Finding U.S. cities with good, well-paid jobs and cheap housing involves striking a balance between areas with positive employment prospects and those with a competitive real estate market. Sliding too high on one scale can create problems on the other.
- Des Moines, Iowa is a mid-sized town with outdoor recreational options, cultural events, fine dining, and shopping, all in an affordably-priced metropolis with a relatively robust job market.
- Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota are big cities with plenty of museums, art galleries, sporting events, and other activities; the city's median annual salary and home price are well balanced, as well.
- Salt Lake City's Mormon heritage is among its defining factors, but Utah's largest city also boasts all of the cultural and entertainment options of any big city and has a good annual income-cost of living balance.
- Boise, Idaho, is ideal for nature lovers and has good cultural and dining options; it has a comparatively low median annual salary relative to some other cities but it also has a moderate median home price.
- Omaha, Nebraska, is the home base of Berkshire Hathaway and a bunch of tech startups; it has a moderate median annual salary, but also a very low median home price, relative to other similarly-sized U.S. cities.
By comparing results of the most recent U.S. News & World Report "Best Places to Live" list with those found in WalletHub’s "Best Places to Find a Job" report, it’s possible to identify cities with great job markets and affordable housing. A separate ranking from U.S. News & World Report—its “25 Best Affordable Places to Live” list—is also incorporated in this reporting.
Data for these reports came from:
- The U.S. Census Bureau
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
- U.S. Department of Labor
- U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Council for Community and Economic Research
- Center for Neighborhood Technology
- The Pew Charitable Trusts
- National Conference of State Legislatures
- Chmura Economics & Analytics
Job Market vs. Cost of Living
Take San Francisco, one of the best job markets in the U.S. Moreover, San Francisco’s average annual salary of $64,157 is one of the highest in the country. Unfortunately, so is the City by the Bay’s $996,00 median home price. If you earn less than $70,000 a year, a home that costs more than three-quarters of a million dollars is probably not in your future anytime soon.
Brownsville, Tex., on the other hand, with a cost of living almost 15% below the U.S. average, is a cheap place to live. But the job market makes the picture much less appealing. According to WalletHub’s list of best cities for jobs, Brownsville comes in at No.178 (out of 182). The area’s 9.3% unemployment rate doesn’t help.
A city with a strong job market and relatively high annual salary can still be tough for residents if the cost of living is extremely high; similarly, a city with a low cost of living can still be too expensive if the job market is tepid and annual salary is only moderate.
1. Des Moines, Iowa
With a total metropolitan population of just over 600,000, Iowa's capital city is large but still neighborly. Like many urban areas, downtown Des Moines is home to lofts and condos for Millennials and empty-nesters and is surrounded by suburbs filled mostly with families.
Parks, bike trails, and lakes provide outdoor recreation, while cultural events, festivals, one-of-a-kind restaurants, and shops highlight an active city entertainment scene. All this plus a median annual salary of $49,420 and median home price of just $181,217 combine to make Des Moines the fourth best place to live, according to U.S. News & World Report.
Better yet, residents tend to spend just 20.11% of annual income on housing costs, including mortgage (or rent), utilities, and taxes, a fact that makes Des Moines the third most affordable city in the U.S., according to both U.S. News and WalletHub.
As for the job market, Des Moines comes in at number 45 out of the 182 cities on WalletHub’s best cities for the jobs report. Job prospects, especially in tech and among startups, are enhanced by the community’s low 6.5% unemployment rate. Other promising areas include insurance, financial services, logistics, publishing (Meredith is headquartered there), and healthcare.
The largest cities in the United States—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Phoenix—might have a high median annual income, but they also have very high median home prices.
2. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota
With a metropolitan population of nearly 3.5 million people, Minneapolis and St. Paul, aka the Twin Cities, are about as big-city as one gets in the Midwest—not counting Chicago, of course. There are plenty of big-city amenities like sports stadiums, museums, and art galleries, as well as the Mississippi River, which offers water-based activities galore.
In fact, the state of Minnesota, known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, features everything from boating and swimming to ice fishing and cross-country skiing, depending on the season.
The Twin Cities provides residents with a $55,010 median annual salary, which, combined with a median home price of $237,367, results in the area’s number 22 ranking on U.S. News's best places to live list. A reasonably low cost of living lets residents spend just 25% of their annual income on housing costs, leaving the rest for other expenses.
Job prospects in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is strong, with life sciences, biotech, and health-tech leading the way. Minneapolis is also home to (or near the home of) the corporate headquarters of Target, Best Buy, 3M, Cargill, and General Mills, with manufacturing and retail management also having a strong job showing. The area’s low 7.9% unemployment rate places Minneapolis at number 44 and St. Paul at number 65 on WalletHub's best cities for jobs list.
