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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Dan Burrows, Contributing Writer
| April 28, 2019
When it comes to cheap living, don't mess with Texas. The Lone Star State is home to seven of the most affordable cities in America. But Texas doesn't have a monopoly on low living costs. A number of other states make multiple appearances 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. Plan an extended visit to ensure the city fits your needs.
We compiled our rankings based on the Council for Community and Economic Research's calculations of living expenses in 270 urban areas. Its Cost of Living Index measures prices for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services such as going to a movie or getting your hair done at a salon. Take a look at our 2019 list of America's cheapest cities.
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, metropolitan-area unemployment rates come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and represent February 2019 rates.
Cost of Living: 13.0% below U.S. average
City Population: 29,771
Median Household Income: $33,597 (U.S.: $57,652)
Median Home Value: $111,200 (U.S.: $193,500)
Unemployment Rate: 3.7% (U.S.: 3.8%)
Morristown is steeped in frontier history. The small city about an hour's drive east from Knoxville is where you'll find the Crockett Tavern Museum, a reconstruction of Davy Crockett's boyhood home. The King of the Wild Frontier wouldn't recognize the area today, but he'd find it still to be a comparatively economical place to live. Housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are nearly 29% lower than the national average, according to the Council for Community and Economic Research's Cost of Living Index. Costs for transportation run about a fifth less than what the average American pays. Health care and grocery items are significantly cheaper too. True, Morristown's median income stands $24,000 below the U.S. median, but then the median home price is cheaper by more than $82,000.
City Population: 80,995
Median Household Income: $41,971
Median Home Value: $153,800
Unemployment Rate: 3.6%
Lynchburg sits in the foothills of the famed Blue Ridge Mountains and is home to Liberty University, the city's largest employer. But a diversity of businesses and industries makes Lynchburg more than just a college town. A hot job market -- the unemployment rate stands below the national level -- and a low cost of living help explain how Lynchburg ranks near the top of Gallup's well-being index. Citizens of Lynchburg spend nearly a quarter less than the national average on housing costs. Groceries and transportation costs run about 15% below what the average American pays. Residents save about 6% on health care, too. Not everything is cheaper in Lynchburg, however. Beer and wine are a bit more expensive than the national average, and utility bills are somewhat higher, as well.
Cost of Living: 13.4% below U.S. average*
Median Household Income: $47,722*
Median Home Value: $116,500*
Unemployment Rate: 5.3%*
The twin cities of Texarkana, Texas, and Texarkana, Ark., make up some of the most affordable real estate to live in the U.S., especially when it comes to some of life's biggest expenses. Housing-related costs are about 29% below the U.S. average. Apartments rent, for example, averages $700 a month in this border city. Nationally, the average rent comes to more than $1,000. Costs for utilities and transportation are about 10% less than what the average American pays. Grocery items and health care are cheaper here, too. A trip to the doctor in Texarkana costs an average of $99.61, according to the Cost of Living Index. Nationally, a doctor's visit costs $110.28. A dozen eggs will go for $1.38 in Texarkana vs. a national average of $1.80.
Data applies to the metropolitan area that encompasses Texarkana and surrounding areas in both states.
Cost of Living: 13.5% below U.S. average
City Population: 85,257
Median Household Income: $41,158
Median Home Value: $193,000
Unemployment Rate: 3.1%
Life is good, and affordable, in Fayetteville. This small city set deep within the Ozarks frequently appears on lists of the best places to live in the U.S. Fayetteville benefits from being the home of the gargantuan University of Arkansas, and it also doesn't hurt that Walmart, the world's largest retailer, is headquartered in nearby Bentonville. Those institutions, among others, help fuel a fast-growing metro area and low unemployment. And yet Fayetteville remains relatively cheap for students and civilians, alike. Although this southern city has the highest median home value among the cities on this list, housing-related costs still run 27% below the national average. Health care, groceries and transportation costs are all significantly less expensive, too.
