When considering a move to Wisconsin, two of the largest and most popular areas are Madison and Milwaukee. If you are having a difficult time deciding between the two cities, stay tuned as we break down the cost of living in Madison WI vs the cost of living in Milwaukee WI. We go over various costs for both cities to give you an in-depth look at the similarities as well as the differences between Madison and Milwaukee.
Let’s start with some population stats. The City of Madison is home to 259,680 people and the entirety of Dane County has around 546,695 people. The City of Milwaukee has 590,157 residents and Milwaukee County has 945,726 people, making Milwaukee about twice as big as Madison! While Milwaukee has twice the population of Madison, the area of Madison is actually larger at 101.5 square miles as compared to Milwaukee’s 96.8 square miles. Because both cities occupy approximately the same amount of land area, Milwaukee is a little more dense as it is home to nearly twice the amount of people as Madison, while Madison tends to be a little more spread out. Madison is often described as feeling like a big small town.
Diving into a general overview of the cost of living in Madison WI vs the cost of living in Milwaukee WI, if you choose to rent, Milwaukee will be 10% more expensive than Madison but if you choose to buy, Milwaukee will be 7% less expensive than Madison. Why is this? Home prices to purchase are significantly more in Madison than in Milwaukee, nearly double, actually, if you are considering the city of Madison and the city of Milwaukee but disregarding the surrounding suburban areas. The median single family home (not including condos) sales price in the city of Madison is $325,000 while the single family home sales price in Milwaukee is $150,000. When looking at the entirety of Dane and Milwaukee counties, the median sales price in Dane County (Madison’s county) is $329,000 while the median sales price in Milwaukee County is $185,000.
A more comparable area to Madison is right outside the city of Milwaukee. Known as “Lake Country”, the area just 30 minutes west of Milwaukee is home to several beautiful lakes and is within comfortable driving distance to the city of Milwaukee escalating the home prices in that area and making them similar to home prices in Madison.
If you are going to rent in either city, the cost of living in Madison WI and in Milwaukee WI is very similar. A one bedroom apartment in Milwaukee costs around $1,100 a month while a one bedroom apartment in Madison costs around $1,200 a month. Similarly, a 3 bedroom apartment in either city rents for around $2,000 a month.
Another consideration when comparing the cost of living in Madison WI vs the cost of living in Milwaukee WI is sales tax. The state of Wisconsin has a statewide sales tax percentage of 5% but both the city of Milwaukee and the city of Madison have imposed an additional .5% local sales tax making the tax rate in both cities 5.5%.
Similarly, property tax rates in both Madison and Milwaukee are nearly identical at around 2.2% of the assessed value of the home. However, because home prices are higher in Madison the actual cost of property taxes will be more in Madison than in Milwaukee. The average tax bill in Madison, based on the median sales prices, is about $6,800 a year whereas in Milwaukee the average tax bill is about $3,300. Unfortunately, Wisconsin as a state, has a high property tax rate when compared to other states. We are actually ranked as the 5th highest property tax rate in the nation. While this is a discrepancy in the cost of living in Madison WI vs Milwaukee WI, it is in keeping with the differences in home prices between the two cities.
Lets talk an everyday cost of living in Madison WI vs Milwaukee WI, childcare expenses. There isn’t much of a difference between the two cities. According to the website Numbeo, the average cost of childcare in Madison is around $900 a month and in Milwaukee it is around $850 a month. In our experience, these numbers seem a little low and the Economic Policy Institute’s statewide childcare cost estimation of $1,050 a month appears a bit more accurate.
Another practical expense when considering the cost of living in Madison WI vs Milwaukee WI , gas prices between the two cities are fairly comparable with gas costing only 2-3% less in Milwaukee than in Madison. Real numbers, we’re talking a 5-10 cent difference in the cost of a gallon of gas between the cities.
Internet prices are slightly higher in Milwaukee than in Madison with internet costing around $57 a month in Madison versus around $63 a month in Milwaukee. Not a huge cost of living discrepancy but one to be aware of.
While the cost of living in Madison WI vs the cost of living in Milwaukee WI is not wildly different, the average salary of each city is worth noting. In Madison the average salary is $42,988 whereas the average salary in Milwaukee is $34,539 which is almost a 20% difference in annual income. The main reason for this difference is due to the types of jobs available in each city. Milwaukee tends to have a higher percentage of blue collar workers, a lot of manufacturing jobs, while Madison has more medical, university, and government jobs as well as a number of tech companies, and young professionals contributing to the increased pay levels.
While not something you would think of as a large contributor to cost of living, the size of the millennial population has a direct affect on the cost of living in Madison WI vs Milwaukee WI. Madison is the number 5 city in the nation for attracting millennials. About 27% of the population in Madison is made up of millennials while about 23% of Milwaukee’s population is millennials. While this number may not seem like a large difference, because the millennial population is currently the largest living generation, a 3% difference is a lot of people. Milwaukee actually ranks on the low end of the scale when discussing the percentage of millennial population. With the University of Madison, the vibrant and beautiful downtown, the lakes and gorgeous views, it’s not a huge surprise that Madison attracts young people. Additionally, young people are attracted to the job market in Madison. Tech jobs, entrepreneur opportunities, university jobs, and much more offer a wide array of employment options for young people. As the millennial population grows, so does the job market, driving up salaries and the cost of living in Madison WI.
Another indirect cost of living in Madison WI vs Milwaukee WI is the commute times. The longer you have to be on the road, the more you are likely to spend in gas. While Milwaukee is a shorter commute distance than Madison, the commute times are actually fairly similar. On average the commute time or both cities is about 23-24 minutes. Because of the population density in Milwaukee, it takes longer to get short distances but in Madison, the sprawling nature of the city leads to longer drive times. In the end, the time spent on the road is very similar.
While we’re on the subject of commute times, one common way many people travel to and from work in large cities is by walking. As Madison is a fairly car dependent city, our walk score is 48. As a point of reference, New York City has the best walk score in the nation at 88. Again, comparing cities, Milwaukee’s walk score is slightly better than Madison’s at 63. As we’ve mentioned previously, because Milwaukee is more dense and compact than Madison, it is easier to walk from place to place in Milwaukee. While this may or may not have a large impact on your monthly budget, it is one potential way the cost of living in Madison WI may differ from the cost of living in Milwaukee WI.
Contributing further to the difference in the cost of living in Madison WI to the cost of living in Milwaukee WI is the availability of public transportation. Madison is ranked 90th on the list of cities that are more than 100,000 people in terms of access to public transportation while Milwaukee is ranked 24th. So on a scale of 1 to 100, Madison scored 39 and Milwaukee scored 48. Overall, Milwaukee has a much better public transportation system due, in large part, to Madison’s lack of a train system. Milwaukee does have a train system called The Hop. However, Madison does have a bus system which, while not always the fastest means of transportation, is efficient and runs with accuracy. If public transportation is important to you Milwaukee may be a better fit.
After considering both the cost of living in Madison WI and the cost of living in Milwaukee WI, if you are interested in learning more about what it’s like to live in either of these cities, please reach out! I would love to help you as you continue the process of deciding where in Wisconsin to call home.