Starting Out

10 Great Cities for Young Adults

Twentysomethings will find jobs and friends by starting out in these hotspots.

Like many young adults, I faced a pretty monumental life choice when I graduated from school: With hundreds of cities to choose from, where the heck was I going to live next? My friends have ended up in places as far-flung as New York, Los Angeles and Mallorca, Spain. But wherever we make our next “home,” we’re generally looking for a few non-negotiables: good jobs, affordable living costs, places to go on the weekends, and other people our age.

SEE ALSO: Our Slide Show of 10 Great Cities for Young Adults

I chose D.C., number 5 on our list of 10 Great Cities for Young Adults, and moved to town a mere three weeks ago. The job opportunities pulled me in first -- thousands of jobs open up here every year, for people in my field and many others. On top of that, I loved the diversity of D.C. culture, the apparently never-ending range of concerts and bars and free museums. While I knew D.C. would cost more than, say, my native upstate New York, the chance to work a great job -- and live within walking distance of Ben’s Chili Bowl and three music venues -- far outweighed the expense for me.

In coming up with this list of cities, we looked for places that offer solid value -- low cost of living and reasonable rents relative to paycheck size -- plus high percentages of young adults and a vibrant cultural scene. We screened for cities with high starting salaries for college grads, using data from We also looked for a cost-of-living score near or below 100, the national average, as well as affordable monthly rents. (The median U.S. rent, including utilities, is $817.) Finally, we searched for cities where the percentage of residents ages 20 to 29 is near or above the average of 13.8%.


These cities won’t be a perfect fit for everyone, of course, but maybe they’ll help you narrow the search for your next home.

Cincinnati, Ohio

Metro population: 2,130,151
Residents ages 20-29: 13.3%
Cost-of-living score: 92.7
Monthly rent: $675
Starting salary: $41,800
Top selling point: Big-city sports at small-town prices
Biggest drawback: More carbs than culture

Money stretches further in Ohio -- much further, in fact. Cincinnati’s dirt-cheap rent and cost of living make the city hard to ignore for young adults seeking a Midwest alternative to, say, Chicago. Starting salaries are solid, particularly at Fortune 500 companies such as Kroger and Procter & Gamble, and the city expects to add nearly 90,000 jobs by 2016. Among its claims to fame are riverboat cruises, numerous pro and collegiate sports teams, the Over-the-Rhine historic district and the caloric (but delicious!) Skyline Chili chain.

Seattle, Wash.

Metro population: 3,349,809
Residents ages 20-29: 14.5%
Cost-of-living score: 116.1
Monthly rent: $942
Starting salary: $46,700
Top selling point: Like Silicon Valley, but with better coffee
Biggest drawback: Cloudy 226 days a year

San Francisco and Silicon Valley can claim many of the biggest names in tech, but travel 14 hours north to find high-paying IT, aerospace and green energy jobs and a fraction of the living cost. Amazon, which has its headquarters in Seattle, began a hiring spree in March. Boeing, Microsoft and the University of Washington also employ thousands in the region. In the off-hours, Seattleites have their pick of theaters, coffee shops and concert halls. For all that, the rent and groceries remain reasonable: Seattle’s cost of living is 30% lower than San Francisco’s and 23% less than San Jose’s.

Baton Rouge, La.

Metro population: 802,484
Residents ages 20-29: 16.3%
Cost-of-living score: 94.1
Monthly rent: $714
Starting salary: $41,400
Top selling point: All the hype of Houston without the traffic
Biggest drawback: It’s not New Orleans

Consider Baton Rouge the cheaper and less congested cousin of Houston. The Louisiana city boasts thousands of good-paying energy and petrochemical jobs, yet rents are rock-bottom and traffic is tolerable. A major hub of the U.S. 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. While cultural offerings don’t compare to those of a larger city, tailgating at LSU football games and exploring Cajun music and cuisine have their charms. Many attractions along the Gulf Coast fall within easy day-trip range.

Minneapolis, Minn.

Metro population: 3,279,833
Residents ages 20-29: 14.1%
Cost-of-living score: 108.1
Monthly rent: $830
Starting salary: $44,400
Top selling point: Enough culture to fill a Franzen novel
Biggest drawback: Short summers, long winters

A magnet for artists, bookworms and other creative types, Minneapolis promises some of the culture of New York without the big-city expense or pretense. Global corporations such as Target, General Mills and Xcel Energy have headquarters here, furnishing good jobs in finance, manufacturing, and professional and technical services. By the city’s count, 160,000 people currently work downtown. And with three professional sports teams, 6,732 acres of parks and one of the largest live-theater scenes in the country, Minneapolis boasts plenty of places for young adults to have fun on a budget. Worth noting: A movie ticket in Minneapolis costs, on average, about 3 dollars less than in Manhattan.

Washington, D.C.

