25 Affordable Cities That Are Also Awesome Places to Raise Families
There comes a time in everybody’s life when they need to start thinking more about diapers than dive bars.
Believe me, I’m getting there.
I don’t even have kids and I recently caught myself shaking my fist at a mild speeder in my quiet residential neighborhood. I may even have muttered “dag nabbit.”
And although I’m super happy with where I live right now (St. Petersburg, Florida, for the win!), I can’t help but wonder if there’s a better town out there for when my wife and I ultimately decide to start a family.
Here’s the thing: we’re both writers. That means regardless of where we would want to end up, it would have to be affordable.
Sure, Libertyville in Illinois has Blue Ribbon schools and crime is practically nonexistent, but the median cost of maintaining a mortgage or renting an apartment is more than $1,800. That goes for a lot of other family-friendly cities, towns and suburbs across the U.S.
We already brought you the best 25 cities that millennials can afford, so we did another deep-dive analysis to find the best cheap cities for new families. We began the analysis with counties so we could include suburbs and ensure we had the most recent, robust data as a starting point.
Here’s just a sample of the factors we considered:
- Median rent and mortgage costs
- Healthcare costs
- Household income
- Regional price parities
- Pollution and water violations
- Violent crime rate
- School grades
- Access to healthy food
- Civic associations per capita
- Museums and libraries per capita
To make sure the cities we explored within the counties wouldn’t be too small, we dropped any counties with less than the average population of around 100,000.
Even though we dropped less populous counties from our analysis, we kept cities and towns regardless of their sizes. We know some of you readers would prefer a small town where speeders aren’t terrorizing your neighborhoods.
Before we reveal the top 25 cities, here’s some of what we learned about family-friendly towns in the U.S:
- They are almost always historically relevant
- There are plenty of museums
- Parkland and trails are at a premium
- Farmer’s markets abound
- The city or other groups sponsor events almost every weekend
- Most have small but bustling downtowns
- High school football rules
- If you want cheap, you’ve gotta deal with snow
So, without further ado, here’s the list of the best cities that new families can actually afford.
1. Franklin, Tennessee
Monica Van Landingham vividly recalls the first time she visited Franklin, Tennessee.
It was during the annual Dickens of a Christmas Festival in 2011, in which musicians, artisans, food hawkers and actors dressed as classic Dickens charcters flood the bucolic streets of the town of roughly 75,000.
She thought it was too good to be true.
“I said, ‘It feels like we’re in the movie “Funny Farm,”’” she explains, referencing the 1988 Chevy Chase film in which a couple moves to an idyllic town that turns out to be overrun with jerks.
That’s not the case in Franklin, where she moved with her family in 2012.
Now, Van Landingham’s son Jacob is the star quarterback at Page High School, and weekends revolve around the farmer’s market and walking her dog through nearby trails.
“We are full on drinking the Kool-Aid,” she says.
Downtown Franklin is the star of the town, Van Landingham says, with farm-to-table restaurants like Gray’s on Main (located in an old pharmacy). If you’re a fan of wine, get your fix at Arrington Vineyards, which was founded by Kix Brooks (one-half of country band Brooks & Dunn.)
2. Noblesville, Indiana
Elizabeth Schultz, a 13-year-old student at Noblesville Middle School in the bucolic small town north of Indiana, just landed a part in “Guys and Dolls.”
“She is so giddy,” says her mom Laura Schultz.
Have you ever heard of anything so idyllic?
Laura Schultz lived on the southern end of Indianapolis for her whole life before moving north to Noblesville in 2009.
With her daughter in tow, she and her husband Darrin Hugill moved to the town of nearly 52,000 for the schools, parks and proximity to work. She can walk to Dr. James A. Dillon Park or the local Kroger.
The Historic Noblesville Square is the highlight of the town, Schultz says, with events happening nearly every weekend.
The best part? The town is dang cheap.
“If I cross the street and go into Carmel, my taxes double,” Schultz says. “I cannot tell you how happy I am to have moved up here.”
3. Rochester, Minnesota
Pumpkin patches and apple orchards. Ice cream and soda pop breweries.
A cynic might sneer at how Rochester just oozes Americana. But at The Penny Hoarder, we’re not cynics.
“Rochester is kind of like a little-big town,” says Kristen Rogers, who moved to the city with her family in 2007. “The people here all know each other, but it’s a big town because there are so many opportunities for jobs.”
The Mayo Clinic, which is consistently ranked as one of the best hospitals in the country, employs more than 34,000 in Rochester. IBM also has a sizeable presence.
But for Rogers, who with her husband Karl has three young daughters, the charm comes from the neighborly connections.
“Anyone could plop in and find a network of friends and children with just a few clicks of a button (online),” she says.
Oh, and having a Hy-Vee grocery store in town is a perk.
A typical weekend for the family includes a trip to the aforementioned apple orchard or a stop at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. After finding a sitter, the parents head to the Rochester Civic Theater, where they can enjoy a show for less than $60.
