If you're just starting out, finding a place to live that fits your needs and provides lots of opportunity can be difficult. A strong job market with growth potential, affordable housing for twentysomethings living on an entry-level salary and a vibrant social scene are key.
To identify the winners, Kiplinger teamed up with Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank that studies economic prosperity. All of the cities on our list have reasonable living costs, strong employment growth and a population that scores high on measures of education and tech-savviness. For young adults, we also factored in rental costs and the number of restaurants.
The cost-of-living index measures how expensive it is to live in a city; the national average score is 100. That means cities with a score below 100 have a lower-than-average cost of living. Nationwide, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $959, median household income is $43,024 and median income growth from 2006 to 2011 was 11.1%. The national unemployment rate is 8.2%.
Check out our picks, and share your thoughts in our reader comment box below:
1. Madison, Wis.
Population (metro area): 568,593
Unemployment rate: 4.9%
Cost-of-living index: 108.2
Median household income: $58,775
Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $849
Let's skip the Cheesehead and cowpie references. Madison is an educated, tech-savvy city, filled with recent grads who have enough energy to launch a dozen start-ups and still have time to check out that brewpub down the block.
With the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus front and center, there's no shortage of smart people in town. Engineers, computer programmers and other eggheads work in academia or for Epic Systems, a health care software developer. An entrepreneurial community fosters homegrown start-ups.
Young adults complain of a competitive rental market, where it's tough to find a centrally located two-bedroom flat for less than $1,000 a month. But there’s plenty to keep your mind off overpriced rents in this midsize midwestern city. On a typical Saturday, you might browse the Dane County Farmers' Market, head down to Camp Randall Stadium to tailgate and watch Badgers football, or boat or fish in lakes Kegonsa, Mendota, Monona and Waubesa.
2. Austin, Tex.
Population (metro area): 1,716,289
Unemployment rate: 5.8%
Cost-of-living index: 90.6
Median household income: $57,109
Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $810
The coolest city in Texas offers everything a young adult could ask for, including patio bars, taco joints, running trails, kayaking, margaritas, barbeque, live music into the night and the chilly waters of Barton Springs’ pool to clear the head in the morning.
Better yet, Austin has jobs, in youth-friendly industries such as digital media, game development, music, film and tech. PayPal, Facebook and eBay are among the companies hiring, says Nathan Green of campus2careers.com, a job site for recent grads. Yodle, an online marketer, expects to hire 40 new grads a month through 2012.
Alas, you'll pay at least $1,500 a month for a small one-bedroom in downtown Austin, says Jim Reich of austincool.com, an apartment locator. Instead, go south of Oltorf Street, where the one-bedrooms start at $725 and downtown is just a few minutes away.
Population (metro area): 4,552,402
Unemployment rate: 5.3%
Cost-of-living index: 139.4
Median household income: $69,854
Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $1,448
Boston ranks high in this category for its sheer number of young people -- both university students and professionals -- and enough restaurants and bars to keep them well fed and hydrated. The city is a hub for finance, health care and education and maintains an unemployment rate well below the national average.
Sports are a big part of the Beantown social experience. Budget-conscious young residents head to the bar scene around Faneuil Hall, Seaport and the North End to sip a beer and catch a game with friends. And when the weather cooperates, Bostonians wander the patchwork of historic neighborhoods or jog along the waterfront.
The robust job market has helped drive up the cost of apartment rentals, which can run from $1,000 per month for a studio to several thousand monthly in swankier areas. "Renting can be pretty cutthroat during the summer, when people are looking for apartments for the fall," says 26-year-old Boston resident Mark Mackin. "But I've lived here for five years and can't see myself leaving anytime soon."
4. Washington, D.C.
Population (metro area): 5,582,170
Unemployment rate: 5.3%
Cost-of-living index: 136.3
Median household income: $84,424
Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $1,410
The nation's capital is awash in jobs, culture and nightlife. Government -- and businesses tied to it -- are a big slice of the employment pie, as are IT and biotech.
For life outside work, there are plenty of free and low-cost things to do -- enjoy jazz in the National Museum of Art's sculpture garden, lunch at a food truck or cheap drinks at happy hours throughout the area. Not cheap: housing. Rentals in D.C.'s hip Logan Circle or Arlington's Clarendon start at about $2,000 a month for a one-bedroom, says Debbie Kaplan of Urban Igloo, a free apartment-finder service.
If you don't feel like slogging through traffic, the D.C. area gives you plenty of options for ditching your car. Buses run regularly where the subway doesn't, and you also have access to 800 miles of bikeways, the Capital Bikeshare program and car-sharing services such as Zipcar.
Population (metro area): 2,543,482
Unemployment rate: 8.1%
Cost-of-living index: 105.1
Median household income: $59,932
Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $836
An outdoors-y culture and 300 days of sunshine aren't the only things that make the Mile High City invigorating to young adults. It also has a sunny employment outlook, thanks to hiring in construction, retail and hospitality, and affordable apartments.
Top employers include the Colorado state government, HealthONE Corp., Exempla Healthcare, and Lockheed Martin. And Denver has given rise to big-time start-ups, such as Frontier Airlines and Associated Content, which Yahoo scooped up in 2010. For apartment hunters on a budget, the historic African-American neighborhood Five Points and the Baker area trade ongoing revitalization for rents as low as $700 monthly for a one-bedroom.
Young people in Denver tend to have either buttoned-up or artsy sensibilities, says 23-year old Denverite Leila Hermann. And there's plenty to keep them busy, from strolling the Santa Fe Art District's First Friday Art Walk, which attracts a young crowd, to sampling Denver's Beer Triangle and bar-hopping on South Broadway.