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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Dan Burrows, Contributing Writer
| May 6, 2019
There's a lot to be said for small-town living: Less traffic, a strong sense of community and a slower pace of life. Then, of course, there's the cost of living, which is typically more affordable 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 under 50,000. We based our rankings on the Council for Community and Economic Research's calculations of living expenses in 270 urban areas. Its Cost of Living Index tracks prices for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services (such as going to a movie theater or hair salon.)
Before you pack up and relocate to one of the 12 cheapest small towns in America, weigh the pros and cons. A low cost of living is attractive, but the allure lessens if jobs are scarce, paychecks are small or the area lacks things to do. Plan an extended visit to ensure the small town fits your lifestyle.
The Cost of Living Index is based on price data collected during 2018. City-level data on populations, household incomes and home values come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unless otherwise indicated, micropolitan-area unemployment rates come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and represent February 2019 rates (not seasonally adjusted).
Cost of Living: 14.2% below U.S. average
City Population: 43,055
Median Household Income: $34,951 (U.S.: $57,652)
Median Home Value: $90,900 (U.S.: $193,500)
Unemployment Rate: 5.4% (U.S.: 3.8%)
Danville sits on the southern border of Virginia about 70 miles south of Lynchburg, which happens to be one of the cheapest larger 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 Co., regional medical center Sovah Health and Nestle. 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.
The unemployment rate in Danville runs well above the national average, while median income falls well below. Helpfully, a dollar goes pretty far. Residents pay almost 19% 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 18% cheaper in Danville, and locals enjoy significant savings on groceries and health care, too.
Cost of Living: 14.4% below U.S. average
City Population: 20,233
Median Household Income: $31,948
Median Home Value: $84,800
Unemployment Rate: 4.4%
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 more than 14% 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 $108,700 cheaper. That helps make housing costs 30% 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 more than $10.
Cost of Living: 14.6% below U.S. average
City Population: 20,362
Median Household Income: $41,218
Median Home Value: $97,500
Unemployment Rate: 5.0%
Located about halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, near Ohio’s Amish Country, little Ashland offers a cost of living well below that of the state’s two largest cities, as well the nation as a whole. What really stands out are housing expenses. Whether you rent or own, keeping a roof over your head in Ashland is more than 40% cheaper than the national average. Citizens also have access to comparatively inexpensive health care, which runs about 14% below what the average American pays. Locals shell out about $87 to see a doctor. Nationally, that bill comes to more than $110.
Job opportunities run the gamut from higher education to biomedical research to manufacturing. Top employers include Ashland University, Samaritan Regional Health System, Charles River Laboratories and Pentair Pump Group. Median incomes are lower than the national average, however, and Ashland’s unemployment rate is higher than the U.S. level.
Cost of Living: 14.9% below U.S. average
City Population: 34,546
Median Household Income: $45,161
Median Home Value: $138,100
Unemployment Rate: 4.0%
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 Tupelo Symphony Orchestra and the Tupelo Automobile Museum. Tupelo’s second biggest claim to fame is arguably its super-low living costs. Electric and gas bills are about 13% lower than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Housing is almost a third cheaper and groceries go for about 15% less. Shoppers save 23% on dry cleaning, while a trip to the beauty salon costs 37% less than the national average.
For residents not making a living as Elvis impersonators, major employers include North Mississippi Health Services, Cooper Tire and Rubber Company and BancorpSouth, which is headquartered in Tupelo.
Cost of Living: 15.0% below U.S. average
City Population: 10,038
Median Household Income: $20,157
Median Home Value: $56,200
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, the global manufacturer of washers, dryers, refrigerators and a range of other home appliances. Despite being host to a Fortune 500 company, Benton Harbor offers a cost of living that's 15% below the national average.
True, median income is roughly $37,000 below than 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 $137,300 below average. Indeed, housing-related costs, including rents and mortgages, are almost 30% 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: 15.7% below U.S. average
City Population: 28,422
Median Household Income: $24,869
Median Home Value: $117,000
Unemployment Rate: 4.1%
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 east.
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 fifth less expensive, according to the Cost of Living Index.
Cost of Living: 16.1% below U.S. average
City Population: 47,707
Median Household Income: $47,103
Median Home Value: $119,300
Unemployment Rate: 3.7%
The small town of Salina sits at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 135, about 80 miles north of Wichita and 160 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.
It's an economic mix that's producing both low unemployment and low living costs. Housing expenses are about 30% below the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Groceries are cheaper too. A half-gallon of milk costs a third less than the national average. Ground beef is on sale to the tune of 24%. Utility bills, however, take a bit of a bite. In Salina, they run about 5% higher than the U.S. average.
Cost of Living: 16.7% below U.S. average
City Population: 13,821
Median Household Income: $33,545
Median Home Value: $90,100
Unemployment Rate: 4.5%
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, 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 31% below than the national average. Fittingly for a racing town, gasoline is about 9% cheaper.
Cost of Living: 17.0% below U.S. average
City Population: 25,663
Median Household Income: $42,907
Burlington sits on the Mississippi River, about 165 miles east of Des Moines. Manufacturing has long been a staple of the area economy, and although a number of major employers have left over the years, the unemployment rate has fallen below the national average. That's an impressive feat. At one point in 2015, the unemployment rate spiked above 6%. Major employers include Great River Health Systems and American Ordnance, which makes ammunition for the U.S. military.
Although utilities in Burlington are about 6% 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 37% cheaper compared to what the average American pays. Rents, on average, are 45% lower the national average. True, median incomes are almost $15,000 less than the national average, but then the median home price is cheaper by more than $100,000.
City of Pryor Creek
Cost of Living: 17.2% below U.S. average
City Population: 9,539
Median Household Income: $41,355
Median Home Value: $99,200
Unemployment Rate: 3.3%
Tiny Pryor Creek is a big player in the manufacturing sector. The town, about an hour's drive northeast of Tulsa, claims one of Oklahoma's largest industrial parks, which houses more than 60 businesses. Indeed, about 40% of the local workforce is engaged in manufacturing, churning out everything from machinery to electronics to transportation equipment. Major employers include the Grand River Dam Authority, Orchids Paper Products Co. and DuPont. Plentiful job opportunities give Pryor Creek an unemployment rate that's far below the U.S. average -- not to mention the lowest of any small town on this list.
As tight as the labor market might be, it hasn't exactly put upward pressure on prices, although a high poverty rate no doubt plays its part, too. Whatever economic forces are at work, Pryor Creek's cost of living is 17.2% below the national average. Once again, cheap housing leads the way. Residents spend 34% less than the average American on housing-related costs, including rents and mortgages. Apartment rents are 38% less expensive than they are in the U.S. Folks from Pryor Creek spend about 15% less on transportation expense compared to the rest of the country.
Cost of Living: 18.2% below U.S. average
City Population: 39,223
Median Household Income: $36,276
Median Home Value: $88,600
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 College 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. 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 run a third less than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Transportation and health care are notably cheaper, too.
Cost of Living: 20.4% below U.S. average
City Population: 36,812
Median Household Income: $33,381
Median Home Value: $85,300
Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
No city of its size can claim a lower cost of living than Richmond, an hour's drive from Dayton, Ohio, based on the 270 urban areas analyzed by the Cost of Living Index. And 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 is known more for its colleges and seminaries, which 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 35% less on housing than the average American does. Apartments rents are roughly half the national average. Average home prices are 27% less. Health care is also a bargain. For example, a visit to the eye doctor costs about 40% less than national average. An appointment with a physician is a fifth less expensive.