The richest counties in the U.S. are found about where one would expect. The metro areas of Washington, D.C., New York City and San Francisco's Bay Area naturally dominate the top spots.
But as is usually the case with such things, the richest counties in the U.S. also tend to be the most expensive counties. So although residents of the richest counties might enjoy the highest incomes, they also often bear the highest costs of living.
In the real world, purchasing power and the number of digits on a paycheck are not necessarily the same thing. That's especially true in some of the richest counties in America, where sky-high costs of living can reduce real incomes by tens of thousands of dollars.
And so we decided to find the "real" richest counties in America. Thanks to data from the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER), we were able to locate the counties with the highest median incomes, and then adjust those incomes to account for the counties' costs of living.
This cost-of-living adjustment gives a much more pragmatic picture of the richest counties in the U.S. It shows where the highest incomes go the farthest – not just who's winning the paycheck race.
That's the key point here: The real richest counties in America are not automatically the highest income or most expensive counties. Keeping costs in check is a critical component of financial health for folks of all income levels.
That's why many of America's real richest counties are found in some surprising places.
So have a look at the 10 real richest counties in the U.S. Many of these names made the list because they enjoy high incomes without the heavy cost pressures such incomes usually create. Counties are listed by cost-adjusted median household income, from lowest to highest.
Data courtesy of the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER), the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
10. Williamson County, Tenn.
- Population: 238,412
- Median household income: $112,962 (U.S.: $65,712)
- Cost of living: 14.3% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $98,841
Nashville is known for its relatively low cost of living, but that doesn't extend to affluent Williamson County, which sits in the southwestern part of the city's sprawling metro area.
Indeed, greater Nashville, which includes Davidson, Murfreesboro and Franklin, Tenn., enjoys a cost of living 3.4% below the U.S. average, according to C2ER. That's hardly the case in Williamson County, though. True, median household income is more than double the state level of $56,071, but it falls to not quite $99,000 after adjusting for costs.
That's still good for 10th place on our list of the real richest counties in the U.S., and residents are pretty fortunate in how far their paychecks go compared to other wealthy counties.
As is usually the case, housing is a main driver of living costs. In Williamson, the median home value stands at $488,600. That's roughly double the U.S. median of $240,500.
Educational levels are likewise elevated. Nearly 62% of Williamson County residents have a bachelor's degree or higher, vs. 33% for the U.S. The area's economic health shows up in other statistics, such as its poverty rate of 4.5%, vs. 12.3% for the nation as a whole.
9. Fort Bend County, Texas
- Population: 811,688
- Median household income: $97,743
- Cost of living: 1.8% below U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $99,515
Fort Bend is the only name on our list of richest counties in America where the cost of living is lower than the U.S. average. And the resulting adjustment actually raises the area's median household income by more than $2,000.
That's great news for folks who live in this sprawling suburb of Houston, which happens to boast some of the cheapest apartment rents among America's biggest cities.
Fort Bend sits in the southeastern part of the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metro area, and has seen decades of rapid population growth. Jobs in healthcare, energy and hospitality have helped drive the expansion, led by companies such as Schlumberger (SLB), Coca-Cola's (KO) Minute Maid subsidiary and Fluor (FLR).
Housing costs remain comparatively affordable despite high incomes. The median home value of $285,600 is about a fifth higher than the U.S. median, but unadjusted median household income is almost 50% greater. More broadly, the metro area's housing costs are about 15% lower than the U.S. average.
Higher incomes and lower costs also help keep poverty in check. The county's poverty rate of 6.3% is about half the U.S. rate, and even farther below the Texas rate of 13.6%. More than 46% of residents have at least a bachelor's degree, vs. 31% for Texas as a whole.
8. Los Alamos County, N.M.
- Population: 18,625
- Median household income: $121,324
- Cost of living: 21.6% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $99,813
Los Alamos County sounds like an unlikely place to find a lot of millionaires, but when it comes to concentration of millionaires, it has some of the most per household of any small city in the U.S.
The tiny town about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe is home to a government nuclear weapons laboratory and a number of chemists, engineers and physicists. It's a compact area with a small population but a large percentage of highly educated and highly trained engineers and scientists.
Indeed, incomes are so high on a relative basis that even after accounting for its steep cost of living, Los Alamos remains one of the richest counties in the U.S.
Given the presence of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and allied institutions, it's no surprise that the county is well-educated. More than 97% of residents have a high school degree or better, vs. the state rate of 85.6%. Fully 67.4% have at least a bachelor's degree, vs. 27.3% for New Mexico as a whole.
The county's poverty rate is likewise favorable. At 4.4%, it's a fraction of the 19.1% state rate.
Another feather in Los Alamos' cap? U.S. News & World Report ranks it as the healthiest community in the nation.