Cost of Living: 14.0% below U.S. average
City Population: 39,852
Median Household Income: $37,843
Median Home Value: $126,600
Unemployment Rate: 4.6%
The city of Florence sits in the northwest corner of Alabama on the Tennessee River, about a two-hour drive from Birmingham. It's the birthplace of Helen Keller, but Florence and the surrounding area, known as The Shoals, boast a number of other attractions, as well. The nearby Muscle Shoals Sound Studio has a rich history; it's where The Rolling Stones recorded the hit songs “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar.” Florence claims Alabama's only house designed by legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The city also hosts the University of North Alabama. Happily for citizens of Florence, the city's distinctive sites and southern charm come at a reasonable price. Housing-related expenses are nearly 30% less than what the average American pays. For example, the average apartment rents for $595 a month vs. a national average of more than $1,000. Health care costs about 20% less in Florence. All other major expenses tracked by the Cost of Living Index likewise take a smaller bite of folks' paychecks.
City Population: 31,424
Median Household Income: $36,410
Median Home Value: $64,700
Unemployment Rate: 6.3%
About 120 miles south of Chicago sits Danville, Ill., a small, unassuming city that was once the home of Dick Van Dyke, Gene Hackman, Donald O'Connor and Bobby Short. Perhaps most impressively, Abraham Lincoln spent 18 years practicing law in Danville. The city has more than a dozen sites commemorating his time there. Danville was a coal-mining center for the first half the 20th century, but that industry petered out after World War II. Today, major employers include the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, grocery distributor Mclane/Midwest and Blue Cross Blue Shield. A comparatively high unemployment rate and relatively low median incomes and home values keep prices in check. Housing-related expenses including mortgages and rents stand 37% below the U.S. average. The average price for a house in Danville is $216,209. Nationally, that figure comes to $347,825.
Cost of Living: 14.1% below U.S. average
City Population: 167,376
Median Household Income: $34,775
Median Home Value: $111,600
Springfield, also known as the "Queen City of the Ozarks" and the "Birthplace of Route 66," sports an overall cost of living that more than 14% below the national average. Once again, housing-related costs, which are more than 30% less than what the average American pays, make up the lion's share of citizens' savings. The median home value is almost $82,000 less than the national level. The average home price of $241,713 is more than $100,000 below the U.S. average. Apartment rents are about 30% cheaper. Springfielders enjoy savings on groceries, transportation and utilities, too. Health care, however, is a tad pricier than the U.S. average. Springfield might not be the biggest city in Missouri, but it's certainly not lacking for culture. The Springfield Opera, Springfield Ballet and Springfield Symphony are just some of the city's offerings. It's also home to Missouri State University.
Cost of Living: 14.7% below U.S. average
City Population: 21,770
Median Household Income: $32,070
Median Home Value: $95,700
Unemployment Rate: 4.7%
About an hour's drive east from Birmingham sits Anniston. The city's proximity to the Mountain Longleaf National Wildlife Refuge makes it a good jumping off point for hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoorsy types. The city also has its quirks. It's home to The Big Chair, a 33-foot tall office chair that was once recognized by Guinness World Records. On the downside, Anniston's low cost of living comes at a price. For one thing, it has a reputation for violent crime. The unemployment rate stands above the national average. True, housing-related costs and home values look like a bargain, but then median income is roughly $25,000 less than the national average. Household incomes and home values are higher in other parts of Calhoun County, of which Anniston is the county seat. Although the economic picture could be brighter, Anniston has its charms, including architectural gems such as Victorian homes and historic churches.
City Population: 54,405
Median Household Income: $43,176
Median Home Value: $130,600
Head east up the Tennessee River from Florence and you'll find Decatur, another Northern Alabama city with an abundance of outdoor activities, cultural diversions and low cost of living. Decatur's economy benefits from being the busiest port on the Tennessee River, and from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in nearby Huntsville. Tourism is another driver of the local economy, thanks to the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, the Carnegie Visual Arts Center and festivals such as the Alabama Jubilee Hot Air Balloon Classic. Residents can enjoy all this and more without breaking the bank. Housing-related costs including mortgages and rents in Decatur are 40% cheaper than the national average. Apartment rents are roughly half of what the average American shells out every month. Prices on a wide range of goods and services, from pizza to haircuts to dry cleaning, are cheaper, too. Nearby Hartselle, about 10 miles south, is also worth a look.
Cost of Living: 15.0% below U.S. average
City Population: 74,503
Median Household Income: $49,970
Median Home Value: $132,200
Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
Situated about 65 miles north of Austin, Temple started out as a 19th century railroad town but today it's as modern as they come. The city is home to a major regional medical center, and its Central Texas location makes it an ideal base for distribution and logistics companies. But whether you're a doctor or truck driver, Temple won't overburden your bank account. Overall, the cost of living is 15% cheaper than the national average. Although health care is about 9% more expensive in Temple, and utilities are slightly pricier too, residents catch a break on a range of other costs. The average house price in Temple is $230,724 vs. $347,825 nationwide. A half-gallon of milk, which costs the average American $1.93, goes for just $1.13 in Temple. Folks spend about 10% less on transportation. Fun fact: NFL Hall of Fame defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene was born and raised in Temple.
