We’ve all been there. It’s the last Thursday of the month, you’re slowly looking from your paycheck to the stack of bills beside the fridge, and feeling your soul curl up and weep at how financially screwed you are. Yup, it’s a common feeling for many of us, especially if our postal address happens to include an NYC, San Fran, or LA zip code. But fear not, there are plenty of other, cheaper cities out there. The best part? You won’t even have to move abroad to find them!
Below, we’ve collected the 10 cheapest large cities in the USA, according to website Numbeo’s cost of living index, which takes into account things like rent, cost of groceries, average salaries, and so-on. For this article, we’re defining “large” as a city of 200,000 or more; which means poor old Shreveport, Louisiana (pop: 198,242) just misses out getting its first ever mention on our site (it’d be at #6). Oh well, thems the breaks.
We’re also comparing each city against how much it costs to live in NYC, so you’ll be seeing a lot of sentences like “10. Dallas: 29.8% cheaper than New York”. Got all that? Great! Let’s do this thing.
10. Dallas, TX (29.8% cheaper than NYC)
Yeee-hawwww! It’s off to the Lone Star State to kickstart this article with Texas’s 3 big S’s: Style, Sharpshooting, and Secessionism. Despite its snigger-inducing nickname of “The Big D”, Dallas ain’t actually the biggest urban sprawl in the state. With a population of 1.3 million, it’s behind both San Antonio and Houston, and only slightly ahead of Austin. But while Texas’s Big D (snigger) might not win on size alone, we all know that size isn’t everything. Dallas has it where it matters. At nearly 30% cheaper than NYC, it’s a big, vibrant city that nearly anyone can afford to live in.
Whether you would want to depends entirely on your attitude to skyscrapers and urban sprawl. Dallas is seriously spread out. The city truly came of age in the post-war period, which means everything is designed for cars. Despite this, it’s a city also steeped in popular history. Dallas was filmed here. One of the only football teams non-Americans can name (thanks in no small-part to their equally-famous cheerleaders) is based here. On a darker note, this is also the city where JFK was assassinated.
So what are the benefits of upping sticks and moving to Dallas? Well, there’s fine dining, a thriving music scene, and a new arts district to help you flex those cultural muscles.
9. Rochester, NY (30.29% cheaper than NYC)
With a population of 209,983, Rochester, New York, just barely squeaks onto our list of “large” cities. Balanced precariously on the edge of Lake Ontario, it’s a city that at first seems like little more than a diversion from the fact that you left NYC over five hours ago and yet are somehow still in New York. But look closer, and the sleepy aspect peels away to reveal a city that’s not only absurdly affordable to live in, but stunningly beautiful to boot.
Here are some numbers. In Rochester, it’s totally possible to rent a small apartment in the city center for under $850 a month. Know how much that same apartment would cost in NYC? Try over $2,000 a month more, and that’s not even including the fact that you’d be sharing it with as many rats as you have unsealed food containers. Yep, Rochester is a city where you don’t have to either work in finance or sell a kidney to set up shop. New York may have the nightlife and entertainment, but Rochester has the stability that comes with knowing you aren’t one missed paycheck away from being thrown out on your ear and forced to join the mole people.
8. Madison, WI (30.43% cheaper than NYC)
“Why Madison?” No, the city’s semi-official slogan isn’t a cry of existential despair, or even an ironic joke that can only be answered with “well… why not?”. It’s meant to be an invitation to come and share in the life of a city most of us know relatively little about, to celebrate its beauty, its way of life, its ease of doing business. Remarkably, those who came up with it may have a point. Stretching on a narrow isthmus across three picturesque lakes, Madison is probably the prettiest city none of us have ever been to.
Mostly-famous for its university, Madison benefits from a relaxed, student vibe; something that applies to affordability as much as it does nightlife. While only a fraction cheaper than Rochester, Madison is still the sort of budget utopia most of us can only dream of buying property in. Interestingly, renting is actually more expensive here, so whether you choose to move to Madison or Rochester will probably depend on whether you intend to become a homeowner or not.
