The 7 Most Affordable Big Cities In The U.S. And What They Really Cost
Rachel Burris9-Minute Read
November 02, 2021
There’s no denying the excitement of big-city living. Strolling down a vibrant street filled with bright lights, exotic cuisines, boisterous bars and diverse residents is enough to make you want to pack up and relocate. That is, until you realize just how much it costs to live in one of the country’s many urban jungles.
Cities are known to be pricey, and their high cost of living can be a huge obstacle for anyone who’s dreamed of calling one home. However, just because Manhattan and San Francisco aren’t in your price range doesn’t mean that you can’t afford an urban lifestyle. There are plenty of big cities out there that you can actually work into your budget.
Whether you’re a city dweller who’s tired of spending every cent on rent or someone who’s always fantasized about living in an energetic metro area, this list is for you. Take a peek at the seven most affordable cities in the U.S. and see if you’re ready to make the move.
Finding The Most Affordable Big Cities In The U.S.
To find the most affordable big cities in the U.S., we began by reviewing the Council for Community and Economic Research’s data on cost of living. The C2ER’s 2019 Q2 Cost of Living Index analyzes the prices of groceries, housing, utilities, transportation, healthcare and miscellaneous goods and services in 255 metropolitan areas.
By weighting each category according to government data on consumer spending, the C2ER calculates how expensive each city is compared to the national average.
After determining which cities were the least expensive, we collected 2018 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau to narrow down the list to large urban areas. We defined “big city” as any metropolitan area with a population of 300,000 residents or more.
Additional data has been included to help you understand what it would be like to live in these cities. All information on housing and milk prices is sourced from the C2ER. Household incomes are provided by the Census and presented in 2018 dollars.
To show the purchasing power of these places, we adjusted the household income by the cost of living for each city so you can see just how far your dollar would actually go.
Average Cost Of Living In The U.S.
To fully understand how affordable these big cities are, it’s helpful to know the national averages.
- Cost of living: 100
- S. population: 327,167,434
- Median household income: $60,293
- Median home price: $311,927
- Median monthly rent: $985
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.93
The United States is used as a benchmark for comparing the prices of each city, which is why the cost of living for the country is set at 100. You’ll notice that the cost of living in each of the cities on this list is presented as a percentage below the national average.
That’s because each of the big cities on this list is actually cheaper to live in.
1. Memphis, Tennessee
- Cost of living: 20.6% below the U.S. average
- City population: 650,618
- Median household income: $39,108
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $49,254
- Median home price: $248,857
- Median monthly rent: $756
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.90
Situated on the Mississippi River, Memphis is a big city with a small-town vibe. It should be no surprise that the city, which gave B.B. King, Otis Redding, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley their starts, is a popular choice with budding musicians. It only takes one trip to Beale Street to realize that Memphis hasn’t lost its musical heritage.
Nevertheless, there are a number of companies that are headquartered within the city, including FedEx and AutoZone. Though the cost of living in Memphis is low – it’s actually the sixth cheapest city in the United States – the salaries are even lower. Despite being among the country’s largest distribution centers, Memphis still has the lowest median household income of any city on this list. Residents earn 35% less than the average American.
It does help that Tennessee doesn’t impose a state income tax. However, Tennesseans are taxed on investment income.
2. Tulsa, Oklahoma
- Cost of living: 14.8% below the U.S. average
- City population: 400,669
- Median household income: $46,113
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $54,123
- Median home price: $231,122
- Median monthly rent: $678
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.09
Once considered the “Oil Capital of the World,” the oil boom of the ’20s brought great wealth to Tulsa and has left a lasting mark on the city – even the local sports teams, the Tulsa Oilers and Tulsa Drillers, pay tribute to this history.
Thanks to the city’s prosperity at that time, Tulsa still has one of the most spectacular collections of art deco architecture in the country. Although the city’s stronghold on the oil industry ended in the ’60s, energy continues to be a thriving industry in Tulsa. Careers in the aerospace industry are also plentiful, as the city is home to American Airlines Maintenance and Engineering Center, the largest facility of its kind.
Although the median household income in Tulsa is lower than the national average, residents take pleasure in the warmth of the community and the city’s low housing costs. Tulsa’s median home price and rent are below the national average by 26% and 31%, respectively, making the city’s housing the cheapest on the list.
3. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
- Cost of living: 14.6% below the U.S. average
- City population: 649,021
- Median household income: $54,034
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $63,272
- Median home price: $243,654
- Median monthly rent: $859
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.96
Oklahoma’s state capital was no stranger to rough times, but as the city declined, the community pulled itself up by its bootstraps. After implementing a temporary one-cent sales tax increase in the mid-’90s, Oklahoma City has managed to revitalize its downtown by funding projects that have improved residents’ quality of life and stimulated tourism.
Twenty-five years and $1.5 billion later, the success of the public works program is undisputed. The city has not incurred any debt, and residents have voted to begin its fourth phase. Known as the Big Friendly, Oklahoma City truly takes care of its own, and younger residents have been moving in as a result.
It doesn’t hurt that housing prices have remained low despite the strengthening of the local economy. In fact, Oklahoma City has the highest purchasing power of any city on this list, meaning residents have to spend less to maintain a higher standard of living.
4. St. Louis, Missouri
- Cost of living: 12.6% below the U.S. average
- City population: 302,838
- Median household income: $41,107
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $47,033
- Median home price: $244,787
- Median monthly rent: $856
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.72
With just over 300,000 residents, St. Louis may be the smallest of the big cities, but its extensive history adds to its greatness. St. Louis was acquired by Thomas Jefferson as part of the Louisiana Purchase. It was the point of departure for Lewis and Clark’s expedition in 1804 and home to the World’s Fair 100 years later. This rich history has provided the city with a wealth of historic buildings and museums, many of which are free to the public.
