The Wolfram|Alpha Blog is now part of the Wolfram Blog. Join us there for the latest on Wolfram|Alpha and other Wolfram offerings »
C. Alan Joyce

Wolfram|Alpha Computes the Cost of Living Today

October 21, 2011 —
Comments Off

We’ve blogged before about Wolfram|Alpha’s powerful relocation calculator, which has turned out to be one of our more popular—and practical—features. Our last round of enhancements added information about broad topics like population, home sale prices, unemployment rates, and more; now we’ve added more detail to the core cost-of-living categories, so you can see how prices of specific retail goods and services differ among US cities and metropolitan areas.

A basic query like “relocation from Des Moines to Chicago” now brings up a new table of “Average retail prices”, with price comparisons for a selected set of common items. Here you can see at a glance that although grocery staples like ground beef don’t differ that much between these two cities, typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment is a whopping 2.35 times higher in Chicago:

Relocation from Des Moines to Chicago

Clicking “More” will expand this pod to show price comparisons for dozens of items in each of the six core cost-of-living categories: groceries, housing, healthcare, transportation, utilities, and miscellaneous. Or you can click the “Show prices” button to see exact prices, as reported by the ACCRA Cost of Living Index (a quarterly survey of cost-of-living differences published by the Council for Community and Economic Research).

Of course, you can also ask Wolfram|Alpha to make direct comparisons of specific items in different cities. Ask about the “price of milk in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Milwaukee”, for example. Or ask “how much does it cost to go bowling in Pittsburgh vs. Houston“, and you’ll get price comparisons, history plots of surveyed retail prices in each city, and additional information on the dozens of other goods and services covered by the ACCRA survey.

Note that because the specific products included in the survey “basket” are sometimes discontinued, replaced, or otherwise modified over time, the historical plots shouldn’t be viewed as a wholly accurate picture of pricing trends. For any given year, however, they do serve as a reliable basis for price comparisons between different cities or areas. And for more details about the specific items surveyed in a given year, you can click the “Definitions >>” button in each pod:

To find details about the specific items surveyed in a given year, you can click the "Definitions >>" button in each pod.

You can use this data to fuel some fascinating new Wolfram|Alpha queries, too. You could, say, compare the “price of a veterinarian visit with the median salary for veterinarians in Pittsburgh”, or find out “how many hours you’d have to work a minimum wage job in Atlanta to pay for a typical doctor’s exam”, or maybe just find out “whether wine prices are higher in Erie, PA or Cleveland, OH”. That last example highlights a particularly interesting situation that Wolfram|Alpha helps to visualize: the state of Pennsylvania controls all liquor and wine sales, which seems to keep prices quite stable, but also artificially high in comparison to a state (like Ohio) that doesn’t exert the same control over wine sales.

Price of wine in Erie vs. Cleveland

There’s an enormous amount of data to play around with here—much of it quite practical, and some of it just plain fun. If you discover any other “fun facts”, submit them to us on our Wolfram Fun Facts Twitter feed so we can share them with everyone!


I am now officially in information overload.

Posted by Boise Idaho October 28, 2011 at 8:19 pm

Yup, I love this site but so much information overload like Boise Idaho said. 🙂

Posted by Danny November 4, 2011 at 8:32 pm

I can see a lot of potential for making savings in everyday purchases through this comparison resource. I mean, even if i’m not relocating, I can check where it’s cheapest to do my shopping.

Posted by Tom May 19, 2014 at 4:06 am