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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Dan Burrows, Contributing Writer
| May 2017
When it comes to cheap living, don't mess with Texas. The Lone Star State is home to the two most-affordable cities in America. But Texas doesn't have a monopoly on low living costs. Five other states make an appearance on our list.
If you’re thinking about relocating to one of these cheap cities, weigh the pros and cons. A low cost of living is attractive, but the allure lessens if jobs are hard to come by, paychecks are small or the town offers little to do. Research your potential destination online, and plan an extended visit to ensure the city fits your lifestyle.
We compiled our rankings based on the Council for Community and Economic Research's calculations of living expenses in 288 urban areas. Its Cost of Living Index measures prices for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services (for the last item, think going to a movie or getting your hair done at a salon). We screened out small cities with populations below 50,000.
Take a look at our 2017 list of the 10 cheapest places to live in America.
(The Cost of Living Index is based on price data collected during 2016. City-level data on populations, household incomes and home values come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unless otherwise indicated, metropolitan-area unemployment rates come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and represent 2016 averages.)
Cost of Living: 15.5% below U.S. average
City Population: 631,346
Median Household Income: $47,779 (U.S.: $53,889)
Median Home Value: $138,600 (U.S.: $178,600)
Unemployment Rate: 4.2% (U.S.: 4.9%)
The largest city in Oklahoma offers remarkably affordable prices for its size. The biggest reason: Housing costs run 28.8% below the national average, according to the housing component of the Cost of Living Index, which takes into account both home prices and apartment rents. And yet as a metro area with 1.4 million people, Oklahoma City offers a lot of big-city attractions, from a philharmonic orchestra to the National Softball Hall of Fame and Museum. At the professional sports level, the Oklahoma City Thunder remains one of the most competitive teams in the NBA.
Cost of Living: 15.6% below U.S. average
City Population: 64,980
Median Household Income: $47,504
Median Home Value: $160,400
Unemployment Rate: 3.5%
Conway is home to a number of high-tech companies, such as digital marketing firm Acxiom, and post-secondary educational institutions, including the University of Central Arkansas. Close proximity to the Arkansas River and Lake Conway make the city ideal for fishing and water sports, and there's ample space for hunting. Yet you can drive to the state capital of Little Rock in a half-hour or so. While Conway's median home value is the highest among the cities on this list, the figure is still below the U.S. median, and housing-related expenses, including utilities, are modest. Relatively low costs for health care also contribute to Conway's affordability.
Cost of Living: 15.9% below U.S. average
City Population: 73,907
Median Household Income: $41,688
Median Home Value: $141,400
Unemployment Rate: 3.4%
Best known as the home of Arkansas State University—Go Red Wolves!—Jonesboro is a college town with a degree in affordability. Putting a roof over your head costs 28.2% less than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Health care is very reasonable, too. You’ll save about 18%, on average, on a visit to the doctor and 25% on a visit to the dentist. A trip to the optometrist costs 30% less than the national average. And when you feel the need to escape to a big city, Memphis is just an hour's drive from Jonesboro (more on the budget-friendly charms of Memphis later). Jonesboro's unemployment rate is the lowest among the cities on this list.
Cost of Living: 16.2% below U.S. average
City Population: 120,284
Median Household Income: $51,491
Median Home Value: $160,100
Unemployment Rate: 3.5%*
Speaking of college athletics, Norman is home to the University of Oklahoma, a perennial Big 12 powerhouse. Football is the main draw, but far from the only sports dynasty in town: The Sooners men's gymnastics team has won three straight national titles. Norman is also home to households with the highest median income among the cities on this list. But while household incomes are close to the national average, overall living costs are far from it. The city's affordability is evident in the prices of many staples, from groceries to gasoline. Rent is especially cheap. The typical apartment in Norman goes for a whopping 44% less than the U.S. average. When you need to get off campus, Oklahoma City is just a few minutes’ drive up Interstate 35.
*The unemployment rate for Cleveland County, which includes the city of Norman, as of the end of 2016.
