Alaska, the last frontier, can be pretty expensive at times. Although I can imagine that the costs of living in different parts of the world are pretty high in many areas, Alaska has some unique circumstances that make finding the cost of living difficult. I do want to clarify that the cost of living in the cities is a whole different ball game than living in the bush of Alaska.
In the city, you are going to spend less on groceries and clothing but more on housing costs, entertainment, and transportation. In the bush, your cost will depend on how much you live off the grid and how resourceful you are. For instance, if you hunt for your meat, you will save a ton because meat costs a fortune in the stores there. And if you need power and use the village electricity, you will pay a very high fortune for it, especially if your village uses diesel generators.
So to make things clear, I will talk about the cost of living in several different ways by breaking up the state into area types. You must also understand that different villages will vary according to their distance from the city (typically Anchorage or Fairbanks) and whether they are located on a river or another waterway. If the village is landlocked and cannot receive barges of supplies and has no road or railway, then it will make things very expensive. Please try to understand that these are generalizations and that each area will have differences to account for:
Area #1: Cities on Roads, Rail, or with Docks – These cities have transportation nailed down and therefore can receive foods, supplies, and large items easily. The cost of living in Anchorage is pretty expensive compared to some places in the United States, but is also getting more affordable in some areas. Since Anchorage seems to be running out of space, the cost of housing is going up as well as transportation. The city is pretty spread out so walking or riding your bike can be an ordeal. They do have a bus transit system and that seems to work pretty well for some wishing to save money.
They do have moderate food prices in the cities and food doesn’t cost as much as it used to. Also, there are more choices these days as some big box stores have moved in, as well as some natural food and wholesale stores. Growth in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and the like has been pretty steady so we have been seeing some new outlets and restaurants coming in on a fairly regular basis. In fact, in Anchorage, there is a new Hard Rock Café opening up!
Other costs in the cities that some may not consider is the cost of utilities, telephone, and cable. In the city, cost of electricity and natural gas is pretty moderate compared to the bush of Alaska. They also spend less on cable and Wi-Fi; however you can choose to not get those items and go to the internet cafes or just watch local television stations. The cost of buying a house is fairly expensive in most areas of Alaska and therefore rent is expensive. You will pay 1 ½ to 2 times the rent for the same place in Texas or Arizona.
Medical and Dental are extremely expensive in Alaska, probably more expensive than anywhere else in the country. There is no good reason for it at all but if you try to argue with them about it, you will get nowhere. They claim that the cost of the building, utilities, supplies, and personnel are what raises their costs. The average annual salary for Dental Hygienists in Anchorage, Alaska is about $73,270. As you can see, wages in Anchorage are drastically higher than in other parts of the nation to compensate for the higher cost of living.
Area #2: Towns and Villages on the Road System – The cost of living in these outer areas can be drastically higher in most instances. For example, the cost of heating fuel is very expensive and the cost of gas for your car can be a dollar or more per gallon than in the city. Some of these towns may be well over 100 miles from the nearest big city. You trade the hustle and bustle of the city for the quiet life of a town or village in the deeper parts of Alaska.
While still on the road system, it does not make things much cheaper. A lot of residents tend to make trips into the city to buy groceries at a big box wholesale store since most items will not be available in their town and some items, while available, are too expensive. The internet has made things easier as they can now order some items and the cost of shipping is more affordable than the cost to travel to the city. Hunting and gathering seems to be very common in these areas to make up for the rest of the grocery costs.
The housing is much more expensive, although some rents can be cheaper due to the cost of keeping the house heated being much higher. You can rely on firewood if you have the time or the ability to do so. Also, many communities do not have the greatest cellular service so internet may be an option that is desired, but that is costly. Another factor in living in these areas is that the jobs are harder to come by and they do not pay as much in many cases.
It is hard to compare towns and villages in these areas as some range in population from 100 residents to nearly 8,000. So as you can see, the comparisons are going to be drastically different. Many residents in villages on the road system will travel to a larger town nearby for work if they can. They tend to move in and out of the city, desiring a job and an income but wanting the peace and family from the smaller towns and villages.
Area #3: Villages located on a waterway and with a runway – Villages located within 200-400 miles of a major city are usually on a river, large lake, or the ocean. They can receive barges if they are on a river or the ocean, which means they can receive large amounts of supplies, fuel, and vehicles. This is important because most of their power comes from diesel generators and they can receive large amounts of fuel via barge which greatly reduces the cost. If they cannot receive barges, the cost of getting the fuel is beyond expensive and will have to be flown in.
