10 Best Cities for High Salaries and Low Cost of Living in the Midwest

By:  Lyle Daly | Published Feb. 8, 2021

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Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, and most affordable city in The Motley Fool's rankings.

Image source: Getty Images

Those looking for an inexpensive place to live shouldn't have any trouble finding one in the Midwest. This region has quite a few cities with costs of living well below the national average.

Ranking the 10 most affordable cities in the Midwest wasn't just about picking the cheapest ones, though. A city's affordability depends on how the typical resident's income compares to the cost of living. On this list, you'll see the cities that do the best by that standard.

Editor's note: We've also included a list of professions that are overrepresented in these areas compared to other cities as well as unemployment figures -- use these to get an idea of which types of jobs might be most available in each area and how the job market is currently performing. We've also pointed out the median property value in each city in case you're thinking about moving there and need to plan your new mortgage.

The 10 best places to live in the Midwest for high salaries and low cost of living

These 10 Midwestern cities have the best ratio of high salaries to low cost of living.

When one city has a higher ratio than another, it means the average resident in the first city would have more money left over each month than the average resident in the second city.

Affordability ranking City Estimated income-to-expense ratio Cost of living estimate Median household income
1 Des Moines, Iowa 1.280 $55,598 $71,164
2 St. Paul, Minnesota 1.267 $66,062 $83,698
3 Minneapolis, Minnesota 1.263 $66,251 $83,698
4 Joliet, Illinois 1.260 $59,821 $75,379
5 St. Louis, Missouri 1.203 $55,220 $66,417
6 Omaha, Nebraska 1.193 $59,002 $70,373
7 Kansas City, Missouri 1.173 $59,884 $70,215
8 Kalamazoo, Michigan 1.166 $48,412 $56,441
9 Columbus, Ohio 1.164 $57,741 $67,207
10 Green Bay, Wisconsin 1.159 $56,102 $65,026

Now, let's take a more thorough look at every city on the list.

1. Des Moines, Iowa

The Des Moines skyline seen from the river on a sunny day.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.280
Cost of living index: 88.2
Cost of living estimate: $55,598
Median household income: $71,164
Median property value: $127,200
Population: 215,900 (655,400 in Des Moines-West Des Moines metro area)
Unemployment rate: 4.4%

A cost of living index that's 11.8% lower than the national average and a median income 3.6% higher than the national median make Des Moines the most affordable city in the Midwest. This city also has an unemployment rate that's 2% lower than the national average.

Compared to those in other cities, residents of Des Moines are more likely to work in production occupations, personal care and service occupations, and food preparation and service.

2. St. Paul, Minnesota

St. Paul, Minnesota at dusk.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.267
Cost of living index: 104.8
Cost of living estimate: $66,062
Median household income: $83,698
Median property value: $216,100
Population: 307,700 (3.63 million in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro area)
Unemployment rate: 5.0%

St. Paul's cost of living index, which is 4.8% above the national average, is on the higher side for the Midwest. But the city also has high wages, as the median income tops the national median by 21.8%, and a low unemployment rate.

A higher-than-expected number of St. Paul residents work in life, physical, and social science occupations, as well as positions in the legal field and healthcare support.

3. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Aerial view of Minneapolis, Minnesota and lakes.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.263
Cost of living index: 105.1
Cost of living estimate: $66,251
Median household income: $83,698
Median property value: $269,500
Population: 425,400 (3.63 million in Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington metro area)
Unemployment rate: 4.8%

The median income in Minneapolis is 21.8% greater than the national median. That's enough to make it one of the best cities in the Midwest for high salaries and low expenses, even with a cost of living index 5.1% above the national average. The city also has low unemployment.

Jobs that are overrepresented in Minneapolis include arts, design, entertainment, sport, and media positions; community and social service work; and life, physical, and social science occupations.

4. Joliet, Illinois

Joliet, Illinois, from the river bridge.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.260
Cost of living index: 94.9
Cost of living estimate: $59,821
Median household income: $75,379
Median property value: $172,400
Population: 148,000 (9.5 million in Chicago-Naperville-Elgin metro area)
Unemployment rate: 9.3%

Joliet combines a strong median income that's 9.7% more than the national median with a cost of living index 5.1% below the national average. There is one big issue, though, and that's a very high unemployment rate.

