Best Cities for Every Age: Young Adults

As part of our annual Best Cities feature, here's a look at the top five metropolitan areas for young adults.

If you're just starting out, finding a place to live that fits your needs and provides lots of opportunity can be difficult. A strong job market with growth potential, affordable housing for twentysomethings living on an entry-level salary and a vibrant social scene are key.

SEE OUR GUIDE: Best Cities for Every Age

To identify the winners, Kiplinger teamed up with Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank that studies economic prosperity. All of the cities on our list have reasonable living costs, strong employment growth and a population that scores high on measures of education and tech-savviness. For young adults, we also factored in rental costs and the number of restaurants.

The cost-of-living index measures how expensive it is to live in a city; the national average score is 100. That means cities with a score below 100 have a lower-than-average cost of living. Nationwide, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $959, median household income is $43,024 and median income growth from 2006 to 2011 was 11.1%. The national unemployment rate is 8.2%.

YOUR TAKE: Best Cities for All Stages of Life

Check out our picks, and share your thoughts in our reader comment box below:

1. Madison, Wis.

Population (metro area): 568,593

Unemployment rate: 4.9%

Cost-of-living index: 108.2

Median household income: $58,775

Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $849

Let's skip the Cheesehead and cowpie references. Madison is an educated, tech-savvy city, filled with recent grads who have enough energy to launch a dozen start-ups and still have time to check out that brewpub down the block.

With the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus front and center, there's no shortage of smart people in town. Engineers, computer programmers and other eggheads work in academia or for Epic Systems, a health care software developer. An entrepreneurial community fosters homegrown start-ups.

Young adults complain of a competitive rental market, where it's tough to find a centrally located two-bedroom flat for less than $1,000 a month. But there’s plenty to keep your mind off overpriced rents in this midsize midwestern city. On a typical Saturday, you might browse the Dane County Farmers' Market, head down to Camp Randall Stadium to tailgate and watch Badgers football, or boat or fish in lakes Kegonsa, Mendota, Monona and Waubesa.

2. Austin, Tex.

Population (metro area): 1,716,289

Unemployment rate: 5.8%

Cost-of-living index: 90.6

Median household income: $57,109

Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $810

The coolest city in Texas offers everything a young adult could ask for, including patio bars, taco joints, running trails, kayaking, margaritas, barbeque, live music into the night and the chilly waters of Barton Springs’ pool to clear the head in the morning.

Better yet, Austin has jobs, in youth-friendly industries such as digital media, game development, music, film and tech. PayPal, Facebook and eBay are among the companies hiring, says Nathan Green of, a job site for recent grads. Yodle, an online marketer, expects to hire 40 new grads a month through 2012.

Alas, you'll pay at least $1,500 a month for a small one-bedroom in downtown Austin, says Jim Reich of, an apartment locator. Instead, go south of Oltorf Street, where the one-bedrooms start at $725 and downtown is just a few minutes away.

3. Boston

Population (metro area): 4,552,402

Unemployment rate: 5.3%

Cost-of-living index: 139.4

Median household income: $69,854

Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $1,448

Boston ranks high in this category for its sheer number of young people -- both university students and professionals -- and enough restaurants and bars to keep them well fed and hydrated. The city is a hub for finance, health care and education and maintains an unemployment rate well below the national average.

Sports are a big part of the Beantown social experience. Budget-conscious young residents head to the bar scene around Faneuil Hall, Seaport and the North End to sip a beer and catch a game with friends. And when the weather cooperates, Bostonians wander the patchwork of historic neighborhoods or jog along the waterfront.

The robust job market has helped drive up the cost of apartment rentals, which can run from $1,000 per month for a studio to several thousand monthly in swankier areas. "Renting can be pretty cutthroat during the summer, when people are looking for apartments for the fall," says 26-year-old Boston resident Mark Mackin. "But I've lived here for five years and can't see myself leaving anytime soon."

