Best Bang for Your Buck: Best Small Cities to Make a Living

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In an increasingly sophisticated global economy, small towns are losing ground to big cities. But you can still find many small towns that offer bustling job markets and plenty of opportunities for those who prefer to live away from the crowds. MoneyGeek has ranked some of the most affordable cities in the United States with populations under 100,000 by comparing incomes to cost of living. The two surest ways to find a thriving small city? Look for a state capital or a major university. Among the Top 20 are several state capitals: Olympia, Washington; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Albany, New York; and Bismarck, North Dakota. And you'll find even more college towns: Ithaca, New York; Ames, Iowa; Lafayette, Indiana; Champaign, Illinois; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Mankato, Minnesota. Intriguingly, no small city in California, Texas or Florida made the Top 20.

  • About Our Methodology
  • Population
  • Compares median salary in a city against the cost to live there.
    Income/Cost Ratio
  • Compares cost of living from one city to another - a value of 100 reflects the national median.
    Cost of living Index Ranking
  • Major Employers
1Olympia Washington 51,609 112.0% 106 Image

State of Washington, local government, including schools, Providence St. Peter Hospital, Wal-Mart, federal government.

Like Seattle but not keen on the steep cost of living? Head 60 miles south to neighboring Olympia, within the Puget Sound region, where your dollar goes quite a bit farther. The median home price in Olympia was $354,494 in late 2019, less than half of Seattle's $729,381 price tag. Jerry Wilkins, president of the Thurston County Realtors Association, points to the combination of affordable homes, quality schools, plentiful shopping, recreational activities and diverse population as Olympia's draw. "We have a lot to offer," Wilkins says. Washington's state capital, Olympia, is a company town. State government is the largest employer by far, with more than 20,000 workers. Local and federal government also are big employers, as are two local hospitals. Looking for a private-sector job? Wal-Mart and Safeway lead the pack, but don't expect to find a deep pool of such employers. Thurston County posted 1.4 percent job growth in 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

2Ithaca New York 31,006 111.1% 104 Image

Cornell University, Ithaca College, BorgWarner Automotive, Ithaca City School District, Cayuga Medical Center.

This college town, sitting on one end of Cayuga Lake in the state's Finger Lakes region, is a four-hour drive from New York City, but its isolation is a vital part of its charm. Ithaca is home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, not to mention 150 picturesque waterfalls in a mere 10 square miles. Adding a bit of old-school manufacturing to the Ivy League vibe, Ithaca counts a BorgWarner Automotive plant among its largest employers. Ithaca's unemployment rate of 3.4 percent in 2019 falls well below the national average. The median home price was $257,167 in 2019, meaning homeownership is in reach even for an English professor. "Ithaca continues to draw people, with its diverse cultural, academic and entertainment activities and its natural beauty, from the gorges to Taughannock Falls to Cayuga Lake," says Lindsay Hart, president of the Ithaca Board of Realtors.

3Kennewick Washington 81,607 110.0% 97 Image

Battelle/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Kadlec Regional Medical Center, Bechtel National, ConAgra Foods, Kennewick School District.

This southeastern Washington city is experiencing strong job growth, driven by agriculture and nuclear waste. A 570-square-mile federal storage area for radioactive material is about 30 miles outside of town. "There's still a lot of federal jobs tied to the clean-up of the nuclear waste from the Cold War," says Gayle Stack, past president of the TriCity Association of Realtors. Employment in Benton County jumped 1.3 percent in 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and wages rose 2.3 percent. The Tri-Cities' largest employer is Battelle/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, the lab is in Richland, a few miles up the Columbia River from Kennewick. The unemployment rate is also solid, at 3.2 percent.

4Ames Iowa 66,498 108.8% 97 Image

Iowa State University, Mary Greeley Medical Center, city of Ames, Iowa Department of Transportation, McFarland Clinic.

If you live in Ames, chances are you receive paychecks emblazoned in cardinal and gold, the vibrant colors of the Iowa State Cyclones. The university employed nearly 17,000 people as of 2018, making Ames one of the least diversified economies on our list, not that anyone's complaining. The unemployment rate in Ames was a rock-bottom 1.5 percent in 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Patrick Weigel, an agent at Hunziker Realty, lauds the combination of "a great quality of life" and a median home price of $226,180 as the central Iowa city's attraction. The job market is undergoing some change too. What's more, Weigel says, Iowa State's research park is beginning to create private-sector jobs. "It's going gangbusters," he says.