Cost of Living: 15.2% below U.S. average
City Population: 68,202
Median Household Income: $43,316
Median Home Value: $143,800
Unemployment Rate: 4.1%
As palatable as Dothan's low cost of living may be, the most mouthwatering aspect of life in the small city is that it hosts two professional barbecue competitions. What Dothan is really known for, however, is peanuts. Indeed, so much of the U.S. peanut crop is produced and processed in the area that Dothan is known as "The Peanut Capital of the World". Naturally, the city is home to the annual National Peanut Festival. Housing-related costs in Dothan, which is tucked away in the southeastern corner of the state, run about 30% below the national average. Utilities, transportation and health care are roughly 10% to 13% cheaper there. Grocery items are only about 1% less expensive in Dothan, so the average American wouldn't notice much of a difference at the checkout line. The Cost of Living Index doesn't track the price of peanuts, but it's probably fair to assume the high-protein legume comes cheap in Dothan.
City Population: 199,826
Median Household Income: $51,198
Median Home Value: $123,200
Unemployment Rate: 2.9%
Amarilloans are known for their love of high-school football, hot sauce and thick steaks. They also enjoy savings on a wide range of goods and services. Toothpaste, for example, is 17% less expensive in the city known as "The Yellow Rose of Texas." A trip to the veterinarian is likewise 17% below the national average. Need to get your eyes checked? An appointment with an optometrist costs 44% less than what the average American pays. But the biggest way folks in this part of the Texas Panhandle save money is by what they spend on housing. Residents spend 31% less on housing-related costs vs. the national average. That's largely thanks to the fact that both the average house price and the median home value are about 35% less than the U.S. average. Perhaps best of all, Amarillo remains relatively cheap despite a hot job markets. The city's unemployment rate is an ultra-low 2.9%.
Cost of Living: 15.4% below U.S. average
City Population: 643,648
Median Household Income: $51,581
Median Home Value: $148,500
Unemployment Rate: 3.2%
The largest city in Oklahoma offers remarkably affordable prices for its size. The biggest reason: Housing costs run more than 28% below the national average, according to 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: 15.5% below U.S. average
City Population: 71,822
Median Household Income: $37,243
Median Home Value: $118,300
Unemployment Rate: 4.9%
Gulfport's white sand beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, casinos, and opportunities for boating, fishing and golfing make it a magnet for tourists. The U.S. Navy's Naval Construction Battalion Center and the health-care industry are also major contributors to the local economy. Median incomes and median home values stand well below U.S. averages -- and unemployment runs a bit high -- but at least locals catch some breaks on living costs. Housing-related expenses including rents and mortgages are more than 30% below what the average American has to shell out. Denizens enjoy significant savings on transportation costs and groceries, too. Want to catch a movie? In Gulfport, you can expect to pay an average of $8.83 for a ticket. Nationally, that figure comes to $10.54. Check out nearby Biloxi, too, which shares many of Gulfport's traits but incomes and home values are higher.
Cost of Living: 16.4% below U.S. average
City Population: 75,866
Median Household Income: $44,171
Median Home Value: $146,800
Best known as the home of Arkansas State University, Jonesboro is a college town with a degree in affordability. Putting a roof over your head costs 28.4% less than the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Health care is very reasonable, too. You'll save about 20%, on average, on a visit to the doctor or the dentist. A trip to the optometrist costs almost 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). In another plus, Jonesboro's unemployment rate is below the national average.
City Population: 46,377
Median Household Income: $32,009
Median Home Value: $104,200
Unemployment Rate: 4.2%
Hattiesburg might be on the small side and it might be cheap, but it sure has a lot going on. It's home to both the University of Southern Mississippi -- Southern Miss to locals -- and William Carey University, a Baptist liberal arts college. Camp Shelby, the largest National Guard training base east of the Mississippi River, is nearby. Hattiesburg is also home to the African American Military History Museum, as well as numerous other museums, galleries and theaters. Feel the need to get out of town? It’s a 90-minute drive from Hattiesburg to the beaches and casinos along Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
At the same time, this city just 115 miles to the north of New Orleans offers some of the lowest living costs in the country. Whether you rent or own, housing expenses run almost 30% below the national average. Utilities, transportation costs and health care all cost around 10% less in Hattiesburg.
