Adventure Towns With Low Living Costs in the USA

Want to find a cheap place to live that’s also an outdoor playground?

The current issue of Outside magazine has its Facebook-fueled rundown of the best towns and cities in the USA to live in. In a big upset, the #1 place on the list was Chattanooga, Tennessee. It beat out the places that always seem to top these lists, which are almost always out west.

Outside readers are an adventurous bunch of course, so the highlighted cities all have plenty of green space and places to biking, hiking, and rock climbing. In some places that fit the bill, that’s going to cost you a bundle. Boulder may be nice, but you’ll pay San Francisco kind of prices to live there (median home price $478K after the housing crash). Chattanooga is a different story. It’s got all the adventure, including some fantastic white water rafting and a place where you can learn to go hang gliding, but it’s undiscovered enough to be cheap. The median home value is $128,000. At today’s mortgage rates, that means you can have a whole house for under a grand a month, including taxes and insurance. Rentals are likewise reasonable. Downtown is pedestrian-friendly and there’s an ec0-friendly electric bus system. One bridge across the Tennessee River is just for pedestrians and bikes. With 168,000 people, it’s a city, but is not overwhelming. (Both the photos here are from Chattanooga: riverside and Ruby Falls.)

Some of the others on the list aren’t really a bargain: Portland, Charleston, Santa Fe, and Ashland, Oregon, for instance. Some are still quite cheap though—and fun. Missoula, Montana has a population of 66,800 but has “three dozen cycling, paddling, skiing, and fly fishing shops inside city limits.” Wilmington, NC has a nice downtown, a great beach, and something many other cities are lacking: jobs.

I really liked Madison, Wisconsin when I was there and it’s another good urban playground. This lively college town is “one of the few places where you can bike, paddle, or ski to work.” It’s one of the most bike-friendly cities in the U.S. Tucson, Arizona also got a lot of votes and this city of a half million is still reasonably priced. “Because the Old Pueblo is eminently affordable, it’s long been home to a strong community of artists, writers, chefs, and environmentalists. On the other end of the weather scale, if you don’t mind the cold there’s Traverse City, Michigan and Portland, Maine—near the LL Bean headquarters.

Outside Magazine is kind of schizo about what it puts online and what it doesn’t, so for now this rundown is only in the print edition or maybe on your iPad app if you’ve bought a subscription there.

Cool and Cheap Small Town America

Not to be outdone, Budget Travel magazine has a rundown of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America. When they say “small,” they really mean it: the #1 choice has fewer than 4,000 people. The #6 one has a population of 309! Did every single one of them vote twice?

The towns were chosen based on 437,480 votes from Budget Travel readers. Topping the list was Lewisburg, West Virginia, a cool artsy town in one armpit of a state. (I grew up on the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in Virgina, 12 miles from the border, so my childhood was filled with hearing lots of jokes about trailer parks, rednecks, and inbreeding.)

There are small town people and city people, but if you’re one of the former it’s fun to browse through this list and see if you could imagine yourself living in Astoria, Oregon or Ripon, Wisconsin. If not, they could at least be worth filing away as places to visit on a road trip. One of them—Cedar Key, Florida—is 130 miles from where I’m living in Tampa. Looks like it’ll be worth a clam chowder run one of these days.

Small Cities and Cost of Living

There’s a strong correlation between the size of a city and the prices there. It’s not a perfect correlation by any means—more on that in a minute—but around the world it’s roughly true. The largest cities in a given country are generally the most expensive. Small towns are generally a fraction of the cost for buying or renting. This also impacts local taxes, restaurant prices (rents for them aren’t as high), and parking garage costs (ditto). It’s only natural that New York costs far more than Nashville, Mumbai far more than Mysore. Small towns in the Czech Republic are still a screaming bargain. Prague? Not so much.

There are tendencies that throw this equation off, however. Places like Ashland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado are more expensive than you would think because of geography. They’re kind of hemmed in and space is finite. Demand exceeds supply. Other places are expensive because they’re tourist towns like Telluride or Aspen in Colorado, Phuket or Hoi An in Southeast Asia. Then you get a double whammy when it’s a combination of the both: think Venice, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Nag’s Head, Key West, or Santorini.

In many ways the mid-tier cities are the sweet spots, with big city amenities at lower prices. Plenty of interesting people and fun things to do, but you don’t have to spend half your earnings for a roof over your head.

Happy hunting!

  1. Henry Williams

    its always good to live in a small city i live in south florida and the prices are ridiculous compared to some of the smaller cities across the US

  2. Gast

    Hi, i think around the world its roughly true…generally small cities are as compared to larger cities a fraction of the cost for buying and rent…

  3. CedarKey Cindy


    Cedar Key, FL is definitely worth the trip up the road – our clams are awesome, the sunsets fabulous. If you’re looking for recommendations for lodging/food – let me know!


    • tim

      Nice domain name you snagged there Cindy. I’ll get in touch if we’re heading that way.

  4. LB

    I have to comment here that Wilmington is indeed a great city (town) but the jobs situation there isn’t all that peachy. Everything is relative, and it is a tourist town so that helps in the summer somewhat, but there is not as much industry there as many locals would like. There is a huge contingent of UNCW grads that love the area and want to stay (not to mention people relocating there) and will gladly take blue-collar jobs to stay for a few more years. It’s business environment is growing, moderately, as many small and large businesses continue to move south for better climates and friendlier labor.

    • tim

      Agreed, but it’s all relative. Compared to cities with unemployment over 10%—which is still much of the country—Wilmington looks downright robust. Nobody has anything close to full employment right now. And naturally each city has its own industry focus. It helps to be in the film industry where you are–or to own a business that feeds it.

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