With the cost of living across the country rising rapidly, it can be a struggle to find an affordable place to live much less buy a house and settle down. While the big coastal cities like New York, L.A., and San Francisco maintain their hold as the most expensive places to live, some of the smaller "18-hour" cities around the country are fast approaching unaffordability.
Cities like Austin, Denver, and Seattle, once touted as cheaper escapes from the prohibitive costs of bigger cities, but without having to sacrifice the nightlife and culture, are now becoming so overcrowded that housing prices are skyrocketing. With this new wave in mind, we've searched out a selection of cities that still offer affordable housing, food, and alcohol and overall let your dollar stretch further.
Birmingham has been consistently coming in as one of the top ten most affordable cities in the country. With an estimated cost of living index 15% below the national average, it is by far one of the cheapest cities on our list. A small city, with a population of only around 200,000 it has a small town feel, but lots of exciting developments making it an excellent option for young professionals. While Birmingham is most notable for its role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s, a lot has changed since then.
The old steel mills and the Civil Rights District harken back to the industrial days that built the city up in the first place but are now giving way to an entrepreneurial spirit bringing new life the older buildings. The Pizitz Food Hall, which just opened in a former department store, is a permanent Brooklyn Smorgasburg-esq food hall with 14 food stalls, three restaurants, and a bar with a diverse range of cuisine. Birmingham is also home to the University of Alabama-Birmingham, and the neighborhoods surrounding the University offer a ton of hip food and drink options, chock full of the ever popular craft beer and of course some classic BBQ that won't disappoint.
Birmingham is a wonderful mixture of Southern weather and charm, with the ever growing influence of diversity and enterprise, which is making a wonderfully viable and cheap option for those looking to flee more expensive cities. Even in the hippest hoods here, you'll be hard pressed to find any rent that costs more than $800 per month. Forbes named it as the most affordable city of 2017, with a median family income of $61,000 and average home price of only $130,000.
Louisville is famously home to the Kentucky Derby, but outside of Derby season, this quaint Kentucky city has a lot to offer, and at an estimated 5% below the national cost of living index, you'll actually be able to enjoy it. Louisville has a thriving craft beer and whiskey distillery culture, a compact downtown, a few different sports teams to root for and a fair amount of large and small music venues to support a local music culture.
With just over a million people, it has quite a large metro area and offers nice, convenient suburbs with easy access to the downtown area. While the culture is still heavily influenced by the ranch and horse focused past, a lot has changed since those days. In recent years there has been a small influx of people from other parts of the country, creating a slightly more diverse population, and Louisville has also seen a decrease in unemployment.
The median annual salary is around $43,000 and it is estimated that only about 25% of income is spent on living expenses, which is well below some of the other cities of around the same size. While housing prices have gone up a bit in the last year, the average home is still priced at around $116,000.
Des Moines, Iowa
Des Moines, Iowa, located in the heart of the Midwest, is probably not a city that would register on many people's "to visit" lists. It's surrounded by corn fields and farms, and with a population of only 200,000, is hardly a big city. But with a cost of living index 14% below the national average, Des Moines has a lot of to offer for someone looking to stretch the dollar way further. It is consistently in the top one or two spots of the most affordable places to live, with living expenses falling below 25% of the average income.
Des Moines has also seen some recent migration to the city, causing a revival and some new developments that make it so much more than just a middle of nowhere cowtown. Forbes consistently ranks it as one of the best places for young professionals, between the thriving job market and very affordable rental and housing prices, it's a place where you could actually conceive of owning property instead of flushing 50% of your monthly salary down the toilet to pay for housing.
With a median income of $50,000 the low rents mean you have even more moolah to spend on the local shopping, restaurants, and brews (none of which will break the bank). Des Moines also boasts the Des Moines Social Club, a nonprofit art and entertainment venue started an escapee of New York, which hosts a wide variety of events drawing over 25,000 visitors each month. Who said there's no culture in the Midwest?
Arkansas is probably one of those states that you don't think about very much, but Fayetteville consistently ranks as one of the most affordable cities in the country. Fayetteville is home the state's largest University, and with a population of only 77,000, you'll feel its presence. It lends an odd mix of jocks, nerds, and hippies, to an otherwise sleepy Southern population.
The quality of life in Fayetteville is unmatched, where you can purchase a house with a big front yard for just around 100K and still get anywhere in town in about 15 minutes. Thanks to the university, there is a thriving nightlife with everything from classic dive bars like Roger's Rec or yuppy cocktail lounges such as 21st Amendment. With a cost of living index 6% below the national average and an average salary of around $43,000, it is also the fastest growing metro area in Arkansas and has an extremely low crime rate. Just 30 minutes north of Fayetteville, is Bentonville which is not only home to the original WalMart, but also to Crystal Bridges, one of the largest and more state of the art museums built in the US in the past 50 years.
Both of these factors created a rush of growth and culture into this region, making it a much more desirable place to live for young professionals, while still maintaining the low costs that we love so much about it.
Ohio is home to many inexpensive cities, many of which rank quite high on the best places to live, because of the quality of life. Columbus is the state capital of Ohio, and the most populous city and at 800,000 people is one of the largest cities on this list. Columbus is a hub of industry, with a thriving job market and a diverse population, with an average income of $47,000 and an average home price of around $167,000, it is pretty comparable with other smaller cities, but with all the amenities of a larger city.
Overall, only 26% of income is spent on living expenses, which, though higher than other cities we list here, is well below the national average. The main industries are healthcare, finance, and insurance, so there are many different types of opportunities for young professionals. Columbus is also home to a few different sports teams, including the Bukeyes, a range of museums, and annual festivals and fairs.
