afford to Live in California

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1. Strategic Residential Choices: Avoiding Major Cities

If you’ve ever tried to price out a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco or Los Angeles, you likely experienced sticker shock. High demand, limited supply, and a booming job market in tech, entertainment, and other industries make these cities exceptionally costly.

Consider other charming but less expensive locations such as Sacramento, Riverside, or even pockets within the San Francisco Bay Area like Concord or Vallejo. These places often offer a more manageable cost of living while still providing decent amenities and job opportunities.

Case Studies

Take Sarah, for example, a tech professional who moved from San Francisco to Sacramento. She reported not only a 30% reduction in her living expenses but also found the quieter lifestyle more to her taste. Then there’s Carlos, a teacher who relocated to Riverside and is now able to comfortably afford a spacious two-bedroom apartment on his salary, something unheard of in downtown LA.

2. The Renting Advantage: Why Leasing Beats Ownership

Owning a home in California might be an American dream, but it’s also a financial challenge. As of my last update in September 2021, the median home price in California was pushing past $700,000, making the barrier to entry exceedingly high.

Renting offers flexibility, especially if you’re new to the state or uncertain about your long-term plans. While you won’t build equity as you would by buying, you also aren’t responsible for maintenance costs. On the other hand, owning a property can be a long-term investment, but it comes with the financial stress of a mortgage, property taxes, and upkeep.

Tips for Finding Affordable Renting Options

Your best bet is to look for properties that are a bit older or are situated further from city centers. Websites like Craigslist, Zillow, and local community boards often list affordable options. Don’t underestimate the power of networking—sometimes word-of-mouth gets you the best deals.

3. The Roommate Route: Co-living to Cut Costs

Living with roommates can halve or even quarter your rent and utility expenses, depending on the number of people you’re cohabiting with. Additionally, shared responsibility for chores and groceries can further reduce your workload and costs.

Beyond asking friends or family, consider using vetted roommate-matching services online. Websites like RoomieMatch and offer platforms where you can find people with similar lifestyles and preferences.

Before moving in, it’s crucial to establish ground rules and put all agreements in writing. Discuss issues like sharing chores, visitors, and quiet hours. Both parties should be clear on the rent split, utility responsibilities, and lease terms to avoid future disputes

4. Embracing Remote Work: Cutting Commute and Office Costs

The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized remote work, and many companies in California are continuing this trend. Remote opportunities are now abundant in fields such as tech, marketing, and even healthcare.

Working from home can trim your budget in multiple ways. Firstly, it eliminates daily commuting costs — gas, tolls, and public transport fares add up. You’ll also save on work attire and lunch expenses, which, let’s be honest, are way too tempting when your office is near food trucks or chic cafes.

Potential Downsides to Consider

However, remote work isn’t for everyone or every role. Some jobs require a hands-on presence, and not everyone finds it easy to maintain work-life balance when working from the same place they relax. Also, the initial setup (desks, ergonomic chairs, high-speed internet) may require a one-time investment.

5. The Family Planning Aspect: Why Delaying Children May Be Wise

Childcare in California can be exorbitant. The average cost of daycare can range from $1,000 to $2,500 per month per child. This doesn’t even factor in extracurricular activities, medical expenses, or savings for their education.

By delaying children, you’re giving yourself time to save and perhaps climb higher on your career ladder. The more financially stable you are, the better you can provide for your future family.

Emotional and Relationship Factors to Consider

Delaying family planning isn’t solely a financial decision; it also has emotional and relational ramifications. It might put a strain on relationships if one partner is more keen on starting a family. It’s crucial to have open discussions with your spouse or partner about your collective priorities and plans.

6. Fitness on a Budget: Staying Healthy Without Gym Memberships

Who said you need a pricey gym membership to stay fit? California’s abundant natural beauty offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, or swimming. If you prefer indoor workouts, there are countless online platforms offering free or low-cost workout classes.

Physical fitness doesn’t just make you feel good; it’s also good for your wallet in the long run. A healthier lifestyle can lead to fewer medical bills and lower health insurance premiums.

Keep an eye out for community fitness events; many areas in California host free yoga sessions, group runs, or even dance classes. Websites like YouTube also offer a treasure trove of workout tutorials for every fitness level.

