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AARP's 10 Best Places to Live for Under $40,000 a Year

These towns boast lower-cost homes, safe streets, great parks and much more

Río San Marcos, Texas.

Alamy

San Marcos, Texas

One of Texas’ oldest towns, San Marcos is full of life. For one thing, environmentalists fiercely defend its natural beauty and wildlife. As for nightlife, the town’s bars and live-music scene helped launch the careers of George Strait and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Multimillion-dollar downtown redevelopment echoes the historic character of the town square. Pull on your cowboy boots for a stroll, or lace up your sneakers to explore 1,200 acres of parks. The fares for local buses are half off for older riders.

The San Marcos Activity Center, which charges seniors $51 for an annual membership, offers group hikes, sack-lunch socials, adult-ed classes and a Golden Sweethearts Ball. The town, 40 percent Hispanic, has stayed true to its Mexican roots, says Rosina Ruiz Valle, 61, president of the Centro Cultural Hispano de San Marcos. Among its classes: traditional dance and healthy cooking. Valle, an adjunct professor at Texas State, says that while she and her husband, David, 64, plan to downsize, they’re eyeing  new condos in town. They love the San Mar cos River, which is 72 degrees all year, drawing swimmers and tubers. And since driving to two big cities is easy, San Marcos, they say,  is “just the right blend.”

  • Median housing price: $197,500
  • Vibe: Hill Country’s low-key charmer 
  • Freebies that count: Concerts take place in the park every Thursday during the summer. 
  • Best way to spend $10: Enchiladas at Herbert’s Taco Hut
  • Urban getaways: Austin, 31 miles; San Antonio, 40 miles
A man and woman eating at a restaurant.

David Williams

Alton, Ill.

Whether they’re sailing, doing yoga on stand-up paddleboards or catching catfish, residents never tire of life on the mighty Mississippi. It’s truly the soul of Alton, which is located not far from where the Big Muddy joins the Missouri and the Illinois rivers. Here, there is plenty of history, says Charlotte Johnson, 85, an expert on the region’s deep connections to the Underground Railroad. But Johnson, who retired to the area with her late husband in 1991 and has family nearby, explores Alton’s future, too. “I love walking on Main Street, looking in shops and sitting by the river, thinking about how things have changed,” she says. “It’s a nice feeling.” Those changes include the 4,000-seat amphitheater and an influx of antiques stores. Alton’s employment base is shifting from manufacturing to tourism. With lovely rose gardens and venues, it now bills itself as the Wedding Capital of the Midwest. And the town recently won a competition to be included in Hulu’s web-based reality series “Small Business Revolution.” 

Trains to St. Louis leave from Alton’s new Amtrak station for just $3 one way. Larry Kulp and his wife, Judy, both 65, favor riverside rides via the Sam Vadalabene Bike Trail, with views of bluffs and dense forest. “Birding here is neat—we get pelicans, trumpeter swans, snow geese and bald eagles,” Kulp says.

Senior Services Plus offers age-55-plus memberships at its Wellness Center for $100. Quilting, tap dance and gardening are draws.

  • Median housing price: $80,900
  • Vibe: Funky small town with big-river life       
  • Freebies that count: Walk back in time with Abraham Lincoln; free audio tours connect 10 historic sites.
  • Best way to spend $10: Grab a beer and a $3.99 Hot Chick on a Stick at legendary Fast Eddie’s Bon Air roadhouse, with live music nightly. 
  • Urban getaway: St. Louis, 26 miles
Colorful elevated homes with water rising below.

David Williams

Canandaigua, N.Y.

This city, encompassing the downtown area, is surrounded by the town of the same name, home to 10,000 people. With 19th-century Queen Anne homes, antiques shops and boutiques, it’s a place with postcard appeal. Shoppers can visit 140 businesses downtown. Tourist attractions and festivals entertain residents and provide seasonal jobs. Pristine Canandaigua Lake draws boaters from the region. The city rates high on clean-air measures.

Because of the Finger Lakes’ robust wine industry, foodies have made this their enclave. Lovers of casual fare flock to Wegman’s; it offers a covered patio, live music, chef-prepared meals and antique car shows.

Residents also appreciate four seasons of play. Hiking trails run past waterfalls. From spring through fall there are regional wine festivals. Winter is busy, with an annual Christkindl Market. Averaging 66 inches of snow a year, the area is a paradise for Alpine and Nordic skiers, as well as snowboarders.

Health care includes the award-winning University of Rochester Thompson Health, with a 113-bed hospital. It’s affiliated with the top-ranked Strong Hospital, 30 minutes  away. The YMCA has reduced rates for older adults and activities ranging from aquatics to PiYo.

