We’ve seen all sorts of top 10 cities lists: The 10 best places to get a job, own a home, start a family, hit the lottery … Now, it’s time for a list that really matters — especially to Money Under 30 readers. We present to you our first-ever “Best Cities in America to be Young, Broke, and Single.”
How does a city make the cut, you might wonder? We compiled our roll call using metrics that matter to young professionals trying to simultaneously launch a career, find love, and stretch a still-meager paycheck: cheap food, cheap beer and cheap thrills, for starters. We looked at a city’s number of bars (after downing a microbrew, of course). Then we hit the lows (unemployment, cost of living) and the highs (numbers of fellow singles and young(er) adults, ages 18-44).
The result could either serve as a map for the wackiest road trip you’ve ever taken or a thought-provoking impetus for pulling up stakes and trying out a new home base. Think we got it wrong? Or would you simply like to supplement our findings? We’d love to hear your ideas, field notes and suggestions for cities that should (or shouldn’t) make this list in the comments. Although our list is based on real Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, we don’t claim our results as wholly scientific. Still, the ensuing debate should be fun.
By the way my home town, Chicago, didn’t even make the top 20, let alone the top 10. And I can’t say that I disagree: It costs $8 to park for one hour at a meter downtown, thanks to a botched privatization deal by our former mayor. The Cubs look poised to go another century without a World Series appearance. And, as of press time, our summer has been cold and wet, after a non-existent spring and a winter that was one of our foulest ever.
As everyone knows, it’s a lot more fun to be young, broke, and single when the weather’s warm. (You’ll see quite a few sunny locales on this list. Who needs the added expense of a winter wardrobe?)
The cities, starting at the bottom of our top 10, are:
10: Oklahoma City, Okla.
Too often, this neck of the woods only makes headlines for its twisters and NBA franchise. Still, the University of Oklahoma rests just a stone’s throw away in Norman. And if you love warm weather, the average yearly temperature is 72, with an average high of 50 in January. (Of course, the occasional tornado is the tradeoff.) The local population of 580,000 has grown by 10 percent or more for three consecutive census periods, too. Clearly, something’s happening that’s attracting the young, broke, and single — YBS for short.
Jobbing it: Employment prospects are good in the local mainstays, the federal government and the energy industry. (Oil derricks even dot the capitol grounds.) But Oklahoma City also has a growing info-tech sector that attracts young workers.
Did you know: The first-ever parking meter was installed here in 1935. So that’s what got the whole parking meter mess in Chicago started.
9: Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash.
As that college-rock hero of yesteryear Robyn Hitchcock once sang, “Viva! Sea-Tac.” Home of the Space Needle, Microsoft, Jimi Hendrix and grunge rock, Seattle and its environs have low rents, superb scenery, and hundreds of web startup wheeler-dealers hoping to follow in Bill Gates’s footsteps. It’s a also a smiley-face place, as the famous Happy Face logo was designed by a Seattle ad agency in 1966. And as you might’ve guessed for the home base of Starbucks, it’s got a healthy overabundance of coffee shops, where the price of a mocha can buy you some telecommuting “office space” for an afternoon.
Jobbing it: No matter how hard Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tries to shipwreck his company, the software juggernaut is still hiring, and Seattle has become the focal point of an entrepreneurial/high-tech triangle that includes Portland, Ore., and Bend, Ore., to the south.
Did you know: Although Seattle has a reputation for being rainy, that’s more a myth perpetuated by the locals who want to keep the kooks out. In fact, Seattle sells more sunglasses per year than any other major city in the nation.
8: Des Moines-West Des Moines, Iowa
Des Moines (a French phrase meaning “of the monks”) has its quirky charm. It’s the home of this year’s American Oatmeal Association national convention, and the place where Ozzy Osbourne bit off a bat’s head in concert. But for the YBS, this city of 580,000 is a serious place to settle down. Forbes magazine ranked Des Moines as the “Best Place for Business” in 2010 and no. 1 among “America’s Best Cities for Young Professionals” in 2011. As Forbes staffer Morgan Brennan writes, “Des Moines boasts a low 5.8 percent unemployment rate (sixth lowest of the 100 cities we studied) and healthy projected job growth rates of 0.97 percent in 2011 and 2.86 percent in 2012.”