4. Washington, D.C.

Population (metro area): 5,582,170

Unemployment rate: 5.3%

Cost-of-living index: 136.3

Median household income: $84,424

Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $1,410

The nation's capital is awash in jobs, culture and nightlife. Government -- and businesses tied to it -- are a big slice of the employment pie, as are IT and biotech.

For life outside work, there are plenty of free and low-cost things to do -- enjoy jazz in the National Museum of Art's sculpture garden, lunch at a food truck or cheap drinks at happy hours throughout the area. Not cheap: housing. Rentals in D.C.'s hip Logan Circle or Arlington's Clarendon start at about $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom, says Debbie Kaplan of Urban Igloo, a free apartment-finder service.

If you don't feel like slogging through traffic, the D.C. area gives you plenty of options for ditching your car. Buses run regularly where the subway doesn't, and you also have access to 800 miles of bikeways, the Capital Bikeshare program and car-sharing services such as Zipcar.

5. Denver

Population (metro area): 2,543,482

Unemployment rate: 8.1%

Cost-of-living index: 105.1

Median household income: $59,932

Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $836

An outdoors-y culture and 300 days of sunshine aren't the only things that make the Mile High City invigorating to young adults. It also has a sunny employment outlook, thanks to hiring in construction, retail and hospitality, and affordable apartments.

Top employers include the Colorado state government, HealthONE Corp., Exempla Healthcare, and Lockheed Martin. And Denver has given rise to big-time start-ups, such as Frontier Airlines and Associated Content, which Yahoo scooped up in 2010. For apartment hunters on a budget, the historic African-American neighborhood Five Points and the Baker area trade ongoing revitalization for rents as low as $700 monthly for a one-bedroom.

Young people in Denver tend to have either buttoned-up or artsy sensibilities, says 23-year old Denverite Leila Hermann. And there's plenty to keep them busy, from strolling the Santa Fe Art District's First Friday Art Walk, which attracts a young crowd, to sampling Denver's Beer Triangle and bar-hopping on South Broadway.

Most Popular

Where's My Stimulus Check? Use the IRS's "Get My Payment" Portal to Get an Answer
Coronavirus and Your Money

Where's My Stimulus Check? Use the IRS's "Get My Payment" Portal to Get an Answer

The IRS updated its popular online tool so that you can track the status of your second stimulus check.
January 9, 2021
How a Third Stimulus Check Could Differ From Your First and Second Payments
Coronavirus and Your Money

How a Third Stimulus Check Could Differ From Your First and Second Payments

There's going to be a big push for a third round of stimulus payments. But the amount and eligibility rules for your third stimulus check could be dif…
January 12, 2021
Biden Calls for $1,400 Payments as Part of $1.9 Trillion Relief Package
Coronavirus and Your Money

Biden Calls for $1,400 Payments as Part of $1.9 Trillion Relief Package

Under Biden's plan for a third stimulus check, the $600 second-round stimulus checks would be increased to $2,000.
January 14, 2021


Biden Proposes $15 Minimum Wage

Biden Proposes $15 Minimum Wage

As part of his $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, President-elect Biden proposed an increase in the federal minimum wage.
January 15, 2021
15 Best Foreclosure Sites for Finding Properties
Making Your Money Last

15 Best Foreclosure Sites for Finding Properties

If you’re searching for foreclosures for sale for your next home or to flip for a profit, these websites will guide you to foreclosures to buy.
January 6, 2021
Starting Your Own Law Practice? Here’s How to Fail

Starting Your Own Law Practice? Here’s How to Fail

Take it from Elizabeth Miller, co-author of “From Lawyer to Law Firm, How to Manage a Successful Law Business,” this is what you should NOT do when se…
December 31, 2020
Can Your Boss Force You to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?
Coronavirus and Your Money

Can Your Boss Force You to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Two employment attorneys weigh in with their legal viewpoints for employers and their workers. As a bonus, we touch base with a professor of psycholog…
December 29, 2020