En español | When it comes to looking for a place to retire, cost of living often tops the list of considerations. But there's a difference between living cheaply and living well. In narrowing down our list of The 10 Best Places to Live on $100 a Day, we sought out towns and cities that offered not only bargain prices, but also a rich quality of life.
To determine these select places, we began with a theoretical income of $36,500, or $100 a day. After taxes (at 25 percent) that is $27,375, or $2,281 a month. We looked for a median housing cost of $192,000, which means a mortgage of about $719 a month, leaving $1,562 a month for everything else.
We pared a list of 200 cities down to 10 by homing in on things that make life worth living: the arts and culture, colleges, restaurants, community. Here are our top 10.
Vibe: Lush green beauty meets smart urban planning
Sunny days per year: 176
Median home price: $145,000
As cities go, Spokane is a consistent award winner, both for its stunning Riverfront Park and its historic downtown. But the surrounding residential areas provide an easygoing livability that is part of the town's character, including wide, tree-shaded streets full of lovely old single-family homes. And because it's a big place — the largest city between Seattle and Minneapolis — there are plenty of urban offerings. Over the decades, it's morphed from a logging and mining backwater to a cultural pearl. The Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture ($5 for seniors), which includes a tour of the historical Campbell House, is considered to be one of the best museums in the Northwest.
Its bigger appeal is what surrounds it, fueling the town's catchy bumper sticker: "Near nature, near perfect." Just 18 miles from Idaho and 100 miles south of Canada, Spokane is close to world-class skiing in both the Cascades and Rocky Mountains. Some 76 lakes and rivers offer everything from raging whitewater to peaceful paddling to excellent fishing. And like other cities in the Northwest, it earns its fitness stripes, too, hosting the annual Lilac Bloomsday 12K, one of the largest road races in the world.
Las Cruces, N.M.
Vibe: A sunny cocktail of Old Mexico, the Wild West and high-desert casual living
Sunny days per year: 287
Median home price: $148,000
A small town with big-city amenities, Las Cruces already had a lot going for it, like plenty of brilliant sunshine tempered by high-desert breezes. Mountains surround it on three sides, and there's plenty of exciting Wild West history to uncover. (It's where a judge sentenced Billy the Kid to "hang until you are dead, dead, dead," to which he is said to have replied, "Go to hell, hell, hell.")
When you factor in the Southwest's massive real-estate meltdown and the state's low property taxes, this sunny little city becomes a bargain hunter's paradise.
New Mexico State University (home of the Chile Pepper Institute) adds spice to cultural activities, while the area's history, including Mesilla, once part of Mexico, goes as far back as the dinosaurs. (Thankfully, they left plenty of fossils for local enthusiasts.) And hikers and mountain bikers love the area's plentiful playgrounds, with Bar Canyon, Dripping Springs, Robledo Mountains, Picacho Peak and the Dona Ana Mountains all within a 10-mile radius.
Eau Claire, Wis.
Vibe: Family-friendly values with a progressive twist
Sunny days per year: 200
Median home price: $121,100
Fans say spunky little Eau Claire is something of a Midwestern throwback — safe, friendly and a solid family-oriented community. Recent redevelopment has seen the rise of downtown loft apartments and Phoenix Park, as well as popular (and free!) concerts throughout the summer. A branch of the University of Wisconsin provides plenty of cultural and entertainment programming. (Those 60 and older can audit courses at reduced prices.) And locals say volunteerism is a significant part of the town's character.
But the rolling hills and river valleys that surround the area are also a lure, offering plenty of boating, fishing, camping and more than 70 miles of biking, cross-country ski and snowmobile trails. And residents love the fact that when they crave an urban experience, the Twin Cities are just 90 miles away.
Vibe: A bustling small city amid the magic of the Blue Ridge Mountains
Sunny days per year: 217
Median home price: $151,500
Certainly Roanoke's pleasant climate, its 22 miles of walkable/bikeable greenways and the spectacular backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains helped land the city on the list this year. So did its incredibly rich history of both Roanoke and the surrounding valley. (Notable Civil War battles include Hunter's Raid of 1864.)
But its 88.5-foot-high illuminated star, first lit in 1949, isn't the only aspect of the city that is burning brightly: Building its reputation as the "City of Festivals," the town now boasts Roanoke Festival In the Park, Downtown Roanoke's Railway Festival, Henry Street Festival, Vinton's Dogwood Festival, The Virginia Championship Chili Cook-off and the Strawberry Festival, making it one of the liveliest towns in the region.
An ambitious downtown complex combines housing with a theater, planetarium and museums. And for retirees, Roanoke also indexes below the national average for each component of the national cost-of-living index, compiled by the Council for Community and Economic Research, including groceries, utilities, health care and transportation - the only city on our list besides Omaha to do so.
Vibe: Small college city combines Appalachian roots with a strong local economy
Sunny days per year: 185
Median home price: $168,900
While Morgantown may be the epicenter of Appalachia and proud of its hillbilly roots, the city — and the entire region — is far richer. Since the 1880s, coal mines attracted immigrants from around the world, who have influenced the local culture and driven the railroad, glass and mining industries. And, as the home of the first New Deal homestead community, its history is rich.
While its low unemployment rate and strong local economy are certainly its most touted strength, the city's big surprise is its excellent health care. Of our top 10, it ranks No. 2 in doctor-per-capita, beaten only by Gainesville, Fla.