And for the whole family, there’s LTS Brewing Company, where the parents can grab a pint and the kids can experiment with honey lemonade or cherry cream soda.
“I think Rochester is the best of both worlds,” Kristin Rogers says. “It has quiet, safe neighborhoods and an upbeat downtown feel where you can feel like you’re truly going out for a night on the town.”
4. Iowa City, Iowa
Sometimes a love of politics can lead you to a spectacular — and cheap — place to start a family.
That’s the case for many of Laci Lower’s friends or acquaintances, who found themselves drawn to the state during the riveting Iowa caucuses, only to discover the charm of cities in the Hawkeye State. They were particularly drawn to Iowa City.
There are also “boomerang residents,” like Lower.
“A lot of people will move away, but when it’s time, they come back and raise a family because they found it’s a place where their kids can thrive,” she says.
Regardless of how you find yourself in Iowa City, Lower points to Wingman as a great tool to immediately connect you with the community. You’ll find an Iowa City expert to give you the rundown on all sorts of venues and events — on a budget.
“Most things are very accessible without spending an exorbitant amount of money,” she says. “There’s more to do than you can possibly do — and a lot of it is free.”
Lower also mentioned apple orchards as a go-to family activity (sensing a trend?) And there are festivals downtown every other weekend in the summertime.
5. Delaware, Ohio
Alan Brown, a 42-year-old adhesive engineer (hey, glue’s got to get sticky somehow), has lived in Delaware, Ohio, for about half his life — roughly 19 years.
The low tax rate is what drew him to the area, as it was more affordable than, say, Columbus. But now, with its burgeoning downtown and swelling population, residents have taken to calling it a mini-Columbus.
“It’s just such a vibrant town,” Brown says.
He always noticed when teachers would ask how his now-graduated sons Tyler and Jacob were doing, which gave the growing city a small-town feel.
“My kids always got the support they needed within the school district,” Brown says.
As for the availability of extracurricular activities, his 8-year-old daughter, Abigail, is taking dance classes at the Arts Castle (more formally know as the Delaware County Cultural Arts Center). The quirky fortress-like building offers dozens of classes and exhibits.
First Fridays on Main Street are one of Brown’s favorite free activities in Delaware, as is the weekly farmers market.
“It’s definitely a growing city with a small-town feel,” Brown says.
6. Madison, Wisconsin
Olbrich Botanical Gardens will keep the kids busy — and learning cool stuff about plants in a year-round tropical paradise. Yes, even when the temperatures dip below freezing in January. And it’s only two bucks!
The Madison Children’s Museum has plenty of programs and events for rainy days. And if the weather is nice, the Cave of the Mounds will wow the family with geologic wonder. It rocks. (Sorry, I had to do it.)
7. Overland Park, Kansas
If you have little daredevils in your midst, Overland Park has got just the thing for your family: indoor skydiving for children 3 and up. iFLY has all the thrill of skydiving without the, you know, jumping-out-of-airplanes part.
For the more sophisticated toddlers, there’s the Museum at Prairiefire, which boasts a partnership with the American Museum of Natural History to bring you exhibits from the renowned New York City landmark.
8. Burlington, Vermont
Downtown Burlington centers around an open-air mall and more than 100 shops and restaurants. And what’s an idyllic downtown without a farmer’s market — especially one that stays open indoors during the dregs of winter.
Keep the family active with the Burlington Greenway (there’s a reason this town scored so high on the Health Matters scale) or let your little ones shred the calories away at A_Dog Skatepark. In fact, there are plenty of parks and beaches to check out.
Yes. Burlington has beaches.
9. Leesburg, Virginia
It’s no wonder the No. 1 family-friendly city on the list is outside Washington, D.C., as that metro area has been on a major growth spurt since the Great Recession. It seems like most people want to live around D.C.
But with its historic downtown and quaint art and antique shops, Leesburg is a far cry from a bustling city. The 1,000-acre Morven Park provides entertainment for any weekend with the family, with three museums, athletic fields and an equestrian center. (Be careful, your daughter or son may want to buy a horse after watching one of these shows.)
10. Bentonville, Arkansas
It turns out the city housing the headquarters of Walmart is actually a pretty awesome — and especially cheap — place to raise a family.
There’s the amazing Amazeum, which has exhibits and events for your kids to dive into. Downtown Bentonville has a farmer’s market perfect to pick out ingredients for a weekend meal. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will add some further elegance to a Saturday afternoon, or whip out the mountain bike on the Slaughter Pen Hollow Trail.
And, I mean, you kind of have to make a few trips to the Walmart Museum (and stop buying from Amazon. You’re in a Walmart town now, partner.)
11. Arlington, Virginia
Though it’s definitely not the cheapest place on the list to raise a family, Arlington certainly lures lots of young families anyway with its incredible schools. It’s also another city adjacent to Washington, D.C., so you can always hop over to the capital for a weekend jaunt.