For a city of its size, it offers great value for your money, convenience, culture, and amenities. It is also home to Ohio's biggest university, which brings a constant influx of new life to the city each year.
Omaha, smack in the middle of Nebraska, is a surprising little hub of industry in the middle of corn fields. Home to 4 of world's Fortune 500 companies, including Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, it has long been a top destination for young professionals looking to get a start in their career. With a population of 445,000, a median salary of $44,000, and only 25% of income going towards living expenses, it has a lot to offer.
There has been significant development of the downtown area of Omaha in the past 15 years or so, both for commercial and residential properties. While it is a small, modest Midwestern city, it has a remarkably high number of billionaires and is one of the cities that has a growing tech market, which is attracting a lot of migrants to the area. Homes in Omaha generally go for around $150,000 and with all of the impressive job opportunities, it's a very feasible price to pay for settling here.
Because of recent development, the downtown area has begun to burst with new food and dining options, while still maintaining an ease of getting around.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
While Denver and Boulder have skyrocketed in price in recent years, Colorado Springs remains an affordable place to live and is only a quick drive to endless beautiful nature and both larger cities. Since Colorado has become such a destination, both for outdoor adventure seekers, and weed enthusiasts alike, this is one of the pricier cities on the list, but still, a great value for your money, especially if you want to take advantage of all that Colorado has to offer.
The median family income here is around $70,000 and the average home price is around $216,000. Colorado Springs is a hip city with a lot of art and cultural events happening throughout the year. Colorado has also become a hot spot for tech and startup culture so the economy is thriving and there are plenty of jobs available. Colorado Springs also has the bonus of a beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains and is home to the Garden of the Gods, one of the top nature destinations in Colorado.
And of course, in the winter you are a stone's throw away from countless skiing and snowboarding resorts to fulfill all of your winter sports desires. Colorado is a state with deep roots in the history of the west, and a haven for outdoor adventurers.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Grand Rapids is located in West Michigan, just 45 minutes east of Lake Michigan. With a population of under 200,000, it has a sleepy small town feel, but due it's beautiful, walkable, and affordable neighborhood within easy reach of a more lively Downtown area, Grand Rapids, has become a more desirable city to make roots.
It's got a lot of the same offerings of the more expensive and crowded Detroit or Chicago, without all of the hassle and at a half the price. Between its quick commute times and easy access to the many beautiful lakes and nature of Michigan, it offers a wonderful quality of life. The cost of living index is estimated at about 11% below the national average, the average income is around $42,000, and costs of living only take up about 25% of expenses, meaning that you can earn a good living and stretch it further.
It's also a great beer city (like any Midwestern city should be), with Founder's Brewing Company and Stella Lounge both downtown. It's also home to an annual art and street fair ArtPrize, where thousands of artists take over the streets with their art for 19 days. Combine a thriving local scene with a solid job market, and good college readiness scores and Grand Rapids consistently comes in the top 20 of Best Places to Live each year.
Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City has long been touted as a hidden gem. With a healthy mixture of both Midwest and Southern culture, a few top universities, and a thriving arts scene that spans theater and music, to a classic rodeo, there really is something for everything in this mid-sized city. With a population of just under 500,000 and a cost of living index at 9% below the national average, you'll get a wonderful mix of things here for a fraction of the price you'd spend on either coast.
Many neighborhoods have been revitalized in recent years, turning old industrial buildings into lofts or condos, alongside local artists stands and flea markets. If it sounds like a Williamsburg in the Midwest, that's because there's a similar vibe—at a third of what you'd pay for one of the fastest growing neighborhoods in Brooklyn. The downtown is easily accessible to all no matter where you live thanks to a free! new trolley system and free high-speed internet throughout the city.
There's also an Alamo Drafthouse and the local Midland Theater, which boasts a full calendar of music and theater throughout the year, not to mention the endless array of different restaurants and bars for all tastes and budgets. The Crossroads neighborhood is also home to 100s of independent studios, so the First Friday of the month is host to live music and street theater drawing all of the locals out to partake in the monthly street festival. KC is also a diverse city with a thriving local jazz scene anchored at 18th and Vine.
Kansas City, with its median income of around $47,000, of which only 26% goes to living expenses, paired with all of the wonderful cultures makes it truly one of the most exciting cities where you can get so much bang for your buck.
Milwaukee is a diverse city with a solid working class Germanic back bone. Known, rightfully, for its beer culture which has brought the likes of Miller, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz, and Sprecher to the world, you can still smell the yeast wafting through the city as you drive through. In recent years, however, Milwaukee has jumped on the development bandwagon and is starting to revitalize its compact downtown.
While rents in the small city center can be a bit pricey, Milwaukee is surrounded by more affordable suburbs with beautiful older homes to brand-new apartment complexes, many of which come with a Lakefront view. If you're willing to live with roommates, renting a room in a whole home could cost you just a few hundred dollars, especially in the neighborhoods surrounding University of Milwaukee Wisconsin.
For a city of nearly half a million people, it feels very accessible though the public transit is severely lacking. With a car, your commute many not be longer than 15-30 minutes. Milwaukee is also home to a wide range of craft breweries, a world class museum, and the world's largest music festival, Summerfest, which takes over the fair grounds every year for about two weeks, unfailingly drawing some huge names. With an estimated cost of living index 8% below the national average, you can find some great deals on historic homes, and still take advantage of the developing food and drink scene that is starting to bubble up in all of the funky old hoods in Cream City.
More Thrifty Cities
There are lots of other cities out there that you can live in to help make your dollar go a little further each day. Do you know of any other cities that embrace a thrify lifestyle? Let us know!