12 Cheapest Small Towns in America
Affordable small towns aren't necessarily the best places to live for everyone, but each cheap small town on our list has its charms.
Small-town living has plenty of perks: light traffic, a strong sense of community and a slower pace of life. Perhaps best of all, there's the cost of living, which typically is lower in small towns than in expensive big cities.
To get a better sense of what inexpensive small-town living really has to offer, we compiled a list of the 12 cheapest places to live in America with populations of 10,000 to 50,000 people. We based our rankings on the Council for Community and Economic Research's (C2ER) calculations of living expenses in 256 urbanized areas. Its Cost of Living Index tracks prices for housing, utilities, health care, groceries, transportation, and miscellaneous goods and services (such as going to a movie theater or hair salon.)
You should weigh the pros and cons before you pack up and relocate to one of the 12 cheapest small towns in America. While a low cost of living is attractive, it can be offset by issues such as scarce jobs, small paychecks or a lack of things to do in the area. Plan an extended visit to ensure the small town fits your lifestyle.
The Cost of Living Index is based on price data collected during the first quarter of 2020. City-level data on city populations, household incomes and home values come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unemployment rates come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of June 2020.
Ponca City, Okla.
- Cost of living: 12.1% below U.S. average
- City population: 24,424
- Median household income: $43,291 (U.S.: $61,937)
- Median home value: $93,700 (U.S.: $229,700)
- Unemployment rate: 7.8% (U.S.: 11.1%)
Ponca City traces its lineage back to the days of the Land Run of 1893, when pioneers decided to build a town in north-central Oklahoma near the Arkansas River and a freshwater spring. Not long after its founding, enterprising oil men successfully drilled wells in the area, and Ponca City remains an oil town to this day. The area's largest employers include energy companies such as Schlumberger (SLB), ConocoPhillips (COP) and Phillips 66 (PSX).
Household incomes are well below the national median, but housing is a heck of a deal. The median value of a Ponca City home is just $93,700. Nationally, it's almost $230,000. Indeed, total housing costs are 32% lower than what the average American pays, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research's Cost of Living Index. Residents also catch a break on health care, which is 12.4% less expensive.
Although the cheap cost of living is a great benefit of the area, it does come at a cost of its own: Ponca City sits pretty much in the middle of Tornado Alley.
Danville City, Va.
- Cost of living: 12.7% below U.S. average
- City population: 41,512
- Median household income: $36,301
- Median home value: $91,100
- Unemployment rate: 11.8%
Danville sits on the southern border of Virginia about 70 miles south of Lynchburg, which happens to be one of the cheapest small cities in the U.S.
Once a textile, railroad and tobacco hub, Danville has pivoted with the changing economic times. Today, the area's major employers include Goodyear Tire & Rubber (GT), regional medical center Sovah Health and Nestle (NSRGY). But don't think Danville has lost touch with its roots. Local attractions include "Millionaire's Row," a historic district of Victorian and Edwardian homes considered to be gems of 19th and early 20th century architecture.
Median income runs well below the national average, but helpfully, a dollar goes pretty far. Residents pay almost 22% less for housing-related costs, including rents and mortgages, than does the average American, according to the Cost of Living Index. Transportation costs are about 16% cheaper in Danville, and locals enjoy significant savings on groceries and health care, too.
Benton Harbor, Mich.
- Cost of living: 12.8% below U.S. average
- City population: 9,920
- Median household income: $20,232
- Median home value: $66,100
- Unemployment rate: 14%
Benton Harbor sits by the shores of Lake Michigan about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, which is one of the cheapest larger cities in the U.S. The small town's biggest claim to fame is that it's home to Whirlpool (WHR), the global manufacturer of washers, dryers, refrigerators and a range of other home appliances.
But despite being host to a Fortune 500 company, Benton Harbor offers a cost of living that's almost 13% below the national average.
True, median income is far below the U.S. level, and the unemployment rate is higher than the national rate. Poverty and crime are also high in Benton Harbor – factors that contribute to a median home price that's an eye-popping $163,600 below average. Indeed, housing-related costs, including rents and mortgages, are 34% cheaper in the city.
