U.S. Cities Where You Can Live Large on Less Than $100,000
The economy’s growing, unemployment’s down and you’re earning a great salary. Yet you still feel cash strapped.
Join the crowd!
With living costs rising and wages not keeping pace, depending on where you live, even supposedly great salaries can leave you feeling less than flush. But guess what? There are places in the U.S. where you can live large on less.
No, these aren’t obscure towns where you’d struggle to find an interesting cafe or a speedy internet connection. The smallest city on this list had a population of more than 260,000 according to 2016 figures from the U.S. Census. The largest cities top out at more than 1 million.
And since you can’t choose where to live based on bread alone, you won’t have to sacrifice culture, connections or career opportunities in these cities. Between them, they’re home to major academic clusters, architectural landmarks, world-renowned music scenes and financial centers, to name a few life-enhancing amenities.
What to Know Before You Choose Where to Live
As this list makes clear, cities like New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco that rank high in salary comparisons aren’t the only places – or even the best places – to get ahead.
Chris Martin, Lead Data Analyst at Seattle, Washington-based compensation data and analytics firm PayScale Inc., describes deciding where to live as a “multidimensional decision process” that takes into account much more than the size of your paycheck.
Forewarned Is Forearmed
Plenty of cities allow you to build your financial foundation and enjoy a high quality of life, while not being crushed by the cost of living. But before you light out for the territories know, too, that different industries pay differently.
"A location that is hot for tech jobs may not have higher pay for media jobs, for example," Martin said. He says be sure to "get more information on the pay you should expect to earn based on your personal characteristics...Just because people tend to earn more or less in a specific city doesn’t mean you should expect to."
Jed Kolko, Indeed’s Chief Economist said, ”A higher salary is great if there are jobs in your field. But high salaries don’t do you any good if they are in fields you’re not in and can’t transition to.” And there’s another catch. Said Kolko: “Many of the places with high adjusted salaries also had high unemployment rates.”
Also, only you can weigh the precise combination of career opportunities, living costs and compensation factors that matter most to you. But where you choose to live has a huge impact on more than your financial bottom line. It influences the opportunities, financial and otherwise, you are able to take advantage of down the line.
Here are 10 places where you can find the best fit for you and live large on less than a six-figure salary, as culled from research done by GoBankingRates, Indeed and U.S. News & World Report. Salaries for each city have been adjusted for the local cost of living.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Average salary: $86,922
Bonus: Charlotte ranks No. 22 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the “125 Best Places to Live in the USA.”
The story: This burgh ranks as one of the nation’s top banking centers (Bank of America and Wells Fargo are headquartered here), ranking behind New York City and (just barely) San Francisco.
Charlotte is also home to other major industries, including motor sports and a growing energy hub. No less than six Fortune 500 companies call it home. For the sports inclined, the city has two major hometown franchises: the Carolina Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets.
Charlotte’s population and economic might are growing fast, which means opportunity. Not only is its overall cost of living below the U.S. average, real estate costs – both for purchase and to rent – are reasonable, and the tax burden is manageable.
Average salary: $80,121
Bonus: While the beautiful beaches and sunshine are obvious selling points, Tampa also ranked No. 7 on security review and comparison site Safewise’s 2017 list of “The 50 Safest Metro Cities in America.”
And here’s a kicker: Florida has no state income tax.
The story: Tampa is Florida’s third-largest city, with a greater metro area that includes the beach towns of Clearwater and St. Pete’s Beach.
The city’s cost of living ranks below the U.S. average (by 5 percent according to data from PayScale), with housing costs the biggest driver of the difference. Your best prospects for high-paying jobs are in health care, defense or financial services, the industries with the greatest employment.
Population: 1.6 million
Average salary: $73,135
Bonus: Phoenix makes two of U.S. News & World Report’s “best of” lists. It ranks No. 19 on “125 Best Places to Live in the USA” and No. 34 on “100 Best Places to Retire in the USA.”
The story: Phoenix’s cost of living is 5 percent below the U.S. norm (according to data from PayScale), reflecting lower-than-average costs in just about every category: housing, utilities, transportation, groceries and health care.
It’s a dynamic jobs environment. Tourists are drawn to the landscape and more, and manufacturing, mining and financial services are all present. There are also growing tech and biotech industries.
Population: 1.3 million
Average salary: $76,726
Bonus: Texas contains anywhere from two to four (depending on who’s counting and what yardstick they’re using) of the fastest-growing U.S. cities, so the overall growth environment surrounding Dallas is strong.
The story: Dallas does several things right.
It has a highly educated, diverse population. Its food costs are below the U.S. average. Its job market is strong. It also benefits from a low tax burden, thanks to Texas’s lack of state income tax.
NerdWallet pegs the local cost of living at right around the U.S. average. The major industries – tech, defense, financial services, and oil and gas (centered in Fort Worth) – offer healthy salaries.
Be prepared to live in your car, though. Dallas’ public transportation system isn’t great.
Average salary: $76,673
Bonus: You can drive to the Sierra Nevada mountains in only a few hours.
