Money experts from Warren Buffett on down all say the same thing: If you want to live a happy, comfortable life, make sure to keep your daily expenses in check, so that your salary will more than cover them. That's great advice, but it's increasingly difficult to follow as living expenses, particularly for housing and health care, continue to climb. This summer, average U.S. average rent reached an all-time high of $1,405 a month. In Manhattan, the most expensive rental market in the country, average rents climbed to more than $4,100, and in San Francisco, the second priciest, they were more than $3,500.
What you need is a major city with lots of opportunity but affordable rent and living expenses. Believe it or not, such places do exist. The personal finance site GOBankingRates recently highlighted 35 cities where you can live comfortably for $50,000 a year or less. They calculated this using the 50/30/20 rule in which half of your income goes for necessities including housing, transportation, groceries and health care, another 30 percent goes for luxuries such as sports or entertainment, and the last 20 percent goes to savings. By that logic, any place where you can get the necessities for half your income or less is likely a place where you can live a comfortable life.
We used GOBankingRate's list to find the most affordable metro areas in the United States. These places aren't Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley but they do offer the excitement of big-city living, often in an up-and-coming location. And yet it's still possible to live the good life, even on a five-figure salary.
Annual income to live comfortably: $48,628.96
If you like the Arizona desert, now may be a great time to settle in Phoenix, since the area's population is growing rapidly, and housing prices are expected to climb quickly as a result. Tourism and manufacturing are the area's biggest industries. Tourists are drawn to the mild winter weather and year-round sunshine. On the other hand, average highs in June, July, and August reach well over 100 degrees.
Annual income to live comfortably: $34,808.64
Detroit is perhaps best known as the the seat of the U.S. auto industry and the largest American city ever to file for bankruptcy protection. But the city emerged from bankruptcy and has seen a great deal of investment since then. Locals say it's a completely different city than it was five years ago, and unemployment that has been lower than the national average.
It's also one of the most affordable big city in the U.S., a place where you can live a pretty good live for less than $35,000 a year, thanks in part to average rent for a one-bedroom apartment of only $600 a month.
Annual income to live comfortably: $49,761.60
Washington, D.C. is one of the nation's most expensive places to live. Just ask Jeff Bezos, who spent $23 million for a home there. But just an hour or so to the northeast, Baltimore offers much more affordable living with average rent under $1,200 for a one bedroom apartment, according to RentCafé. Plus, there's legendary seafood, more historic buildings per square mile than any other American city, and fewer politicians than in Washington.
4. St. Louis
Annual income to live comfortably: $44,492.24
St. Louis is right on the Mississippi, and its greater metro area straddles both Missouri and Illinois, on the Eastern side of the river. Like many Midwestern cities, St. Louis flourished as manufacturing grew, and manufacturing is still the biggest industry here, followed by health care, the area's biggest industry by employment. Before Europeans settled here, the region was the center of Native American Mississippian culture, known for their mound-building. Cahokia, a one-time mound metropolis, still remains partly preserved just across from St. Louis on the Illinois side of the river.
5. San Antonio
Annual income to live comfortably: $43,460.40
GOBankingRates' research suggests that living expenses in San Antonio will rise, so now might be a good time to lock in an affordable rent or mortgage if you can. San Antonion is Texas' oldest municipality and it has the historic monuments to prove it--The Alamo and the 1716 Mission Concepcion have been jointly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With multiple military bases in the area, the military is the largest local industry, followed by health care and government. In the past decades, the city has grown into a magnet for call centers, and had gained automotive manufacturing as well.
6. Las Vegas
Annual income to live comfortably: $43,454.96
Sin City's biggest economic draw is, of course, tourism and gaming. Housing has gone through a cycle of boom and bust, and is still relatively affordable. Meantime, Zappo's founder Tony Hsieh and others have invested in revitalizing downtown, making it more welcoming to families.
Annual income to live comfortably: $39,036.80
Like Detroit, Cincinnati is a rare big city where you can live a comfortable lifestyle on less than $40,000 a year. One reason for this lower cost of living is lower health insurance costs than elsewhere, according to GOBankingRates. Multiple Fortune 500 companies are headquartered here, including The Kroger Company, Procter & Gamble, and Macy's.
8. Kansas City
Annual income to live comfortably (in Kansas City, Missouri): $46,655.68
Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas are both part of the Kansas City Metro Area, which crosses the state line between the two. This is one of the few large cities where average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is less than $1,000.
Downtown Kansas City, Missouri has seen about $6 billion in development since 2000, with the aim to attract convention visitors and tourism. And indeed it has a lot to attract visitors--the city is famous as the site of some of the fiercest Civil War battles, has a long tradition of jazz music, and is known for its barbecue.
The biggest local employer is the federal government, which has many operations in town, including the IRS. Ford is also a large local employer and the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries have a presence here as well.
9. Columbus, Ohio
Annual income to live comfortably: $41,750.96
Beyond its low cost of living, Columbus has a lot going for it. It's been ranked among America's best cities by both BusinessWeek and Money Magazine. This may be why it's among the fastest-growing cities in the nation.
The city has a varied economy that covers everything from research to shipping, aviation to insurance. That diversity has helped Columbus weather regional and national downturns better than other cities have.
Annual income to live comfortably: $40,726.80
This city is, of course, best known for the 500-mile race that bears its name. But compared to Indiana as a whole, its economy is less based on manufacturing and more based on financial services, insurance, professional services, and pharmaceuticals. Eli Lilly is the city's biggest employer.
11. Oklahoma City
Annual income to live comfortably: $42,908.56
Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment of about $700 is one reason this city is so affordable. It has one of the world's largest livestock markets, and the federal government, the energy industry, and the Air Force, with a base nearby, drive the local economy.
Annual income to live comfortably: $42,260.16
Considered part of the Deep South, Memphis has a rich history, and is known as the birthplace of rock and roll and the blues. Historic Beale Street, lined with blues clubs, gets 4 million visitors a year, making it the most visited attraction in Tennessee (take that, Grand Ole Opry!) So if you love being around the music industry and country music but can't afford Nashville, Memphis might be a city to consider.
The Memphis economy is centered on shipping. Federal Express is headquartered here and, because of the confluence of highway, waterway, air, and rail services, it's the biggest shipping hub in the nation. In fact, large manufacturers such as Nike have set up distribution centers here to take advantage of its location and the proximity of a major FedEx hub.
13. Richmond, Virginia
Annual income to live comfortably: $47,437.76
This city is rich with history, first during the American Revolution, when Patrick Henry made his "Give me liberty or give me death!" speech here in 1775, then later as the capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Today, law and finance are a big part of the city's economy, with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond both located here. Advertising is another prominent local industry.