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It’s a common conundrum: Pay thousands in rent to live in a big city, or save the cash and move to a small town?

The question comes up most frequently among young Americans, who move an average of four times between the ages of 18 and 30. According to a 2015 Ipsos Public Affairs study, young adults rated “overall cost of living” as the most important consideration for a move, with 81 percent of respondents giving that factor at least an eight out of 10 (with 10 being the highest). But about half of respondents rated city-centric factors as extremely important as well, including “available jobs” and “amenities like cultural institutions, parks, farmers markets.” Nearly one in three gave similarly high scores to “racial and ethnic diversity.”

In other words, millennials want it all: cheap and cultural, diverse and affordable. Is that realistic?

Using data from the 2014 American Community Survey, part of the U.S. Census, we found the most affordable U.S. cities with a population of at least 250,000. All of these cities offer rent rates at least 14 percent below the national average ($920 per month). The gross median rent figures account for utilities (electricity, gas, water, sewer) and fuels (oil, coal, kerosene, etc.), but do not account for other costs, like internet, health care, education, gas and groceries. Income also varies from city to city, a figure which can significantly offset a high monthly rent payment. Average per capita income rates by city are included for context throughout.

The Midwest dominates the list, with cities from Ohio and Indiana particularly well-represented. Meanwhile, with apologies to New York City and San Francisco, coastal cities were shut out, all of which were far too expensive to qualify.

In the case of a tie, the city with the higher average per capita income was ranked higher. Without further ado, let’s run down each of the 18 big-but-on-a-budget cities.


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