Jobbing it: Des Moines is a major center for the insurance industry and also has a sizable financial services base. Athene (a top insurance firm with 33,000 agents) and the Principal Financial Group are among the big companies headquartered there.
Did you know: Des Moines is boring, you say? How wrong you are, and here’s proof: desmoinesisnotboring.com.
7: New Orleans–Metairie–Kenner, La.
Robust and mostly recovered from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and its surrounding area have a lot going for them. The French Quarter is truly a trip back in time to eighteenth-century Europe, and the Cajun cuisine and jazz music reign without parallel. But can you find work there? Mais oui, mes amis: If you want to get into film, for example, know that tax incentives in place since 2002 have led to the Crescent City earning the nickname “Hollywood South.” Tulane University is also an academic hub that adds to the young adult influx; it employs close to 4,000 people.
Jobbing it: New Orleans’s port is the fifth-largest in the US. The oil industry has a significant presence here, and the entertainment and restaurants are world famous. Tourism also fuels the city’s economy (the hospitality industry employs more than 85,000 people) making it New Orleans’s top economic engine.
Did you know: New Orleans isn’t just the birthplace of jazz, but poker as well. The card game was reportedly invented there in the 1820s. As they say come Mardi Gras, Laissez les bon temps rouler! And let the chips fall where they may.
6: Omaha, Neb.
Somewhere Warren Buffet is smiling, as his home turf makes a big list for some reason other than the fact he lives there. The happy juxtaposition that allows billionaires and broke young adults to coexist falls to several factors. First off, Omaha is home to a very cool music scene for a city of just 400,000. (Bright Eyes and pop producer Terry Lewis are both Omaha products.) Also, Omaha has revitalized its downtown and gotten smart about diversifying its employment base beyond the industries that first built the city.
Jobbing it: Mutual of Omaha and ConAgra Foods remain two of Omaha’s top employers, and in 2001 Newsweek identified the city as one of the nation’s Top 10 high-tech havens — a sign the burg once known for livestock and insurance had entered the twenty-first century.
Did you know: Cool Stuff in Omaha sits high on the list of the nation’s great hippie/head shops, offering an eclectic variety of incense sticks, CDs, tie-dyed clothing and Halloween costume accessories. The city is also the birthplace of the Reuben sandwich, which makes sense if you get the munchies after using all that head shop gear you bought at Cool Stuff.
5: Baton Rouge, La.
Baton Rouge scores high on our list thanks to the strong community vibe perpetuated by students at Louisiana State University. It’s old (founded in 1699) and small (about 230,000), but Baton Rouge made the news after Hurricane Katrina as many displaced folks from New Orleans sought temporary refuge there and stayed. It’s downright subtropical there — the average high is 61 degrees in January — and the city was ranked in 2010 as a top 10 place for young adults by Portfolio magazine, and in the top five by Kiplinger.
Jobbing it: Kiplinger writes: “A major hub of the US oil industry, Baton Rouge has weathered the down economy better than many cities, and it continues to add workers at companies such as ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, as well as in health care and information technology.”
Did you know: Baton Rouge means “red stick” in French. The city got its name from blood-drenched poles Native Americans used to hang bear heads and fish in various rituals. French explorers found these poles, and the informal name stuck.
4: Columbus, Ohio
It might sound like the middle of nowhere, but try telling that to the thousands of Ohio State University students and alumni who call this place home. Ohio State is the nation’s largest college campus, and its imprint is felt throughout this town of 800,000. Columbus seems to have weathered the recession well; prior to that, Columbus was ranked in 2006 as the seventh-strongest economy in the United States, according to Columbus Business First.
Jobbing it: Social media mavens might gravitate towards Improving Enterprises, a software development firm with offices in Columbus that was named the top place to work in the city in 2012.
Did you know: If Ohio State attracts students to Columbus, we have a hunch about what keeps them there after graduation: The Bruce Lee Legends of Martial Arts Hall of Fame and Museum, of course. Eat your heart out, Hong Kong.
