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 49,218 112.0% 100.0 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 $245,000 in the third quarter of 2015, more than $150,000 lower than Seattle's $398,000 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 4 percent job growth from mid-2014 to mid-2015, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

2Ithaca New York 30,720 111.1% 106.7 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 3.7 percent in November 2015 falls well below the national average. The median home price was $200,000 in the third quarter of 2015, 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 77,421 110.0% 94.4 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 3.5 percent from mid-2014 to mid-2015, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and wages rose 3.2 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 a bit high; it stood at 5.7 percent in October 2015, above the national average.

4Ames Iowa 63,266 108.8% 94.8 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 16,000 people as of 2015, making Ames one of the least diversified economies on our list. Not that anyone is complaining ? the unemployment rate in Ames was a rock-bottom 2 percent in October, 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 $206,000 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 62,845 108.7% 94.6 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 3.5 percent in October, below the national average. The median home value in Cheyenne was $191,800 as of October 2015, according to Zillow.

6Wilmington Delaware 71,817 107.7% 106.8 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. One caveat: In December 2015, DuPont warned of major cuts after announcing its merger with Dow Chemical, so changes to the city's third largest employer may affect the city's labor market. Located only 30 miles south of Philadelphia, Wilmington is pricey for a small city. The median home price was $231,000 in the third quarter of 2015. But wages are above average the typical paycheck was $1,110 a week as of mid-2015, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in October 2015, slightly above the national average.

7Kalamazoo Michigan 75,922 104.9% 86.4 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 $143,000 in the third quarter of 2015. The typical paycheck in Kalamazoo County was $873 a week as of mid-2015, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The unemployment rate was 3.9 percent in October 2015, well below the national average.

8Houma Louisiana 34,124 103.9% 96.0 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 2.3 percent in the 12 months ending in October 2015, according to the U.S. Labor Market, and unemployment is at an above-national average of 6 percent. The job market may be tepid, but Houma's cost of living is low. The median home value was $148,500 in October, 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 49,082 103.7% 99.6 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 $950 as of mid-2015, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Although jobs here might not be especially lucrative, you'll find plenty of them to go around. The unemployment rate was 3.8 percent in October 2015, well below the national average. And homes are cheap the median home price in the third quarter of 2015 was $150,000.

10Ogden Utah 84,316 103.7% 89.9 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 $737 as of mid-2015, well below the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Still, jobs are plentiful. The unemployment rate was 3.4 percent in October 2015, well below the national average. Homes aren't exactly cheap the median home price in the third quarter was $215,000. 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 70,654 102.9% 89.4 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 $815 as of mid-2015, below the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. But jobs are plentiful -- the unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in October 2015, well below the national average -- and home prices offer a great deal. The median home value of $89,900 in October 2015, according to Zillow, is a bargain.

12Youngstown Ohio 65,062 102.1% 82.3 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 5.2 percent in October 2015, just above the national average. Income levels are quite low. The typical weekly paycheck in Mahoning County was just $679 as of mid-2015, 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 big selling point is its inexpensive housing. The median home price was just $90,000 in the third quarter of 2015.

13Danville Illinois 32,243 101.4% 90.0 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 6.8 percent as of October 2015, 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. The most expensive house listed on the market in late December 2015 was priced at $465,000, and several other 5,000-square-foot palaces stood on the market for less than $450,000. 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 84,513 101.3% 97.6 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 mid-2015 was $839, below the national average, and annual job growth was a disappointing 0.7 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 $157,000 in the third quarter of 2015.

15Albany New York 98,566 101.3% 109.7 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 4 percent in November 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 employment grew by 1.1 percent in the 12 months ending in mid-2015, below the national average. But wages jumped 2.9 percent to $1,013 a week, above the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The median home price in the third quarter of 2015 was $203,000, a price point well within reach of workers making the typical wage.

16Mankato Minnesota 40,411 101.2% 95.3 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 mere 2.1 percent in November 2015, 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 $804 monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment is pricey for a college town, but other goods and services are quite cheap.

17Roanoke Virginia 99,428 101.1% 90.6 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 shrank by 0.5 percent in the 12 months ending in November 2015, and government employment plunged 7 percent, according to the U.S. Labor Department. 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 3.9 percent, as of November 2015. To bolster Roanoke's case, home prices are quite reasonably priced: The median home price was $148,000 in the third quarter of 2015.

18Charlottesville Virginia 45,593 100.8% 103.1 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 November 2015, unemployment is 3.3 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 were listed for more than $1 million in late December 2015, and Smirnova says the typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,038, making it one of the most expensive markets among college towns.

19Bismarck North Dakota 68,896 100.7% 101.5 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 1.8 percent, unemployment was close to nonexistent in October 2015, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and the number of jobs expanded by 2.9 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 $248,271 in 2014.

20Wausau Wisconsin 39,302 100.5% 94.2 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 3.5 percent in November 2015, well below the national average, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and the number of jobs expanded by 1.8 percent over the past year. Several $1 million homes are available for sale in Wausau, but home prices tend to run significantly cheaper. The median home value was $95,300 as of November 2015, 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 66,389 99.9% 95.7 Image
22 Decatur IL 74,010 99.2% 89.4 Image
23 Waterloo IA 68,364 98.8% 92.4 Image
24 Fairbanks AK 32,469 98.1% 135.4 Image
25 Decatur AL 55,532 98.0% 88.1 Image
26 Bloomington IN 83,322 97.8% 88.9 Image
27 Fond du Lac WI 42,917 97.7% 95.9 Image
28 Grand Junction CO 60,210 97.3% 97.2 Image
29 Jefferson City MO 43,132 97.0% 91.8 Image
30 Sherman TX 39,943 96.2% 86.5 Image
31 Anniston AL 22,457 96.1% 87.7 Image
32 Mount Vernon WA 33,132 95.9% 109.2 Image
33 Elkhart IN 51,421 95.8% 91.0 Image
34 Niles MI 11,400 95.5% 92.2 Image
35 York PA 43,865 95.4% 101.0 Image
36 Fayetteville AR 80,621 95.3% 89.7 Image
37 Lynchburg VA 79,047 95.3% 91.3 Image
38 Dubuque IA 58,436 95.3% 93.7 Image
39 Eau Claire WI 67,684 95.2% 95.4 Image
40 Muncie IN 70,211 95.2% 90.2 Image
Updated: April 3, 2017