If you’re wondering where you can happily live on a shoestring, retire on a budget, or, maybe, where you can step up your lifestyle and live in the lap of luxury within your budget, the new website, theearthawaits.com, has a tool to help you find your own unique nirvana.
With multiple-choice menus and slider tools, you can choose how far you’ll be from a city center, how cushy your lifestyle could be, how much pollution you can tolerate, family size, apartment size and crime rate. After you enter your information, click calculate, and a city and country appears with how much you’ll likely pay to live there.
For example, let’s say you’re a single person with a budget of $900 per month and the ability to live anywhere in the world. Maybe you’d like a modest lifestyle in a one-bedroom apartment, but you’d love to live in a city center with low pollution and low crime. (Almost sounds like a pipe dream, right?)
Enter your preferences and Osijek, Croatia, pops up on your list of choices, where the living expenses for a modest lifestyle would be around $838, according to the website. Your average rent would be $510, and food for the month would be $157.
Click further and the site will rate the quality of life (79), healthcare (70) and a flight there, which as of press time was $553, according to travel engine Skyscanner. The site will also tell you other things, such as weather, the city’s civil freedom score (87), women’s equality (70.8%) and whether same sex marriage, alcohol and cannabis are legal.
The data for all of this is crunched from about two dozen sources, including Numbeo (for cost of living data), Freedom House reports (for human rights) and U.N. reports, according to the company spokesman. Because the site is new, it is not yet profitable but carries Google ads, book suggestions from an Amazon affiliate, and may make some cash off Skyscanner, pending on the volume of web traffic, the spokesman said.
When the Kansas City Royals won baseball’s World Series in November, much of small-town America was rooting for them. The small-market Royals had been terrible for decades, unable to compete with big-money teams like the New York Yankees. So while rivals from Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., watched from home, the young team from the heart of America became world champions.
More evidence that you don’t have to be in a big coastal city to be a winner.
Kansas City is in the middle of a lot of things — it’s basically the geographic center of the United States, and, in fact, North America. It’s close to the population center, too. Often called the eastern-most western city, it’s where the Ford F-150 is built. Where Hallmark makes its headquarters. Where Garmin helps us all get where we are going. Where modern jazz was born. Where barbecue was perfected (for those with a sweet tooth). Both the Santa Fe and Oregon trails passed through Kansas City, making it the first stop in the American West.
Pat Daneman, 61, found her way there 30 years ago because even back then, Kansas City was affordable.
“My husband had job offers in Chicago and Philadelphia as well and we picked K.C. because we wanted to buy a house and have good schools,” Daneman said. “Our first house was $90,000. I think we put down 10% and payments were about $600. His salary as a college professor was about $30K. It took me a few months to find a job. My salary was about $23K. That was 1986.”
Let’s pause on that math for a moment: their combined pre-tax income was nearly $4,500 a month; their mortgage payment only 15% of that. For a place in a suburb named Lenexa, on the Kansas side, about 10 miles southwest of downtown.
Ten years later the couple sold that house for $125,000 and upgraded.
“We were able to pay off (that mortgage) in about 10 years so we could retire early,” she said.
Daneman’s solid financial footing is critical; her husband died two years ago.
“I am in a paid-off house,” she said. “My taxes are $4,200 and insurance is $1,800… My property taxes feel high, but I think they’re still lower than my parent’s taxes were on Long Island in the 1970s.”
She visits New York often — her daughter and cousins live in Brooklyn — and she loves the big city. But Kansas City is now home for her.
“I love Lenexa and my neighborhood. There are walking trails through the woods. I walk to the grocery, drugstore, library, pool — now that I don’t work in K.C. anymore, most places I go frequently are just a few miles away. I’m close enough to Lawrence to go there for concerts and other events at KU.”
Of course, it’s not perfect. Being in the middle of the continent, Kansas City is within Tornado Alley. Daneman makes an interesting point about living in inexpensive neighborhoods: Her home is probably worth $300,000 now, which is hardly the windfall many homeowners enjoy after a lifetime of mortgage payments. (“That is the down side of affordable housing — not a lot of growth,” she said) And then there’s the decided lack of beaches.
“The worst thing about not living on the coast is no coast,” she said.
The largest employer in Kansas City is the federal government; there’s a Federal Reserve Bank in both Kansas City and St. Louis, making Missouri the only state with two. The Internal Revenue Service has a large presence in the city, as does the Social Security Administration.
Kansas City is considerably larger and better off than its Missouri counterpart 250 miles away on I-70 — St. Louis’ population has been dwindling in recent years, while Kansas City has reversed urban population decline. Today, 25% of all jobs in Missouri and Kansas are in Kansas City, but even better — 63% of new jobs added in the past year within the two states are in Kansas City.
Not everything is rosy. A report by Brookings and the Mid-America Regional Council on Kansas City’s future prospects published in 2014 fretted that the area has a “relatively sparse number of large firms” that compete worldwide; and the city’s job market seemed more sluggish than others to recover from the recession. The report blamed a lack of cross-border cooperation for some of the problem — Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., haven’t always played nicely together, dating back to the Civil War. Racial tensions from when Missouri was a slave state and Kansas was free persist. Crime is still a serious problem, particularly in urban neighborhoods — while the city’s murder rate in 2014 was the lowest in decades, the rate rose dramatically last year, with one murder nearly every three days, according The Kansas City Star.
But Kansas City’s ample inventory of affordable homes is just one of the reasons people people seem enchanted by the City of Fountains.
“I always thought I would move back home to N.Y. at some point,” Daneman said. “But when you live someplace for a long time, that’s hard — much harder than I thought it would be to leave Kansas, of all places … There’s no comparison as far as space, peace, traffic, even weather.”
