Cost of Living Data Collection: Thoughts of a Recent Graduate

September 20, 2021

With a degree from Westminster College, Olivia Newbold joined EDCUtah in July, and her duties as Research Analyst led to her very first cost-of-living survey. Here are her impressions.

In partnership with the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER), the Economic Development Corporation of Utah (EDCUtah) collects cost of living data three times per year. C2ER compiles this data into an index that compares prices in different metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) across the country. This index is often cited in national news.

EDCUtah is responsible for three Utah MSAs: Provo-Orem, Ogden-Clearfield, and Salt Lake City metro. Data is collected from five locations in each metro.

The prices that go into the index include grocery items, fast food, gas, auto maintenance, clothing, dry cleaning, appliance repairs, veterinary services, yoga, newspaper subscriptions, housing, as well as optometrist, dentist, and doctor’s visits. The different items are meant to encapsulate items the average person purchases. This seemingly random selection is known as a “basket of goods”, and it is designed to predict the costs for all goods and services in a given location.

In this, my first foray, I collected data for more than sixty different products in fifteen different locations. In terms of findings, there were price increases across the board, but the categories that I noticed increasing particularly fast over the last year were gas, house prices, and auto maintenance (specifically, tire rotations).

My process consisted of driving to different stores, walking through the entire store, writing down prices while trying not to look too suspicious, and calling offices and businesses for the rest of the items. At my first grocery store it took me nearly three hours wandering around to find all of the products.

By the second and third stores, I was able to make a system so I would not have to backtrack to find missed items. If the goal was to make me comb over every inch of the store, then whoever put together this basket of goods was successful. I ended up starting at one end of the store and winding my way through every aisle, looking at every shelf to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

I thought the grocery items were going to be the hardest part, but calling around ended up taking a much larger portion of my time. I’m a recent graduate, so up until recently I’ve relied on my parents to do the calling for me. (I’ve been able to get away with never calling people and instead creating appointments online, looking up hours, and using texting if necessary, leaving making a call as an absolute last resort as a way to get information.)

One other impression I took away from this exercise is that I am not familiar with all of the products in the index, which must mean I’m not the average consumer. When I go grocery shopping, I tend to only buy products from the perimeter because that’s where all the healthier stuff is. This meant that I could find produce, dairy, and meats with no problem, but processed goods and other items were another story.

Also, I think many Utahns have different buying habits than the rest of the country— for example I’ve never looked for wine, beer, or coffee before. As for dietary fads, I was surprised that  margarine is still a thing. Newspaper subscriptions? That’s not my generation’s jam, I’m afraid.