The 8 Least Expensive Places to Live in the United States

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If you ask around, most people will probably tell you that the United States is going to hell in a hand basket. The federal government recently blundered its way through a partial shutdown, congressional leaders used (and will probably use again in the future) the debt ceiling as a political bargaining chip, and overall economic confidence as measured by Gallup has not yet regained its pre-shutdown levels, let alone turned positive (that is, a majority of people believe the current economic situation is bad and getting worse).

It’s times like these that make people seriously start considering their personal financial stability. Overall savings are still well below recommended levels, the job market is anemic, and everywhere, the cost of living is edging ever higher. Inflation — or its evil twin, deflation — as measured by the consumer price or personal consumption expenditures index is typically the primary gauge that people use to determine if the prices of things they buy are changing. These indexes track the overall change in prices paid by consumers for the goods and services they consume in day-to-day life, and they have recently been moving up fairly slowly — about 1.5 percent over the past 12-month period.

But national averages mask regional price differences, and within the U.S., differences between and even within states can be staggering. Based on regional economic differences, the cost of living can vary greatly from place to place. So if you’re looking for a change of scenery and are thinking about moving somewhere a dollar can go further than where you are now, here are some of the least expensive places to live in the country.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rustytanton/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rustytanton/

1. Dalton, Georgia

Dalton, in northwest Georgia, received the short end of the stick during the financial crisis. The city sits at the heart of its namesake Metropolitan Statistical Area, and headline unemployment in the region peaked at 15.6 percent in November 2010, one of the highest rates recorded in the wake of the crisis. And unemployment is still high, declining to just 10.3 percent in August.

In addition to high unemployment, real per capita income in the region was just 65 percent of the national average in 2011. Reduced income means reduced spending, a self-reinforcing cycle that slows down overall economic activity.

It’s no consolation, but this reduced activity has helped drive down prices in the region. Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that average prices paid by consumers for a standard mix of goods and services consumed in the area are about 15.3 percent below the national average. Sperling’s, a regional data analysis service, places the overall cost of living in Dalton at 92.8 percent of the national average. Median home cost is just 46 percent of the national average, although home value is depreciating in the region. Property tax is well below the national average.

The Living Wage Calculator — a tool developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — calculates that the living wage in Dalton is $8.44 per hour for one adult and $16.11 for two adults and one child. This compares against a required living wage of $9.23 per hour for one adult and $17.16 per hour for two adults and one child for Georgia as a whole. Required after-tax income to meet cost-of-living expenses in Dalton is $1,276 per month.

It’s worth pointing out that the living wage for one adult is still higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cncphotos/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cncphotos/

2. Michigan City-La Porte, Indiana

Like most of the other places on this list, the late-2000s financial crisis left the Michigan City-La Porte region in northwest Indiana a mere husk of its former self. Unemployment rocketed from a range of between 5 percent and 6 percent before the crisis to a peak of 14.5 percent after the crisis, and the headline rate has pretty much remained about 11 percent since. As it so often goes, fewer jobs means less aggregate income means less spending, and prices fall.

The BLS data show that average prices paid by consumers for the mix of goods and services consumed in the Michigan City-La Porte area are about 15.7 percent below the national average. Sperling’s puts the overall cost of living in Michigan City at 86.7 percent the national average. Median home cost in the city is about 57.8 percent the national average, and the property tax rate is below the national average.

The Living Wage Calculator puts the living wage in the area at $8.14 per hour for one adult and $16.40 per hour for two adults and one child. This compares against $8.44 per hour for a one adult and $16.51 per hour for two adults and one child for Indiana as a whole. Required after-tax income to meet cost-of-living expenses in Michigan City is $1,211 per month.

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33954075@N07/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/33954075@N07/

3. Sandusky, Ohio

Unemployment in Sandusky, a city in northern Ohio with a view of Lake Erie, is actually not quite as crippling a problem as it is in the previous two places. The financial crisis did tear jobs out of the region as crises are wont to do, but after a long fight, the headline unemployment rate has simmered down to about 7.6 percent, just slightly above the national average.

The BLS data show that average prices paid by consumers for the mix of goods and services consumed in the area are about 16.4 percent cheaper than the national average. Sperling’s data show that the overall cost of living in Sandusky is about 87 percent the national average. The median cost of a home is about 65 percent the national average, but property taxes are slightly higher than average.

The living wage calculator puts the living wage in the city for one adult at just $7.60 per hour, which is very close to the region’s minimum wage of $7.30 per hour (but still not quite there). The living wage for two adults and 1 child is $15.77 per hour. This compares against $7.96 per hour for 1 adult and $15.92 for two adults and one child for Ohio at large. Required after-tax income to meet cost-of-living expenses in Sandusky is $1,160 per month.

Fun fact about Sandusky: In 2011, Forbes ranked the area its No. 1 place to live cheaply. It has low crime, a pretty good school system, and a relatively weak economy that has driven prices lower. What could be better?