5Cheyenne Wyoming 63,624 108.7% 99 Image

F.E. Warren Air Force Base, state of Wyoming, Laramie County School District, federal government, Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.

The public sector rules the economy in this former frontier town and state capital. Among the 11 largest employers, nine are branches of federal, state or local government, including a Wyoming National Guard base and a Veterans Affairs hospital. The public sector employs 13,900 workers in Cheyenne, as of November 2015, followed by 10,800 employees in trade, transportation and utilities, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Among private employers, retailer Sierra Trading Post staffs 684 workers, and Union Pacific Railroad employs 600. The unemployment rate was 4 percent in 2019, below the national average. The median home value in Cheyenne was $279,369 as of January 2020, according to Zillow.

6Wilmington Delaware 71,106 107.7% 106 Image

State of Delaware, Christiana Care Health Services, DuPont, Bank of America, AstraZeneca.

Wilmington might be a small city, but it's a financial capital on a national stage that also acts as headquarters for two Fortune 500 companies, DuPont and Navient. Bank of America and Citibank also employ thousands of workers in Wilmington. And because so many companies are incorporated in Delaware, the federal bankruptcy court is a bustling place where top attorneys bill $1,000 an hour. Located only 30 miles south of Philadelphia, Wilmington is somewhat pricey for a small city. The median home price was $206,218 in the first quarter of 2020. Wages aren't great here, as the typical paycheck was just $773 a week in 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The unemployment rate was 6 percent in 2019, which is much higher than the national average.

7Kalamazoo Michigan 75,807 104.9% 80 Image

Bronson Healthcare Group, Borgess Medical Center, Western Michigan University, Pfizer Corp., Kalamazoo Public Schools.

Looking for a job in Kalamazoo, located in southwest Michigan? Forget the auto plants that once formed the backbone of the local economy. These days, the major employers are hospitals, drug giant Pfizer and medical device maker Stryker. Western Michigan University also occupies a major presence in the job market. Job growth and wages are below average, but living in Kalamazoo means benefitting from a modest cost of living. The median home price was just $124,779 in the early 2020. The unemployment rate was 6 percent in 2019, well above the national average.

8Houma Louisiana 33,278 103.9% 93 Image

Terrebonne Parish School Board, Terrebonne General Medical Center, Gulf Island Fabrication, Catholic Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux .

This town in southern Louisiana's bayou country primarily relies on the oil industry. Its largest private employer is Gulf Island Fabrication, a company that makes steel platforms for the offshore oil and gas industry. With oil prices down, it's perhaps no surprise that Houma's job market is shrinking. Total nonfarm employment fell 1.8 percent in the 12 months ending in November 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Market, but unemployment is at a reasonable 3.4 percent. The job market may be tepid, but Houma's cost of living is low. The median home value was $181,875 in early 2020, according to Zillow. For those with the tenacity and luck to beat the odds in this city by finding a job and keeping it, living in Houma presents an affordable lifestyle.

9Harrisburg Pennsylvania 49,192 103.7% 88 Image

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, U.S. government, Hershey Medical Center/College of Medicine, WellSpan Health, Giant Food Stores.

If you have a career in public service or medicine, taking up residence in Harrisburg may be a viable proposition. That's because government and health care create the most jobs in this state capital in south central Pennsylvania. The state and federal governments account for 13 percent of all jobs, according to the city of Harrisburg, and the four largest health care organizations employ nearly 11 percent of residents. Wages are about average. The typical weekly paycheck in Dauphin County was $1,150 as of early 2020. Although jobs here might pay fairly well, there aren't many of them to go around. The unemployment rate was a sky-high 9 percent in 2019, well above the national average. At least homes here are extremely cheap, as the median home price in early 2020 was just $56,000.

10Ogden Utah 87,031 103.7% 90 Image

U.S. Department of Treasury, Weber County School District), McKay-Dee Hospital Center, Weber State University, Autoliv Asp.

Despite its beginnings as a lawless frontier town, government has become the top employer in this Utah town north of Salt Lake City. The federal government is the top employer, while the county and state governments also employ thousands. Other major employers include McKay-Dee Hospital, Weber State University and America First Credit Union. Wages are low. The typical weekly paycheck in Weber County was $833 as of 2019, well below the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Still, jobs are plentiful. The unemployment rate was 3.8 percent in 2019, slightly below the national average. Homes aren't exactly cheap, as the median home price in early 2020 was $226,000. If you have an outdoorsy personality, you'll find Ogden even more enticing, with its access to nearby skiing and other recreational activities.

