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

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A shopping street in Ogden, Utah, at dusk, in front of a snowcapped mountain.

Image source: Getty Images

The Western United States is known for being expensive, and many of the major cities are anything but affordable. There are, however, plenty of exceptions.

The Ascent analyzed both cost of living and median income data to find the 10 most affordable cities in the West. What we found was a diverse mix of budget-friendly locations. Half of them are less expensive than the national average. The other five may have higher costs of living than the national average, but they also offer high median incomes that boost their affordability.

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 West for high salaries and low cost of living

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

The higher this ratio is, the more money that a typical resident with average income and expenses will have left after paying their bills.

Affordability ranking

City

Estimated income-to-expense ratio

Cost of living estimate

Median household income

1

Ogden, Utah

1.279

$61,964

$79,251

2

Provo, Utah

1.262

$62,721

$79,152

3

Salt Lake City, Utah

1.216

$65,936

$80,196

4

Denver, Colorado

1.187

$72,176

$85,641

5

Oakland, California

1.164

$98,525

$114,696

6

Surprise, Arizona

1.136

$59,758

$67,896

7

Olympia, Washington

1.128

$69,592

$78,512

8

Colorado Springs, Colorado

1.108

$65,557

$72,633

9

Bozeman, Montana

1.102

$68,457

$75,418

10

Boise, Idaho

1.064

$62,469

$66,466

Downton Ogden, Utah, with mountains in background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.279
Cost of living index: 98.3
Cost of living estimate: $61,964
Median household income: $79,251
Median property value: $152,100
Population: 86,100 (676,900 in Ogden-Clearfield metro area)
Unemployment rate: 4.2%

Ogden combines a reasonable cost of living index that’s 1.7% below the national average with a median income that’s 15.4% above the national median. It also has a low unemployment rate, even if it is higher than that of the surrounding metro area.

Residents of Ogden are more likely to work in production occupations, material moving, and construction and extraction compared to other areas.

2. Provo, Utah

Aerial photo of Provo, Utah, with mountains in background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.262
Cost of living index: 99.5
Cost of living estimate: $62,721
Median household income: $79,152
Median property value: $247,100
Population: 116,100 (632,700 in Provo-Orem metro area)
Unemployment rate: 2.5%

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Provo boasts the lowest unemployment rate on this list, and it’s also one of the lowest in the country. Its median income is 15.2% above the national median, while its cost of living index slips under the national average by 0.5%.

Compared to other locations, Provo has quite a few residents who work in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations. Education instruction, library positions, and computer and mathematics jobs are also all more popular than average.

3. Salt Lake City, Utah

Aerial photo of Sale Lake City, Utah, with mountains in background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.216
Cost of living index: 104.6
Cost of living estimate: $65,936
Median household income: $80,196
Median property value: $289,200
Population: 195,700 (1.22 million in metro area)
Unemployment rate: 3.6%

The median income in Salt Lake City is 16.7% above the national median, which helps make up for a cost of living index that’s 4.6% greater than the national average. Like most of Utah, Salt Lake City has a fairly low unemployment rate.

Salt Lake City has more residents working in life, physical, and social science occupations than other areas. There is also an above-average number of people working in legal occupations, as well as arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media jobs.

4. Denver, Colorado

Aerial photo of downtown Denver, Colorado.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.187
Cost of living index: 114.5
Cost of living estimate: $72,176
Median household income: $85,641
Median property value: $435,100
Population: 716,500 (2.93 million in Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metro area)
Unemployment rate: 9.3%

Denver is somewhat expensive, as it has a cost of living index 14.5% higher than the national average, but it also has a median income 24.7% higher than the national median. Unfortunately, unemployment is a major problem, as the unemployment rate is much worse than the national average.

As far as where the citizens of Denver work, there’s a higher-than-expected number of residents in both legal occupations and business and financial operations. Jobs in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media are also more popular than average compared to other areas.