7. Prince William County, Va.
- Population: 470,335
- Median household income: $107,132
- Cost of living: 5.3% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $101,720
The District of Columbia and suburbs such as Prince William County (and some neighbors, as we'll see below) are magnets for the highly educated seeking high-powered jobs.
This agglomeration of the ambitious makes the metro area a mecca for millionaires. Indeed, the city and its suburbs have the fourth-highest concentration of millionaire households in the U.S.
PWC, which sits southeast of D.C. and encircles the independent cities of Manassas and Manassas Park, offers an enviable balance of high income and not-too-high living costs.
Median household income is 63% greater than the U.S. median, but PWC's cost of living is just 5.3% above the national average.
That said, PWC is not cheap – and certainly not when it comes to housing. Its median home value of $405,800 towers over the state of Virginia's $288,800.
Zoom out, and C2ER notes that the D.C. metro area's total housing costs – including rents, mortgages, property taxes and related items – run 172% above the U.S. average.
As a more distant suburb, longish commutes are a way of life for many PWC residents. They spend an average of 41 minutes a day driving to work, vs. 27.6 minutes for the typical American.
6. Delaware County, Ohio
- Population: 209,177
- Median household income: $106,908
- Cost of living: 4.9% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $101,897
Delaware County, a suburb of state capital Columbus, usually makes the list of the richest counties in America. And although higher incomes usually come with loftier living costs, Delaware manages to keep the latter mostly in check.
Although the cost of living is 4.9% higher than the U.S. average, median household income is roughly twice the national level. Indeed, Delaware's median household income is almost double the state median of $58,642.
After adjusting for costs, Delaware vaults to sixth place on the list of richest counties in the U.S., up from 22nd place when expenses are left out of the equation.
True, median home value of $339,400 is about double the state median, but housing is a relative bargain when compared to many of the other richest U.S. counties. Total housing costs in the Columbus metro area run 17% below the U.S. average.
In addition to all that Greater Columbus has to offer, Delaware County counts plenty of attractions of its own. The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, the annual Little Brown Jug harness race and the Ross Art Museum are just a sample of its activities.
The metro area's major employers include Ohio State University, OhioHealth and JPMorgan Chase (JPM). More than 52% of county residents have at least a bachelor's degree, vs. 29.3% at the state level.
5. Douglas County, Colo.
- Population: 351,154
- Median household income: $119,730
- Cost of living: 17.3% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $102,110
There's no question incomes are high in Douglas County, which sits midway between Denver and Colorado Springs. Indeed, median household income is nearly double that of the U.S.
But expenses are also high. Indeed, at 17.3% above the national average, the cost of living has the effect of cutting median household income by $17,620.
Housing, as usual, is the main culprit. Median home value is a whopping $523,200 – more than double the U.S. level, and about a third higher than Colorado's median. Douglas lies within the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metro area, where housing costs run about 40% higher than what the typical American pays.
The county is highly educated with especially low levels of poverty. More than 58% of residents have a bachelor's degree or higher, vs. 42.7% for Colorado. The poverty rate of 2.5% is far below the state rate of 9.4%.
Top employers include Charles Schwab (SCHW), EchoStar (SATS) and HCA Healthcare (HCA). But the great outdoors is central to the Douglas County experience. Three state parks – Castlewood Canyon, Chatfield and Roxborough State Park – lie within its borders.
Apparently, high incomes and outdoor activities make for a salubrious existence. U.S. News & World Report ranks Douglas as the nation's second healthiest community after Los Alamos.
4. Fairfax County, Va.
- Population: 1,147,532
- Median household income: $124,831
- Cost of living: 21.1% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $103,100
Fairfax County, which includes the independent cities of Fairfax City and Falls Church, remains one of the real richest counties in the U.S. even after accounting for its high costs.
But those expenses sure do take a bite.
Like fellow D.C. suburb Prince William County, Fairfax is part of the Washington, D.C. metro area, home to one of the highest concentrations of millionaire households in America.
However, at 21.1% above the national average, Fairfax's living costs are much higher than PWC's. Indeed, adjustments cut $21,731 from median household income, pushing Fairfax to fourth place from second in the rich county rankings.
Again, housing is a culprit. Median home value of $586,200 is about twice the state level. The metro area's total housing costs – including rents, mortgages and more – run 173% above the national average.
The ambitious and well-paid residents of Fairfax County are highly educated, of course. Equally unsurprisingly, many are foreign born. More than 62% have at least a bachelor's degree, while more than 31% were born overseas. Those figures compare to 39.6% and 12.7%, respectively, at the state level.
Higher income and educational levels contribute to below-average poverty: 6% in Fairfax County vs. the state's 9.9% rate. And they help in other ways too: Falls Church takes third place in the U.S. News & World Report healthiest communities rankings.
