Teachers Struggle With Housing Costs in Some Metros as Pay Increases Lag Behind

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Updated on Monday, April 26, 2021

“If you can read this, thank a teacher,” or so the bumper stickers and classroom posters go. But despite the collective gratitude many former students feel for their educators, teachers’ income often falls short of what many would consider a hero’s payout.

In fact, MagnifyMoney researchers found that increases in pay for teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade lag behind the national median across all occupations. In some metros, teachers may even be struggling to afford housing costs.

May 4 marks National Teachers Day, and while recognition for their hard work might feel nice, payment in kind doesn’t pay the rent.

Key findings

  • Nationally, teachers’ pay is growing slower than other occupations. Median wages in the U.S. — regardless of occupation — rose by 13% between 2016 and 2020, while median wages for teachers rose by 9% in the same period. The number of kindergarten teachers plummeted 21% in 2020 relative to 2016.
  • Teachers’ pay doesn’t keep up with housing costs in more expensive locales. In Colorado Springs, Colo., San Jose, Calif., and Denver, it takes between 32.4% and 32.8% of teachers’ earnings to cover median housing costs — the most among the 100 largest metros examined — leaving teachers housing-cost-burdened.
  • McAllen, Texas, has the highest-paid teachers, relative to housing costs. Teachers here earn a median of $57,919 a year, while median housing costs are $8,016 a year — or 13.8% of teachers’ income. Behind McAllen are Buffalo, N.Y., and Cleveland, where housing costs account for 14.6% and 15%, respectively, of teachers’ salaries.
  • Locations vary among the most affordable options for teachers. The top 10 metros with teachers paid the most relative to local housing costs are in seven different states.

Teachers’ pay is falling behind across the U.S.

In recent years, teacher strikes throughout the country — and most recently, the coronavirus pandemic — have emphasized the general sentiment that teachers aren’t paid enough.

Despite often working overtime, buying their own supplies and fearing for their lives, teachers saw a 9% increase in wages across the U.S. between 2016 and 2020, compared with the 13% increase in wages during this period for all workers, regardless of occupation.

Annual median wages: Teachers vs. all occupations
OccupationAnnual median wages in 2016Annual median wages in 2020Wage growth
Kindergarten teachers$52,620$57,86010%
Elementary and middle school teachers$56,100$60,9109%
Secondary school teachers$57,980$62,8408%
All occupations$37,040$41,95013%

While teachers have higher annual earnings than workers across all occupations, those wages aren’t growing as rapidly.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate than all other occupations. The number of kindergarten teachers in 2020 compared to 2016 has dropped by 21%, despite these teachers seeing slightly higher wage growth than other grade levels.

While it’s not illogical to imagine some teachers leave the job out of frustration with the pay, some teachers may have few other options.

Employment change: Teachers vs. all occupations
OccupationNumber employed in 2016Number employed in 2020Employment change percentage
Kindergarten teachers151,290120,080-21%
Elementary and middle school teachers2,031,7001,976,050-3%
Secondary school teachers1,083,3501,064,540-2%
All occupations140,400,040139,099,570-1%

In more expensive metros, teachers’ pay doesn’t keep up with housing costs

The general consensus is that people shouldn’t be putting more than 30% of their income toward housing costs. But teachers are needed everywhere — even in expensive metros. And while teacher salaries in these expensive locales might be higher than average, that doesn’t make up for high housing costs.

In the metros where teachers’ earnings cover the least local housing costs, teachers might be spending more than 30% on housing costs.

In Colorado’s two largest cities — Colorado Springs and Denver — more than 32% of teacher income, on average, goes toward housing. And Boulder trails not too far behind at 28.7%.

Meanwhile, California is home to five of the top 10 cost-burdened metros for teachers. While an average wage of $81,331 may look good on paper, teachers in San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, San Diego and Oxnard might be spending nearly 29% or more of their income on rent or mortgage payments.

Unlike with housing-cost-burdened metros, affordability crops up in various locations

Teachers hoping to make it by with more wiggle room in the budget might be encouraged to find a bit of location flexibility — so long as they’re not California dreaming.

Among the 10 best metros for teachers’ pay relative to housing costs, seven states make an appearance. Texas, Ohio and New York contribute two metros each to the top of the rankings. Teachers make $65,545 annually, on average, in these metros — McAllen and El Paso, Texas; Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio; and Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y. — and spend an average of $10,148 on housing costs. Within these six metros, less than 17% of earnings, on average, go toward housing costs.

Spokane, Wash., stands out as the only West Coast metro that cracked the top 10 — with a median teacher salary of $73,223 and $12,072 in housing costs, which translates to 16.5% of those earnings. It might not be as sunny as San Jose, but teachers in Spokane may only spend half of what teachers in San Jose put toward housing costs.

Extra credit: How teachers can get ahead financially

1. Minimize your cost of living

Though your rent or mortgage payment might be as low as you can get it, there may be other ways to lower your living expenses.

MagnifyMoney content director Ismat Mangla suggests refinancing for homeowners who do the math and find it would be beneficial. “You might also consider getting a roommate or occasionally renting your place out on Airbnb for some extra cash,” she says.

Not everyone has the space for these options, but Mangla says she would look for ways to cut down fixed costs at home, from improving your insulation to reducing your energy bills.

2. Build your savings — even if it’s slow-going

When it feels like you’re stretching your paycheck just to make ends meet, it can seem impossible to build up savings. But it’s important to maintain emergency savings as well as work toward long-term savings goals whenever you can.

Mangla recommends automating deposits into your savings account. “Set it and forget it,” she says. “Even if it’s just $50, it will eventually make a difference.”

In addition to cash savings, Mangla says she can’t emphasize enough the importance of investing.

“Make it a habit to invest a small portion of your money every month,” she says. “Again, it doesn’t have to be a big sum. But investing will allow your money to grow at a much higher rate thanks to compounding interest.”

3. Try to invest and pay off debt at the same time

Many teachers are also burdened with student loan debt instead of or in addition to mortgage payments and other debts that can make investing feel out of reach. While it’s important to stay on top of those debt payments — and some people will want to prioritize getting out of debt as fast as possible — Mangla recommends trying to grow your wealth at the same time.

“Even if you’re paying off debt, I’d still recommend directing at least a small amount into investing,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be an either-or situation.”

Methodology

MagnifyMoney researchers analyzed 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data to rank teachers’ pay relative to housing costs across the 100 largest metros for which full data was available.

Specifically, we examined BLS data on median earnings for kindergarten, elementary and middle school, and secondary school teachers. We then compared earnings to median housing cost data by metro. The study didn’t include preschool, special education teachers or guidance counselors.