5. Oakland, California

Oakland, California, with lake in foreground.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.164
Cost of living index: 156.3
Cost of living estimate: $98,525
Median household income: $114,696
Median property value: $717,700
Population: 429,100 (4.73 million in San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metro area)
Unemployment rate: 9.6%

Oakland is by far the most expensive city on this list, with a cost of living index 56.3% higher than the national average. A median income 66.9% above the national median helps balance that out, although Oakland also has an extremely high unemployment rate.

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Residents of Oakland are far more likely to work in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations than those of other cities. There are also above-average numbers of residents in life, physical, and social science occupations and legal occupations.

Editor’s note: It might seem strange to see anything even remotely near San Francisco on an “affordable cities” list. But based on the way we ran the numbers — the ratio of median income to estimated cost of living — Oakland came out pretty well. We realize that you’d need to make San-Francisco-level money to live there, and getting a job in this part of the country isn’t necessarily easy.

6. Surprise, Arizona

Houses in Arizona.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.136
Cost of living index: 94.8
Cost of living estimate: $59,758
Median household income: $67,896
Median property value: $225,200
Population: 132,900 (4.86 million in Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metro area)
Unemployment rate: 6.8%

Although the median income in Surprise is 1.2% below the national median, the city is still affordable thanks to a cost of living index that’s 5.2% lower than the national average. Its unemployment rate is a bit higher than the average in the United States.

Surprise has more residents than expected working as health technologists and technicians, in law enforcement, and in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations.

7. Olympia, Washington

Olympia, Washington with mountains in background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.128
Cost of living index: 110.4
Cost of living estimate: $69,592
Median household income: $78,512
Median property value: $276,300
Population: 50,800 (286,400 in Olympia-Tumwater metro area)
Unemployment rate: 6.5%

A median income 14.3% above the national median makes Olympia an affordable place to live, even with a cost of living index 10.4% above the national average. The unemployment rate is a couple ticks better than the national average.

Olympia has a very high portion of its population employed in public administration, as the number of residents in that field is 3.02 times higher than expected. There are also more people than expected working in community and social service occupations and legal jobs.

8. Colorado Springs, Colorado

Downtown Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.108
Cost of living index: 104.0
Cost of living estimate: $65,557
Median household income: $72,633
Median property value: $288,400
Population: 472,700 (738,900 in Colorado Springs metro area)
Unemployment rate: 9.0%

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Colorado Springs has a cost of living index 4% above the national average, but residents also earn a median income 5.7% greater than the national median. There is, however, a very high unemployment rate that’s almost as bad as neighboring Denver.

A few industries are overrepresented in Colorado Springs, including arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media; fire fighting and prevention and other protective services; and architecture and engineering.

9. Bozeman, Montana

Downtown Bozeman, Montana.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.102
Cost of living index: 108.6
Cost of living estimate: $68,457
Median household income: $75,418
Median property value: $343,000
Population: 45,100 (104,700 in micropolitan area)
Unemployment rate: 3.3%

Wages in Bozeman are relatively strong, with a median income 9.8% higher than the national median, and its unemployment rate is lower than most of the country’s. The cost of living index is 8.6% above the national average.

There are more Bozeman residents than expected, compared to other areas, working in life, physical, and social science occupations. Other jobs that are overrepresented include those related to arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media, along with food preparation and service positions.

10. Boise, Idaho

Boise, Idaho, at night.

Image source: Getty Images.

Estimated income-to-expense ratio: 1.064
Cost of living index: 99.1
Cost of living estimate: $62,469
Median household income: $66,466
Median property value: $230,800
Population: 224,300 (732,300 in Boise City metro area)
Unemployment rate: 4.3%

Boise makes it onto the list by virtue of a lower-than-average cost of living index, which is 0.9% below the national average. While the city is affordable, the median income is 3.3% less than the national median. On a positive note, there’s not much unemployment.

When comparing jobs here to other areas, Boise has a larger portion of residents working in architecture and engineering, legal occupations, and computer and mathematical occupations.

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

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