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nwlynchphotos/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nwlynchphotos/

4. Jonesboro, Arkansas

Unlike most of the rest of the country, Jonesboro, a city in northeastern Arkansas, weathered the financial crisis with a modicum of grace. Unemployment was at 4.6 percent in October 2008 and increased to a maximum of just 8.4 percent in February 2010. However, the recovery has been tough. Headline unemployment has declined just more than 1 percentage point from its high, to 7.1 percent.

The headline unemployment rate in Jonesboro is 6.5 percent, which is strong compared to the national average. The BLS data show that average prices paid by consumers for the mix of goods and services consumed in the area are about 16.4 percent below the national average. Sperling’s data show that the overall cost of living in the area is 87 percent of the national average. Median home cost is about 64 percent the national average, while property taxes are well below average.

The living wage calculator puts the living wage in Jonesboro at $8.02 per hour for one adult and at $15.85 per hour for two adults and one child. However, because housing in Jonesboro is actually relatively expensive compared to the rest of Arkansas (at least as calculated by MIT), the living wage for one adult in Arkansas at large is lower, at just $7.86 per hour — but because of higher price levels spread across other expenses, the living wage required for two adults and one children is higher, at $16.03 per hour. Required after-tax income to meet cost-of-living expenses in Jonesboro is $1,205 per month.

Cape Girardeau, Missouri

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ohiostate/

5. Cape Girardeau-Jackson, Missouri-Illinois

The Cape Girardeau-Jackson metropolitan area is split by both the Missouri-Illinois state line and Interstate 55. Unfortunately, unemployment in this region has actually been on the rise over the past few months, increasing from an admirable 5.9 percent in April to 7.2 percent in July. The region is at the mercy of seasonal factors, and overall unemployment has been on the decline, having plateaued around 8.5 percent in the wake of the crisis.

The BLS data show that average prices paid by consumers for the mix of goods and services consumed in the area are about 17.1 percent below the national average. Sperling’s data show that the overall cost of living in the area is 92 percent of the national average. Median home cost is 76.6 percent the average, and property tax is well below average.

The living wage calculator puts the living wage in Cape Girardeau County for one adult at just $7.35 per hour, a rate that is flirting with the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. For two adults and one child, the living wage is $15.26 per hour. This compares against a living wage of $8.17 per hour for one adult and $16.05 for two adults and one child in Missouri at large. Required after-tax income to meet cost of living expenses in Cape Girardeau County is $1,112 per month.

Danville, Illinois

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/grifray/

6. Danville, Illinois

Danville, a city in eastern Illinois, was blown over by the financial crisis and has yet to truly recover. Unemployment in the city began rising in 2007 and peaked near 15.7 percent early in 2010. Rates declined slightly, briefly dipping below 10 percent a few times after the crisis, but headline unemployment has recently exploded higher, climbing to 14.4 percent in July.

BLS data show that average prices paid by consumers for the mix of goods and services consumed in the area are about 17.5 percent below the national average. Sperling’s data show that the overall cost of living in Danville is 85 percent the national average. Median home cost is just 41 percent the national average, although home values are generally depreciating. The property tax is above average.

The living wage calculator puts the living wage in Danville at $7.54 per hour for a single adult, below the local minimum wage of $8 per hour. The living wage for two adults and one child is $15.91 per hour. This compares against a living wage of $9.66 per hour for one adult and of $18.07 for two adults and one child for Illinois at large. Required after-tax income to meet cost-of-living expenses in Danville is $1,128 per month.

Morristown, Tennessee

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/autohistorian/

7. Morristown, Tennessee

Morristown, a city northwest of Knoxville, Tennessee, has also not yet fully recovered from the financial crisis. After reaching an unemployment rate of just 4.7 percent in May 2007, joblessness rocketed to 16.2 percent in June 2009 and has leveled off at about 10 percent, edging down to 9.7 percent in July.

The BLS data show that average prices paid by consumers for the mix of goods and services consumed in the area are about 17.7 percent below the national average. Sperling’s data show that the overall cost of living in Morristown is 89 percent the national average. Median home cost is 67 percent of the national average, and the property tax is well below average.

The MIT living wage calculator puts the living wage in Morristown at $8.35 per hour for one adult and $16.13 per hour for two adults and one child. This compares against $8.84 per hour for one adult and $17.10 per hour for two adults and one child for Tennessee at large. Required after-tax income to meet cost-of-living expenses in Morristown is $1,204 per month.

State Capitol, Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ensignbeedrill/

State Capitol, Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ensignbeedrill/

8. Jefferson City, Missouri

The BLS data show that average prices paid by consumers for the mix of goods and services consumed in the area are about 19 percent below the national average. Sperling’s data show that the average cost of living in Jefferson is 96 percent the national average. Median home cost is 83 percent the national average, while property taxes are below average.

MIT’s living wage calculator puts the living wage in Jefferson City at $7.43 per hour for one adult and at $15.20 per hour for two adults and one child. This compares against a living wage of $8.17 per hour for one adult and of $16.05 for two adults and one child in Missouri at large. Required after-tax income to meet cost-of-living expenses in Jefferson City is $1,235 per month.

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