Part 1: Best Cities to Live on Social Security and Modest Savings
Based on rent, cost of living, healthcare, livability, crime, weather
Retirement security in America is supposedly built on a three-legged stool: Social Security, company pension and retirement savings. What if your stool has just one leg? We all know company pensions have mostly vanished, and retirement savings are too often anemic, leaving Social Security as the lone support for many Americans to build a post-work life.
But America is an expensive place to live, and Social Security (and perhaps a modicum of savings) just isn’t enough to live on.
Or is it?
To find out, we compiled and crunched an abundance of data to determine where in America someone might live relatively comfortably on a single Social Security check and modest retirement savings.
Turns out, there are a number of places that fit the bill, headed up by Brownsville, Texas, a lovely little city of about 185,000 hugging the Gulf of Mexico.
Before we reveal the top 15 (really 16 because of ties), here’s the criteria so that you understand the scope and limits of this research:
The average, single-person Social Security check of roughly $1,500 a month, as per the Social Security Administration
Evaluation of more than 200 cities and towns where the median, monthly rental price for a studio or one-bedroom apartment is under $700, according to the Census Bureau American Community Survey
Cost of living, based on Sperling’s Best Places and reflective of the average monthly expenses of Americans over 65, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics Expenditure Survey
Livability scores, per AreaVibes.com. We’ve adjusted this score to emphasize two variables retirees care most about: weather and crime. After all, a low-cost city with crummy weather and worrying crime statistics isn’t a place where anyone wants to spend their retirement.
Taxes, taking into account state tax rates and whether the state taxes Social Security income
Finally, we indexed all the results to create an apples-to-apples scoring system in which the highest possible score is 39.
We can tell from looking at the raw data and the resultant rankings that the best cities share certain characteristics: They have a relatively high livability score with either excellent weather, low crime, or both; they have an abundance of affordable apartments; and they generally impose some of the lowest income tax rates, though that doesn’t mean 0%. Aside from Texas, America’s no-tax states (Florida, Nevada, Wyoming, etc.) have not a single city on the list.
Finally, every one of these locations has healthcare costs below — often well below — the national average. This is key, because Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that, by far, healthcare is the largest expense for those over 65. Keep your healthcare costs lower, and your Social Security dollars and your savings will afford you a more comfortable retirement.
Here’s the list. If you’re frugal about utilities and food, you can probably live in several of these places on Social Security alone.
Total cost of living**
Turtle Creek, PA
El Paso, TX
Twentynine Palms, CA
Grand Ledge, MI
* Studio or one-bedroom
** Includes, rent, food, utilities, healthcare
# As a percentage of national average
As you no doubt noticed, Texas, Michigan and Ohio are overly represented. That’s a function of a combination of lower healthcare costs, low or generally neutral state tax rates relative to the rest of the country, and livability scores that are better than most other cities (you’d be shocked by how many American cities earn an F in crime).
Several of these places are on the fringes of larger cities, so it’s not like you’ll be stuck in the boondocks, twiddling your thumbs and spending your retirement in a haze of perpetual boredom.
Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, for instance, is less than a half-hour to the east of Pittsburgh. Bedford, Ohio, is about a half-hour southeast of Cleveland. And Fenton, Michigan, is about an hour northwest from Detroit.
As well, many of these places are nestled in bucolic parts of the country. Consider Grand Ledge, Michigan, for instance. This town of roughly 7,800 people just to the west of East Lansing, in the center of Michigan, is quintessential Small Town America. It sits on the banks of the leafy and picturesque Grand River; it’s packed with old Victorian homes and scads of parks and green space lined with hiking trails; and its still-vibrant downtown has not succumbed to the big-box retailer blight that has destroyed the center of so many other small towns. (You will, however, have to tolerate Michigan winters.)
Ultimately, the point is this: While America is certainly an expensive place to retire, it’s not impossible to find livable cities where Social Security and modest savings can afford a comfortable life. You just have to be willing to move, and to shop around for the city that best meets a combination of your lifestyle desires and your budgetary limitations.
In Part 2, we’ll take a closer look at five of these cities.