Metro population: 5,582,170
Residents ages 20-29: 14.6%
Cost-of-living score: 144.4
Monthly rent: $1,226
Starting salary: $49,000
Top selling point: Government jobs galore
Biggest drawback: Nonstop politics can be party poopers

Working for the federal government means two things for young adults: big paychecks and job security. Uncle Sam employs roughly 300,000 people in the District of Columbia, explaining why unemployment for the D.C. metro area hovers at 6%, two-thirds the national average. While rent and living costs admittedly trend high, young college grads in D.C. can expect to make 17% more than their peers elsewhere. And many up-and-coming neighborhoods in the District offer great culture, relatively affordable housing and good transportation options. Consider Columbia Heights, Shaw-Howard and the newly developed H Street Corridor, all of which brim with bars, restaurants and music venues.

Colorado Springs, Colo.

Metro population: 645,613
Residents ages 20-29: 15.1%
Cost-of-living score: 91.8
Monthly rent: $802
Starting salary: $42,300
Top selling point: Live the Rocky Mountain high life
Biggest drawback: Urbanites need not apply

For young adults, Colorado Springs offers a tempting combination of good starting salaries in a stable defense- and tech-based economy, plus low rents and living costs. Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Atmel rank among the city’s top employers, while several finance, defense and technology companies announced plans to expand this year. Located in the Rocky Mountains, 70 miles south of Denver, Colorado Springs is already well-known to outdoorsy types. The 14,110-foot Pike’s Peak sits directly above town, and the city’s “complete streets” policy makes it ideal for urban bikers. Plus, groceries and many other everyday expenses are less here than in any city on our list.

Chicago, Ill.

Metro population: 9,461,105
Residents ages 20-29: 14.0%
Cost-of-living score: 114.4
Monthly rent: $882
Starting salary: $44,300
Top selling point: Better job growth (and pizza) than New York or Los Angeles
Biggest drawback: It really is windy

Chicago added nearly 17,000 jobs last year, gaining jobs even as other big cities such as New York and Los Angeles lost them. That’s not the only advantage Chicago holds over its coastal peers. While salaries skew high, as in similar metropolises, living costs remain reasonable by comparison. Rent, for example, runs about 20% less in the Windy City than in the Big Apple. Twentysomethings can expect to earn above-average wages at companies such as AT&T, United Continental and JPMorgan Chase, some of the city’s largest private employers. Then they can put that extra take-home pay toward Chicago’s storied nightlife and culture, the plethora of professional sports teams and arguably the country’s best improv.

Madison, Wis.

Metro population: 568,593
Residents ages 20-29: 17.3%
Cost-of-living score: 108.1
Monthly rent: $804
Starting salary: $41,200
Top selling point: Equal parts quirky, ascendant and affordable
Biggest drawback: Nearly four feet of snow every winter

Average paychecks for young adults aren’t anything to brag about, but Madison does pride itself on other unparalleled pros: steady job growth, a perennially low unemployment rate and a huge population of twentysomethings. The Wisconsin capital has added more than 24,500 jobs since 2000, and state officials recently announced plans to add 25,000 more bioscience jobs in the next five years. Madison is also known for its quirky, progressive and hyper-literate urban culture. Satirical stalwart The Onion got its start here in 1988, and the University of Wisconsin, a host of music venues and one of the country’s largest farmers’ markets call Madison home.

Atlanta, Ga.

Metro population: 5,268,860
Residents ages 20-29: 13.6%
Cost-of-living score: 97.5
Monthly rent: $897
Starting salary: $43,300
Top selling point: Southern hospitality sans the expense
Biggest drawback: Unemployment runs higher than average

Atlanta is one of the few major metropolitan areas where young adults can enjoy higher-than-average paychecks, plenty of opportunity at premier corporations, and world-class culture and nightlife -- all at a cost of living below the national average. In fact, Atlanta boasts the third-largest number of Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. Outfits such as Home Depot, UPS and Coca-Cola tend to pay well: A young, college-educated Atlantan’s salary tops the national median by $1,400 annually. Hip, eclectic neighborhoods such as Little Five Points and Virginia-Highland keep twentysomethings busy in the off-work hours.

New York, N.Y.

Metro population: 18,897,109
Residents ages 20-29: 14.1%
Cost-of-living score: 220.7 (Manhattan only)
Monthly rent: $1,072
Starting salary: $47,500
Top selling point: The city never sleeps
Biggest drawback: The cost of living will keep you up at night

Yes, Manhattan can be obscenely expensive, but you can’t deny that New York has inspired more dreams than any city in the world. About 3.7 million people work in the five boroughs, employed in every imaginable industry. Those jobs -- as well as New York’s unparalleled nightlife, arts and culture -- have drawn young hopefuls for generations. College grads with up to three years’ experience earn $5,600 more than the national average annual salary. While New York’s amenities come at a cost, you can dampen the expense, especially for rent, by moving to up-and-coming outer neighborhoods. Living costs are 17% lower in Brooklyn than in Manhattan, for example, and 31 percent less in Queens.

Follow Caitlin and the whole Starting Out Kiplinger team on Twitter.

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