3: Durham, N.C.
Pretty much every city on our list has a major college fueling excitement and employment, and Durham is no exception. While Duke University is pricey, Durham itself is friendly on the wallet. It’s known as the City of Medicine and is famous for the Research Triangle Park, the world’s largest university-related research area. It also placed second on the aforementioned Forbes list of “America’s Best Cities for Young Professionals” in 2011, behind Des Moines.
Jobbing it: Research Triangle Park is home to research and development-related organizations such as IBM, Cisco Systems, Inc., the Research Triangle Institute, and Glaxo Wellcome. Get out that résumé.
Did you know: We imagine all those future doctors in Durham want to eat well. The Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau boasts of Durham’s numerous gastronomical accolades including Bon Appetit’s 2008 prize for “foodiest small town in America” and the 2013 title of “tastiest town in the South” by Southern Living magazine. Nearly 40 Durham restaurants and chefs have earned similar mentions and write-ups in the foodie press.
2: Salt Lake City, Utah
No, that’s not a misprint: Salt Lake City ranks no. 2 on our list. It has a lot more going for it than Mormons, the first KFC franchise (1952), and a great big briny body of water. In fact, Mormons may someday soon become the minority, as the population of 190,000 is now 50 percent non-Mormon. (But, sadly, it’s not racially diverse, as African-Americans constitute less than 3 percent of the population.) What draws the YBS there? Mild winters and toasty summers help; it’s also LGBT-friendly (even if the rest of the state is not), and just elected its first gay mayor in 2015.
Jobbing it: CHG Healthcare is no. 3 on Fortune’s best places to work list for 2013, up from no. 9 in 2012. Employees of this medical staffing firm compete in talent shows, trivia contests, and activities like a Dress As Your Favorite President competition, Fortune reports.
Did you know: Salt Lake City has a law against carrying an unwrapped ukulele on the street. Honestly. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
1: Austin, Texas
Now we’re talking, pardner. Bars, barbecue, and all manner of rebellious rock and country musicians help “Keep Austin Weird,” as the locals say. Rents are way low, especially if you’re used to living in a big city like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York. The capital of the Lone Star State and home of the University of Texas’s flagship school, Austin has by some estimates more than 530 bars and restaurants, many of them along the 6th Street corridor. For a city of 820,000, that translates to one bar and eatery for every 1,500 people. Unemployment is also astonishingly low, at 5.1 percent in April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Dallas, by comparison, is at 6.7 percent.)
Jobbing it: Could all those Austin bars and restaurants be hiring? The town goes nutty around the time of the SXSW music and tech festival in March. Trade, transportation, and utilities also employ a bulk of people, federal government statistics show.
Did you know: SXSW was one of the first mega-music festivals and still rocks after 25-plus years. In fact, it’s even gaining luster as a place for high-tech happenings, and a single showcase there can create instant buzz for any up-and-coming band (or tech startup).
The Full Top 20
|Rank||City||No. of Bars||% Pop 18-44||Avg Commute (Min)||Unemployment||Rank, % Single||Rank, Cost of Living|
|2||Salt Lake City, UT||114||40.5||22.7||5||82||12|
|5||Baton Rouge, LA||111||39.1||25.3||5.5||30||35|
|8||Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA||167||37.7||19.6||5.5||142||15|
|10||Oklahoma City, OK||142||38.1||21.8||5||142||19|
|12||Charleston-N, Charleston, SC||70||39.3||24.8||6.8||86||45|
|16||San, Diego, CA||329||40.7||24.1||8||96||33|
|20||Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI||396||37.5||24.9||5.5||66||63|
Special thanks to freelance journalist Eric Kaplan for contributing to this article. Additional research by Deidre Fogg and Maria LaMagna.
Photo credits: Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau; David Herrera/Seattle; Greater Des Moines Convention & Visitors Bureau; Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau; NewOrleansOnline.com; VisitBatonRouge.com; Ed Gately/Columbus; Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau; Doug Kerr/Salt Lake City; Jeffrey W. Spencer/Austin.