25 U.S. Cities That Millennials Can Afford — and Actually Want to Live In
Forget San Francisco, Washington D.C. and New York City.
This is a list for the rest of us twenty- and thirtysomethings who can’t afford to spend $2,500 to live in a closet in Bushwick.
The Penny Hoarder has developed a definitive list of the top 25 coolest and most affordable cities for millennials. It’s based on a rigorous analysis of housing and local price data, economic statistics and something called a Coffee Fanatic Score. Yes, you read that right. (Thanks SmartAsset!)
You probably haven’t seen many of these cities on “Top Millennial City” lists before, and that’s for good reason.
These are cities where young people crippled with student loan debt can actually find work and afford a one-bedroom apartment, but also find a new brewery or wine bar on weekends. Their millennial populations are growing — or already sizable — and they tend to be better for walking or biking to work. A few of the cities have tools like MetroMile to make commutes cheaper if you do need a car and that whole insurance thing.
Did your city make the list?
No. 1 — St. Louis
Affordability Rank: 2
Millennial Happiness Rank: 4
Economy Health Rank: 11
Elizabeth Semko grew up in a suburb of St. Louis that’s technically located in Illinois, on the other side of the Mississippi River.
After attending Southern Illinois University, the now 24-year-old digital editor of the Riverfront Times ran into a problem a lot of millennials have: the daunting job search. Luckily, the alternative weekly was hiring, and she eventually moved into the heart of St. Louis.
“Not to be biased or bragging on my city, but I wasn’t at all surprised,” Semko said, upon being informed St. Louis was named the top affordable millennial city.
You see, she says, St. Louisans have access to a lot of free stuff — and they love it. There’s the The Muny, which offers free seats in the back, and you can catch free concerts in Forest Park.
Plus — the restaurants. Semko said she has stopped eating at chains thanks to the variety of new independent eateries on Cherokee Street and beyond.
“Definitely, I think St. Louis in a lot of ways is underrated,” she says. “You always have something to do no matter what you’re into.”
Things to do: You could stroll into Forest Park and stay all day. There’s a skating rink, museums, a zoo, an outdoor musical theater and restaurants — sounds like every quirky millennial RomCom in history. Check out a Cardinals game, have some fried chicken at Byrd & Barrel and crack open a cold one with the boys at Earthbound Beer.
No. 2 — Grand Rapids, Michigan
Affordability Rank: 1
Millennial Happiness Rank: 14
Economy Health Rank: 5
Ashley Harvey, a 27-year-old writer for the equestrian publication Heels Down Magazine, was a little taken aback to find Grand Rapids on the list.
“It surprises me to consider it affordable because the housing market is growing so rapidly,” she said. “But I guess compared to either coast it’s not bad.”
Although rent for a one-bedroom apartment is around $840, the cost of everything else plus the influx of millennials pushed Grand Rapids into No. 2.
That’s because of two words: beer and jobs.
“We’re known as Beer City USA. You can’t go more than a couple blocks without seeing a brewery,” Harvey said. “There’s also a big influx of good jobs.”
At 3.4% and falling, Grand Rapids has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
“There’s also a bunch of different music scenes, so it doesn’t surprise me that it’s a millennial hotspot,” Harvey says. “East siders say that Grand Rapids is overshadowing Detroit’s comeback.”
Things to do: The 158-acre Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park combines several millennial darlings: community, art, the outdoors and music. And, as mentioned above, craft beer is so big in Grand Rapids, there are actually hotel packages based around it.
No. 3 — Indianapolis
Affordability Rank: 8
Millennial Happiness Rank: 12
Economy Health Rank: 3
When it’s not too humid out and she doesn’t have a bunch of meetings all over town, Laura Granieri walks or bikes to her downtown Indianapolis office.
The 27-year-old communications manager for Indyhub, a nonprofit organization that connects twenty- and thirtysomethings with volunteer, social and job opportunities in Indianapolis, said the bikeability is a major reason the city has been named to several top millennial lists over the last three years.
“As an adult living and working in downtown, Indy is very connected,” says Granieri, who moved to the city five years ago after attending Ball State University. “It’s easy.”
But above all, Granieri says the wide spectrum of affordable living options for millennials has been key to the influx of young people.
“A young professional that moves to Indianapolis can kind of live any lifestyle they want,” she says. They can rent an apartment high-rise downtown, or a house if they want a neighborhood feel.
Things to do: Millennials can get around the city without a car with the eight-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which connects six cultural districts. The Canal and White River State Park Cultural District has everything from gondola rides to festival space.
