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America’s Most Affordable Places

May 18, 2015
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America's Top Affordable Places

Life is expensive. That’s true just about everywhere, but just how expensive varies widely. In Kodiak, Alaska, a Coca-Cola costs almost $2.50, while the same soda in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, averages $1.30. This difference illustrates the wide variation in cost for almost everything in the U.S. — from groceries to housing.

To find the top places for affordability, NerdWallet investigated price variations to assess where a dollar stretches the furthest in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, data on median income from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey revealed that many of the cheapest places in the U.S. are also where residents earn the least. In our study, we make a distinction between “cheap” and “affordable” by comparing a place’s median income with its cost of living to find truly affordable places.

» MORE: Calculate how much house you can afford

Key findings

Wealthier places are more affordable. Despite a higher cost of living, the gains from a higher median income in wealthier places are more than the increased cost of living there.

Cost of living is clustered. Sure, there are outliers like New York City, New York, and Honolulu, Hawaii, where the cost of living is 122% and 74% above the U.S. average respectively, but the cost of living in most places is within a small range around the national average.

Within a place, costs can be diverse. Just because a place is affordable in one category, such as groceries, doesn’t mean the same is true for housing or utilities. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the cost of utilities is 11% below the U.S. average, but groceries and housing are above the national average.

Relationship between income and cost of living

Our data show that higher-income areas tend to be more expensive, but how much more expensive? For example, in San Francisco, California, the median household income is $74,559, an impressive 43% higher than the national median of $52,176. But the cost of living for San Francisco residents is almost 67% higher than average, much more than the area’s income advantage.

Our study found similar trends for other well-to-do places such as Washington, D.C., and Seattle, Washington, where higher incomes are paired with a higher cost of living.

However, there are places where higher incomes aren’t offset by a more expensive cost of living. In this way, for example, a place such as Scottsdale, Arizona, might be more affordable than Tucson, Arizona.


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In Scottsdale, the cost of living is 14% higher than the U.S. average, while in Tucson it is 3% below the average. However, the median income in Tucson is 31% below the national median while Scottsdale’s is 34% above. In this case, the data reveal why people in Scottsdale are doing better than Tucson residents.

As it turns out, the relationship between the cost of living index and the income index in the places we analyzed isn’t one to one, which means in many cities where the income index is higher, the cost of living index isn’t as high. This allows some wealthier places in our study an advantage when it comes to affordability because the cost of living remains relatively lower.

Data highlights

We calculated the percentage difference in the cost of items based on data from over 300 U.S. metropolitan areas.

A T-bone steak, at an average of $8.48 in Olympia, Washington, for a 12-ounce to 24-ounce cut, is cheaper than it would be in 99.7% of the places surveyed, according to our data.

In Juneau, Alaska, a pound of bananas costs $0.88 on average, which is more expensive than in 98.5% of other places.

A six-pack of Heineken in Omaha, Nebraska, is $7.43 — cheaper than it would be in 99.3% of places.

People in 88% of the places in our study will pay more for a phone line than those in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the average landline is $22.91 a month.

A haircut in a Scottsdale, Arizona, salon costs $54.88, more expensive than 97% of the other places.

In Tracy, California, it costs $8.89 to dry-clean a men’s two-piece suit — a cheaper price than in 93.5% of the other places.

A bottle of white wine in Round Rock, Texas, costs about $5.16, which is less than 98.7% of the other places in our survey.

The 100 most affordable places in America

In this table, 100 is the average cost of living across the U.S. in the cost of living index; for the income index, 100 is the nation’s median income.