City Population: 853,173
Median Household Income: $41,987
Median Home Value: $118,300
Unemployment Rate: 4.0%
Big city living without big city prices is an apt description of affordable Indianapolis, the largest city on our list. The capital of Indiana has a solid economy and is home to several colleges and universities, including Butler, so learning opportunities abound. Kids will get a kick out of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the largest museum of its kind in the world. Advance tickets are just $5 the first Thursday of the month. If a children's museum isn’t the pace you’re looking for, zip over to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The famed track, which hosts the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 races, also boasts a racing museum and a golf course.
Cost of Living: 16.3% below U.S. average
City Population: 185,291
Median Household Income: $34,226
Unemployment Rate: 4.5%
Thrifty types should volunteer to check out Knoxville, one of two Tennessee cities to make the list for inexpensive living. The city is notable for its across-the-board affordability for everything from food to transportation, according the Cost of Living Index. Consider Knoxville, the original state capital before Nashville, a good mix of city and country living. It is home to the University of Tennessee and the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, but Knoxville is also the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. The Tennessee River runs through downtown. The city was a strategic objective in the Civil War, so history buffs can visit a number of battlefields nearby.
Cost of Living: 17.0% below U.S. average
City Population: 655,770
Median Household Income: $36,445
Median Home Value: $94,000
Unemployment Rate: 5.3%
To say that real estate is cheap in Memphis is an understatement. You can buy a home for less than $100,000, an amount that barley qualifies as a down-payment in many of the most expensive U.S. cities you could live in. Renters benefit, too. A typical apartment in Memphis rents for one-third less than the national average. There's also good work if you can get it. Proximity to the mighty Mississippi River makes Memphis a hub for the shipping and transportation industries. Three Fortune 500 companies—FedEx, International Paper and AutoZone—call the city home. You’ll also find numerous colleges and universities, an NBA franchise, mouthwatering ribs, and, of course, Graceland.
Cost of Living: 20.0% below U.S. average
City Population: 76,041
Median Household Income: $33,009
Median Home Value: $96,600
Unemployment Rate: 4.2%
It's cheap to live in Kalamazoo—and that's a necessity for many residents. One-third of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and low wages and underemployment are problems even for those who don’t. The city has the lowest median household income on this list. Western Michigan University, with its multiple campuses and research facilities, is a major driver of the local economy. Pfizer, the drug company, has a sizable operation in Kalamazoo, and medical equipment maker Stryker is headquartered in the city. As for recreational activities, the Kalamazoo Nature Center hosts free daily activities. Nearby parks offer a combined 140 miles of trails and three swimming beaches. If you want to get away to the big city, Chicago is about three hours by car.
Cost of Living: 20.6% below U.S. average
City Population: 65,774
Median Household Income: $34,466
Median Home Value: $80,600
Unemployment Rate: 7.2%
South Texas border towns are known for low costs of living, but not always for happy reasons. In Harlingen, 32.5% of residents live below the poverty line. For Texas as a whole, the poverty rate is 15.9%; for the U.S. as a whole, it's 13.5%. However, just about everything, from groceries to gasoline, costs less in Harlingen. A good cut of steak goes for 28% less than the national average (this is Texas, after all). The median home value in Harlingen is a striking $98,000 less than the U.S. median. In addition to its proximity to Mexico, Harlingen is about an hour's drive to the beaches of South Padre Island.
Cost of Living: 23.7% below U.S. average
City Population: 140,269
Median Household Income: $44,254
Median Home Value: $115,400
Unemployment Rate: 7.8%
McAllen is about 30 miles west of Harlingen on the Rio Grande. It's a larger and relatively more prosperous city—household incomes are a full $10,000 higher than in Harlingen—yet McAllen's superlow living costs come at a price. The poverty rate is 26.1%, and obesity runs rampant. WalletHub.com named McAllen the fourth-fattest city in America (Jackson, Miss., is number 1). The Mexican city of Reynosa, directly across the border, has been the scene of violence between drug gangs and Mexican security forces. On the plus side, McAllen is famous for bird watching because of its location on a major migration route. The Quinta Mazatlan, a luxury birdhouse with more than 15 acres of birding habitat, is not to be missed.
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