Updated June 10, 2014

Study: Best Small Cities to Live and Work

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Finding the right place to live has a lot to do with pace. The big city life may seem too fast to you, but quiet towns with quaint downtowns may seem way too slow. The happy medium are the smaller cities that make up the heart of the U.S., where you can have access to a good paying job within a decent commute, feel safe when you sleep at night, pay affordable rent, and find things to do during the off-hours. You don’t have to give up entertainment options just because you’re not living under the bright lights.

To aid you in your search, CreditDonkey set out to find 10 small cities that are great for both living and working.

Study Methodology

To find the best small cities to live and work in the United States, we began by narrowing our list to metropolitan areas that have a population between 500,000 and 200,000 residents. We ranked the resulting 99 cities on the following five factors:

  1. Unemployment Rate
  2. Commute Time
  3. Violent Crime Rate
  4. Employee Wages
  5. Restaurants per Capita

We first looked at data from the Bureau of Labor to find local unemployment rates. If you are unable to find a job, how do you expect to pay for stuff? It is often said the best things in life are free, which is hard to argue, but hot water and electricity aren’t too bad either.

Next, we focused our attention on commute time. Sure, it is great to have a job, but if you are driving hours every day to get to and from work, the honeymoon can wear off quickly. A shorter commute can allow you to spend your hours away from work doing the things you truly enjoy.

Another element we considered was violent crime rates collected from the FBI database. No one wants to live in a city where violent crime goes unchecked, so we ranked all cities accordingly.

The last two factors we researched were employee wages and restaurants per capita. There are few things more rewarding than sitting down for a delicious meal after you spent all day making the big bucks.

10 Best Small Cities to Live and Work

10. Appleton, WI

  • Unemployment Rate: 6.0%
  • Commute Time: 19.4
  • Violent Crime Rate: 154 per 100,00 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $39,820
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 2,967 inhabitants

If safety is a major concern to you, then look no further than Appleton. The city ranked number 1 on our list for the lowest violent crime rate. At only 154 violent crimes per 100,000 inhabitants, you are hard pressed to find a nicer community to reside in. In addition to being extremely safe, Appleton also enjoys an unemployment rate under the national average and a short commute time to boot.

Did You Know: Appleton is home to the Hearthstone House, which was the first home lit by hydroelectricity.

9. Lincoln, NE

  • Unemployment Rate: 3.6%
  • Commute Time: 18.5 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 353.8 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $40,130
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 2,292 inhabitants

Although Lincoln might not be the first place someone thinks of when the best places to live and work is brought up, allow us a moment to persuade you. Lincoln’s unemployment rate is astoundingly low. Further, Lincoln’s commute time ranked fourth, so even though there are a lot of workers commuting every day, the drive is not too bad. Also, don’t forget that Lincoln is home to the NCAA powerhouse Nebraska Cornhuskers. Being home to a large university comes with key perks – in addition to sporting events, it results in an active nightlife and recreation activities.

Did You Know: The first undergraduate psychology laboratory was established at the University of Nebraska. Ecology as a discipline was established at the university as well.

Related: Best Small Cities to Start a Business

8. Eugene, OR

  • Unemployment Rate: 8%
  • Commute Time: 19.2 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 236.6 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $42,460
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 1,477 inhabitants

Portland is not the only hip city in Oregon. Just take Interstate 5 and go south to reach this charming city. It’s well known for the University of Oregon and its bike-friendly roadways and trails. Although Eugene’s unemployment rate isn’t the most desirable, the city does have a crime rate that is much lower than most other cities its size, and its average commute time is also low. Drive from work straight to one of Eugene’s popular entertainment destinations, the Cuthbert Amphitheater, known for its rocking live music.

Did You Know: The city of Eugene has a pretty intelligent population. Over one-third of the city’s residents have a four-year degree or more.

7. Olympia, WA

  • Unemployment Rate: 7%
  • Commute Time: 24.3 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 213 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $46,530
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 757 inhabitants

Located on the southern tip of Puget Sound, and named after the Olympic Mountains to the north, Olympia is a city blessed with beautiful landscapes. It is also blessed with a few other factors that led to the city landing on this list – its low crime rate and respectable average wage. You don’t need to worry about too many bad guys here.

Did You Know: An ordinance passed by the city of Olympia in 1990 designated $1 per person and 1% of major construction projects be set aside for public art projects. This has resulted in what could be called an artistic boom for the city, adding to its already naturally pleasing aesthetics.

