Its official: Living in Aspen is expensive |

Its official: Living in Aspen is expensive

Janet Urquhart

This just in: Living in Aspen is expensive.

While that’s hardly a revelation for people who live here, the cost of living in Aspen has been formally documented in black and white by the city of Aspen’s finance department.

The city has produced a cost-of-living index that allows comparisons between Aspen and four other Colorado resort towns, as well as national averages. While it may come as no surprise that Aspen comes out on top when it comes to the cost of everything from condos and movie tickets to breakfast cereal and gasoline, the study has provided some useful information, said city finance director Tabatha Miller.

The index will provide a base line for future years, she said. The study will be conducted annually, giving Aspen a true measure of local inflation rates. And paired with annual wage studies, the first of which should be complete next spring, the data will also give city employers – and employees – some idea of whether wages are keeping up with the cost of living, Miller said.

“If our sales tax revenues go up 6 percent, we never know how much of that is attributable to an increase in prices and how much is an increase in growth,” she said. “Are we seeing an increase in business in town or just an increase in prices?

“We get calls all the time about what our inflation rate is, and we haven’t a clue,” Miller added.

The city has been collecting data since last August, sending planning department intern Andrew Klotz on a shopping spree of sorts. He didn’t actually buy the goods, but simply noted their cost.

The study compares prices in six categories: housing, utilities, groceries, goods and services, health care and transportation. Prices were compared in four ski towns – Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs – plus Glenwood Springs.

“Glenwood we felt was important, not only because it’s in the valley, but because most of us buy something in Glenwood,” Miller explained. “A lot of us buy our groceries in Glenwood.”

As a guide, Miller’s department used the criteria set by the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association to measure the cost of living for a household earning at least $70,000 annually. The ACCRA publishes a national cost-of-living index quarterly, providing reports on more than 300 metropolitan areas.

While Aspen’s report allows comparisons to national averages, local data collection did not always meet ACCRA standards, Miller notes. Klotz was not, for example, able to compare grocery prices at five different outlets, as most of the resort towns have two supermarkets at most.

And, added Miller, resort real estate prices skew some of the comparisons, though the Aspen report offers cost-of-living indexes for both free-market and subsidized housing.

The composite index, comparing the cost of living in the mountain resorts to the national average when all six categories are lumped together, shows Aspen exceeds the national average by 444 percent (46.3 percent with subsidized housing). Vail is next at 331 percent (14.8 percent with subsidized housing), followed by Breckenridge at 66.8 percent. Steamboat Springs is at 35.3 percent and Glenwood Springs 22.2 percent.

In the comparison of housing costs alone, Aspen is off the charts in the free-market comparison.

“We’re only 1,496 percent higher than the national average,” said Miller. “I don’t think that surprises any of us.”

Vail exceeds the national average by 1,029 percent. Breckenridge is at 184.9 percent. Steamboat is at 126.8 percent, and Glenwood is at 70.6 percent.

Housing costs in Aspen and Vail are more than double those found in any of the more than 300 cities surveyed by the ACCRA, according to Aspen’s report. Aspen vs. other resorts It’s the comparisons between the resorts, though, that give local residents a better sense of the cost of living in Aspen, said Miller. That local prices exceed the national average – “well yeah, no duh,” she said.

The grocery list for the comparison shopping contained 26 items that can be found in any supermarket, like an 11.5-ounce can of Maxwell House coffee and an 18-ounce box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes.

Groceries in Aspen cost about 37 percent more than the national average and about 12 percent more than the average of the other four resorts in the study. Buying groceries in Glenwood does save money, the study indicates. Food is about 20 percent cheaper there. Groceries are 14.5 percent cheaper in Vail, but only 2.8 percent cheaper in Steamboat.

Aspen fares better in utility costs. Every resort studied except Breckenridge has lower utility costs than the national average. Utilities in Aspen cost 10 percent more than they do in Glenwood, but nearly 14 percent less than they do in Breckenridge. Costs in Aspen are slightly less than in Vail and Steamboat, the study showed.

Health-care costs, however, are high in Aspen. They’re 82 percent more than the national average. Vail was next, at 35.5 percent, and Glenwood’s costs are 18.8 percent higher than the national average. Health care in Aspen costs at least 22 percent more than it does in any of the other resorts and costs 31.4 percent more than it does in Glenwood, according to the study.

“The only thing that really surprised me was the cost of health care,” Miller said. “It was way higher than the national average. I thought insurance had regulated that a little more.”

For miscellaneous goods and services – everything from the cost of a three-pack of Hanes or Fruit of the Loom boys’ briefs to dry cleaning a man’s two-piece suit or a can of tennis balls – both Aspen and Vail are 33 percent above the national average.

“This is the one place that Vail is as high as us,” Miller said.

Costs in Aspen are 23.6 percent higher than in Glenwood Springs. Costs in Glenwood equal the national average.

Miscellaneous goods was one of the trickier categories for the study, noted Miller. Due to the scarcity of KFCs in mountain towns, for example, fried chicken costs couldn’t be compared, though it’s a category for the national study.

And while Aspen has the GAP and Eddie Bauer for a men’s cotton dress shirt, Klotz used the cost of a mail-order shirt in Vail to keep from skewing the comparison. “The cheapest dress shirt in Vail he could find was $110,” Miller said.

For boys’ briefs, the cost in Breckenridge and Vail was calculated by driving to Dillon and Eagle, respectively, and adding mileage costs to the price of the underwear.

In transportation – the costs of gasoline and vehicle maintenance – Aspen again leads the pack. Costs in Aspen are 50.5 percent higher than the national average and range between 17 and nearly 23 percent more than the other resorts in the study.

The results of Aspen’s study will be shared with the other resorts in the index, Miller said. Next year, she hopes the other resorts will help in the collection of data or help fund the project.

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