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Amy Dalrymple, Forum News Service, Published September 02 2012

Dalrymple: Cost of living adds up in Oil Patch

WILLISTON, N.D. - During my first week in Williston, I stopped by the Wal-Mart liquor store to find that a six-pack of Mike’s Hard Lemonade was priced at $17.87.

I had a mild panic attack in the store as I pondered this outrageous price tag and what other unexpected cost-of-living increases might be in store for me as I made the Oil Patch my home.

A clerk walked by, and I pleaded with him to tell me why this was so expensive here when I could buy the same six-pack in Fargo for $8.

He explained that it was a Wal-Mart pricing error they were waiting to have fixed. Then he laughed and assured me that “Williston isn’t that expensive.”

For the most part, the clerk was right. I haven’t encountered price differences in groceries or household items quite that extreme.

But it definitely costs more to live in northwest North Dakota.

The obvious difference is housing. I’ve reported before that my rent is $2,500, more than what a good friend of mine pays for a larger apartment in Brooklyn. Without my housing allowance from my employer, I wouldn’t be here.

Several housing developers have told me they expect rental prices to stabilize and eventually come down. I hope they at least stabilize before I have to sign another lease.

The price of gas in western North Dakota usually is at least 20 cents higher than in the eastern part of the state, and sometimes the difference can be as high as 35 cents or 40 cents, according to Gene LaDoucer, spokesman for AAA of North Dakota.

Most people who live and work in the Oil Patch put on a lot of miles, so that can really add up. I try to fill up in Williston, where gas tends to be a little less expensive than some of the surrounding towns.

Last week, gas in Dickinson cost $3.97 while the state average was $3.85 and the national average was $3.82, according to AAA.

One surprise I’ve encountered is I’m spending more on health care.

Not because the facilities charge more – Mercy Medical Center says it can’t charge more for care even though it costs more to provide care in Williston.

But we have fewer options in the Oil Patch. I got bronchitis this summer just as the medical center closed its walk-in clinic. I knew that it could take weeks to get into the clinic since I’m not an established patient, so I went to the emergency room, which resulted in a higher bill.

Both my husband and I have been back to the Fargo area to go to the dentist because it’s tough to get an appointment out here. I’ve heard of people driving from Sidney, Mont., to see a doctor in Fargo because it’s quicker. But then you have to add gas to the price of health care.

As much as we all complain about the long lines at Wal-Mart, I feel lucky to have a Wal-Mart here because it keeps grocery prices fairly comparable to what I was used to in Fargo.

But residents of smaller towns have fewer options, and driving to Williston to go shopping is less appealing with the additional traffic.

Marcia Hellandsaas, an extension agent in McKenzie County, told me she prefers to do her grocery shopping in Watford City, where she said prices are competitive when items go on sale.

But for 4-H fundraisers, she has been forced to buy pop, hot dogs, hamburger meat and buns at Wal-Mart in Williston to make a profit.

People moving to the Oil Patch from different parts of the country have varying opinions on the price of groceries here. One worker from Maine told me he thinks prices here are comparable to what he was used to paying, but people from other states say the price of dairy here is higher.

Michelle Holm, a coupon-clipping mom who lives about 40 miles north of Williston in Alamo, said her grocery bills used to be around $150 a week for her family of five when they lived in Fargo-Moorhead, but since moving to the Oil Patch in 2010, they can’t leave the store without spending $200 or more.

Milk is a major expense for the family, which includes three boys ages 12, 7 and 5. During the school year, when the boys get milk for breakfast and then twice at school, the family cuts back by not drinking milk at dinner.

There are a lot of rumors about cost of living in Williston.

An editor heard that curtains at the Williston Wal-Mart were more expensive than anywhere else. I had heard a spool of thread at the Williston Wal-Mart cost more than in Minot. Maybe the price differences existed in the past, but when I checked it out, the Williston prices were exactly the same as Minot.

One friend of mine had heard that the Williston Applebee’s doesn’t have a two for $20 menu. Not so –the Williston Applebee’s also has that special.

But some restaurants do charge more to compensate for the higher wage costs. The Williston McDonald’s doesn’t have a $1 menu – it has a value menu with items that cost $1.29.

I’m happy to report that the price of Mike’s Hard Lemonade did return to normal. But the one beverage I consume that is always more expensive in Williston is Diet Coke.

Maybe I should follow the Holm family’s example and just cut back.

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Amy Dalrymple is a Forum Communications Co. reporter stationed in the Oil Patch. She can be reached at adalrymple@forumcomm.com or (701) 580-6890.