If you’re daydreaming of moving to one of the country’s hippest cities — but worry you can never afford it — I’ve got some alternatives to help you save money.
Little-known cities around the country can be the best places to live, offering similar culture, demographics, creativity and innovation that spawned the likes of “Portlandia,” but with much smaller price tags.
Before you resign yourself to living behind a couch to be at the center of the action, consider these cool cities — where you can probably afford a whole room of your own.
Note: For consistency in cost of living estimates, I referred to numbeo.com for every city. Also, I know many small towns have a lower cost of living than most cities, but this list is to help you get the city life you want — without going broke.
1. Instead of Chicago, Live in Madison or Milwaukee
If you love the cheery disposition of Midwesterners and some snow in the winter, you can get both in Wisconsin — without giving up the amenities and hustle of the city.
While you’ll pay an average $1,626/month to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago, you’ll pay about $1,071 downtown Madison, and about $841 for the same size spot in Milwaukee.
Plus, grocery prices are 15% higher in Chicago than Milwaukee — and a whopping 24% higher in Chicago than in Madison.
In Milwaukee, you can experience the lakefront and similar industrial history you’d find in Chicago.
In Madison, you can enjoy access to a Big 10 university, state government and an arts and entertainment scene rivaling the big city.
If you want the best of both, these cities are just about a 90-minute drive apart — not much more than you might spend commuting from one Chicago neighborhood to another on the L train!
2. Instead of Denver, Try Salt Lake City, Bozeman or Boise
If you love living in the mountains, but dread Colorado’s skyrocketing cost of living, turn your sights north to the cozy college towns of Bozeman, Montana or Boise, Idaho.
Both Boise and Bozeman rival Denver as a ski bum haven. Bozeman’s rent is 30% cheaper than Denver’s, and Boise’s rent is about half the Mile-High City.
And if you don’t mind the high desert in the summer, you can get your ski fix and breathtaking mountain vistas from Salt Lake City, too. You’ll save 38% in rent!
To be honest, I love SLC so much I don’t even want to tell you about it. The city’s history of religious conservatism keeps it off the radar of every bright-eyed millennial — for now.
Cultural shifts and relaxed laws since the turn of the century combine with a glorious mountain-valley location and impeccable city planning make it perfect for anyone who wants the buzz of city life and the freedom and beauty of the Wild West.
Some even think Salt Lake City is the next Silicon Valley — so get there fast, before the secret gets out to everyone!
3. Instead of Nashville, Look at Oklahoma City or Louisville
I don’t know if we can give Taylor Swift full credit or what, but something is drawing the cool kids to Nashville in recent years.
While the southern city comes in much cheaper than our nation’s major metros, it’s not the most affordable in the region.
You could live in nearby Louisville, Kentucky, or Oklahoma City and pay almost 40% less in rent. Both beat out the country music capital among the nation’s best cities for jobs.
If you prefer to stay in Tennessee, I hear Chattanooga is wildly underrated, and rent is 43% less than in Nashville.
4. Leave Austin, and Move to Tulsa
Texas is a great state for freelancers. But moving to the blooming center for technology and the arts is going to cost you…
If you’re freelancing, you can work from anywhere, right? Might as well save money while you’re at it.
Less than 500 miles north, the arts and entertainment scene in Tulsa, Oklahoma, rivals that of Austin.
You may not have heard of the local favorites yet, but don’t forget (‘90s kids!) it was once home to Hanson. Just sayin’.
But if your taste has evolved beyond nostalgic boy bands, Thrillist says, “Rich in oil money and art-deco architecture, Oklahoma’s cosmopolitan second city has always been the state’s artsy kid.”
And the savings? You’ll pay about 39% less in rent in Tulsa than in Austin! Get a one-bedroom in the city for $854 per month on average.
5. Instead of San Francisco, Give Seattle a Shot
I admit, for these last two, comparisons are tough. San Francisco and New York are the most expensive cities in the U.S. because they’re in crazy-high demand — and with good reason. They’re pretty much unequaled.
But we’re creative, so let’s give this a shot.
With giants like Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing operating in the area, Seattle is one of the best cities for jobs in the nation.
Seattle will give you the moderate climate and West Coast life San Franciscans enjoy. It’s also equally gray most days and has just as many steep hills to challenge its abundance of cyclists.
A one-bedroom apartment in Seattle will cost an average $1,776 per month, compared to… wait for it… $3,352 in San Francisco. Yikes. You’ll also spend 17% less on groceries in the northwestern city.
6. Instead of New York City, Try Washington, D.C.
No city in the U.S. can fully match the culture, history and opportunity you’ll find in New York City. Unfortunately, all that comes with an unmatchable price tag, as well.
To save money, consider Washington, D.C., which I’ve I’ve heard — adoringly — called the “New York for Nerds.”
I’ve also heard it called the “Hollywood for Ugly People,” so maybe it could rival L.A., too? Or maybe that one’s not so adoring…
You’ll pay 23% less for rent in our nation’s capital than in New York and about 13% less in overall cost of living. Climate is similar, and job markets are comparable, with D.C. a little ahead.
Though Bostonians may reject the comparison, I have to mention Beantown, which matches New York’s rich history and culture on smaller scale with a 20% lower cost of living.
Or look north, and consider moving to Canada. Rent in Montreal, Quebec is one-third of New York’s, and overall cost of living is about half.
More Cities to Consider
If you’re not concerned with geography or climate, but just want to enjoy a buzzing, inspiring and progressive city, here are more, even lesser-known, little cities that pack big value:
- Asheville, NC
- Savannah, GA
- Athens, GA
- Columbus, OH
- Ann Arbor, MI
- Duluth, MN
- Scottsdale, AZ
- St. Petersburg, FL (home of The Penny Hoarder!)
- Topeka/Lawrence, KS
- Spokane, WA
- Omaha, NE
- Knoxville, TN
- Birmingham, AL
The list could probably go on for days, so add yours in the comments… I hope this inspires you to think outside the box before your next move!
Your Turn: Is your city a smart alternative to a more expensive one? Why?
Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s written for Huffington Post, Entrepreneur.com, Writer’s Digest and more, attempting humor wherever it’s allowed (and sometimes where it’s not).