Your Money
Different cities, different pay scales
Study concludes that how much you earn depends on where you live. How do you fare?
December 18, 2003: 10:30 AM EST
By Leslie Haggin Geary, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Ever wondered what you would earn if you lived somewhere else but did the same job?

Maybe if the salary were right you'd ditch big-city life and head to a quieter locale to ply your trade. Or perhaps you'd bid good-bye to Placidville for a more exciting zip code.

A new study may help you decide whether to hit the road. Mercer Human Resources Consulting polled employers in 150 U.S. cities to find out what they pay employees with the same job.

The conclusion: salaries swing widely across the country.

For example, median pay, a bonus and other financial perks for an executive secretary in Miami typically totals $40,700. In New York, that secretary would bring home a total of $59,100. An attorney with four to eight years of experience pulls in about $83,700 in Milwaukee. But just a hop, skip and a jump away in Chicago, earnings would jump to $119,400 nearly 43 percent as much.

Why such big discrepancies? Are lawyers in the Windy City and Manhattan secretaries more skilled than their peers in other communities? Or are bosses in certain cities just plain old stingy?

Not quite. There are myriad reasons why pay fluctuates from city to city.

Why is your paycheck bigger than mine?

In some parts of the country, certain jobs are considered more valuable in the eyes of employers -- and paychecks reflect that.


Consider that executive secretary and, say, an accountant with two to four years of experience. Who deserves to bring home more bacon? That depends on where you live. In Seattle, it's the secretary who earns roughly $4,000 a year more than the accountant. But in Philadelphia, accountants earn just a few bucks more.

"That's very much a function of the importance of certain occupations in certain locations," says Darrell Cira, senior compensation consultant at Mercer. "There are definitely regional differences in the value of jobs."

This kind of "popularity" pay affects employees on all levels -- not just the rank and file. Corporate financial analysts in New York, for example, make about $70,000 on average. That pales in comparison to a regional sales manager in the Big Apple, who would typically pull in $130,200.

Don't forget the cost of living

That's not to say a paycheck is all about being valuable. Employers frequently set pay scales to reflect an area's cost of living.

So if you're set to relocate for a bigger paycheck, be forewarned. As many residents of big cities already know, a seemingly hefty raise can be quickly shred to pieces by a steeper housing costs, pricey restaurants or expensive insurance bills.

Take the case of a senior human resources administrator who earns $69,000 in Atlanta. Out in Los Angeles, a peer typically earns $75,760 for the same gig, according to the Mercer study. Trouble is, the Los Angeles employee needs to pull in $95,042 to maintain the same standard of living as the Atlanta worker.

Salary comparisons
New York

Then again, taking a colossal pay cut to live in a land of movie stars and movie stars-cum-governors may be worth it. To someone else, heading west suddenly might appear like a raw deal.

Which brings us to perception. No matter how much you earn, you've got to compute the emotional factors that will compel you to stay put or head for greener pastures, says Bert Sperling, founder of Sperling's Best Places, which compares quality and cost of living in communities across the US.

"People do fantasize about moving, especially when times are tight like this," says Sperling. "But it's hard to make that big leap to move."

After all, a little bit of research can shed stark light on that rosy-hued move. To help find the best city for you based on your earning power, see "Best Cities for Your Money" and log onto the CNN/Money Cost of Living Calculator to learn what you'd really need to earn to maintain your standard of living.

You may discover that your old hometown -- and paycheck -- look better after all.

-- additional reporting by Jeanne Sahadi  Top of page

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