3. Salt Lake City, Utah
People tend to think of Salt Lake City’s Mormon heritage as a defining characteristic, but the city is no longer religiously uniform. Despite the Latter-Day Saints’ health code, downtown coffee shops abound and alcohol can be purchased and consumed at many restaurants and at bars and pubs. Known as the Crossroads of the West, Salt Lake City, the capital city of Utah, is named for its proximity to the Great Salt Lake. Outdoor recreation is popular, with five national parks and several world-class ski resorts within driving distance.
Coming in at No.31 on U.S. News's best places to live report, Salt Lake City’s metropolitan population of just under 2.4 million is the most highly populated metro area in the state of Utah. Residents earn a median annual salary of $46,221 and spend just over 25% of that on housing expenses each year. The median price of a home in Salt Lake City is $280,894, making it the highest in this sample.
Job seekers have plenty to choose from in the fast-growing Salt Lake City area. WalletHub ranks SLC number 25 among the places to find a job, and the area has a 4.7% unemployment rate. The best private-sector opportunities are found in trade, transportation, technology, and utilities, with education, finance, healthcare, manufacturing, and construction also providing many openings.
4. Boise, Idaho
While other cities on this list have much to offer outdoor enthusiasts, none beats the area around Boise, the capital city of Idaho. Indeed, for recreation around rivers, mountains, canyons, deserts, or lakes, this area could rank near the top of anyone’s list. That said, downtown Boise doesn’t take a back seat when it comes to culture, nightlife, entertainment, and a solid restaurant scene.
With a metro population of 664,000, roughly the same as Des Moines, Boise doesn't rank as a major city, but it’s big enough to have all the amenities and still offer something of a small-town feel. The result is a rank of number 20 on the U.S. News list of best places to live.
The area’s median annual salary of $43,040 and median home price of $221,475 are further enhanced by the fact that residents spend only 26.22% of their annual income on housing, which makes it the 25th most affordable place to live, according to U.S. News.
Ranked number 10 as a great city for jobs by WalletHub, Boise has a 4.1% unemployment rate and better job opportunities than most, especially in finance, logging, mining, livestock, and farming. Recently the region has seen growth in technology, thanks to companies like Micron Technology Inc., HP Inc., and Hewlett Packard, all of which have offices in Boise.
5. Omaha, Nebraska
The 904,000 people who call Omaha home are proud to celebrate their past as cattle ranchers while pointing to the new face of the region, which serves as the home base to a whole slew of new tech startups. Once the eastern start of the first transcontinental railroad, the area is now mostly seen from the air as travelers head further west to cities like San Francisco and Seattle.
All this belies the fact that Omaha ranks number 40 among U.S. News's best places to live and is one of the most affordable (number 14, according to U.S. News), with a median annual salary of $46,490 and ultra-low median home price of just $165,667. This translates to a cost of living that lets residents spend just 25% of their annual income on housing.
Omaha’s 4.5% unemployment rate also makes it a great place to find a job—number 67, according to WalletHub. In addition to its burgeoning tech industry, Nebraska’s largest city is also home to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway, Mutual of Omaha, TD Ameritrade, and the Union Pacific Railroad, to name just a few. Health services and education offer a growing number of employment opportunities, but the real future, employment-wise, may be in technology for a region, which recently earned the nickname “the Silicon Prairie.”
Comparison Table: By the Numbers
The table below shows each city listed above, along with its rank on the U.S. News & World Report Best Places to Live index, median annual salary, median home value, and the percentage of household income that goes toward housing costs, including mortgage (or rent), taxes and utilities. The WalletHub job market ranking is also included, as well as the unemployment (UE) rate for that city.
Top Cities: The Bottom Line
If you're looking for good job prospects combined with affordable housing, consider any of the cities listed above. And if you do decide to pull up stakes and move, be sure to learn how to get a fair deal on your next home.
U.S. Census Bureau. "QuickFacts San Francisco city, California." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
Metropolitan Transportation Commission: Vital Signs. "How much does it cost to buy a home? Home Prices." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
Wallethub. "Best Cities for Jobs." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Economy at a Glance: Brownsville-Harlingen, TX." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. News & World Report. "The 25 Best Affordable Places to Live in the U.S. in 2019." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Economy at a Glance: Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. News & World Report. "150 Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2020-21." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Economy at a Glance: Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Economy at a Glance: Salt Lake City, UT." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Economy at a Glance: Boise City-Nampa, ID." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Economy at a Glance: Omaha-Council Bluffs, NE-IA." Accessed Oct. 9, 2020.