The story: According to salary comparison website PayScale, Bakersfield’s cost of living is 5 percent higher than the national average. However, the average income is also higher, while census data show lower rent and transportation costs.
Similar to Fresno, this San Joaquin Valley city’s main industry is agriculture. But you’ll find high-paying jobs in aerospace and mining, too. Refining and manufacturing are also big contributors to its economy.
St. Louis, Missouri
Average salary: $76,653
Bonus: St. Louis popped up on a Mercer Consulting ranking of the 100 global cities with the best quality of life.
The story: St. Louis combines good salaries with low housing costs (about 1/3 of the national average) and striking architecture.
Health care, aerospace and biotech are the main job sectors, and the unemployment rate is under 4 percent, below the already low national average. Arts and ample green space — 1,300-acre Forest Park draws more than 1 million visitors a year — help foster livability.
Average salary (according to Indeed): $82,236
Bonus: The Fresno region’s ground zero for California’s ambitious high-speed rail project. If it gets built, it would link the northern and southern parts of the state.
The story: Fresno’s central California location may not match the San Francisco Bay Area for natural beauty or tech jobs, but it’s home to two vital industries: health care and agriculture.
It’s also practically on Yosemite National Park’s doorstep.
The city’s affordable compared to the rest of California (one of the U.S.’s most expensive states to live in). It’s also cheap compared to other U.S. cities. While it won’t rival Napa and Sonoma anytime soon, Fresno’s even got a local wine industry, the Madera American Viticultural Area (AVA).
El Paso, Texas
Average salary (according to Indeed): $75,457
Bonus: If you’re not already sold, know that El Paso experiences 300 days of sunshine a year.
The story: El Paso gets more than its fair share of accolades.
The city’s cost of living ranks significantly below the U.S. average, according to Sperling’s Best Places. It also ranks high on U.S. News & World Report’s Quality of Life Index.
Housing is the major contributor to its greater affordability. But not surprisingly, utility costs are also below the national average. Add in jobs that pay well — energy, education and the military are the major industries — and a rich mix of cultures, and El Paso’s a winner.
Average salary (according to Indeed): $75,201
Bonus: It’s not all business. Cincy ranks high on multiple “best” lists, including cities to raise a family (Forbes) and most affordable cities (Forbes), and it gets nods for its arts and culture in Travel & Leisure. It even made The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2018” list.
The story: Cincinnati is home to nine Fortune 500 company headquarters, including Procter & Gamble, Kroger and AK Steel.
While incomes are not especially high compared to the national average, your salary goes further here. Housing and, to a lesser extent, health care costs help keep the cost of living 10 percent below the national average. High-paying jobs abound in the energy, manufacturing and financial services industries, and corporate chiefs give the city high marks for ease of doing business.
Plus, you can enjoy the ample Art Deco, Tudor and Victorian architecture, and the extensive park system in your free time.
Durham, North Carolina
Average salary: $74,401
Bonus: Durham makes two “best of” lists. It ranks No. 13 on U.S. News & World Report’s “125 Best Places to Live in the USA” list and No. 16 on Forbes’ “Best Places For Business and Careers.”
The story: Lower housing and utility costs contribute to Durham’s lower than average cost of living.
While this southern city, which is home to Duke University, has higher tax rates than the U.S. average, its salaries are also higher. And the Durham area, along with Raleigh and Chapel Hill, makes up the vaunted Research Triangle Park, an academic, health care and tech cluster that powers the regional economy.
Overall, there’s a high proportion of entrepreneurial talent, and arts and green spaces are plentiful.
Average salary: $77,827
Bonus: Lexington has 131 public parks, including the 216-acre Jacobson Park, and it ranks No, 21 on U.S News & World Report’s Best Places.
The story: Lexington boasts a highly educated population, with 40 percent of adults holding college degrees. It’s no surprise then that higher education is a big contributor to the local employment market.
Industries with some of the highest-paying jobs include legal, engineering and health care. Housing, utilities and food costs help keep the city’s overall cost of living below the national average.
The city offers plenty of leisure activities, including an annual bluegrass festival, the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, distillery tours (of course), and a number of walking and biking trails.
Average salary: $76,953
Bonus: Music’s an integral part of Memphis culture. Also, the metro area lays claim to 10 colleges and universities.
The story: The bright lights of Beale Street, the beating heart of the city’s famed music scene, is an obvious draw. Still, Memphis has a lot going for it besides the blues and rock and roll.
It’s home to corporate headquarters for FedEx, AutoZone and International Paper, and its economy is relatively diversified, Shipping, professional services, education and agriculture are among the major industries.
And at nearly 17 percent below the national average, its cost of living is a draw.
Average salary (according to Indeed): $76,886
Bonus: In addition to all its culture, Birmingham has parks galore. Green spaces include Red Mountain Park, a 1,500-acre expanse that includes a zip line.
The story: This city was a major battleground in the struggle for civil rights, now partially memorialized by the Civil Rights District and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The weight of history looms large here, but the cost of living doesn’t.
