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Introduction

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Life is expensive. That’s true just about everywhere, but just how expensive varies widely. In Kodiak, Alaska, a Coca-Cola costs almost $2.50, while the same soda in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, averages $1.30. This difference illustrates the wide variation in cost for almost everything in the U.S. — from groceries to housing.

To find the top places for affordability, NerdWallet investigated price variations to assess where a dollar stretches the furthest in the U.S.

Not surprisingly, data on median income from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey revealed that many of the cheapest places in the U.S. are also where residents earn the least. In our study, we make a distinction between “cheap” and “affordable” by comparing a place’s median income with its cost of living to find truly affordable places.

» MORE: Calculate how much house you can afford

Key findings

Wealthier places are more affordable. Despite a higher cost of living, the gains from a higher median income in wealthier places are more than the increased cost of living there.

Cost of living is clustered. Sure, there are outliers like New York City, New York, and Honolulu, Hawaii, where the cost of living is 122% and 74% above the U.S. average respectively, but the cost of living in most places is within a small range around the national average.

Within a place, costs can be diverse. Just because a place is affordable in one category, such as groceries, doesn’t mean the same is true for housing or utilities. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the cost of utilities is 11% below the U.S. average, but groceries and housing are above the national average.

Relationship between income and cost of living

Our data show that higher-income areas tend to be more expensive, but how much more expensive For example, in San Francisco, California, the median household income is $74,559, an impressive 43% higher than the national median of $52,176. But the cost of living for San Francisco residents is almost 67% higher than average, much more than the area’s income advantage.

Our study found similar trends for other well-to-do places such as Washington, D.C., and Seattle, Washington, where higher incomes are paired with a higher cost of living.

However, there are places where higher incomes aren’t offset by a more expensive cost of living. In this way, for example, a place such as Scottsdale, Arizona, might be more affordable than Tucson, Arizona.

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In Scottsdale, the cost of living is 14% higher than the U.S. average, while in Tucson it is 3% below the average. However, the median income in Tucson is 31% below the national median while Scottsdale’s is 34% above. In this case, the data reveal why people in Scottsdale are doing better than Tucson residents.

As it turns out, the relationship between the cost of living index and the income index in the places we analyzed isn’t one to one, which means in many cities where the income index is higher, the cost of living index isn’t as high. This allows some wealthier places in our study an advantage when it comes to affordability because the cost of living remains relatively lower.

Data highlights

We calculated the percentage difference in the cost of items based on data from over 300 U.S. metropolitan areas.

A T-bone steak, at an average of $8.48 in Olympia, Washington, for a 12-ounce to 24-ounce cut, is cheaper than it would be in 99.7% of the places surveyed, according to our data.

In Juneau, Alaska, a pound of bananas costs $0.88 on average, which is more expensive than in 98.5% of other places.

A six-pack of Heineken in Omaha, Nebraska, is $7.43 — cheaper than it would be in 99.3% of places.

People in 88% of the places in our study will pay more for a phone line than those in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the average landline is $22.91 a month.

A haircut in a Scottsdale, Arizona, salon costs $54.88, more expensive than 97% of the other places.

In Tracy, California, it costs $8.89 to dry-clean a men’s two-piece suit — a cheaper price than in 93.5% of the other places.

A bottle of white wine in Round Rock, Texas, costs about $5.16, which is less than 98.7% of the other places in our survey.

The 100 most affordable places in America

In this table, 100 is the average cost of living across the U.S. in the cost of living index; for the income index, 100 is the nation’s median income.

Methodology

To assess a place’s cost, we used the Council for Community and Economic Research’s 2014 cost of living index.

We compared this index with an index we created for income using the median household income from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

Places with the biggest difference between the income index and the cost of living index were ranked favorably as the most affordable places student loans exit counseling

Best Places for Engineers - nerdwallet.com

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30 Places That Cash Personal Checks (Stores Not Scams)

James C. McKinley Jr., a reporter on the Metro desk, has held a range of jobs at The New York Times, starting as a Metro cop reporter, to City Hall reporter, Nairobi bureau chief, Miami correspondent, investigative reporter in the Sports department, Albany bureau chief, Mexico City correspondent and Houston bureau chief.

Before joining The Times, Mr. McKinley was the editor of the West Side Spirit, and was an editor and staff writer at The Greenwich Time, a daily newspaper in Greenwich Conn., and a stringer at The Syracuse Post Standard from 1982 until 1985.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1962, Mr. McKinley received a B.A. in English literature from Cornell University, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1984. He did postgraduate work in journalism at the University of Missouri from 1985 until 1986.

Mr. McKinley is married and has a son and a daughter direct stafford loan estimate

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It’s fair to call this list “Heights-esque,” as we shall put one foot over White Oak Bayou occasionally and step — barely — into the Lazy Brook and Timbergrove areas. Some of the best food at the best prices is found there and breaking those places out into a separate list just doesn’t make a lot of sense. (Besides, how many of you are going to search for “10 Best in Lazy Brook/Timbergrove," really)

All that said, when it comes to reasonable yet notable fare, the Heights might in fact be the best neighborhood in Houston. To that end, let’s get a substantial number of honorable mentions out of the way.

