Not everyone craves the bright lights and crowded spaces of big cities. In fact, nearly half of Americans (46%) say they would prefer to live in the suburbs, compared to 19% for urban areas and 35% for rural communities. Small-city life can be best for those who appreciate more wiggle room, fewer degrees of separation and shorter commutes, to name just a few of its advantages. Granted, these little urban areas demand some tradeoffs, too, such as fewer restaurant options or shorter business hours.
One of the best perks of living in a city with a relatively small population is affordability. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the cost of living for a two-parent, two-child family in Hanford, California, for instance, would be $6,516 per month, compared with more than double at $13,251 for the same family in San Francisco.
No two small cities are made equal, though, so which ones outshine the rest? To find out, WalletHub compared more than 1,300 U.S. cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 based on 43 key indicators of livability. They range from housing costs to school-system quality to restaurants per capita. Read on for the winners, additional insight from our panel of experts and a full description of our methodology.
Given the large sample of cities ranked in this study, we grouped cities by percentile. The 99th percentile represents the top 1 percent of small cities in America.
Best Small Cities to Live in America
|Percentile*||City||Total Score||Affordability||Economic Health||Education & Health||Quality of Life||Safety|
|99||Fair Lawn, NJ||70.59||136||130||29||888||29|
|98||Saratoga Springs, NY||68.46||751||119||101||51||376|
|98||Castle Rock, CO||68.38||103||167||48||451||185|
|98||Wake Forest, NC||68.36||68||13||260||501||286|
Note: *99 = Best
With the exception of “Total Score,” all of the columns in the table above depict the relative rank of that city, where a rank of 1 represents the best conditions for that metric category.
Ask the Experts
Living in a small city can be fulfilling, but it comes with challenges as well. We asked a panel of experts in fields such as urban development and public safety to share their thoughts on the pros and cons of small-city life and how to make these areas more attractive to prospective residents. Click on the experts’ profiles below to read their bios and thoughts on the following key questions:
- What are the most important financial factors to consider when deciding where to live?
- What are the benefits and drawbacks of living in a small city versus a large city?
- In evaluating the best small cities to live in, what are the top five indicators?
- Will small cities grow in popularity following the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic?
- What can local policymakers do to attract and retain new residents in small cities?
Ask the Experts
In order to determine the best small cities in America, WalletHub compared 1,319 cities across five key dimensions: 1) Affordability, 2) Economic Health, 3) Education & Health, 4) Quality of Life and 5) Safety. For our sample, we selected cities with population sizes between 25,000 and 100,000 and considered only the “city proper” in each case, excluding cities in the surrounding metro area.
We then evaluated the five dimensions using 43 relevant metrics, which are listed below with their corresponding weights. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for small-city residents. Data for metrics marked with an asterisk (*) were available at the state level only. For metrics marked with two asterisks (**), we calculated population size using the square root of the population in order to avoid overcompensating for minor differences across cities.
Finally, we determined each city’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order our sample.
Affordability – Total Points: 20
- Median Household Income: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
- Cost of Living: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
- Homeownership Rate: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
- Housing Costs: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
Note: This composite metric consists of:
- Median Home Price / Median Annual Household Income
- Median Annual Gross Rent / Median Annual Household Income
- Share of Households with Severe Housing Cost Burden: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
Economic Health – Total Points: 20
- Population Growth: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Income Growth: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Job Growth: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Unemployment Rate: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of Population Living in Poverty: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Debt per Median Earnings: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Foreclosure Rate: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Share of People Who Had a Bankruptcy in the Past 12 Months: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
- Median Credit Score: Full Weight (~2.22 Points)
Education & Health – Total Points: 20
- School-System Quality*: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
Note: This metric is based on WalletHub’s “States with the Best & Worst School Systems” ranking.
- High School Graduation Rate: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Share of Adults Aged 25 & Older with a High School Diploma or Higher: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Percentage of Residents Who Are Fully Vaccinated Against COVID-19: Double Weight (~3.33 Points)
- Share of Insured Population: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Premature-Death Rate: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Share of Adults in Poor or Fair Health: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Share of Live Births with Low Birthweight: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Share of Obese Adults: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Share of Physically Inactive Adults: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
- Limited Access to Healthy Foods: Full Weight (~1.67 Points)
Note: "Limited Access to Healthy Foods" refers to the share of population that is low income and does not live close to a grocery store.
Quality of Life – Total Points: 20
- Average Commute Time: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Share of Population Who Walk to Work: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Average Weekly Work Hours: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Number of Attractions: Double Weight (~2.50 Points)
- Restaurants per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Bars per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Clubs per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Coffee Shops per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Movie Theaters per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Museums per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Performing Arts Centers per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Fitness Centers per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Bike Rental Facilities per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Parks per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
- Department Stores per Capita**: Full Weight (~1.25 Points)
Safety – Total Points: 20
- Violent-Crime Rate: Double Weight (~8.00 Points)
- Property-Crime Rate: Double Weight (~8.00 Points)
- Motor Vehicle Crash Deaths per Capita: Full Weight (~4.00 Points)
Sources: Data used to create this ranking were collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Areavibes, TransUnion, TripAdvisor, County Health Rankings, Yelp, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, ATTOM Data Solutions (RealtyTrac) and WalletHub research.
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