Speaking of the cost of fuel, you can expect to pay about $6 to $10 per gallon for regular gasoline in some of these areas depending on the cost of gas at the time and the cost to bring it to their particular area. This also raises the price tag of everything else out there from electricity to food. These people rely on gas to get them out to the hunting areas. Can you imagine having $100 and having to choose between a few pieces of meat (at $10-$20 per lb.) at the store to feed to your family or $100 (maybe 10 gallons) of gas to go hunting to feed your family longer but with the chance that you may not be successful in that hunt? This is the decision that many families go through out in these areas.
The cost of housing can be less expensive in most of these areas; however the cost of heating is very expensive so that it makes up for that difference. Many villages have housing that is based on a percentage of your income level and you have the option to purchase some of these homes, while others are rentals only. Many folks who have built their own homes find it difficult to sell their properties in these outer regions so they will rent them out.
For transportation, most people will use ATV’s, snowmobiles, boats, and an occasional truck or car that was barged or flown in. When they want to go to the post office, they will hop on their 4-wheeler and run over. Or when they need to run to the next village to visit a family member, they will hop into their boat and head up river. But again, the cost of fuel will cause those things to be done more occasionally. For example; if you want to visit a sister in the neighboring village, you might share the cost of fuel with someone else that needs to go and while you’re at it, you will hunt or fish along the way and also bring some supplies back down with you from their small store.
Area #4: Villages in the far reaches of Alaska or wilderness living – In these areas, you will find both the highest cost of living and also the lowest cost of living. Let me explain. On the one hand, if you live exactly like you would expect to live in the city with all the conveniences of city living, then it will be the highest cost of living in Alaska. You will pay a fortune for food, housing, transportation, etc. and you will most likely not have a job that pays you enough to afford it. On the other hand, you can live completely off the land and only have a smidgeon of the expense.
If you live almost completely off the land, you will not have a TV, telephone, rent (build a cabin), or high food costs. You will have to have some sort of transportation which will most likely depend on your location, so the cost of fuel can be made by money you make from odd jobs or by bartering. Bartering is common in Alaska in many areas. In the outer reaches of Alaska, you will find ways to come up with the money needed to survive. If you need to order something, you can borrow a phone or computer. You don’t need electricity as you have wood heat and that is how you can cook and bathe too.
Speaking of bathing, most folks in the bush tend to take steam baths (Yupik word is Maqiq, which is pronounced mah-kee). Basically, it is like a sauna but there are some differences. Imagine a small cabin with some benches and a wood stove covered in rocks on the inside. They start a fire in the stove and get it really hot inside. They will haul some water from the river or stream in buckets and then strip down in the closed arctic entry and go inside. They splash water on the rocks to cause steam to make them start to sweat. After sweating out all the dirt and toxins in their body, they will splash some water on them to rinse off and that is about as clean as you ever possibly get.
Living off the land, or off the grid, takes some skill and not everyone is capable of doing it. You must have some things to start with and a place to call home. They don’t have homesteading land deals up in Alaska anymore, so you have to find a piece of land or acquire it through some sort of means. You can then build a cabin, but that takes some skill and a few supplies. You also need a way to get supplies in the future and backup plan if things don’t work out for hunting or gathering. You need a working knowledge of survival skills and a gun with ammo would help too.
The annual Permanent Fund Dividend helps to offset many of these costs but you must be a resident for a year to receive it. Also, Alaska has the lowest taxes in the U.S. and is one of a handful of states without a statewide sales tax. Many communities within the state do not have city taxes either.
I have lived in all four of the different areas listed above, so I have firsthand knowledge of them all. I have lived wilderness living, in a village of less than 100 residents, in larger villages, in smaller towns, and in the biggest city in Alaska. I know all of the areas and how things work in those areas.
If you have any questions about any of the areas, you are welcome to comment below and ask me. I will try to answer all your questions (within reason) and will do my best to guide you if you plan to move up here.
My Resources –
For cost of living: http://laborstats.alaska.gov/col/col.pdf
Permanent Fund Dividend: http://pfd.alaska.gov/
Cost of Dental care: http://www.bracesinfo.com/dentalcosts/us/ak/anchorage.html
Life in a village on the road system: http://www.alaskapublic.org/2013/05/31/300-villages-gulkana/
Life in a village not on a road system: http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2008234561_alaska07.html
Hard Rock Cafe Anchorage Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HRCAnchorage