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All Contents © 2018The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Dan Burrows, Contributing Writer
| April 27, 2018
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There's a lot to be said for small-town living: Less traffic, a strong sense of community and a slower pace of life. Then, of course, there's the cost of living, which is typically more affordable in small towns than in expensive big cities.
To get a better sense of what inexpensive small-town living really has to offer, we compiled a list of the 10 cheapest places to live in America with populations under 50,000. We based our rankings on the Council for Community and Economic Research's calculations of living expenses in 269 urban areas. Its Cost of Living Index tracks prices for housing, groceries, utilities, transportation, health care, and miscellaneous goods and services (such as going to a movie theater or hair salon.)
Before you pack up and relocate to one of the 10 cheapest small towns in America, weigh the pros and cons. A low cost of living is attractive, but the allure lessens if jobs are scarce, paychecks are small or the area lacks things to do. Plan an extended visit to ensure the small town fits your lifestyle.
The Cost of Living Index is based on price data collected during 2017. Data on populations, household incomes and home values come from the U.S. Census Bureau. Unless otherwise indicated, local unemployment rates are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and represent February 2018 rates (not seasonally adjusted).
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Cost of Living: 14.8% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $40,582 (U.S.: $55,322)
Median Home Value: $180,100 (U.S.: $184,700)
Unemployment Rate: 3.7% (U.S.: 4.1%)
For a cheap small town, Cedar City sure serves up a lot if big-city activities. It’s home to the Utah Shakespeare Festival, the Utah Summer Games and the Neil Simon Theatre Festival, among other events. But, like much of the Beehive State, Cedar City's greatest selling point is access to incomparable natural wonders. Thanks to its position on Interstate 15 in the southwest corner of the state, Cedar City is a tourist hub for Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park and Grand Canyon National Park.
It's hardly cut off from the outside world, though. The Las Vegas Strip is under three hours away by car to the south, while Salt Lake City, the state capital, is less than a four-hour drive north. Residents of Cedar City pay less than the national average for everything from housing to health care to movie tickets, according to data from the Cost of Living Index. They also benefit from a low unemployment rate.
Wikimedia Commons user Daniel Bethe
Cost of Living: 15.0% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $45,896
Median Home Value: $117,900
Unemployment Rate: 3.2%
The small town of Salina sits at the intersection of Interstates 70 and 135, about 80 miles north of Wichita and 160 miles west of Kansas City. Manufacturing and health care are among the town's most important industries. Major employers include Schwan's Company, the maker of Tony's frozen pizza; Great Plains Manufacturing, which serves the agricultural industry; and the Salina Regional Health Center. Salina is also home to several institutions of higher education, including the University of Kansas School of Medicine Salina Campus and Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus.
It's an economic mix that's producing both low unemployment and low living costs. Housing expenses are about 29% below the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Groceries are cheaper too. A half-gallon of milk costs about 24% less than the national average. A dozen eggs will run you about 40% less.
City of Pittsburg, Kan.
Cost of Living: 15.6% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $33,159
Median Home Value: $84,300
Unemployment Rate: 4.3%
Pittsburg is about a two-hour drive due south from Kansas City on Route 69. When you get there, you'll find a small town where you can live for nearly 16% less than the average American. Once upon a time, the town was known for its abundance of coal and the Southern and Eastern European immigrants who worked the mines. Today, the area relies more heavily on higher education, thanks to the presence of Pittsburg State University. Famous alumni of Pittsburg’s local university include actor Gary Busey and Brian Moorman, retired two-time Pro Bowl punter for the NFL's Buffalo Bills.
Although median incomes are about $20,000 below the national average, median home prices are a whopping $100,000 cheaper. That helps make housing costs almost 45% less expensive than what the average American pays. Other things are cheap, as well. A movie ticket, for example, runs less than $6 in Pittsburg, whereas the average American has to shell out more than $10.
Wikimedia Commons user Bubba73
Median Household Income: $24,499
Median Home Value: $116,600
Unemployment Rate: 4.6%
As home to the flagship campus of Georgia Southern University, Statesboro offers many of the benefits of college-town living but at exceedingly affordable prices. Thanks to its status as an academic hub, cultural attractions tied to the local university include a performing arts center, symphony, museum, planetarium and botanic gardens. Another perk? The charming city of Savannah is just an hour's drive to the east.
Although the university is the area's largest employer, manufacturing jobs also play an important part in the local economy. Still, unemployment comes in above-average, as does the poverty rate. But when it comes to living costs, housing is nearly 30% cheaper in Statesboro, while health care runs about 18% below average. For example, a visit to a doctor costs about a third less in Statesboro. Dental care is nearly 20% less expensive, according to the Cost of Living Index.