  • Median housing price: $191,600
  • Vibe: Four-season fun
  • Freebies that count: Check out the pioneer-kitchen exhibit at the Ontario County Historical Museum.  
  • Best way to spend $10: Sample local vintages at New York Kitchen, the city’s award-winning wine and culinary center.
  • Urban getaway: Rochester, 25 miles
Store fronts with Duluth painted on a wall.

David Williams

Duluth, Ga. 

Crime rates here are well below the national averages, and the city is committed to growing smarter and safer, with high-tech investments such as more use of license plate cameras that quickly spot stolen cars.

Duluth is focusing on increasing its walkability and has poured millions into multigenerational gathering places, including a new city hall, splash pad and town green, which features events such as Food Truck Friday and Flicks on the Bricks. And while the city works to attract millennials, it offers  plenty for older residents: Its Fifty and Beyond program provides tennis and a walking club, plus organized bridge, canasta and mah-jongg, for just $20 a year. 

Located in Gwinnett County, the most diverse county in the Southeast, Duluth is home to a growing mix of cultures and ethnicities. Roughly 10 percent of residents are Korean American. “When I’m outside gardening, so are my neighbors—African American, Caucasian, Asian,” says Joy Thompson, 64. The technology consultant moved here from Massachusetts with her three children.

Thompson also says it’s easy to get involved. Rainbow Village, with its unique approach to solving homelessness, has volunteering opportunities, as does a local arts center. But Duluth’s strongest appeal may be to music lovers. Acts at the 13,000-seat Infinite Energy Center range from Paul McCartney to Khalid. Eddie Owen Presents, based in the 260-seat Red Clay Music Foundry, hosts local artists and also a music school.

  • Median housing price: $209,600
  • Vibe: Down-home diversity
  • Freebies that count: See the galleries at the Jacqueline Casey Hudgens Center for Art & Learning. The center also offers classes, including traditional Korean pottery, calligraphy and soapmaking, at reasonable prices.
  • Best way to spend $10: Head to Crave Pie Studio for a serving of coconut cream or seasonal peach. 
  • Urban getaway: Atlanta, 30 miles
Hills covered in vineyards

Alamy

McMinnville, Ore. 

When John and Karen Vanderwall sold their Wisconsin home and took off in their Airstream to find the perfect retirement, Oregon won their hearts. Says Karen, 54, “It’s a hiker’s dream. Where else can you find beautiful coastline, epic farmland, the Cascades, old-growth forests and the Columbia River Gorge?” Ultimately, they rolled into McMinnville. “It has that welcoming, small-town feel,” she notes. The area wine industry hosts the International Pinot Noir Celebration. Third Street’s more than 50 one-of-a-kind eateries include Nick’s Italian Cafe, honored by the James Beard Foundation.

Fancy wineries aside, McMinnville has hung on to its quirky rural personality. That includes the two-day Turkey Rama, another festival celebrating car-cruising culture and the country’s largest UFO festival. The aquatics center and senior center serve as social hubs. Sunset magazine rated McMinnville’s walkable downtown  as  one of the best Main Streets in the U.S.

While housing here is the most expensive of any of our 10 cities, it’s still a steal relative to much of the West Coast. The Vanderwalls are building a 1,500-square-foot home near downtown, for about $325,000. Karen and John, 58, have been surprised by the area’s below average utility prices and homeowner insurance rates. 

  • Median housing price: $290,200
  • Vibe: Farm town for foodies
  • Freebies that count: Picnic on the green at Linfield College and soak in the summer concerts. People 65-plus can audit classes for no charge.
  • Best way to spend $10: Have a pint and some popcorn at the Bitter Monk. (For a $1 donation, compete in an adult spelling bee.)
  • Urban getaway: Portland, 40 miles

Munhall, Pa.

This borough clawed its way into existence, thanks to Andrew Carnegie, as part of the growing residential area surrounding his company’s Homestead Steel Works. And the Carnegie Library of Homestead is still one of Munhall’s greatest assets, with an athletic club and a music hall that hosts a regular schedule of concerts. Residents love what they call downtown’s 1950s-Americana vibe, but Munhall also boasts The Waterfront, a development of apartments, shopping and restaurants along the Monongahela River.

Access to excellent health care is extraordinary, with 381 physicians per 100,000 people, compared with the U.S. average of 210. UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside, just five miles away, is rated one of the top 20 hospitals in the country.

  • Median housing price: $81,300
  • Vibe: American, circa 1950s
  • Freebies that count: Pedal on to the Great Allegheny Passage, the 150-mile path connecting Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
  • Best way to spend $10: Sample a slice at Di Sallis’ Pizza Parlor
  • Urban getaway: Pittsburgh, 7 miles

 

Beach-front homes seen through beach grass in Gulfport, Florida.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Gulfport, Fla.