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It just opened, but we can imagine spending a whole lot of time at Eight Row Flint. The menu of casual Mexican fare is small but satisfying, including tacos, housemade tortilla chips, guacamole, queso and salsa. Tacos range from $3 to $5 and so far, the braised beef cheek and Berkshire pork varieties are our standout favorites. Oh, and did we mention there's a lot of whiskey and beer, too 

You know what's really cool The pizza at Pi Pizza truck. That's really cool.

It's just wonderful that this long-running food truck has a permanent home at Johnny's Gold Brick now, because owner Anthony Calleo has been cranking out some of the best pizzas in Houston for years. From the cheekily-named 420 Slice to the rather elegant Soppressata, Pi Pizza has something to please nearly every pizza lover. If you're really lucky, you'll catch one of the awesome seasonal pizzas made with fresh local ingredients. If you've done some truly good deeds lately perhaps the heavens will smile on you and you'll arrive just in time to grab a pizza covered in Mac Cheese and bacon. 

The "Pizza Sandwich" at Dacapo's Pastry Cafe in the Heights

When people think of restaurants in The Heights as old, charming and quaint, they’re probably thinking of Dacapo’s. It’s the kind of place you can walk into a decade later and it’s still exactly the same. That includes a good selection of classic cakes (Dacapo's takes custom orders, too) and the funny little leftovers from trimming the cakes called “ugly cake tops” that make for perfectly sized sweet bites after lunch. The sandwich, salad, quiche and dessert spot shuts down at 6 p.m. daily (except for Sundays, when it's closed), so visit for lunch or a very early dinner.

This IS the Asia Market you are looking for.

The folks who formerly ran the Asia Market on Cavalcade moved to a full-fledged restaurant. It’s technically in Northside now, but those acclaimed spicy curries are just on the other side of I-45. It should not be confused with the old location, with new owners running that as Asia Market Thai Lao Food. Asia Market Restaurant’s Green Curry with Tofu is a favorite dish. “Spicy” means spicy, so don’t come crying to us if you order it “Thai hot” and don’t like the results.

The Greca Pizza at Collina's, with pepperoni, feta and fresh basil and tomato slices.

This longtime local chain, with three locations in Houston, has been ignored and underrated for a long time, especially when considering the value offered. An eight-inch pizza is an extremely generous “personal” size, and it even comes with a salad and breadsticks. The grand total: $14.89 after leaving a $3 tip. Collina’s is BYOB, too. The corkage is only $1 per person. That’s ridiculously cheap.

The Primavera, with all manner of fresh vegetables including spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, garlic and bell peppers, is an old favorite. The crust is of the hand-tossed, slightly chewy variety. It’s not going to change your tires, comb your hair, give you a loan or change the way you look at pizza, but it’s a good deal. Collina’s also gets Brownie points for always being good about working with nonprofits and other local organizations for events and club meetings.

That’s it for the honorable mentions. Now on with the countdown.

Sure, it's served in a Styrofoam cup, but the chili at time capsule restaurant Carter Cooley is actually flavorful and warming. In the background is the restaurant's "famous" muffuletta.

There’s as much history inside of Carter Cooley as there is in the antique stores down the street. For that matter, it practically is an antique store, with old cash registers and historical photos all around. There’s a big, round neon-framed clock that minds the back and probably has been there in the same spot for decades. The best old-fashioned thing here, though, is the service. It’s the warm, friendly kind that will make you feel right at home. The muffuletta is the must-order sandwich, but the chili is a good bet when it’s available, too. Carter Cooley is open only for breakfast and lunch.

The Texas Dog at Happy Fatz with a side of pleasantly mustard-y potato salad.

There’s a menu of specialty hot dogs here that are $8 each, including a pretty remarkable Texas beer chili dog that’s topped with a Frito pie. The staff is genuine and friendly, and there’s a case full of pretty cake balls and other desserts. Happy Fatz also serves breakfast, including challah French toast and a creative hot dog hash. We’ll have to revisit someday, because the savory cheesecakes in flavors like Gorgonzola and olive pesto sound too good to pass up.

The Guadalajara Platter at Alma Latina

It kind of looks like a pawn shop on the outside, but who cares when the food is so good and reasonably priced If your heart is craving some good, old-fashioned Tex-Mex, like cheese enchiladas with chili gravy, refried beans and Mexican rice, there's no shame in it here. Also, when Alma Latina says “a la Diabla,” it means it. Dishes like the aren’t crazy-spicy, but you’ll know you ate them.