Cost of Living: 16.6% below U.S. average
City Population: 41,917
Median Household Income: $44,884
Median Home Value: $106,100
Unemployment Rate: 3.3%
About an hour's drive north from Dallas you'll find fast-growing Sherman. Top employers in this neck of North Texas near the Oklahoma border include Tyson Foods and Texas Instruments. Finisar, which manufactures a critical part for Apple iPhones, is expanding its production capacity in Sherman, too. Happily for locals, Sherman still has a long way to go before it gets anywhere near Silicon Valley-type prices. The overall cost of living in Sherman is almost 17% below the national average. Housing-related costs including rents and mortgages are nearly 28% cheaper in this city of not-quite 42,000 people. Costs for groceries, health care and transportation are all significantly less than what the average American pays. Utilities, however, are in line with the national average. Nearby, the city of Denison is a smaller, cheaper version of Sherman.
Cost of Living: 17.7% below U.S. average
City Population: 52,288
Median Household Income: $41,063
Median Home Value: $120,000
It used to be that Joplin, at least to outsiders, was probably best known as a place where Depression Era bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde hid out for a time. Today, sadly, Joplin is perhaps better known for the deadly tornado that destroyed about 30% of the city in 2011. The area is on the mend, however, helped by its status as a regional medical center. Its two major hospitals serve a four-state area that includes Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Housing-related costs are almost 39% below the national average. That's where the big savings come from by living in Joplin. Groceries and health care are comparatively cheap, as well. Utilities and transportation costs, however, run higher than the U.S. average.
City Population: 104,747
Median Household Income: $44,285
Median Home Value: $96,700
Unemployment Rate: 3.5%
The largest employer in Wichita Falls is the United States Air Force, with Sheppard Air Force Base located just a short drive from downtown. But this city situated 140 miles northwest of Dallas claims other distinctions, as well. Wichita Falls is home to the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum (admission is just $3), boasts the "world's littlest skyscraper" and allows servicemen and civilians, alike, to really stretch their paychecks. Housing costs, for example, run almost a third below the national average. A dollar goes farther on a trip to the grocery store, too. A dozen eggs are about 16% cheaper than the national average, while shoppers save more than 40% on ground beef. Just be forewarned that this North Texas city gets H-O-T in summer, with average highs approaching triple digits in July in August.
Cost of Living: 18.1% below U.S. average
City Population: 65,782
Median Household Income: $46,741
Median Home Value: $163,500
Unemployment Rate: 3.9%
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 second-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: 18.3% below U.S. average
City Population: 187,347
Median Household Income: $36,331
Median Home Value: $124,500
Unemployment Rate: 3.0%
Thrifty types should volunteer to check out Knoxville, one of three 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 to 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: 19.4% below U.S. average
City Population: 652,236
Median Household Income: $38,230
Median Home Value: $94,200
Unemployment Rate: 3.8%
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 barely 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 about 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: 20.4% below U.S. average
City Population: 75,807
Median Household Income: $37,438
Median Home Value: $99,300
It's cheap to live in Kalamazoo -- and that's a necessity for many residents. More than 30% of the city population lives below the poverty line. That's 2.5 times the U.S. poverty rate, which stands at 12.3%. 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: 22.6% below U.S. average
City Population: 142,696
Median Household Income: $45,057
Median Home Value: $120,500
Unemployment Rate: 6.6%
South Texas border towns are known for low costs of living, but not always for happy reasons. McAllen, on the Rio Grande, may be a cheap place to live, but it comes at a price. The poverty rate is 25.2%, and obesity runs rampant. WalletHub named McAllen the fattest city in America. 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.
Cost of Living: 24.2% below U.S. average
City Population: 65,467
Median Household Income: $38,122
Median Home Value: $85,700
Harlingen is about 30 miles east of McAllen on the Rio Grande. It's a smaller and relatively less prosperous city, where 29.8% of residents live below the poverty line. That's double the 14.7% poverty rate for Texas as a whole. However, just about everything, from groceries to gasoline, costs less in Harlingen. A good cut of steak goes for 17% below the national average (this is Texas, after all). The median home value in Harlingen is a striking $107,800 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.