Neighboring St. Joseph, about the same size as Benton Harbor, is a popular beach resort town with significantly higher household incomes and home values.
- Cost of living: 14% below U.S. average
- City population: 38,602
- Median household income: $32,807
- Median home value: $83,700
- Unemployment rate: 10.5%
Meridian was rebuilt from 1890 to 1930 after being almost totally destroyed in the Civil War. As a result, it has not one but nine registered historic districts. The Highland Park Dentzel Carousel, dating back to 1909, is one of the more whimsical ones.
Meridian's other claim to fame is as the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, known as the "Father of Country Music." Music remains a centerpiece of Meridian's cultural scene to this day.
Today, the federal government plays an important role in its economic life, as Naval Air Station Meridian and Key Field are two of the largest employers. Happily, the men and women in uniform, and Meridian's civilian citizens, catch a break on expenses. The city's cost of living stands 14% below the U.S. average, led by comparatively cheap housing costs. Indeed, housing expenses are a third lower than what the average American pays.
- Cost of living: 14.6% below U.S. average
- City population: 25,127
- Median household income: $45,841
- Median home value: $90,100
- Unemployment rate: 12.1%
Burlington sits on the Mississippi River, about 165 miles east of Des Moines. Manufacturing has long been a staple of the area economy, but a number of major employers have left over the years. Today, top employers include Great River Health System and American Ordnance, which makes ammunition for the U.S. military.
Although utilities in Burlington are about 11% more expensive than the national average and health care costs are roughly in line, inexpensive housing is where Burlington really shines. Housing-related costs are 35% cheaper compared to what the average American pays. Rents, on average, are 40% lower than the national average.
True, median incomes are $16,096 less than the national average, but then, the median home price is cheaper by almost $140,000.
- Cost of living: 15.6% below U.S. average
- City population: 13,101
- Median household income: $33,224
- Median home value: $86,800
- Unemployment rate: 14.3%
Martinsville needs no introduction to race fans. The tiny Virginia town, an hour's drive south of Roanoke, lays claim to the Martinsville Speedway of NASCAR fame. Racing enthusiasts laud the short track for its tight turns and intimate seating.
Beyond the track, manufacturing has always been central to the area's economy, and although a number of firms have moved on over the past decades, factory work remains important. Major employers include Eastman Chemical (EMN), a manufacturer of plastics, and Monogram Foods.
Martinsville has a rich history dating back to colonial times, and the town boasts multiple historic districts and historic sites including the John Waddey Carter House and the Dry Bridge School.
Also notable is the low cost of living. Housing expenses in Martinsville are 34% below the national average. Fittingly for a racing town, gasoline is about 5% cheaper.
- Cost of living: 17.5% below U.S. average
- City population: 47,230
- Median household income: $48,079
- Median home value: $121,500
- Unemployment rate: 6.9%
The small town of Salina sits at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 135, about 90 miles north of Wichita and 180 miles west of Kansas City.
Manufacturing and health care are among the town's most important industries. Major employers include Schwan's Company, the maker of Tony's frozen pizza; Great Plains Manufacturing, which serves the agricultural industry; and the Salina Regional Health Center. Salina is also home to several institutions of higher education, including the University of Kansas School of Medicine Salina Campus and Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus.
This economic mix is producing both low unemployment and low living costs. Housing expenses are about 36% below the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Groceries are cheaper too, running about 15% lower than the national average.
Utility bills, however, take a bit of a bite. In Salina, they run 2.3% higher than the U.S. average.
- Cost of living: 18.3% below U.S. average
- City population: 31,001
- Median household income: $26,750
- Median home value: $113,500
- Unemployment rate: 10.0%
As home to the flagship campus of Georgia Southern University, Statesboro offers many of the benefits of college-town living but at exceedingly affordable prices. Thanks to its status as an academic hub, cultural attractions tied to the local university include a performing arts center, symphony, museum, planetarium and botanic gardens.
Another perk? The charming city of Savannah is just an hour's drive to the southeast.