Part of what makes Lola so good, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner (note that this place closes at 9 p.m.), is that the menu has a conscience. No matter the dietary restriction, it’s easy to dine here. The menu is marked with symbols for “heart healthy,” "gluten-free" and "vegetarian" for easy ordering. Breakfasts feature locally raised eggs, and dinner dishes use hormone-free meat.

Just as important, the food actually tastes good. This is no diner serving dry, boring, do-gooder fare. Slap a side of the applewood-smoked bacon onto those eggs. Have a “Crack Brownie” for dessert. Feel-good food can be tasty and fun.

A plate of Catfish Opelousas getting sauced at Gumbo Jeaux's.

Gumbo Jeaux’s is in a bit of a no-man’s land off Durham near I-10 that has no sexy neighborhood name, so we’re going to leave it here because we’re into anarchy almost as much as we’re into Cajun food. There’s a legit catfish sandwich to be had here and a spicy Catfish Opelousas dish that includes two fillets crowned with fried shrimp over a goodly mess of dirty rice. It’s entirely possible to fill the table with food for $30. We know, because that’s what we did at one point while we were reviewing Gumbo Jeaux's last year. Bonus: It's totally BYOB. 

The glorious interior of an apple fritter at Lee's Fried Chicken Donuts.

5. Lee’s Fried Chicken Donuts, 601 Heights

This relatively new entry in the Heights fast-food scene should get some sort of award for having the most epic neon sign in the area. It’s modeled after owner Lee Ellis of F.E.E.D. TX Group, the same company behind Liberty Kitchen and BRC. If the phase “fried chicken and donuts” doesn’t interest you, you’re either vegetarian or you have no soul. Lee’s makes the best creamed corn we’ve ever had, with fresh kernels, not canned. The mashed potatoes are extremely good as well — just the right balance of whipped and chunky.

We wish the fried chicken batter had a little more salt to it, but it’s nicely crunchy and even the breast meat stays moist. (By the way, if you haven’t been within the past couple of weeks, it’s time to go back since Lee's has installed brand-new fryers and tweaked the recipe.) As far as the donuts go, the yeasty varieties, such as the Birthday Cake with white icing and sprinkles, have just the right amount of doughy firmness without being dense, and the Blueberry Cake, shot all the way through with fresh blueberries, lives up to its name.

The Chi-Town Dog (left) and Picnic Dog (right) at Good Dog Houston.

The Heights has more than enough clientele for not one but two stellar hot dog places. (See No. 9, Happy Fatz, above.) Good Dog Houston’s focus is on locally sourced ingredients. Everything here is made by small Texas businesses, from the Slow Dough buns to the housemade chili. The Picnic Dog is one of our favorites. It includes an all-beef hot dog with red potato salad, chorizo chili and "Short Bus Mustard" (also made in-house at Good Dog Houston, along with all the other condiments).

Interestingly, Good Dog's fish and chips are also really good. The fish, encased within a light, crispy beer batter, changes from day to day depending on what's fresh and available. The “chips” are a stack of very worthy crispy, skin-on, seasoned fries.

Banh Mi and craft beer is the order of the day at Hughie's Tavern Vietnamese Grill.

3. Hughie’s Tavern Vietnamese Grill, 1802 West 18th

This is one of those times we’re going to step over White Oak Bayou and into the Lazybrook/Timbergrove area. Hughie’s has so much to offer that it’s well worth going the extra mile for. It’s quintessentially “Houston,” offering both Southern and Vietnamese food on the same menu. The burger, topped with pickled vegetables, cilantro, jalapeño, Vietnamese ham and spicy aioli and fries, is the finest expression of how complementary these cultures are to each other. Beer lovers adore this place because there’s always something interesting on the tap wall.

The Pappa Geno's Steak Cheese with beef, melted Provolone and grilled onions. A side of fries with "whiz" AND gravy does not hurt!

One more step over the bayou and this one is really necessary. The Philly cheesesteaks at Pappa Geno’s are just tremendous. The bread simply seems correct for the type of sandwich it is and that’s a rarity. Diners can’t go wrong with either the traditional with grilled onions and “whiz” (that is, Cheez Whiz) or the Pappa Geno’s namesake sandwich with melted Provolone. The restaurant now has a full-size dining room because it was able to lease the space next door.

The best thing about Hubcap Grill is that even its simple burgers, like this jalapeño cheeseburger, seem really fancy.

This seems like the obvious choice and, as much as we hate being obvious, there's no denying how good and relatively inexpensive Hubcap Grill is. From a slammin’ jukebox filled with some of the best music from the '70s, '80s and '90s to even more slammin’ burger and fry ingredients, Hubcap Grill has a whole lot to offer for a casual lunch or dinner. Everyone has a different favorite here, from the Hangover Burger to the Greek Burger. The Hell Fries, topped with cayenne, chile powder, Sriracha mayo and jalapeños, might be our favorite “side order.” (Really, they’re big enough to make a meal.) There’s a wide variety of bottled beer, too, from local favorites like Saint Arnold to classic Belgian ales such as Chimay public health loan forgiveness

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