If brightly painted beach houses, walkability and watching dolphins, manatees and seabirds are on your wish list, Gulfport wants to meet you. The small town has spruced up its neglected areas and thrown open its arms to newcomers, including artists, artisans, the gay and lesbian community and, especially, retirees. For a little beach town, it’s got a big heart. Gulfport Neighbors is a volunteer force of some 500 people who clean the beach twice a month (and get a free lunch for their effort) but are also quick to fix a fallen fence or stock the area’s Little Free Pantry kiosks with donated food. The Gulfport GetGO transportation service, also operated by volunteers, offers free rides daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

  • Median housing price: $191,300
  • Vibe: Key West vibe at a Costco price
  • Freebies that count: The Gulfport GetGO, operated by volunteers, offer free rides daily until 10 p.m.
  • Best way to spend $10: Find the nun-clad windows at Stella’s and settle in for breakfast and bloodiesUrban getaway: Tampa/St. Petersburg, both 25 miles away

Brick buildings along a street in downtown Guthrie, Oklahoma.

Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

Guthrie, Okla.

Most people have never heard of Guthrie. But because it was Oklahoma’s state capital from 1907 until 1910, and once an enormous tent city because of the land rush, this small town has plenty of history. And it carefully nurtures that heritage, from cowboy culture to its well-restored Victorian architecture (many buildings were constructed between 1889 and 1910), with a trolley car and regular period reenactments. Guthrie also fosters a busy arts scene, including the state’s oldest professional theater company, live music venues and four museums. The Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival draws 15,000 visitors annually.

The trolley transports older adults to shopping and medical appointments, all on a donation basis. The local senior center, which provides affordable lunches and activities such as weekly line dancing classes, is set within a park where walking trails are well-lit for early bird and late-night exercise. The city is committed to looking at aging in a new way, too: It’s gotten lots of attention for placing a public prekindergarten class on site at the Willow Creek nursing home to support intergenerational education.

  • Median housing price: $129,700
  • Vibe: Postcards from the Wild West
  • Freebies that count: Watch reenactors stage regular shoot-outs on South Second Street
  • Best way to spend $10: Grab a latte at Hoboken Coffee Roasters, voted a national beauty by Architectural Digest
  • Urban getaway: Oklahoma City, 33 miles

Coralville, Iowa 

Bordered on the east and south by the Iowa River, Iowa City and the massive University of Iowa, Coralville is wooing affluent academics and medical professionals by giving them plenty to do, eat and buy. There’s a new performing arts center, an outdoor aquatic center and a renovated public library. But the town’s showcase is the Iowa River Landing, a 180-acre mixed-use development, which includes residential space, shopping and restaurants that appeal to retirees. From here, simply take the connected skywalk to arrive at a branch of the University of Iowa hospitals. A larger facility is just two miles away. 

There’s also a permanent Sculpture Walk, with each piece from an Iowa artist inspired by works from the nationally renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop. And for a town its size, it’s served by unexpectedly big-name brands, including Trader Joe’s, Hilton and Marriott. Plentiful buses, free for older adults, are available throughout the area. 

  • Median housing price: $177,300
  • Vibe: College meets cornfield
  • Freebies that count: Cycling on the Iowa River Corridor Trail, Iowa’s busiest   
  • Best way to spend $10: Scratch Bakery’s famous cupcakes cost $2, and the menu changes daily   
  • Urban getaway: Iowa City, 3 miles
Stores at the intersection of Sherman Avenue in Coeur d'Alene in Idaho.

csfotoimages/Getty Images

Coeur d’Alene, Idaho 

Residents of California and Washington, fed up with coastal housing prices, are streaming into this pretty resort town. An enormous outdoor playground, the town is anchored by Lake Coeur d’Alene, considered one of the most beautiful alpine lakes in the world. Coeur d’Alene itself is small and quaint, yet there’s a Costco. And in between the almost dizzying options of outdoor pursuits that make the town so popular, and numerous festivals meant to amuse the tourists, a solid year-round community hums along, with varied civic organizations and plenty of ways to volunteer. These include opportunities at the well-regarded Kootenai Health–Coeur d’Alene facility and the Lake City Center, which provides hot lunches for older adults for $4, plus numerous social events.

  • Median housing price: $247,700
  • Vibe: Vast outdoor playground
  • Freebies that count: Walk the world’s longest floating boardwalk   
  • Best way to spend $10: Ride on the city’s recently resurrected 1940s-era Carousel
  • Urban getaway: Spokane, Washington, 33 miles

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