RankLocationMedian household
Income indexCost of living indexGrocery indexHousing indexUtilities indexTransportation
Health care indexGoods and services index
1Plano, Texas$81,8001579910090102101105104
2Edmond, Oklahoma$71,607137968894101999597
3Round Rock, Texas$68,9591329487899595106100
4Juneau, Alaska$84,415162132129158146109150113
5Midland, Texas$63,819122979197921029799
6Hilton Head Island, South Carolina$67,64312910611210810397105107
7Scottsdale, Arizona$70,07813411410414392102102105
8Rio Rancho, New Mexico$58,2811129295778910197101
9Anchorage, Alaska$76,15914612812315797105140122
10Tracy, California$73,559141124120159107113105106
11Chapel Hill, North Carolina$63,75712210710310489101100120
12Cheyenne, Wyoming$57,1731099510390100939694
13Sierra Vista, Arizona$58,0401119794931031029698
14Norman, Oklahoma$49,7729584876987889291
15Raleigh, North Carolina$54,088104931027710110010496
16Weatherford, Texas$51,98399891008186959091
17Austin, Texas$54,33110494868710396100100
18Colorado Springs, Colorado$53,619103979398949910497
19Cedar Rapids, Iowa$51,338989391851049610395
20Temple, Texas$47,6889186847781889594
21Odessa, Texas$54,00910399891049797105100
22San Jose, California$80,609154150120245126111117107
23Charlotte, North Carolina$51,2719895100851079710196
24Springfield, Illinois$47,571918895807710210587
25Minot, North Dakota$57,37411010710412187109106102
26Omaha, Nebraska$47,27590889378959710288
27Lincoln, Nebraska$48,3299290967694979696
28Corpus Christi, Texas$49,03694938288110929495
29Amarillo, Texas$45,7448887907685929094
30Idaho Falls, Idaho$44,19585849561809510394
31Durham, North Carolina$48,04692929877891019999
32Stamford, Connecticut$75,764145145117207128118111122
33Lexington, Kentucky$47,97792929774969690102
34Ann Arbor, Michigan$53,4581021039411510410110096
35Olympia, Washington$52,3931001011029984111122101
36Sioux Falls, South Dakota$51,0999899969410494102104
37Seattle, Washington$65,45412512711116599118117113
38Bakersfield, California$54,675105106110104113115107101
39Fort Worth, Texas$51,1689810095939799102108
40Denton, Texas$47,13690939388861019596
41Huntsville, Alabama$47,5759194101791051009799
42Oklahoma City, Oklahoma$45,0738690918293949693
43Jefferson City, Missouri$45,9478892987899939697
44St. George, Utah$46,4938993979088959194
45Hastings, Nebraska$48,0679297101941029310098
46Salina, Kansas$43,45883889776101959987
47Dodge City, Kansas$46,957909594871029194101
48Boise, Idaho$46,757899593868910610499
49San Antonio, Texas$45,25387928980849797105
50Fond du Lac, Wisconsin$46,38989941027998100108100
51Wichita, Kansas$44,53285919673111969796
52Wichita Falls, Texas$43,9038490888187949996
53Des Moines, Iowa$44,8308692938494999794
54Moses Lake, Washington$45,369879397847410112099
55Lubbock, Texas$43,4138389948279949793
56McAllen, Texas$40,6517884837792958384
57Salt Lake City, Utah$45,77488949791941029593
58Rapid City, South Dakota$46,244889510991898393100
59Jonesboro, Arkansas$41,8868087937885888592
60Columbus, Ohio$43,4418390937996999692
61Ardmore, Oklahoma$42,50081881017382979294
62Dothan, Alabama$42,14081881028187928387
63Madison, Wisconsin$51,83399107103114101106115103
64Tacoma, Washington$50,6539710510095102108111113
65Louisville, Kentucky$43,96384929280861059199
66Enid, Oklahoma$45,749889596891009790100
67Janesville, Wisconsin$45,877889698861129911095
68Phoenix, Arizona$45,7758896100929710310293
69Tupelo, Mississippi$41,4657988907089939798
70Conroe, Texas$43,70184928985101959995
71Cedar City, Utah$41,7578089987687978894
72Ashland, Ohio$39,1757584986385979489
73Lafayette, Louisiana$45,31787969494931018799
74St. Cloud, Minnesota$44,7158695109768597110105
75Tulsa, Oklahoma$41,1627989966596999698
76Atlanta, Georgia$46,78390991049791102101101
77Bozeman, Montana$47,35491101102113889210696
78Mason City, Iowa$40,8517888977297919394
79Jacksonville, Florida$45,97888981028510710490103
80Denver, Colorado$50,728971079812498101104102
81Vancouver, Washington$48,23092103979793109108110
82Eau Claire, Wisconsin$42,711829399799010111099
83Decatur, Illinois$39,8987688908090919292
84Tampa, Florida$41,927809299761041029196
85Grand Junction, Colorado$44,4098597941018510210596
86Manhattan, Kansas$42,5128194949390939695
87Columbia, Missouri$42,94582949688979110299
88Minneapolis, Minnesota$49,7779510810411593104101110
89San Angelo, Texas$42,95882959684979986102
90Montgomery, Alabama$42,834829510087105968396
91Tyler, Texas$43,2398395939694969197
92Las Vegas, Nevada$48,6769310611110791105102108
93Green Bay, Wisconsin$42,088819392801049810698
94Lawton, Oklahoma$42,326819495918810110295
95Lafayette, Indiana$40,153779095731011079891
96Twin Falls, Idaho$41,02879929179921109396
97Riverside, California$53,639103116116131114114107105
98El Paso, Texas$41,65780931008688978997
99Abilene, Texas$41,47079939289841019097
100Houston, Texas$44,451859984108999491100


To assess a place’s cost, we used the Council for Community and Economic Research’s 2014 cost of living index.

We compared this index with an index we created for income using the median household income from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Places with the biggest difference between the income index and the cost of living index were ranked favorably as the most affordable places.

Juneau, Alaska, image via iStock.