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Best Places for Freelancers Based on Rent, Health Insurance and Cell Phone Costs

Aug. 30, 2016
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Freelancers — workers who don’t run an incorporated business and who aren’t contract employees — make up a significant portion of the U.S. workforce. A 2015 study commissioned by Freelancers Union found that 34% of U.S. workers did some kind of freelance work in the past year, and 60% of them are longtime freelancers.

It’s understandable why: There’s freedom in being your own boss and choosing your projects. But being a freelancer, rather than a company employee, can mean particular worries about money — for example, the costs of health care, rent and a cell phone plan. Access to a reliable data network and signs of a robust freelancing community are also important for those who are self-employed.

Since many of these factors vary according to where you live, NerdWallet analyzed the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures and other data for the 50 most populous U.S. places and identified the cities that are the best for freelancers. The 10 top places were determined by examining factors including income, living expenses, health insurance and cell phone coverage. For the full methodology, go to the end of this report.

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Key takeaways

Freelancers cluster in a few industries. Work in construction accounts for over 18% of the self-employed population in three places in the top 10: Nashville, Tennessee, and California’s San Francisco and Long Beach. Meanwhile, in five of the top 10 places, 12% to 14% of the self-employed population works in professional, scientific and management services, which includes graphic and interior designers, computer programmers and consultants.

Cities in the South make a strong showing. Three of the top five places on the list are in the South, including Nashville, which ranked No. 2 in large part because of its high percentage of self-employed workers. Louisville, Kentucky, made the top 10 with its lower living costs and the best opportunity of all places for freelancers to have a larger percentage (40%) of income left each month after paying self-employment expenses — including rent, health insurance and cell phone services.

Relatively smaller cities scored high. Dallas, the only place in the top 10 with a population over a million, made the list. By contrast, half of our top 10 places have populations less than 500,000. Two of those five — Mesa, Arizona, and Long Beach — are adjacent to larger cities.

Best places for freelancers

1. Austin, Texas

Austin, the fourth-largest city in Texas, is the birthplace of the Freelance Conference. Austin’s monthly median income of $2,179 (after taxes) for self-employed workers is second only to San Francisco in the top 10 list. Although Austin has the third-highest median rent on our list, freelancers living here had the second-highest percentage (38%) of income left over after paying for housing, health insurance and cell phone services.

2. Nashville, Tennessee

The capital of Tennessee, home to the third-lowest median rent in the top 10 list, is a place where self-employed workers can look forward to having 31% of their monthly income left after paying for key freelancing expenses. Among the 7.4% of Nashville’s workforce that is self-employed, a portion work in the information industry. Co-working spaces that cater to the self-employed, such as The Skillery and Industrious, are located in the city. Nashville in 2013 launched WorkIT Nashville, which encourages technology workers to move there.

3. Dallas

Dallas is the largest city on our list, but the median rent in 2014 was the second lowest of the top 10 cities. Creative freelancers in Dallas can make use of co-working spaces like the Common Desk and NōD if they want to find a community. A smaller percentage of self-employed workers make their home in Dallas than in the top two cities on the list.

4. Atlanta

Atlanta’s freelancers, who make up 4.4% of the area’s workforce, could find that about a third of their income will be left over after working-related expenses are paid every month. For those who need to use their phones for work, Atlanta — compared with the other top 10 cities — has the cheapest average cost for a cell phone plan and the best coverage, according to data from Open Signal. Like Dallas, Atlanta has a booming construction industry with a 7% increase in employment in that field since May 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. An area called Tech Square includes co-working spaces for small businesses and freelancers.

5. Louisville, Kentucky

The largest city in Kentucky stands out because it’s the least expensive for freelancers of our top 10 places. Self-employed workers in Louisville could have up to 40% of their income left to cover other costs after paying key freelancing expenses. The median rent is the lowest in the top 10. Louisville’s professional services and transportation industries are steadily growing, and both are popular sectors for self-employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But like Atlanta, and compared with other cities on our list, Louisville has a low percentage of self-employed workers, which means it may be harder to find a freelance community.

6. San Francisco

The popular tourist destination is tied with a second California city, Long Beach, for attracting the highest percentage (8.5%) of self-employed workers in our top 10. San Francisco is where freelancers can make the most income in the top 10, but costs here make it also the most expensive in almost every category. Self-employed workers here will have a low 28% of their monthly income left after paying housing, health insurance and cell phone costs. Transportation workers make up 11% of self-employed residents in the city where Uber and courier service Postmates are based. Professional and scientific services are 13% of this city’s freelance workforce.

7. Mesa, Arizona

Mesa sits on the outskirts of Phoenix, the largest city in Arizona. Freelance workers here will have 35% of their income left after paying key working expenses every month, but two data points indicate a more challenging environment for self-employed residents. Mesa, compared with other cities in the top 10, has lower than average cell phone coverage and also a smaller percentage of self-employed workers. The city’s Office of Economic Development lists technology as one of the top industries in the Phoenix-Mesa area, and business services and software are identified as two of the region’s biggest industries by the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.

