Quality of life is defined to a large degree by the difference between income and expenses. While it might be easier to earn a six-digit salary in Manhattan than in Mississippi, for example, your cost of living will be so much higher that you may actually end up with a lower overall quality of life. Of course, “quality of life” is a subjective measure, but generally speaking, the ratio of your income to your expenses is more important than the absolute dollar amount that you’re earning.
To find cities that have really low salaries and high costs of living, GOBankingRates sourced data from the U.S. Census: American Consumer Survey, the U.S. Census National Quickfacts, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. Only cities with average household incomes lower than the national median and with 3,000 or more households were considered. Results were ranked by median household salary as compared with average annual expenditures and are presented below in reverse order. While these costs of living might not be considered high compared to other locations, they are high compared to the median income in the area. Read on to check out the list.
10. University, Florida
- Household median income: $30,945
- Total annual expenditure cost: $22,710
University, Florida, is just northwest of the University of South Florida, leading many locals to dub it “University West.” The city’s high transient population, along with its student residents, likely contribute to the combination of high expenses and low incomes.
9. Hamtramck, Michigan
- Household median income: $33,570
- Total annual expenditure cost: $23,749
Hamtramck has the highest household median income of any city in the bottom 10, but it’s still more than 50% below the national average. Meanwhile, average annual expenditures are among the highest of any city surveyed, let alone just the bottom 10.
8. East Cleveland, Ohio
- Household median income: $21,699
- Total annual expenditure cost: $19,684
The widest gulf between a city’s household median income and the national median income of any city in the study belongs to East Cleveland. The city’s $21,699 household income is a whopping 68.56% below the national average, making it hard for the average family to cover total average annual expenses.
7. Minden, Louisiana
- Household median income: $25,661
- Total annual expenditure cost: $21,229
Minden is one of two Louisiana cities in the bottom 10 when it comes to low salaries and high expenses. The small town with 4,955 households doesn’t have the highest cost of living on the list, but its incomes aren’t very high as well, at 62.82% below the national average.
6. Bastrop, Louisiana
- Household median income: $23,955
- Total annual expenditure cost: $21,157
Residents of tiny Bastrop, with just 3,488 households, suffer from incomes that are nearly two-thirds below the national average. Yet, annual expenses remain relatively high, stretching household budgets to the limit.
5. Carbondale, Illinois
- Household median income: $24,452
- Total annual expenditure cost: $21,443
The Carbondale area, which residents refer to as the “capital of southern Illinois,” is also dubbed “Little Egypt.” Even its resident university, the Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, uses the Saluki as its nickname, as it was the royal dog of Egypt. Many of its residents likely have a tough time making ends meet, however, thanks to a median household income that’s more than 65% below the national average.
4. Brownsville, Florida
- Household median income: $30,394
- Total annual expenditure cost: $24,533
By the standards of this list, incomes in Brownsville are fairly high as they are above $30,000 annually, “only” 55.96% below the national average. But expenses aren’t very low either, making Brownsville a place where residents really have to stretch their dollars.
3. Highland Park, Michigan
- Household median income: $25,189
- Total annual expenditure cost: $23,434
With incomes 63.51% below the national average, there’s only a $1,755 gap between the median income in the city and the average annual expenditure cost. The town is entirely surrounded by the city of Detroit, and its economy has suffered along with that of its large neighbor. Fortune magazine reported in May 2023 that the city was considering bankruptcy.
2. Opa-locka, Florida
- Household median income: $27,734
- Total annual expenditure cost: $24,387
The interestingly named Opa-locka has an equally fascinating history, as it was designed based on the book “1001 Arabian Tales” and boasts the largest collection of Moorish architecture in the Western hemisphere. Unfortunately for residents, incomes are low and expenses are high.
1. Isla Vista, California
- Household median income: $22,386
- Total annual expenditure cost: $22,517
Isla Vista is the only city in the entire survey where annual expenditures actually exceed the median income. This isn’t a survivable situation for long, so it’s good that Isla Vista is home to a large student population from the University of California, Santa Barbara, which is transient in nature.
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Methodology: To find Cities with Really Low Salaries and High Costs of Living, GOBankingRates found a list of cities in the US along with the cities median household income both sourced from the US Census: American Consumer Survey. This was compared with the national median household income sourced from the US Census National Quickfacts. The cities were filtered to only show cities with households greater than or equal to 3,000. The cities with more median household income than national median household income were removed to only show the cities with low salaries. For the remaining cities the top 100 lowest median household salaries were kept and a number of factors were found for each city including;  Grocery Cost of Living,  Healthcare Cost of Living,  Utilities Cost of Living,  Transportation Cost of Living,  Miscellaneous Cost of Living all sourced from Sperling’s BestPlaces. Each cost of living index was multiplied by it’s annual average expenditure category cost sourced from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey. The expenditure costs were summed to find the total average annual expenditure cost. The expenditure cost and the difference in median household salary compared to national median household salary were both scored. The results were combined and sorted to show the cities with low salaries and high costs of living. All data is up-to-date as-of July 11, 2023.