Wikimedia Commons user Ian Poellet
Cost of Living: 15.8% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $40,381
Median Home Value: $87,200
Burlington sits on the Mississippi River, about 165 miles east of Des Moines. Manufacturing has long been a staple of the area economy, although a number of major employers have pulled stakes over the years. Although the unemployment rate of 4.6% is above the national average, it can't be said to be high, especially for an historic factory town like Burlington. As recently as two year ago, the unemployment rate topped 6%. Major employers include Great River Health Systems and American Ordnance, which makes ammunition for the U.S. military.
Although utilities and health-care costs are about in line with the national averages, inexpensive housing is where Burlington really shines. Housing costs are more than a third lower there. Rents, on average, are almost 40% below the national average. True, median incomes are about $15,000 less than the national average, but then the average home is cheaper by $100,000.
Wikimedia Commons user Art10
Cost of Living: 16.1% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $31,719
Median Home Value: $88,700
Unemployment Rate: 4.7%
Martinsville needs no introduction to race fans. The tiny Virginia town, an hour's drive south of Roanoke, lays claim to the Martinsville Speedway of NASCAR fame. Racing enthusiasts laud the short track for its tight turns and intimate seating. Beyond the track, manufacturing has always been central to the area's economy, and although a number of firms have moved on over the past decades, factory work remains important. Major employers include Eastman Chemical, a manufacturer of plastics, and Monogram Foods.
Martinsville has a rich history dating back to colonial times, and the town boasts multiple historic districts and historic sites including the John Waddey Carter House and the Dry Bridge School. Also notable is the low cost of living. Housing expenses in Martinsville are 28% below than the national average. Fittingly for a racing town, gasoline is about 10% cheaper.
Wikimedia Commons user Ll1324
Cost of Living: 17.1% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $39,417
Median Home Value: $99,400
Unemployment Rate: 5%
Located about halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, near Ohio’s Amish Country, little Ashland offers a cost of living well below that of the state’s two largest cities, as well the nation as a whole. What really stands out are housing expenses. Whether you rent or own, keeping a roof over your head in Ashland is more than 40% cheaper than the national average.
Job opportunities run the gamut from higher education to biomedical research to manufacturing. Top employers include Ashland University, Samaritan Regional Health System, Charles River Laboratories and Pentair Pump Group. Median incomes are lower than the national average, though, while Ashland’s unemployment rate is the highest among the 10 cheap small towns on our list.
Wikimedia Commons user Woodlot
Cost of Living: 17.3% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $30,748
Median Home Value: $109,500
Unemployment Rate: 3.8%
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 about 30% below the national average. Utilities and transportations go for about 15% less in Hattiesburg, while health care is 10% below average.
Wikimedia Commons user Markuskun
Cost of Living: 19.9% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $43,153
Median Home Value: $134,700
Unemployment Rate: 3.5%
Tupelo’s biggest claim to fame is being the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The town, 100 miles southeast of Memphis’s Graceland, has held an Elvis Festival for 20 years running. Not a fan of The King? The cultural scene also includes the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra and the Tupelo Automobile Museum. Tupelo’s second biggest claim to fame is arguably its super-low living costs. Electric and gas bills are about a quarter below the national average, according to the Cost of Living Index. Shoppers save about 45% on a bottle of wine, while a trip to the beauty salon costs roughly a third less than the national average.
For residents not making a living as Elvis impersonators, major employers include North Mississippi Health Services, Cooper Tire and Rubber Company and BancorpSouth, which is headquartered in Tupelo. The local unemployment rate is well below the national average.
Cost of Living: 21.0% below U.S. average
Median Household Income: $30,844
Median Home Value: $81,900
No city of its size can claim a lower cost of living than Richmond, an hour's drive from Dayton, Ohio, based on the 269 urban areas analyzed by the Cost of Living Index. And few cities of any size can claim Richmond's place in the early history of recorded jazz. Some of the first jazz records were made in this small town featuring greats such as Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. There’s a Walk of Fame celebrating jazz and other artists who recorded with Richmond’s Gennett Records. While jazz will always be part of its history, today’s Richmond is known more for its colleges and seminaries, which include Indiana University East, the Earlham School of Religion (part of Quaker-influenced Earlham College) and the Bethany Theological Seminary.
Inexpensive housing is a key to Richmond's striking affordability. Residents spend almost 40% less on housing than the average American does. Rents are roughly half the national average. Average home prices are about a third less. Health care is also a bargain. For example, a visit to the eye doctor costs about half as much as the national average. An appointment with a physician runs about 40% less.
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