7. Practical Utility Management: How to Save on Bills

California’s sunny climate can be a boon when it comes to utility management. For instance, consider installing solar panels to offset electricity costs. In the same breath, small changes like fixing leaky faucets, installing low-flow showerheads, and using LED bulbs can substantially lower your utility bills.

Don’t overlook community resources when looking to save. Many local governments offer free energy audits, and some even provide complimentary water-saving devices. Make it a habit to keep an eye on public announcements for such services.

California’s various climates mean you’ll be running the AC in the summer and maybe needing heat in the winter. Make your home more energy-efficient by sealing drafts and installing better insulation, and you’ll see a considerable dip in seasonal utility costs.

8. Multiple Income Streams: Taking on Side Hustles or Second Jobs

In the gig economy era, finding a side hustle is easier than ever. Consider freelance writing, dog-walking, or even rideshare driving to supplement your income. If you have a skill, there’s probably a market for it.

California is a hotspot for freelancers, offering opportunities in tech, design, and consulting among other fields. Websites like Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr are good platforms to get started.

It can be challenging to manage multiple roles, but proper time management can make it feasible. Tools like Google Calendar or productivity apps can help you schedule your day efficiently. And remember, the key is to find a side hustle that you enjoy so that it doesn’t feel like a chore.

9. Free or Low-Cost Entertainment Options: Frugal Fun

California is home to numerous cultural events, many of which are free. Whether it’s an art walk in Downtown LA or a music festival in San Francisco, keep an eye on local event calendars for free entertainment options.

You’re in California—take advantage of the great outdoors! Most beaches are free, and the state is filled with national parks and hiking trails that require a nominal entrance fee or are completely free.

Public libraries are not just for borrowing books; many offer free classes, lectures, and even movie nights. Similarly, community centers often host a range of low-cost activities for all age groups.

10. Food Budgeting: Eating Well Without Breaking the Bank

While it’s tempting to dine out in California, given its diverse food scene, these costs can quickly add up. A smart way to save is through meal prepping. Plan your meals for the week, buy groceries in bulk, and spend a Sunday afternoon cooking up a storm. You’ll have ready-to-go meals that make it easier to skip the takeout menu.

California is known for its fresh produce, and what better place to get it than local farmers’ markets? Not only are you supporting local businesses, but you’re also getting fresh, organic products often at a fraction of grocery store prices.

Smartphone apps like Ibotta and websites like RetailMeNot offer tons of coupons and discounts on groceries. This modern-day couponing can save you a significant amount over time.

11. Transportation Alternatives: Going Beyond Car Ownership

Public transport systems like BART in the San Francisco Bay Area or LA’s Metro offer reasonable monthly passes and can get you to most places you need to go. Even if you use public transport only for commuting to work, you can save a lot compared to fueling and maintaining a car.

Services like Zipcar or Car2Go allow you to rent a car only when you need one. Likewise, Uber and Lyft pool services are a cost-effective alternative for occasional rides. If you don’t need a car every day, this is an excellent way to save.

For shorter commutes, consider biking or walking. Not only will you save money, but you’ll also enjoy health benefits and reduce your carbon footprint. Many cities in California are bike-friendly, offering dedicated lanes and bike-share programs.

Finest Places to Reside in California

When it comes to choosing the perfect spot in California, options abound. The state’s diverse geography and culture mean there’s a little something for everyone. Whether you’re a beach bum, a mountain lover, or someone who thrives in the hustle and bustle of city life, California has got you covered. If you’re leaning towards high-end living and wondering about home prices, take a look at our comprehensive guide on the most expensive cities in California. Here are some top picks to consider:

San Diego

For those who love the coast but want a more laid-back environment compared to Los Angeles, San Diego is your spot. Known for its beautiful beaches and incredible weather, this city is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and families. The presence of various tech companies and start-ups also make it attractive for professionals.


This Orange County city wins points for being one of the safest in the country. Irvine offers a high quality of life with excellent schools, making it ideal for families. The city is also home to several large corporations, offering ample job opportunities.


If a quieter, more family-friendly atmosphere is what you’re after, consider Redlands. Located close to San Bernardino, this city offers affordable housing compared to the California average. The community vibe here is strong, thanks to regular events and a vibrant downtown area.

Santa Barbara

Dubbed the “American Riviera,” Santa Barbara offers a lifestyle steeped in luxury and natural beauty. The city provides a unique blend of outdoor activities, from surfing to hiking, along with a strong cultural scene featuring museums, theaters, and music festivals.