11Lafayette Indiana 72,390 102.9% 88 Image

Purdue University, Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Wabash National, Franciscan St. Elizabeth Health, Indiana University Arnett Health.

Purdue University, whose student body numbers nearly 40,000, is the biggest employer in Lafayette. A university of such size is sure to create jobs for the city, but the Boilermakers aren't the only game in town. Truck maker Wabash National is headquartered in Lafayette, and Subaru and Caterpillar also operate large plants in the city. Wages are modest. The typical weekly paycheck in Tippecanoe County was $840 as of 2019, below the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. There aren't too many jobs here -- the unemployment rate was 6 percent in 2019, well above the national average -- and home prices are decent. The median home value is $147,672 as of January 2020, according to Zillow.

12Youngstown Ohio 64,604 102.1% 79 Image

HM Health Services, Mahoning County, Youngstown State University, Diocese of Youngstown, InfoCision Management.

A former steel town that fell on hard times, Youngstown hasn't quite shaken off its Rust Belt image. Big Steel is gone, replaced by employment in health care, local government and Youngstown State University. Unemployment in this city, located 60 miles southeast of Cleveland, was 6.2 percent in 2019, far above the national average. Income levels are quite low. The typical weekly paycheck in Mahoning County was just $832 as of 2019, well below the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. But you don't need to bring in much bacon to find life affordable here, because Youngstown's housing costs have absolutely bottomed out. The median home price was just $35,300 in early 2020, according to Zillow.

13Danville Illinois 31,424 101.4% 84 Image

Vermilion County Public Schools, Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System, McLane Midwest Co., Genpact, KIK Custom Products.

A former manufacturing town, this burg in eastern Illinois suffers from a still-weak labor market. The unemployment rate was 6 percent as of 2019, well above the national average. Aside from local government and a Veterans Affairs health care facility, major employers include McLane, a food distributor owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. The job market might not be thriving, but don't dismiss Danville quite yet. Danville is known for its low home prices. As of early 2019, the median home value in Danville is just $65,134. You might have to ferret out the right job, but once you do, you'll find a list of affordable homes fit for a king or queen.

14Champaign Illinois 87,432 101.3% 92 Image

University of Illinois, Champaign School District, Kraft Foods, Parkland College, Plastipak Packaging.

The University of Illinois is the dominant force behind this city's job market. Add in the local school district and community college, and public education accounts for a third of Champaign's labor force. Other major employers include Kraft Foods and Plastipak Packaging. Champaign County's average weekly wage in 2019 was $858, below the national average, and annual job growth was a disappointing 2.2 percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department. "Champaign-Urbana has struggled with employment growth," says Natalia Smirnova, a senior researcher at the American Institute for Economic Research. But like Danville, its neighboring city 30 miles to the east, inexpensive home prices represent a superb selling point. The median home price in Champaign was $167,000 in late 2019.

15Albany New York 98,251 101.3% 102 Image

State of New York, St. Peter's Health Partners, GE, Albany Medical Center.

Thanks to a high volume of government employment, this state capital, seated on the banks of the Hudson River, enjoys a stable job market. The city may not have the dashing, bold personality of the Big Apple, but it attracts those looking for stability and affordability. Albany's unemployment rate of 5 percent in 2019 stands well below the national average. St. Peter's Health Partners and Albany Medical Center also engage thousands of employees in Albany, and GE has a big presence in nearby Schenectady. Job growth is subdued, as employment grew by 0.4 percent in the 12 months ending in November 2019, below the national average. But wages jumped to just over $1,000 a week, above the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The median home price in early 2020 was $274,000.

16Mankato Minnesota 39,528 101.2% 96 Image

Taylor Cos., Mayo Clinic Health System, Minnesota State University, Mankato Area Public Schools, MRCI WorkSource.

This town located 80 miles south of Minneapolis boasts a more diversified economy than many small cities of comparable size. It's the home of Taylor Companies, which touts itself as one of the nation's largest privately held companies. The Mayo Clinic, headquartered in nearby Rochester, operates a facility in Mankato. The city also is home to Minnesota State University. The jobless rate in Mankato was a relatively average 4 percent in 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Department. "The cost of living in Mankato is a mixed bag," says Natalia Smirnova, a senior researcher at the American Institute for Economic Research. The $839 monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is pricey for a college town, but other goods and services are quite cheap.