No. 4 — Columbus, Ohio
Affordability Rank: 7
Millennial Happiness Rank: 8
Economy Health Rank: 9
On a typical weekend in the middle of June, there were so many festivals going on in Columbus, Ohio, that 36-year-old Derek Grosso had trouble picking which ones to attend — Pride, bicycle race Tour De Grandview, Zoofari at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
“You don’t want to miss out, but you can only do so many activities,” said Grosso, the founder and CEO of Columbus Young Professionals Club.
He moved to the city 12 years ago on the advice of a friend, who said there was a major growth opportunity. Since 2010, the share of millennials in the area has swelled to more than 17% — a 4% increase.
“I think cost of living is outstanding,” Grosso said. “It’s really good for people if they’re just starting their career.”
Another perk: jobs.
There are 10 Fortune 1000 companies headquartered in Columbus, drawing a swath of young talent from around the world, he said. Those include Nationwide and Big Lots, among others.
Transportation — a free circulator route provided by the Central Ohio Transit Authority — and a burgeoning downtown are other highlights Grosso cites in touting Columbus as an affordable. millennial hub.
Plus there’s literally an area of Columbus called the Brewery District. Enough said.
Things to do: Millennials have plenty of nightlife options in Columbus: live music, distilleries and fine arts. The Gallery Hop in Short North is a local favorite.
No. 5 — Pittsburgh
Affordability Rank: 9
Millennial Happiness Rank: 1
Economy Health Rank: 16
The thought of Pittsburgh for most people likely conjures the grit of the steel industry and hard-nosed sports franchises.
But for 36-year-old Christopher Bajgier, a senior product manager at PNC who has spent most of his life in the ‘Burgh, the area is increasingly defined by a burgeoning technology sector.
“Google and Uber have moved in, largely to take advantage of the proximity to (Carnegie Mellon University) and the technical talent there,” he said. “There are several startup incubators and a healthy (venture capital) community in town, and the tech community continues to grow.”
With its wide spectrum of nightlife scenes — from the college-oriented Southside to the upscale Shadyside — young people who were born in and around Pittsburgh tend to “boomerang” back to the area to take advantage of the low cost of living and job availability.
And though not as walkable as others on the list (thanks, frigid winters) MetroMile is available to make the insurance aspect of owning a car more affordable.
But don’t expect the city to lose its Rust Belt charm any time soon.
“Folks here are down to earth, without the rough edges and hasty demeanor you find in large cities like Philadelphia and [New York City],” Bajgier said. “It’s a hard-working city forged from the work ethic of our industrial past.”
Things to do: The Andy Warhol Museum is the largest museum in North America dedicated to a single artist — and what an artist. With three sports stadiums in close proximity, there’s always a game to take in. Pittsburghers live, work and play in the Strip District.
No. 6 — Colorado Springs, Colorado
Affordability Rank: 19
Millennial Happiness Rank: 6
Economy Health Rank: 2
Things to do: A low-key, not-going-out-and-getting-crazy millennial city, Colorado Springs is for the outdoors-loving young folks. Get your nature fix — along with a healthy workout — by hiking Pikes Peak. Before you go, grab some java from Loyal Coffee, a millennial hangout, and if you’re still kicking at the end of the day, catch a punk show at the Black Sheep or learn to swing dance at the Loft (I swear this is coming back).
No. 7 — Nashville, Tennessee
Affordability Rank: 12
Millennial Happiness Rank: 8
Economy Health Rank: 8
Things to do: Music, food and more music — it is Nashville after all. There always seems to be a music or food festival going on in town. To wash down some of that famous hot chicken from Hattie B’s, have a cold one at Jackalope Brewing Company, Fat Bottom Brewing Co. or any of the other numerous hop houses in Nashville.
No. 8 — Boulder, Colorado
Affordability Rank: 18
Millennial Happiness Rank: 11
Economy Health Rank: 1
Things to do: Take a walk down the Pearl Street Mall. This isn’t some enclosed, cookie-cutter consumption complex — you’ll take in the outdoors and mingle with tourists as well as college students. Get your grub on in what Bon Appetit magazine called “the foodiest town in America” with a downtown dining tour. And if you’re feeling classy, check out the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art — it’s only a buck a person!
No. 9 — San Antonio, Texas
Affordability Rank: 13
Millennial Happiness Rank: 7
Economy Health Rank: 13
Things to do: If you’re feeling artsy — even in the heart of Texas — check out the Blue Star Arts Complex, which includes a brewery, at least 10 art galleries and a self-proclaimed “farm-to-pizza” restaurant, Stella Public House. San Antonio also has a thriving food truck scene — try the Mexican food.