8. Fort Worth, Texas

This city boasts a larger percentage of freelance workers than four places that ranked higher — Dallas, Atlanta, Louisville and Mesa. However, after paying working costs, freelancers will have 24% of their income left every month, the second-lowest percentage in the top 10. But on the plus side, Fort Worth has the second-best cell phone carrier coverage of our top 10 cities, and 6.4% of the city’s workforce is self-employed. Residents here can tap into a freelance network called Creatives in DFW.

9. Sacramento, California

Freelancers are likely to get paid well in California’s capital — the median monthly income after taxes is $1,903, which is behind only San Francisco and Austin. But living costs keep Sacramento from ranking higher. The median monthly rent in Sacramento is the fourth-highest in the top 10, and self-employed workers here will pay the most for basic health insurance. However, Sacramento has a strong community — six well-established co-working spaces for freelancers are available in the Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods, including Hacker Lab, a co-working space for programmers.

10. Long Beach, California

This Southern California beach town is tied with San Francisco for the highest concentration of self-employed workers on our list. However, Long Beach has the lowest percentage of income (22%) that self-employed workers will have after paying housing, health insurance and cell phone costs — and the second-highest median rent among the top 10. This city also has the highest percentage of professional, scientific and management services workers in the top 10.

Best places for freelancers data

Scroll through the table below to see the data for the top 20 places.

Rank and locationPercentage of self-employed residentsMedian monthly self-employed earnings (after state and federal taxes)Median monthly rent in 2014Health care insurance premiumEstimated monthly cell phone plan costCell coverage as a percentage above the national averageFinal score
1. Austin, Texas6.60%$ 2,179$ 1,084$ 183$ 8458%78.3
2. Nashville, Tennessee7.40%$ 1,671$ 887$ 184$ 8469%75.7
3. Dallas, Texas5.90%$ 1,713$ 861$ 195$ 8471%74.4
4. Atlanta, Georgia4.40%$ 1,820$ 962$ 196$ 8289%72.2
5. Louisville, Kentucky4.40%$ 1,574$ 721$ 144$ 8352%72.1
6. San Francisco, California8.50%$ 2,658$ 1,587$ 235$ 8443%70.4
7. Mesa, Arizona5.80%$ 1,717$ 888$ 143$ 8447%70.3
8. Fort Worth, Texas6.40%$ 1,616$ 913$ 226$ 8481%68.6
9. Sacramento, California6%$ 1,903$ 993$ 239$ 8456%68.5
10. Long Beach, California8.50%$ 1,806$ 1,144$ 173$ 8457%67.4
11. Omaha, Nebraska3.70%$ 1,859$ 817$ 215$ 8938%66.8
12. Columbus, Ohio3.70%$ 1,609$ 845$ 199$ 8279%65.9
13. Kansas City, Missouri4.90%$ 1,558$ 798$ 197$ 8659%65.6
14. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma6.10%$ 1,493$ 768$ 172$ 8439%65.5
15. Houston, Texas6.40%$ 1,504$ 877$ 178$ 8467%65.3
16. Chicago, Illinois4.60%$ 1,630$ 968$ 145$ 8878%64.5
17. New Orleans, Louisiana6.70%$ 1,656$ 907$ 210$ 8143%64.3
18. Tulsa, Oklahoma4.80%$ 1,451$ 751$ 176$ 8449%62.8
19. San Antonio, Texas5.80%$ 1,453$ 873$ 173$ 8469%61.8
20. Baltimore, Maryland3.40%$1,808$980$158$8553%61.6


Veronica Ramirez is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @veraudrey. Daniel Tonkovich is a data analyst at NerdWallet. Email: [email protected].


NerdWallet determined the 50 most populous places in the U.S. based on the most recent U.S. Census Bureau figures. For each location, we analyzed data on affordability and costs, the local population and cell phone coverage.

  1. Affordability was determined by calculating expenses that freelancers would likely have to consider, including:
    Rent: Median monthly costs are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey.
    Health insurance: Data on the cost in July 2016 for a basic health insurance plan for a 30-year-old resident in each city are from Health Sherpa.
    Cell phone plan: The cost of a cell phone plan is from a May 2016 NerdWallet Harris Poll survey that used data from the four major carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — to find the average monthly cost of an individual cell phone plan and a four-line family plan.
    Cell phone tax: National and state tax data are from Tax Foundation’s 2015 study of cell phone taxes and fees.
    The sum of the cost categories was subtracted from 2014 American Community Survey data on median monthly earnings (after taxes) for self-employed residents working for themselves, and not at their own incorporated businesses, in each city. We calculated the remaining income as a percentage and assumed that it could be used for other living costs and expenses or personal savings. This is 60% of the score.
  1. Percentage of self-employed workers in the population is from the 2014 American Community Survey. This is 20% of the score.
  1. Cell phone coverage was measured by the availability of carrier networks for each city and is shown as a percentage above the national average of 81%. June 2016 data are from Open Signal. This is 20% of the score.