So, let’s say you take the plunge. What the heck is there to do in Madison? Well, here’s the geographical bonus: Madison is less than a 90 minute drive from Milwaukee. If you find yourself craving the bright lights, you can hop in your car and be among cosmopolitan society in no time.
7. Kansas City, MO (30.91% cheaper than NYC)
Stubbornly situated just over the border from actual Kansas, Kansas City is big, sprawling, covered with glass buildings, and so cheap moving there’ll make you feel like a budget Don Draper. According to Numbeo, a monthly income of $3,572 will go as far in KC as an income of $7,300 would in NYC. We don’t wanna be overly vulgar, but holy freakin’ heck, Batman! $7,300 a month? We’d… maybe not kill to be pulling in that kinda cash, but definitely maim. Definitely maim.
OK, with all that hyperbole out of the way, let’s look at the city proper. How does KC stack up as a place to live? Well, that all kinda depends on what you wanna get out of life. If you like barbecue, for example, and aren’t a die hard “Texas barbecue is best!” sort of a person, then KC is already looking pretty sweet. Likewise, if you want jazz and oodles of significant black history, then 18th and Vine downtown area has you covered. On the other hand, if you like hiking in the mountains, the buzz that comes from living in a city of over a million people, or just being really, really far away from tornadoes, then you should probably look elsewhere.
6. Phoenix, AZ (30.92% cheaper than NYC)
Remember that checklist we just jokingly ran through for KC? Well, that wasn’t us just pulling words out our backsides. There really is a city you can live in that buzzes with a population of 1.6 million people (4.3 million in the larger metro area), has wonderful mountains in easy driving distance, and is as cheap as Kansas City. The name of this utopian wonderland? Phoenix. The enormous state capital of Arizona is so big and so cheap it could make a killing working as a fat guy for hire.
Only one other major urban center in the US is as cheap as Phoenix (yes, we’ll remember to cover it). Nearly everywhere else still to go on this list has populations comfortably under the 1 million mark. This combination of size and affordability has made Phoenix the sort of place people who read these sorts of lists lust after. It scores highly on most Quality of Life indexes, with the only major downsides being pollution (lots) and the probability of you saving enough to outright buy a home (low).
It also scores highly on levels of sunlight. Phoenix is one of the hottest, sunniest cities in America. Great news if you’ve got a beach body you wanna show off. Bad news if you’re a pasty, stick-thin internet list-writer (oh, shoot).
5. Albuquerque, NM (33.14% cheaper than NYC)
Deep in the historic heart of New Mexico, Albuquerque is a sight for sore eyes. Its 300-year old historic heart, dated to 1706, still stands in excellent condition, flanked by a whole buncha later buildings from the Victorian era. Coming from a country where something’s basically “old” if it predates WWII, Albuquerque feels like something from another universe. Not bad for a city otherwise only famous for its hot air balloons.
Unlike some on our list, Albuquerque is cheap for renters, something any Millennials reading this will statistically be happy to hear. Single bedroom apartments in the city center go for as little as $750 a month, while a 3-bed on the outskirts will barely cost you more than a thousand bucks. Know who can afford $750 a month? Literally everyone who isn’t unemployed, utterly lacking in self-control, or in serious debt to a dude nicknamed “Mr. Big”.
On top of all that, Albuquerque is also situated in the middle of some of the Southwest’s most-spectacular scenery. Tired of the endless sleet and rain and misery of wherever you’re living right now? Hop that plane to New Mexico, stat.
4. Oklahoma City, OK (33.79% cheaper than NYC)
“Oaaaak-lahoma, where the wind comes sweeping down the plainnn….” Are we the only ones who get half-remembered showtunes running through our heads whenever we hear about this state? While actually living in Oklahoma City probably involves a good deal less singing and dancing than most of us would like, it certainly comes with its upsides, too. Since you’ve read this far, you can probably guess what the biggest of those upsides is. OKC is so cheap it almost hurts.