No. 10 — New Orleans, Louisiana
Affordability Rank: 15
Millennial Happiness Rank: 2
Economy Health Rank: 17
Things to do: When it comes to the Big Easy, it may be easier to just have a list of things not to do. But locals know Coliseum Square and the Lower Garden District is the place to be for young folks. The Freret Market is a can’t-miss destination. Shop at boutiques, gawk at the Greek Revival mansions, grab brunch in the morning or a couple of beers at night. The world is your oyster… er, crawfish.
No. 11 — Savannah, Georgia
Affordability Rank: 14
Millennial Happiness Rank: 16
Economy Health Rank: 7
Things to do: It may be an old town — a really, really old town — but there’s plenty for millennials to do in Savannah. Have a beer at the veteran-run Service Brewing Co., and walk along the restaurants and bars skirting the Savannah River for a cocktail overlooking the historic city at Rocks on the Roof. Jepson Center for the Arts offers a contemporary enclave in the area, and with a Telfair Museums membership, you can check out a slew of other interesting art and architecture.
No. 12 — Roanoke, Virginia
Affordability Rank: 5
Millennial Happiness Rank: 18
Economy Health Rank: 15
Things to do: The Roanoke Valley Greenways combines two things millennials care about when considering a new city: the outdoors and walkability. Roanoke also has a wealth of parks: Explore Park, Mill Mountain Park and trails along Roanoke Mountain. You don’t even need your own bike — and if you do have a car, MetroMile can make your insurance payments more manageable..
No. 13 — Charleston, South Carolina
Affordability Rank: 17
Millennial Happiness Rank: 15
Economy Health Rank: 10
Things to do: Full disclosure, I had my bachelor party in Charleston. That’s because it has a good balance of nightlife, food and the outdoors. King Street is the go-to place for brunch, shopping and bars and restaurants. Revelry Brewing Co. is a highlight of the ubiquitous beer scene. (Did we mention millennials like beer?) And, as with any millennial-friendly city, there’s a farmers market.
No. 14 — Virginia Beach, Virginia
Affordability Rank: 21
Millennial Happiness Rank: 10
Economy Health Rank: 14
Things to do: The 68-acre Bayville Farms Park offers a sprawling dog park (we love our doggos) and disc golf. In fact, the city has more than 4,000 acres of parkland. It’s a quick trip to the beach for quiet revitalization, and the Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater brings in big musical acts from the across the U.S. (Vans Warped Tour even makes a stop here.) And you can never go wrong with a contemporary art museum.
No. 15 — Columbia, Missouri
Affordability Rank: 3
Millennial Happiness Rank: 24
Economy Health Rank: 18
Things to do: Rose Music Hall and the Blue Note both bring a plethora of alternative country and blues bands, and host events — “E.T.” will be featured at Movies in the Park next month. Locals and college students flock to Logboat Brewing Co. Also, it’s a college town, so there’s plenty of cool coffee places to chill out and do work
No. 16 — Portland, Maine
Affordability Rank: 22
Millennial Happiness Rank: 17
Economy Health Rank: 6
Things to do: Millennials love stand-up paddleboarding, and the Saco River in Portland provides ample opportunities for SUP, given it’s the summer time. But if a core workout and embarrassment over being unable to actually stand up aren’t your thing, hit up the local Belgian brewery or catch a fly ball at Hadlock Field. There are also some cool trails on Mackworth Island.
No. 17 — Minneapolis
Affordability Rank: 24
Millennial Happiness Rank: 3
Economy Health Rank: 19
Things to do: When you think of Minnesota, you probably don’t think of the beach. But once the ice and snow thaw, you can find true Minneapolis millennials at their favorite summertime haunt: The Hidden Beach on Cedar Lake. Once you’re done roaming through the trails leading away from the “beach,” find a farmer’s market with local specialties, or join a brewery tasting tour group. The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum is the perfect spot to appear culturally literate on a first date.
No. 18 — Ann Arbor, Michigan
Affordability Rank: 23
Millennial Happiness Rank: 20
Economy Health Rank: 4
Things to do: Another college town, you can visit the Kerrytown District for different events every day, including farmers markets, food truck rallies (WE LOVE FOOD TRUCKS), outdoor movies and more. Ann Arbor also has a high concentration of independent bookstores and a public art exhibit along the Huron River. Oh, and FootGolf. Yes, it’s a thing.
No. 19 — Omaha, Nebraska
Affordability Rank: 11
Millennial Happiness Rank: 13
Economy Health Rank: 24
Things to do: Not to bring up beer again, but Thrillist last year named Omaha one of the 10 untapped beer cities poised to blow up. And from Bright Eyes and Jenny Lewis to a new crop of bands and rappers, Omaha’s music scene is truly its jewel. Some of the best up-and-coming bands swing through the Slowdown.
