Looking to retire in North Carolina? If you plan to live on Social Security alone, there are cities and towns in the Tar Heel State that are likely out of reach.
GOBankingRates has compiled a list of 15 places in North Carolina that are likely to strain a Social Security-only budget. We’ve also factored in livability ratings to help you pick which places to research, as your plan your North Carolina retirement.
According to the Social Security Administration, the average monthly benefit for retired workers stands at $1,790.56 ($3,581.12 for a couple). GOBankingRates has taken those amounts and compared them against numerous other data, including the Sperlings Best Places cost of living index and the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 Consumer Expenditure Survey. Livability ratings are sourced from AreaVibes.
With due respect to each city, here’s a list of places where retirees on a tight budget may have a tough time.
- Average monthly rent: $1,865
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,126
- Livability index: 90
There are plenty of things to like about Cary, a town of about 182,000 with the highest livability score on our list. Located about 12 miles west of Raleigh in the state’s Triangle area, Cary offers a vibrant tech scene, tree-lined streets and proximity to universities such as Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. Your Social Security check alone may not cut it here, however. Cary’s average monthly rent is the sixth-highest on our list.
- Average monthly rent: $1,584
- Monthly total cost of living: $2,859
- Livability index: 59
Gastonia has the second-lowest average monthly rent and the lowest monthly total cost of living in our list, making it attractive if you’re trying to stretch that Social Security check. Unfortunately, its livability score of 59 is the second-lowest on this list. On the bright side, Gastonia boasts numerous nationally recognized historic places, a recently revitalized downtown and proximity to Charlotte, about 25 miles to the east.
- Average monthly rent: $1,482
- Monthly total cost of living: $2,908
- Livability index: 64
The city of Goldsboro, located in the eastern half of the state, boasts a budget-friendly average monthly rent of less than $1,500. Groceries and utilities will also cost you below the national average. Healthcare, on the other hand, costs about 28% more than the U.S. median. That figure, along with a relatively low livability index of 64, are worth considering for budget-conscious retirees.
- Average monthly rent: $1,845
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,094
- Livability index: 79
Another entry from the greater Charlotte area, Concord is home to the famed Charlotte Motor Speedway. Its monthly total cost of living, nearly $3,100, makes it tough to swing on Social Security alone. That said, groceries, healthcare and utilities all average slightly below the national median.
- Average monthly rent: $1,851
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,101
- Livability index: 79
A bustling city with about 875,000 residents, professional sports and numerous cultural offerings, Charlotte has more than doubled in population since 1990. Millennials are flocking there. Retirees counting on their Social Security check may have a harder time, however. Charlotte’s monthly total cost of living is on the higher end.
- Average monthly rent: $1,924
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,199
- Livability index: 84
You’ll find Wake Forest — the town, not the university — in central North Carolina, just north of the state capital, Raleigh. More than 500 acres of parks, nearby Falls Lake and a downtown promoted as “quaint meets cool” contribute to a strong livability score. A cost for monthly necessities around $3,200 places Wake Forest in the middle of the pack for our list, and possibly out of reach for retirees counting on Social Security alone.
- Average monthly rent: $1,663
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,018
- Livability index: 56
Statesville finds itself on our list in part due to its livability index score of 56, the lowest of the 15 entries. It does offer affordability for retirees, however. You can score a month’s worth of groceries for about $350. Statesville’s average monthly rent of $1,663 is well below the U.S. average of $2,030. Also located in the Charlotte area, Statesville has about 30,000 residents.
- Average monthly rent: $1,859
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,139
- Livability index: 69
Located between Raleigh, Fayetteville and Greensboro, the city of Sanford markets itself as “Well Centered.” Its 30,000 residents have access to numerous parks within the city and in surrounding Lee County. Sanford’s monthly cost of living — about $3,140 — may strain Social Security-only budgets, however.
- Average monthly rent: $1,937
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,195
- Livability index: 75
Another Charlotte suburb, Huntersville is celebrating 150 years as a city in 2023. About 63,000 people live here, up from just 3,000 back in 1990. An average monthly rent of nearly $2,000 may make it tough if you’re relying on Social Security alone. Groceries will run you about $380 per month, about 1.5% above the U.S. median.
- Average monthly rent: $1,768
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,156
- Livability index: 69
Wilmington offers coastal living, an award-winning riverfront and a 230-block historic district. Located in Southeast North Carolina, it’s home to about 120,000 people. Its livability score places it in the lower half of our list of cities. Wilmington’s monthly cost of living — about $3,156 — includes grocery and utilities costs just below the national average. Healthcare, however, comes in about 18% above the national median.
- Average monthly rent: $1,763
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,198
- Livability index: 73
The smallest city by population on our list, Hendersonville is home to about 15,000 residents. It offers proximity to Asheville — about 20 miles to the north — a downtown with numerous historic buildings, and a dozen different parks. Healthcare is expensive here, though, costing nearly 26% more than the national average.
- Average monthly rent: $2,071
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,334
- Livability index: 87
The population of Apex has swelled from about 5,000 back in 1990 to about 72,000 today. A suburb of Raleigh, Apex touts itself as the “Peak of Good Living.” Its livability score of 87 is the second-highest on our list, trailing only nearby Carly. The average monthly rent in Apex is the highest on our list, though, making it tough on tight budgets.
- Average monthly rent: $1,839
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,203
- Livability index: 72
You’ll find NASCAR-loving Mooresville, nicknamed “Race City, USA” about 25 miles north of Charlotte. The town’s population doubled from about 9,000 to about 18,000 between 1990 and 2000 and has since swelled to about 53,000. A month’s worth of groceries in Mooresville will cost you about $375.
- Average monthly rent: $1,949
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,234
- Livability index: 68
Located about 15 miles southwest of Raleigh and 30 miles southwest of Research Triangle, Clayton is home to about 26,000 residents. Costs for rent, groceries, healthcare and utilities all hover around the national median, but an average monthly cost of living over $3,200 will eat up most couples’ Social Security checks. Clayton’s livability index of 68 is the fourth-lowest on our list.
- Average monthly rent: $1,954
- Monthly total cost of living: $3,377
- Livability index: 71
Living in Asheville is relatively expensive, making it a stretch for a Social Security-only budget. Its monthly cost of living — $3,377 — is the highest on this list. Its livability rating is the sixth-lowest. Costs for groceries and health care top national averages. That said, this western North Carolina city of about 100,000 also has its charms. They include the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, the historic — and massive — Biltmore Estate, minor league and college sports, and whitewater kayaking.
Methodology: GOBankingRates determined the worst cities in North Carolina to live on only a Social Security check based on the average monthly benefit for retired workers, $1,790.56 ($3,581.12 for a couple), sourced from Social Security Administration. GOBankingRates first isolated all cities in North Carolina with housing market size rank below 1,000 (meaning it is one of the 1,000 biggest markets in the U.S.). GOBankingRates then used Sperling’s Best Places to find the cost-of-living index for each listed city, looking at grocery and healthcare index scores. Next, GOBankingRates used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021 Consumer Expenditure Survey to find the annual expenditure amount for both grocery (“food at home”) and healthcare costs for people aged 65 and older, in order to determine how much a couple 65 and over would spend on groceries and healthcare in each city on a monthly basis. GOBankingRates then added monthly housing, grocery and healthcare costs together to find where a couple 65 and older could survive on their Social Security or less. GOBankingRates scored and combined both livability and monthly necessities expenditures, with the highest score being worst. In final calculations, total monthly necessities expenditures were weighted 3x. All data was collected and is up to date as of Sept. 6, 2023.
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