But in Arlington itself, there’s also the charm of what city officials call “urban villages,” which combine the feel of a quaint downtown with a bustling urban atmosphere. The Arlington Arts Center will get those youngsters passionate about creativity, or get out and active with a ride, run or walk along the Mount Vernon Trail.
12. Stillwater, Minnesota
As a younger guy, I was annoyed from time-to-time at the exponential increase in the number of families at my local brewery. Now that I’m older, I totally get the appeal.
And your kids will love Teddy Bear Park. Aw.
13. Raleigh, North Carolina
One day in the 66-acre Pullen Park, and you might want to grab the family and up and move to Raleigh. The carousel, boat house and train could take up an entire Saturday with the family.
The North Carolina Museum of Art has inspiring exhibits, as well as an outdoor amphitheatre with tons of events. Or head over to North Carolina State University to check out the JC Raulston Arboretum, a 10-acre garden and event space. And you can always count on the Marbles Kids Museum to wear the little ones out.
14. Papillion, Nebraska
The great outdoors is a huge draw for Papillion. The Prairie Queen Recreation Area offers activities for the whole family, from boating and fishing on the lake to hiking or biking along a four-mile paved trail.
However, if you choose not to answer the call of the wild, you can catch a foul ball at Werner Park or catch a free movie or concert at Sumtur Amphitheater. If all else fails, take the family to Papio Fun Park where you can enjoy go-karting, mini golfing or laser tagging on a budget using coupons or even Groupon.
15. Fairfax, Virginia
If history is your thing, Fairfax has tons of places for you to soak up some facts. George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum have tons of interactive displays for both kids and adults alike.
If you aren’t interested in a history lesson, you should go to Frying Pan Farm Park. While you may not find frying pans planted in the ground, you will be greeted with rural community life and Belgian draft horses.
16. Boulder, Colorado
While Boulder is known for its proximity to the Rocky Mountains, hiking might not be the best choice for every family.
17. Hastings, Minnesota
18. Carrboro, North Carolina
Carrboro is located in the center of North Carolina and is home to many small mill towns. If you enjoy walking around and eating, the Farmer’s Market is the first place you should visit. It offers fresh, locally grown and produced goods year round.
The Weaver Street Market is also worth a visit. It offers produce, events for kids and adults and even music various days of the week.
19. Grand Haven, Michigan
Grand Haven is a great place to bring kids. With a variety of terrain you can’t get bored. You can ski at Mulligan’s Hollow in the winter or visit the beach and the Grand Haven Lighthouse during the warmer months.
If you are looking for competition, you should check out Chinook Pier Mini Golf. It is very inexpensive and can last for a whole day of play.
20. Castle Rock, Colorado
Castle Rock is named for its castle tower-shaped butte, or hill with long vertical sloping sides, near the center of town. While your kids undoubtedly be making tons of “butt” jokes about the name of this area, there are plenty of other fun activities for the whole family.
One of the most loved places to visit is Matney Park. There the kids can run around on the playground, play basketball, horseshoes and even disc golf on a synthetic turf field.
21. Ann Arbor, Michigan
Ann Arbor is home to a handful of museums and science-focused attractions. If your kids have a habit of touching anything in sight, one place to check out is the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, where kids can literally play with the exhibits.
If science isn’t your forte, there are plenty of other topics to explore at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, University of Michigan Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the University of Michigan Stearns Collection of Musical Instruments. You may not be able to touch the exhibits here, but they’re sure to be a treat for the whole family.
22. Charlottesville, Virginia
Charlottesville has a ton of different attractions great for adults and kids alike. If you are looking for a relaxing day in town, the Downtown Walking Mall is a great place to spend the afternoon.
If you are looking for something a little more adventurous, Carter Mountain Orchard is the place to go. In the fall, it offers pumpkin patches, hayrides and apple picking.
23. Portland, Maine
Portland is known for its coastal beauty, so make sure to take tours of the various lighthouses and parks. If you have a quirky family, a trip to the Umbrella Cover Museum or Treehouse Toys may be a better use of your time.
24. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis has tons of historic museums and art galleries such as the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Walker Art Center. If you and your family are feeling athletic, though, there are options available such as the Depot, an indoor skating rink, and Minnehaha Regional Park to see Minnesota’s oldest park.
Worst case scenario, you can drive 20 minutes to the Mall of America.
25. West Bend, Wisconsin
Following the trend of several other cities on the list, West Bend has the awesome Shalom Wildlife zoo, as well as trails for plenty of hiking opportunities with the family (if you trek long enough, it’ll be real easy to put the kids to bed).
Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. When he’s not shaking his fist at speeding scofflaws, he enjoys bike rides with his wife, with whom he is looking forward to starting a family someday.
Icon graphics created by Kristy Gaunt, Illustrative Designer at The Penny Hoarder.