Birmingham’s economy is diversified, with major industries including financial services, education and health care. The city ranks lower than the U.S. average in nearly every major expense category — food, housing (which U.S. News & World Report puts at 30 percent less than the U.S. norm), health care, transportation and utilities.
And the state’s property tax rate ranks almost dead last in the U.S.
Average salary: $76,666
Bonus: Jackson is home to the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the first of its kind in the country.
The story: Affordable groceries, health care and housing costs drive Jackson’s low cost of living. Government, whether federal or state, is a major employer. Health care and education are also important industries for the local economy.
Job growth is healthy and the city’s in the midst of a major revitalization of its downtown. Music is very much part of the city’s DNA, and a backdrop to a strong arts scene, underpinned by the designated Downtown Fondren Historic District.
Perhaps you’ll find yourself “goin' to Jackson.”
Kansas City, Missouri
Average salary: $69,301
Bonus: In addition to the barbecue and rich music culture, you won’t lack for arts and entertainment. The city has made a conscious effort to attract a critical mass of high-profile cultural offerings. Travel & Leisure’s reader survey ranked Kansas City as one of the country’s 20 most underrated burghs.
The story: Compared to the U.S. cost of living index of 100, Kansas City ranks seven points below, at 93.
Couple that with major employer concentrations in health care (Hospital Corporation of America is based here) and the federal government, plus being the home of Sprint, H&R Block and Hallmark, and a growing rank of major automotive suppliers, and it’s easy to see how this city makes the list.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Average annual income: $75,958
Bonus: More higher education institutions than you can shake a stick at are located in the city, including Louisiana State University’s (LSU) flagship campus and Southern University, a jewel in the crown of Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HCBU) network.
The story: Louisiana’s capital city includes the country’s 10th largest port, and is home to a diverse stew of Cajun and Creole influence. High salaries reflect the area’s main industries of commercial fishing and energy, which ranges from oil to natural gas to petrochemicals.
Baton Rouge is responsible for one-quarter of the country’s natural gas production and has 19 crude oil refineries.
Average annual income (according to Indeed): $75,240
Bonus: In 2017, Forbes named Dayton one of the six best places for college grads to find jobs.
The story: Dayton’s main industries are an obvious draw for knowledge workers: aerospace, health care, IT and materials.
The Wright-Patterson Air Force base is the largest single site employer in Ohio, and its presence helped spur the development of a research cluster for the aviation, aeronautics and defense sectors. And the city’s health care knowhow ranked it No. 3 three on Health Grades’ 2016 list of “Top 100 Cities for Hospital Care.”
Located north of Cincinnati, another city on this list, Dayton is one of a handful of former manufacturing hubs such as Pittsburgh that made a successful transition to a services-based economy.
Not only is Dayton the birthplace of Orville Wright, one half of the duo who pioneered the U.S. aviation industry, it also ranks high on the arts and culture front with the Schuster Performing Arts Center.
Average annual income (according to Indeed): $74,424
Bonus: The Beaux Arts Toledo Museum of Art, which was designed by starchitect Frank Gehry, features an impressive glass collection.
The story: Toledo’s nickname “Glass City” nods to its history as a glass manufacturing center.
While manufacturing is still an important industry presence, nowadays the education, health care, automotive and life sciences sectors are also major employers, along with Owens Corning and General Motors.
While the unemployment rate sits a shade above the U.S. average, much lower housing costs that are almost half the U.S. average make this city worth a look for those looking to balance well-paid jobs and a reasonable cost of living.
Average annual income (according to Indeed): $74,125
Bonus: Legendary investor Warren Buffett, unofficially known as the “Oracle of Omaha,” makes his home here. In an interview for Business Insider, the plain-talking local explained, “There's plenty of other places I like, but the one I love is Omaha.”
The story: U.S. News & World Report ranked Omaha No. 28 on its “125 Best Places to Live list in the U.S.” Omaha’s high ranking in value for money is partly due to housing costs that are 12 percent lower than the U.S average (according to Payscale) and utilities costs that are well below the national average.
On top of that, the job market is healthy, with education and health care two growth sectors. Well-known companies based here include Berkshire Hathaway, ConAgra, Union Pacific Railroad and TD Ameritrade.
Omaha has also been dubbed Silicon Prairie, nodding to its burgeoning tech scene. At 3 percent, the local unemployment rate is nearly a full percentage point lower than the national average.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Median salary (according to (Monster): $63,900
Bonus: The great outdoors. This former winter Olympics host city lies within a half-day drive of national parks including Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion, and has several world-class mountain resorts within driving distance.
The story: Health care, education, transportation and a growing tech scene provide a diverse base of high-quality and high-paying jobs. The unemployment rate hovers around 3 percent.
Though living here isn’t cheap, good growth trends in the job market make it worth a look. U.S. News & World Report ranked SLC No. 15 on its list of “125 Best Places to Live in the USA.”
Its hiking trails and access to nature also get name-checked everywhere from National Geographic to Travel + Leisure to Outside. Good news for commuters: The city is making major investments in public infrastructure.
* Except where noted, average salary data is from GoBankingRates.