When you think Ohio, you probably think Cleveland, and you might think Cincinnati. Almost certainly, you don’t think Columbus, but here’s a secret: Ohio’s capital city is larger than its more famous neighbors to the north and south. In fact, it’s the largest U.S. city to make Credit.com’s top 10 most affordable cities list. By some measures, it’s larger than Denver, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. And yet, it doesn’t feel crowded, said native Stu Stull.
“Best thing about Columbus is the ease of getting around and not having to waste time waiting for everything like Chicago, Washington, LA and other cities,” said Stull, 58. “There are no hour-and-a-half waits for dinner, no looking for 10 to 15 minutes for a parking space or waiting in traffic for way too long.” Except for college football Saturdays, of course.
Stull was born and raised in the central Ohio city. He left briefly for Texas, but returned years ago and never looked back. A city employee, his mortgage on a small 3-bedroom house with a garden and screened-in patio eats up only 20% of his income.
“I can get downtown in half an hour and I am 10-plus miles away. Pro football, basketball, and baseball are within a two- or three-hour drive,” he said. The NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets are right in town. “Concerts, like the Rolling Stones last year, and other entertainment comes here often.”
The Columbus economy weathered the recession better than many Midwest towns, thanks to its status as home of The Ohio State University and state government. But Columbus has a thriving private sector, too. Plenty of financial firms are located there — inexpensive housing helps keep labor costs down — like JPMorgan Chase, PNC Financial and Nationwide Mutual Insurance. It’s also a haven for fashion, and home to firms that operate Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, and other well-known brands.
The Columbus economy was recently projected to possibly overtake Cleveland by 2018, according to the Columbus Dispatch.
Stull, who is a graphic designer and a part-time musician, said Columbus is still a place with a strong middle class.
“My experience when traveling to other cities is that life is easier here,” he said. “Most people are not living like a Kardashian no matter where they are.”
Columbus also has both old-world charm and hip hangouts. The historic district, German Village, makes drivers slow down with cobblestone streets. They should slow down anyway to see the gingerbread-like homes built by German immigrants who settled the area. The neighborhood is also home to one of America’s best independent book stores, Book Loft. Meanwhile, the Short North, near the city center, is a busy strip full of high-end restaurants and local pubs; it has the feel of an outdoor festival during every football weekend.
Columbus has its critics, of course. The winters are gray, and some residents lament that it’s a bit boring compared to coastal cities like New York. But with a median home sales price of around $117,000, perhaps there’s enough money left over for frequent trips to the Big Apple.
Stull might be a bit biased, but he said the music scene is surprisingly robust.
“It is a place without the extremes of other places,” Stull says. “To quote native James Thurber, ‘Columbus is a town in which almost anything is likely to happen, and in which almost everything has.'”
Elle Adkins has lived in Oklahoma City all her adult life, so she has a different perspective on the once-sleepy, dusty capital city that’s become a boomtown. “It used to be dreadful, and now we have all this new and exciting stuff,” she said.
Credit.com recently wrote about the top 10 most affordable U.S. cities, defined by the percentage of owners and renters who would be considered “housing poor.”Oklahoma City was second on the list; only Pittsburgh, the subject of next week’s story, ranked higher.
Oklahoma City’s story isn’t that different from North Dakota or Texas: While the rest of the country was reeling from the recession, oil-rich, fracking-friendly parts of the country were thriving — and attracting outsiders.The Oklahoma City metro area, now home to 1.2 million, is consistently among the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the country.
The move of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team to Oklahoma City in 2008 — the team was renamed the “Thunder” — seemed to surprise outsiders.Why would anyone leave the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma?But savvy observers knew the transformation of the old Dust Bowl state was well under way, and the city landing its first Big Four pro sports team was more a culmination of this trend than a coming out party.
Oklahoma City has a distinct advantage over other oil-boom places like North Dakota for obvious reasons. For starters, it’s a capital city, so it also enjoys the spoils of state government spending and the culture a capital brings.
Perhaps not so obvious is that the city also began an aggressive urban renewal project back in the early 1990s, among the first of its kind, which has been a huge success at drawing a new generation of urban dwellers. At the same time, the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy of 1995 seemed to galvanize pride and development Downtown.
While population growth has slowed a bit in the past couple of years — and it’s an open question how Oklahoma will react to the oil bust — the most recent data suggest the changes are paying off for residents.Median family income has risen from $56,500 in 2010 to $64,600 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census.
But while jobs and affordable housing are plentiful in Oklahoma City, natives like Adkins will tell you it’s not perfect. “It depends on where you want to live,” she said. “There are areas that are less expensive. I just happen to live in the ‘best’ school district and that comes with a price.”
Ironically, one place Adkins dreams of moving to is the old home of the Thunder: Seattle. She longs for the region’s no-AC-required summers, “where you can do things outside without fear or getting heat stroke,” she jokes. Both her grandmother and aunt live in Emerald City suburbs. She visits often, but she’s aware of Seattle’s high housing costs, and knows a move there would be tricky.
Adkins and her husband are separated, and the couple used to have a $1,500 monthly mortgage payment. Even with two incomes, that was a struggle, she said.“Before we divided up our finances, we were having trouble making ends meet. So I guess it’s all relative,” she said.
She moved from the Downtown area to a suburb within city boundaries so her son could attend better schools, but she’s rethinking that now. Rent for two-bedroom apartments in Adkins’ neighborhood costs $900 per month, which sounds affordable to coastal ears but in reality makes things tight. Adkins works for a local university in accounting and earns about $41,000 a year — but takes home about $2,000 per month after taxes and insurance costs for her son. “I’m willing to move, though, and perhaps I will soon … to someplace more economical,” she said.
Do you live in other top 10 cities like Louisville, Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus or Cincinnati? We’d like to hear from you. (Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.)