Residents in Joliet are more likely than those in other cities to work in material moving, as law enforcement workers and supervisors, and in fire fighting and other protective services.

5. St. Louis, Missouri

Aerial view of St. Louis, Missouri.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.203
Cost of living index: 87.6
Cost of living estimate: $55,220
Median household income: $66,417
Median property value: $154,800
Population: 302,800 (2.8 million in metro area)
Unemployment rate: 8.4%

Although the median income in St. Louis is 3.3% less than the national median, it has a low cost of living index that beats the national average by 12.4%. Unfortunately, this is another city where unemployment is a problem, as the unemployment rate is well above the national average.

In the St. Louis labor force, there are more residents than expected who work in fire fighting and other protective services; life, physical, and social science occupations; and legal occupations.

6. Omaha, Nebraska

Downtown Omaha, Nebraska, with lake and fountain.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.193
Cost of living index: 93.6
Cost of living estimate: $59,002
Median household income: $70,373
Median property value: $163,400
Population: 468,300 (941,900 in Omaha-Council Bluffs metro area)
Unemployment rate: 3.5%

It's fairly inexpensive to live in Omaha, which has a cost of living index 6.4% below the national average. Residents also tend to earn a bit more than average, as the median income is 2.4% above the national median. To top it off, Omaha has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

Omaha has a higher-than-expected number of residents who work in legal occupations, business and financial operations, and computer and mathematical operations.

7. Kansas City, Missouri

Kansas City, Missouri with fountain.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.173
Cost of living index: 95.0
Cost of living estimate: $59,884
Median household income: $70,215
Median property value: $166,400
Population: 491,800 (2.14 million in metro area)
Unemployment rate: 6.7%

Kansas City provides a balance with a low cost of living index (5% below the national average) and a solid median income (2.2% above the national median). Its unemployment rate is dead-even with the national average.

The number of Kansas City residents working in fire fighting and prevention and other protective services is 1.75 times higher than expected. Other popular jobs include community and social service occupations, along with arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations.

8. Kalamazoo, Michigan

Downton Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.166
Cost of living index: 76.8
Cost of living estimate: $48,412
Median household income: $56,441
Median property value: $103,700
Population: 76,000 (340,300 in Kalamazoo-Portage metro area)
Unemployment rate: 5.6%

Kalamazoo is both the least expensive city on this list and the city with the lowest wages. The cost of living index is extremely low, as it's 23.2% below the national average, while the median income is 17.8% below the national median. When it comes to unemployment, Kalamazoo does better than the national average.

More Kalamazoo residents than expected work in food preparation and service; life, physical, and social science occupations; and arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations.

9. Columbus, Ohio

Columbus, Ohio from river.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.164
Cost of living index: 91.6
Cost of living estimate: $57,741
Median household income: $67,207
Median property value: $159,400
Population: 895,900 (2.11 million in metro area)
Unemployment rate: 5.2%

Life in Columbus doesn't cost too much, as the cost of living index is 8.4% lower than the national average. The median income is less than the national median by 2.2%, but the city's unemployment rate is 1.5% better than the average for the country as a whole.

Positions that are overrepresented in Columbus, compared to other areas, are material moving jobs, computer and mathematical occupations, and work in business and financial operations.

10. Green Bay, Wisconsin

Green Bay, Wisconsin, with bridge.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.159
Cost of living index: 89.0
Cost of living estimate: $56,102
Median household income: $65,026
Median property value: $131,100
Population: 104,800 (321,600 in metro area)
Unemployment rate: 5.1%

Even though Green Bay has a median income 5.4% less than the national median, it's still very affordable because of a cost of living index that's 11% below the national average. The city also has good unemployment numbers.

An unusually high number of Green Bay residents work in production occupations, as well as jobs in farming, fishing, forestry, and material moving.

Methodology

Each city's cost of living index was taken from the Council for Community and Economic Research's Q4 2020 cost of living index report. To determine the estimated cost of living in each city, we transformed the cost of living index into a percentage and multiplied it by the average annual expenditure of all consumer units from the 2019 Consumer Expenditure Survey.

We divided the median annual household income (sourced from the 2019 American Community Survey) to determine the estimated income-to-expenses ratio.

Sources

Many or all of the products here are from our partners that pay us a commission. It’s how we make money. But our editorial integrity ensures our experts’ opinions aren’t influenced by compensation. Terms may apply to offers listed on this page.

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