6. Boulder, CO

  • Unemployment Rate: 5.2%
  • Commute Time: 22.4 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 201.3 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $54,770
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 3,679

Boulder is one of those cities that surprises no one when it ends up on a top 10 list. While it may not have ranked as high as other cities regarding commute time or the number of places to eat, the city ranked in our top 10 across all other categories. Home to the University of Colorado, Boulder is a great destination for lovers of the great outdoors.

Did You Know: Known for a bike-friendly culture, Boulder provides its citizens with over 300 miles of bike paths. It also has 45,000 acres of open space in and around the city, as well as over 60 urban parks.

Related: Best Colorado Cities for Young Adults

5. Lafayette, IN

  • Unemployment Rate: 7.3%
  • Commute Time: 19.2 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 282.5 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $40,180
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 531 inhabitants

You won’t hear whines of “there’s nowhere to eat” when you’re in Lafayette. That’s because the city has one restaurant for every 531 citizens living there, the second best ratio of all the cities we evaluated. And with the popular Big Ten Purdue University in the neighborhood, it is safe to say having a fun time in Lafayette will not be difficult to do.

Did You Know: The Lafayette city flag was designed by high school students who were invited to serve as the mayor’s youth council. The current incarnation of the flag was adopted in 2007.

4. Santa Barbara, CA

  • Unemployment Rate: 6.4%
  • Commute Time: 18.7 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 381.4 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $48,800
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 1,503 inhabitants

Santa Barbara ranked fairly high across all categories, but it was two categories that stood out from the pack and pushed this city toward the top half of our top 10. In both wages and commute time, the city ranked seventh compared to its peers. These residents don’t pour too much their high wages into their gas tank each week.

Did You Know: Santa Barbara was the home to many silent film studios prior to Hollywood’s film industry dominance.

3. Charlottesville, VA

  • Unemployment Rate: 4.8%
  • Commute Time: 24.5 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 170.4 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $44,180
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 1,140 inhabitants

Charlottesville’s rich and vibrant history make it an interesting place to settle down. The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, solidifies the city’s strong ties to education as well as its attachment to U.S. history. Charlottesville also has an extremely low unemployment rate that is well below the national average, and it also happens to be a very safe city. So if you do decide to set roots in Charlottesville, you should feel pretty confident in finding a job as well as finding piece of mind.

Did You Know: Edgar Allen Poe was a student at the University of Virginia in 1826 for less than a year, but the school has a room dedicated to his presence as well as an academic group honoring him called the Raven Society.

2. Bellingham, WA

  • Unemployment Rate: 6.9%
  • Commute Time: 20.9 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 237.3 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $44,310
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 799 inhabitants

Go ahead, Google pictures of Bellingham and see how amazing this northwestern city is. Besides having a fairytale, picturesque landscape, Bellingham has an abundance of restaurants for residents and visitors to relax and fill their bellies. It also ranks in the top 25% of our pool of cities for wages.

Did You Know: Bellingham Bay was named by English Captain George Vancouver in honor of Sir William Bellingham, a British Navy provisioner.

1. Cedar Rapids, IA

  • Unemployment Rate: 4.9%
  • Commute Time: 19.7 minutes
  • Violent Crime Rate: 177.4 per 100,000 inhabitants
  • Employee Wages: $43,510
  • Restaurants per Capita: 1 per 2,941 inhabitants

Located in the eastern part of Iowa, Cedar Rapids is home to 12 Fortune 500 companies and nearly 300 manufacturing plants. Not only does Cedar Rapids provide residents with access to jobs – its unemployment rate tied for sixth in our pool of companies – but employees in the area have relatively short commute times and decent wages. It is also one of the safest cities on our list, ranking in at number 4 in that category.

Did You Know: In the late 1960s, a marketing firm set out to brand the city as a great place to live by capitalizing on its shorter commute time compared to larger cities. Interestingly, this still holds true today, with Cedar Rapids’ commute time ranking 21st in our overall list of 99 cities.


While our data could help you decide which city to live in, we realize the decision is up to you and depends on your unique situation. Perhaps we’ve broadened your choices by highlighting some of the great cities across the United States that are not sprawling metropolises. Our list provides evidence that by looking at cities that might not necessarily be on the radar, you can easily find an amazing city that is easy to both live and work.

Ian K is a contributing writer at CreditDonkey, a credit card comparison and financial education website. Write to Ian K at ian@creditdonkey.com. Our data-driven analysis has been recognized by major news outlets across the country and has helped families make savvy financial and lifestyle decisions. (read more)

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