3. Forsyth County, Ga.
- Population: 244,252
- Median household income: $107,218
- Cost of living: 3.9% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $103,161
Rapidly growing Forsyth County benefits from being both a suburb and an exurb of Atlanta (metro pop: 6 million). Situated halfway between the big city and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Forsyth enjoys lots of well-paid employment opportunities without the crazy cost pressures such jobs often create.
The result? A cost of living that's only 3.9% above the national average, allowing residents to keep more of their six-digit median household incomes.
Forsyth's growth has come with a corresponding increase in new housing. That's helped keep median home value to $363,700. Although nearly double the state median, it's a bargain vs. many of the other richest counties in the U.S.
The county's exurban characteristics allow residents to enjoy peace and quiet while still participating in the bustle of metro Atlanta. In addition to 37,000-acre Lake Lanier – where folks enjoy fishing, boating and water skiing – the county operates dozens of recreational facilities, including Sawnee Mountain Preserve and Fowler Park.
Atlanta metro's famous sprawl does exact a toll, however. Forsyth County commuters spend an average of 32.1 minutes getting to work, vs. 29.3 minutes for all Georgians, and the U.S. average of 27.6 minutes.
2. Stafford County, Va.
- Population: 152,882
- Median household income: $111,108
- Cost of living: 4.8% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $106,048
Stafford County, another D.C. suburb, is about a 40-minute drive from the metro area's center, and that extra distance helps keep costs in check. Expenses run just 4.8% above the U.S. average, despite Stafford being part of a metro area chock full of millionaires and other top-income counties.
Indeed, the county's favorable income-to-cost balance vaults it up the rich-county ranks. By unadjusted median household income, Stafford ranks as only the 16th wealthiest county. But after accounting for living costs, Stafford jumps to second place among the richest counties in the U.S.
Happily for homebuyers, new construction has kept up enough that the median home value of $366,500 is only 25% higher than the state median.
The county's rapid growth – both demographically and economically – has been fueled in part by a host of federal government employers. Marine Corps Base Quantico, the FBI Academy, FBI National Laboratory and Naval Criminal Investigative Service headquarters all call Stafford home.
Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.B) Geico insurance subsidiary is the largest private-sector employer.
That said, plenty of Stafford residents travel across Greater D.C. to get to work. Stafford's less-central location means folks spend an average of 39.8 minutes getting to work. Overall, Virginia's average travel-to-work time is a more manageable 29.1 minutes.
1. Loudoun County, Va.
- Population: 413,538
- Median household income: $142,299
- Cost of living: 12.3% above U.S. average
- Adjusted median household income: $126,674
Incomes are so high in Loudoun that even after adjusting for a cost of living 12.3% above the national average, it remains the richest county in the U.S. by a wide margin.
With an unadjusted median household income of more than $142,000, this northeastern suburb of D.C. tops its closest competitor (Stafford County at $111,108) by more than $31,100.
Factor in costs – which lop off nearly $16,000 in income – and Loudon still beats Stafford by nearly $21,000.
Loudon also happens to take fourth place in the U.S. News & World Report healthiest community rankings.
The origins of Loudon's wealth begin in the early 1960s with the construction of Washington Dulles International Airport. Businesses followed, leading to rapid growth and eventually a boom in high-tech, well-paid jobs. Major employers include Northrop Grumman (NOC) and Raytheon Technologies (RTX). The county also hosts scores of massive data centers that power Amazon.com's (AMZN) cloud services business.
Naturally, Loudon is a contributor to the metro area's sky-high housing costs. The median home value of $556,600 is nearly twice the state median.
Given Loudon's demand for workers with advanced degrees in often highly specialized industries, it follows that residents are highly educated and frequently foreign born.
More than 62% have a bachelor's degree or higher, vs. 39.6% at the state level. A quarter of the county's population was born overseas – double the Virginia rate – and more than a third speak a language other than English at home.
Dan Burrows is Kiplinger's senior investing writer, having joined the august publication full time in 2016.
A long-time financial journalist, Dan is a veteran of SmartMoney, MarketWatch, CBS MoneyWatch, InvestorPlace and DailyFinance. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Consumer Reports, Senior Executive and Boston magazine, and his stories have appeared in the New York Daily News, the San Jose Mercury News and Investor's Business Daily, among other publications. As a senior writer at AOL's DailyFinance, Dan reported market news from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and hosted a weekly video segment on equities.
Once upon a time – before his days as a financial reporter and assistant financial editor at legendary fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily – Dan worked for Spy magazine, scribbled away at Time Inc. and contributed to Maxim magazine back when lad mags were a thing. He's also written for Esquire magazine's Dubious Achievements Awards.
In his current role at Kiplinger, Dan writes about equities, fixed income, currencies, commodities, funds, macroeconomics, demographics, real estate, cost of living indexes and more.
Dan holds a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College and a master's degree from Columbia University.
Disclosure: Dan does not trade stocks or other securities. Rather, he dollar-cost averages into cheap funds and index funds and holds them forever in tax-advantaged accounts.
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