17Roanoke Virginia 96,714 101.1% 88 Image

Carilion Clinic, Roanoke City Schools, Roanoke County Schools, Veterans Affairs, Kroger.

Health care and the public sector are the major employers in this town along Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. The nonprofit Carilion Clinic hospital system is the biggest local employer. Among private-sector companies, Yokohama Tire, UPS and GE each have hundreds of employees. Reflecting a less-than-robust job market, Roanoke's total labor force grew by just 1.6 percent in the 12 months ending in November 2019. Job security may not be at its strongest in Roanoke in recent years. Yet despite these signs of contraction, the unemployment rate stands at only 5 percent, as of 2019. To bolster Roanoke's case, home prices are quite reasonably priced: The median home price was $168,000 in the first quarter of 2020.

18Charlottesville Virginia 48,019 100.8% 112 Image

University of Virginia, University of Virginia Medical Center, city of Charlottesville, UVA Health Services Foundation, Charlottesville City School Board.

Charlottesville is perhaps most well known for Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. But today, at least when it comes to the labor force, the University of Virginia takes center stage. The city is located 120 miles to the northeast of Roanoke. Like Roanoke, Charlottesville has a picturesque view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Other employers include hospitals, local governments and financial information firm SNL Security, which has more than 500 workers. As of 2019, unemployment is just 2 percent. "Employment growth in Charlottesville has averaged 1.5 percent over the past four years, almost double the rate of other college towns," says Natalia Smirnova, a senior researcher at the American Institute for Economic Research. Charlottesville's housing market also doesn't come cheap. Dozens of houses and condos are listed for more than $1 million, and the typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,433, making it one of the most expensive markets among college towns.

19Bismarck North Dakota 72,865 100.7% 100 Image

State of North Dakota, Sanford Health, CHI St. Alexius, Bismarck Public School District, U.S. government.

Despite the oil boom and bust of recent years, Bismarck's job market remains strong. At 1 percent, unemployment was close to nonexistent in 2019, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and the number of jobs expanded by 1 percent over the past year. Energy-industry jobs come and go, but government and hospitals tend to be more stable employers, which has contributed to the city's resiliency. Bismarck is North Dakota's state capital, and state government is the biggest employer here. Local and federal governments also are major employers. Reflecting Bismarck's robust job market, home prices have jumped in recent years, going from $204,825 in 2012 to $279,597 in 2020.

20Wausau Wisconsin 39,114 100.5% 87 Image

Aspirus Wausau Hospital, Eastbay, Wausau School District, United Health Care, Kolbe & Kolbe Millwork Co.

This northern Wisconsin town boasts a diverse job market and a modest ski slope a few miles from away. The local hospital is the biggest employer, followed by the local school district and athletic footwear, clothing and equipment supplier Eastbay. Window and door manufacturer Kolbe & Kolbe also contributes by employing nearly 1,000 workers. Unemployment measured at 4 percent in 2019, right around the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and the number of jobs expanded by 9.6 percent from 2013 to 2018. Several $1 million homes are available for sale in Wausau, but home prices tend to run significantly cheaper. The median home value was $148,377 as of January 2020, according to Zillow.

How Other Cities Ranked

  City State Population Income/Cost
Ratio
Compares median salary in a city against the cost to live there.
Cost of Living
Index
Compares cost of living from one city to another - a value of 100 reflects the national median.
21 St. Cloud MN 66,169 99.9% 99 Image
22 Decatur IL 72,174 99.2% 82 Image
23 Waterloo IA 67,587 98.8% 82 Image
24 Fairbanks AK 31,644 98.1% 127 Image
25 Decatur AL 54,405 98.0% 87 Image
26 Bloomington IN 85,071 97.8% 97 Image
27 Fond du Lac WI 42,809 97.7% 90 Image
28 Grand Junction CO 62,475 97.3% 101 Image
29 Jefferson City MO 42,895 97.0% 89 Image
30 Sherman TX 41,917 96.2% 86 Image
31 Anniston AL 21,770 96.1% 82 Image
32 Mount Vernon WA 35,051 95.9% 112 Image
33 Elkhart IN 52,558 95.8% 87 Image
34 Niles MI 11,208 95.5% 85 Image
35 York PA 44,132 95.4% 87 Image
36 Fayetteville AR 85,257 95.3% 91 Image
37 Lynchburg VA 76,504 95.3% 89 Image
38 Dubuque IA 58,276 95.3% 93.7 Image
39 Eau Claire WI 68,587 95.2% 95 Image
40 Muncie IN 70,085 95.2% 74 Image