In fact, many of the city’s attractions are complimentary, including the Saint Louis Zoo, Science Center and iconic Gateway Arch, which is useful considering that the city has the lowest purchasing power of any of the seven most affordable big cities. Still, many top corporations are headquartered in St. Louis, such as Anheuser-Busch, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Express Scripts and Nestle-Purina.
But, it’s the civic pride of the residents – who are as charitable as they are community-minded – and low housing costs that make this city competitive.
5. San Antonio, Texas
- Cost of living: 11.3% below the U.S. average
- City population: 1,532,233
- Median household income: $50,980
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $57,475
- Median home price: $264,718
- Median monthly rent: $1,200
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.34
As the second-largest city in Texas and the seventh largest city in the United States, San Antonio is a lively place to settle down. It may have over 1.5 million residents, but spread across just over 460 square miles, the city never feels overcrowded.
Home of the Alamo, the community celebrates its Mexican-American heritage. With countless festivals, including the 11-day Fiesta San Antonio, a handful of amusement parks, world-class museums and parks, San Antonio literally has something for everyone to enjoy. Jobs are also plentiful, with large corporations like USAA, Valero Energy and Air Force Federal Credit Union headquartered in the city.
Plus, San Antonio possesses many military stations, and the city’s Joint Base houses the Department of Defense’s largest medical center. Although San Antonians make around 15% less than the average American, they benefit from the fact that there’s no state income tax. Furthermore, they spend less on groceries: In San Antonio, a half-gallon of milk costs 31% less than the national average.
6. Tampa, Florida
- Cost of living: 9.1% below the U.S. average
- City population: 392,890
- Median household income: $50,909
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $56,006
- Median home price: $259,155
- Median monthly rent: $1,205
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $2.41
Tampa’s not the place to score an oceanfront property, but with beaches half an hour to an hour away, it’s certainly an affordable alternative. With warm summer days, mild winter nights and 178 parks, many of which overlook the bay or river, living in Tampa can feel like a vacation.
Therefore, it may not be surprising that tourism is a substantial contributor to the local economy. Port Tampa Bay is the seventh largest in the country, bringing hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers and tens of millions of dollars into the city each year. While the supply chain industry is certainly thriving, Tampa affords its residents great job opportunities in a range of businesses, including healthcare, finance and technology.
Tampanians’ salaries are around 15% lower than the national average. But in Florida, like in Texas, residents don’t have to pay income tax. And, despite the more tropical climate, their utility bills tend to be lower. Tampanians spend approximately 31% less on electricity than the average American. (For those of you who lead with your stomach, you’ll be happy to hear that thanks to Tampa’s significant Cuban population, the city is celebrated for having put the Cuban sandwich on the culinary map.)
7. Jacksonville, Florida
- Cost of living: 9% below the U.S. average
- City population: 903,889
- Median household income: $52,576
- Income adjusted by cost of living: $57,776
- Median home price: $287,931
- Median monthly rent: $1,268
- Cost of a half-gallon of milk: $1.79
If your dream is to live by the ocean, this city’s for you. Jacksonville has 22 miles of beaches and also benefits from having the St. Johns River and the Intracoastal running through it.
But for those interested in waking up to a waterfront view, beware: Properties along the water come at a premium. Given the limited supply of waterfront homes, they tend to cost twice as much as the homes found throughout the rest of the city. For this reason, housing costs in Jacksonville are slightly higher than the other cities on this list.
Still, home prices are approximately 8% lower than the national average, but rents are about 22% higher. Renters have seen their monthly payments increase steadily year-over-year in spite of a surge of new construction that has pumped thousands of new units into the market.
Demand is high, given that a growing number of professionals have been moving to the city. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Jacksonville’s unemployment rate stood at 4.3% as of August 2021, making it notably lower than the 5.2% national average.
The Bottom Line
After perusing the seven most affordable cities in the U.S., you may have noticed that they’re all clustered within a narrow section of the country. This trend can also be seen in the most expensive cities in the U.S., which are all gathered along the East and West coasts.
To understand why this is the case, you must consider the availability of housing in these areas. Housing is the most significant determinant of cost of living, as approximately 30% of the average income is spent on shelter.
For the cities on the coasts, housing inventory tends to be limited because expansion is not an option, be it for lack of land or jurisdictional barriers. The most affordable big cities on this list don’t tend to run into the same obstacles. For the most part, residential development in these cities is better able to grow with their populations.
Tampa and Jacksonville are the exceptions. Expansion in these Floridian cities is hindered by the bodies of water that surround them. Still, their presence on this list can be explained by how hard they were hit by the housing collapse in 2008. But, Jacksonville in particular has experienced a significant amount of growth since then. The city’s home value over the last decade has increased by 40%.
Since 2009, housing prices have risen in each of these affordable big cities, except for Oklahoma City, which wasn’t impacted by the Great Recession. Yet, none of the other cities have appreciated as significantly as Jacksonville.
So, while finding a waterfront property in Jacksonville may be a stretch, there’s no need to worry about getting priced out of these cities. With their low cost of living, dynamic culture and friendly residents, each of the seven most affordable big cities in the U.S. make for a fabulous place to call home.
Curious how much house you can afford in any of these cities? Check out our Home Affordability Calculator to get an estimate!
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