The city is home to West Virgina University, which explains why it is often ranked among the best college football towns in the nation, well ahead of many bigger cities. Following the beloved Mountaineers is a local passion. (The entire stadium belts out John Denver's old hit, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," before every game.) The university offers affordable classes for older adults through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
But residents are quick to admit that their true love is the wilderness, with mountains, rocks and wild flowers creating one of America's most spectacular terrains. Sparkling mountain streams, whitewater thrillers and long lazy rivers make boating and fishing local favorites.
Vibe: The city's 88 distinct neighborhoods create a European atmosphere
Sunny days per year: 194
Median home price: $106,500
With affordable arts (Pittsburgh is home to one of the nation's great symphony orchestras), terrific food (the aroma of ethnic eateries permeates the Strip District) and not one but three beautiful, bridge-spanned rivers to boat on, the Steel City has a lock on great reasons to live there.
The best place to soak in Pittsburgh's easygoing spirit is bucolic Frick Park. In the summer, take a free lawn bowling lesson at the bowling green. In winter, sled down the popular hill near Beechwood Boulevard. Pittsburgh's resurgent Pirates play in PNC Park (bleacher seats from $13). With its majestic waterfront skyline view, it's ranked the No. 1 baseball field in the country by ESPN. Good luck snagging tickets to a Steelers football game; locals would sooner part with their spleen than give up a nosebleed seat at Heinz Field. Less obvious than the city's sports maniacs — but just as enthusiastic — are Pittsburgh's art, theater and music crowds.
Better yet is the breathtaking view of the skyline from atop Mount Washington, across the Monongahela River — or best of all, the dramatic sight of downtown as you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel. The New York Times once pronounced Pittsburgh "the only city with an entrance."
Vibe: Old West urban flair
Sunny days per year: 263
Median home price: $135,000
Forget the Alamo — just remember that while a lot of Texas cities have boomed in the past few decades, San Antonio has somehow managed to grow while still embracing its image as a sleepy tourist town.
Per capita, San Antonio has five times as many libraries and museums as Austin; seven times as many as Houston. The city's new bike share program lets you pedal all over town for $10 a day — a nice way to head down to El Mercado in Old Market Square, reputedly the biggest Mexican marketplace outside Mexico. And of course there's the famous San Antonio River Walk and its endless selection of restaurants with patio dining.
Besides the cost of living, the price of fun is less in San Antonio, too. You'll pay as little as $40 at a high-end golf course on weekends, and locals can buy $59 season passes to the Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park.
Vibe: Midwestern cozy with a high-tech spark
Sunny days per year: 193
Median home price: $123,500
Big companies and generous benefactors have been pouring money into Omaha for the past several years, and all that spending has made Nebraska's largest city a fun — if flat — place to live. Mutual of Omaha financed the new Midtown Crossing, which along with other developments is turning former industrial areas into housing gems.
You'll find the residents of those new digs heading down to the Old Market area, where establishments such as Mr. Toad's offer live jazz with no cover charge. Seniors pay just $12.50 at the world-class Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. (Don't miss walking the rope bridge in the rain forest exhibit.) The baked goods at WheatFields rock, and so does its senior menu, where a Grandmere Scramble or a Dusseldorf Casserole goes for $8.50
Grand Junction, Colo.
Vibe: Contemporary arts meet Western charm
Sunny days per year: 214
Median home price: $159,800
Grand Junction's affordability was hard-won: When the collapsing energy market dropkicked the town back in 1982, citizens took a hard look at their boom-and-bust history. In a concerted effort to diversify, they beefed up tourism — from opening new country music venues to, starting in 2011, launching the state's only Lavender Festival.
The city was a pioneer in establishing downtown sculpture exhibits — a local favorite is a shiny bison called "Chrome on the Range II." Combined with the classic Victorian architecture, the contemporary pieces make this town feel old and new at the same time.
Beyond the town's urban spunk, the area's real appeal is the outdoor wonderland that is western Colorado. Grand Junction is just a few hours from Vail and Aspen, and bike trails pass cornfields and outdoor sculptures along the banks of the Colorado River. You'll find lots of local vineyards, but don't ignore the area's sweet cherries, apples and peaches (an outlying town is even named Fruita).
Vibe: Funky hippie meets world traveler
Sunny days per year: 205
Median home price: $125,000
Local football hero Tim Tebow stayed in shape running up and down the stairs at University of Florida's Griffin Stadium — and so can you, for free. It's just one way this health-conscious city enhances the lives of those lucky enough to live here.
The University gives Gainesville its hip reputation — the campus recently hosted a Japanese drumming concert — but Gainesville is also an old-fashioned Southern charmer. Take the time to wander the cobblestone streets, admiring the wrought iron fences in front of Victorian gems and marveling at drivers who wave rather than lean on the horn.
At the Florida Museum of Natural History, watch daily butterfly releases from the Butterfly Rainforest exhibit. Sink your teeth into a Cuban sandwich ($8.75) at Emiliano's Café, a pioneer in the pan-Latin food movement. Or just head out for a walk under the city's dense tree canopy — a unique mix of Northern hardwoods and Southern tropical vegetation. Bring along your bird checklist, stop to sniff the lotus flowers — but watch out for the alligators.
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