This is probably a good thing, as the city itself isn’t much to look at. Some glass. Some towers. A whole lotta flatness. But, hey, at least it’s not Texas! (Of course we’re kidding). On a serious note, OKC is said to be quite pleasant when you get inside and start exploring. Travel Guide Lonely Planet picks it out as one of the best cities for exploring cowboy culture and heritage without having to trek out into the middle of nowhere.
Speaking of the past, Oklahoma City is a town that’s been forever linked with two tragedies: the 1995 bombing, which destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building and killed 168, and the 1999 tornado outbreak which flattened half the city, killing 36. The recovery and rebuilding of the city after both tragedies has been both moving and inspiring.
3. Tucson, AZ (36.13% cheaper than NYC)
Emerging from the dark desert in a spooky galaxy of lights, Tucson, Arizona, is almost like something out of a sci-fi film. The city’s cost of living is similarly out of this world. As of 2016, you can rent an apartment outside the city center for as little as $565 per month. Sure, it’s a small city, with a population of barely over 500,000, but come on. When was the last time you did anything for a whole month for $565? There are places in NYC where it costs more than that just to get your pants dry-cleaned.
Then there’s Tucson’s location. Only two hours from the bright lights and city-based decadence of Phoenix, and barely an hour from the Mexican border, it kinda feels like its straddling two completely different worlds. Like Albuquerque, it’s got its fair share of historic Spanish architecture, but also a hardcore modern-American vibe going for it, one that’s only helped by the presence of the University of Arizona.
2. San Antonio, TX (37.5% cheaper than NYC)
Half the state away from Dallas lies perhaps the only city able to challenge the Big D (snigger) on its own terms. San Antonio is big, so big that only mighty Huston can claim to be bigger. But while Huston is quintessential Texas (and only 24.6% less expensive than NYC, in case you were wondering), San Antonio is Texas for the young and carefree and vaguely-hipster. Forget putting on a ten gallon hat and shooting JR; in San Antonio, the best way to spend your free time is by taking advantage of a bicycle share and going for a leisurely picnic by the river.
Say, did we mention the river? This is what it looks like at night; like some dreamy slice of southern European life rather than a patch of Texas. That’s because San Antonio is all al-fresco dining and sharing time with friends, a nice break from the usual, frantic scrabble for money, oil or barbecue that characterizes the state’s other big cities. On top of that, you’ve also got the Alamo. What can we say? Except, perhaps, see you in San Antonio?
1. Reno, NV (38.22% cheaper than NYC)
Here we are at last. The cheapest large city in the USA. In fact, it’s almost the cheapest city, full stop. Only Athens, Georgia and Springfield, Missouri have a lower cost of living than Reno. But neither of them has a population over 160,000, while Reno just about squeaks on to our list with nearly 237,000 souls calling it home – not many, but enough to make it feel like an actual city, rather than a big town with unfortunate pretensions. And Reno is still very cheap. According to Numbeo, it’s actually cheaper to live in Reno than it is to live San Jose in Costa Rica, Beirut in Lebanon, or Newcastle in the UK.
Of course, Reno isn’t for everyone. Essentially Las Vegas for those who’ve never heard of the original Sin City, downtown Reno is a neon-drenched gambling mecca that would be impressive if it weren’t situated in the same state as the biggest gambling mecca of all. But, wait, there’s more, we promise! Travel guide experts Lonely Planet recently praised Reno’s endless parklands, funky new bar scene, and super-friendly locals. Then there’s the gigantic Tesla Gigafactory Elon Musk is about to open in the city, which is sure to send employment (and prices) skyrocketing. Our advice? Get in there now, before lovely little Reno finds itself racing down these affordability rankings.