Although the university is the area's largest employer, manufacturing jobs also play an important part in the local economy. Still, unemployment comes in above-average, and the poverty rate is high.
But when it comes to living costs, housing is nearly 30% cheaper in Statesboro, while health care runs almost 20% below average. For example, a visit to a doctor costs about a third less in Statesboro. Dental care is more than a fifth less expensive, according to the C2ER's Cost of Living Index.
- Cost of living: 18.6% below U.S. average
- City population: 47,230
- Median household income: $48,079
- Median home value: $121,500
- Unemployment rate: 12.1%
Tupelo's biggest claim to fame is being the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The town, 100 miles southeast of Memphis's Graceland, has held an Elvis Festival for 21 years running.
Not a fan of The King? The cultural scene also includes the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra and the Tupelo Automobile Museum. But Tupelo's second-biggest claim to fame is arguably its super-low living costs. Electric and gas bills are about 12% lower than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Housing is almost 35% cheaper and groceries go for 17% less.
For residents not making a living as Elvis impersonators, major employers include North Mississippi Health Services, Cooper Tire & Rubber (CTB) and BancorpSouth (BXS), which is headquartered in Tupelo.
- Cost of living: 19.4% below U.S. average
- City population: 20,280
- Median household income: $35,525
- Median home value: $86,400
- Unemployment rate: 6.7%
Pittsburg is about a two-hour drive due south from Kansas City on Route 69. When you get there, you'll find a small town with a cost of living almost 20% below the national average.
Once upon a time, the town was known for its abundance of coal and the Southern and Eastern European immigrants who worked the mines. Today, the area relies more heavily on higher education, thanks to the presence of Pittsburg State University. Famous alumni of Pittsburg's local university include actor Gary Busey and Brian Moorman, retired two-time Pro Bowl punter for the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
Although median incomes are roughly $26,000 below the national average, median home prices are a whopping $143,300 cheaper. That helps make housing costs 37% less expensive than what the average American pays. Other things are cheap, as well. A movie ticket, for example, runs less than $6 in Pittsburg, whereas the average American has to shell out close to $11.
- Cost of living: 19.8% below U.S. average
- City population: 35,653
- Median household income: $37,145
- Median home value: $85,700
- Unemployment rate: 12.6%
Few cities of any size can claim Richmond's place in the early history of recorded jazz. Some of the first jazz records were made in this small town, featuring greats such as Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. There's a Walk of Fame celebrating jazz and other artists who recorded with Richmond's Gennett Records.
While jazz will always be part of its history, today's Richmond, which is an hour's drive west from Dayton, Ohio, is known more for its colleges and seminaries. They include Indiana University East, the Earlham School of Religion (part of Quaker-influenced Earlham College) and the Bethany Theological Seminary.
Inexpensive housing is a key to Richmond's striking affordability. Residents spend 36% less on housing than the average American does. Apartments rents are half the national average. Average home prices are 28% less. Health care is also a bargain. For example, a visit to the eye doctor costs about 45% less than the national average. An appointment with a physician is a fifth less expensive.
- Cost of living: 20.0% below U.S. average
- City population: 37,900
- Median household income: $38,885
- Median home value: $91,200
- Unemployment rate: 6.4%
No small town can claim a lower cost of living than Muskogee, based on the 256 urbanized areas analyzed by the Cost of Living Index.
Muskogee packs a lot of history, culture and colleges into a small package. Located about 50 miles south of Tulsa, the town traces its roots back to 1817. It's home to four institutions of higher learning, as well as the Oklahoma School for the Blind. Jim Thorpe – All-American, the 1951 film starring Burt Lancaster, was shot on the campus of what was then known as the Bacone Indian University in Muskogee. The town also boasts six museums and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame.
Major employers include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a VA medical center and paper company Georgia-Pacific.
But what really puts Muskogee on the map, other than being the inspiration for a Merle Haggard song, is its ultra-low cost of living. The biggest break comes from housing-related expenses, which are almost 40% lower than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Transportation, groceries and health care are notably cheaper, too.