Lake Tahoe

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, Lake Tahoe might be your piece of heaven. Known for its stunning natural scenery, the area offers a plethora of activities year-round, from skiing and snowboarding in the winter to hiking, mountain biking, and water sports in the summer.

What Salary Can Support a Comfortable Living in California?

Living in the Golden State is no cheap affair, and it’s crucial to know what kind of salary you need to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. The conversation around salaries in California is complex, and impacted by various factors including location, family size, and personal lifestyle choices. So let’s dive into the numbers and nuances.

According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, the baseline living wage in California stands at $21.24 per hour for a single adult and doubles to $43.44 for a single adult with one child. Annually, this means you’d need a minimum of $44,175 before taxes. However, these are just baseline figures and can dramatically shift based on where you’re located. In a high-cost city like San Francisco, you’re looking at a living wage of $28.00 per hour for a single adult and an astonishing $56.48 for a single adult with one child. Contrast this with Fresno, where the living wage is considerably lower at $15.50 per hour for a single adult and $32.30 for a single adult with one child.

Breakdown of Key Expenses

  • Housing: The biggest chunk of your monthly budget will inevitably go toward housing. Zillow shows that as of July 2022, the median home value in California is $733,500, while the median rent price is $2,800 per month. These figures fluctuate dramatically based on location; for instance, in San Francisco, the median home value reaches a staggering $1.5 million, and the median rent is $3,500 per month. In a more budget-friendly area like Bakersfield, the median home value is $316,000, and the median rent is $1,600 per month.
  • Transportation: The next significant cost is transportation. According to AAA, the average cost of owning and operating a vehicle in California was $9,561 per year in 2020. Factors like the type of car you drive and your driving frequency can influence this cost. Gas prices in California are among the highest in the nation, averaging $4.63 per gallon. Public transportation is an alternative but might not be convenient in all areas.
  • Food: Numbeo estimates that the average monthly cost of food for a single person in California is $440. Of course, your dietary preferences and habits, like dining out versus cooking at home, will alter this cost. Organic food, for example, will push your budget higher, and prices also vary by location.
  • Healthcare: Healthcare in California comes with its own set of costs, including premiums, deductibles, copayments, and other medical expenses. These costs will differ based on your healthcare plan and medical needs.

Given this extensive breakdown, it’s evident that your salary needs will differ depending on a multitude of factors, including your lifestyle choices and specific location within California. Planning your budget thoroughly can help you navigate the complexities of living in this beautiful, albeit expensive, state.


Living in California doesn’t have to be a financial strain if you strategize well. From making smart choices about where to live and how to commute, to effective budgeting in areas like food and utilities, there are numerous ways to make the California dream a reality without emptying your bank account. Life in the Golden State is all about smart choices, planning, and enjoying the incredible resources it has to offer—often without a high price tag. Thank you for reading this comprehensive guide, and here’s to your new life in California, lived wisely and well!

By employing these strategies and maintaining a budget-conscious mindset, you can focus on enjoying all that California has to offer, rather than worrying about how to make ends meet. Welcome to California—dream big, but spend smart!


How much money do you need to afford living in California?

The amount you need to afford life in California can vary dramatically based on your lifestyle, location, and family size. However, a basic guideline from a basic Living Wage Calculator suggests a living wage of $21.24 per hour for a single adult, translating to roughly $44,175 annually before taxes. For those in high-cost cities like San Francisco, the numbers are substantially higher. It’s crucial to consider the whole range of your expenses, including housing, transportation, food, and healthcare, to get a complete picture.

Is it possible to afford California?

Yes, it’s certainly possible to afford living in California. While the state has many areas with a high cost of living, there are also places where your dollar can stretch further. Implementing budget strategies, taking advantage of public services, and possibly engaging in multiple streams of income can make it more feasible. Your ability to afford California will largely depend on your income, the cost of your chosen location, and your lifestyle choices.

Is 40k enough to live in California?

Living on $40,000 a year in California would be challenging, especially in high-cost cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles. According to basic living wage calculations, $44,175 is the minimum recommended for a single adult to cover basic expenses, and this figure doubles for a single adult with one child. However, in lower-cost areas like Fresno, it might be more feasible. If you’re considering living in California on a $40,000 salary, you’ll likely need to budget very carefully and may need to make significant lifestyle adjustments.

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