No. 20 — Durham, North Carolina
Affordability Rank: 16
Millennial Happiness Rank: 21
Economy Health Rank: 12
Things to do: The Brightleaf District is the place to go if you want to see historic architecture and experience the nightlife of the former tobacco warehouses. If nightlife isn’t your scene, head over to the Duke Lemur Center to hang out with some Madagascar natives.
No. 21 — Lawrence, Kansas
Affordability Rank: 6
Millennial Happiness Rank: 23
Economy Health Rank: 21
Things to do: Explore Massachusetts Street in the heart of downtown Lawrence, where you can admire Victorian architecture, grab a beer at a local brewery or cool off at Mass Street Soda, where they stock over 1,000 sodas. Lawrence is also home to the Prairie Park Nature Center, a 100-acre nature preserve that’s free to enter. The park offers walking trails, as well as a chance to see beavers, deer and bobcats. If nature isn’t your thing, visit one of the city’s art or history museums.
No. 22 — Fargo, North Dakota
Affordability Rank: 4
Millennial Happiness Rank: 22
Economy Health Rank: 25
Things to do: Based on all the stuff to do in Fargo, it seems impossible to ever get bored. Fargo features a gaming cafe, indoor skateboarding and even a classic pinball arcade. Catch a show at the historic Fargo Theatre, which showcases plays, comedians, big-name musical acts like Gavin DeGraw and film festivals.
No. 23 — St. Paul, Minnesota
Affordability Rank: 25
Millennial Happiness Rank: 5
Economy Health Rank: 23
Things to do: Dig into authentic Italian food and goods at the famous Cossetta’s Alimentari, or take a historical tour through the Wabasha Street Caves — as seen on the History Channel — while learning about the infamous history of St. Paul. The Como Park Zoo and Conservatory has beautiful gardens to admire. Locals flock to The Bulldog, which serves up both German and local brews. I mean, the city’s official website has a brunch guide…. Just sayin’.
No. 24 — Rochester, Minnesota
Affordability Rank: 10
Millennial Happiness Rank: 25
Economy Health Rank: 22
Things to do: Get your daily dose of caffeine with locally sourced coffee and tea at Kutzky Market, then grab a beer and pizza for lunch from Forager Brewery. For a fancier feel, sip on a custom cocktails at The Doggery — a Prohibition-era speakeasy (no, sadly, I don’t think dogs are allowed). For some exercise, travel along the 12.5-mile Douglas Trail and enjoy the “rural scenery, traversing some of the richest agricultural land in Minnesota.”
No. 25 — Salt Lake City
Affordability Rank: 20
Millennial Happiness Rank: 19
Economy Health Rank: 20
Things to do: The Sugar House District is the young hip place to be in Salt Lake City, with everything from brew pubs (yeah, even in Salt Lake City) to record stores. Or you can go shopping at The City Creek Center, then sit down for a bite to eat and some local brew at Squatters. You could also indulge in some authentic Mexican cuisine (and apparently killer margaritas) at the Red Iguana.
First, while we know that millennials like to stay ahead of the curve, they also like to be in with the cool crowd. Regardless of how cheap a city is to live in, if there aren’t a good amount of young people there — or on the move there — we don’t want to live there. “Community” was a word that came up a lot during research, meaning us avocado-toast-eating, Chili’s-and-Applebee’s-killing youngsters want to be with our peers.
So, we looked at every county* in the U.S. and found the total and average annual change in the share of 25- to 34-year-olds in the county’s population from 2011 to 2015, along with the current share of that age group. We assigned each of those variables a standardized score and ranked the average. We only included counties with populations greater than 70,000, then chose the top 200 counties as a starting point.
Now came the real rigorous math-y stuff. To spare you having to spend the rest of the week uncrossing your eyes, here’s a basic rundown of what we considered in the analysis:
- The average change and total change in unemployment rate from 2011 to 2015
- Regional prices, rent and how each city stacked up its state median income
- Millennial happiness: The average and total change in the share of 25- to-34-year- olds in each population from 2011 to 2015, walkability (courtesy of Walk Score) and the top 100 cities for coffee fanatics (courtesy of SmartAsset)
Then, The Penny Hoarder staff chose the top 25 based on affordability and if we would actually live there. Those 25 cities received a Millennial Happiness Rank, Affordability Rank and Economy Health Rank, based on another analysis using the same factors from above.
And there you have it!
*Counties were used as a starting point to capture suburbs around city centers. It also allowed us to match up unemployment rates with each region.
Alex Mahadevan is a former data journalist at The Penny Hoarder.