Frutiger's group compiled its index by comparing average 2012 prices in more than 300 U.S. communities for everything from T-bone steaks to mortgages on four-bedroom houses. In all, the group looked at a basket of 56 goods and services weighted to represent what a typical white-collar household spends its money on during a given year. Frutiger says America's cheapest locales generally have bargain-basement mortgage or rental costs, as housing accounts for 27% of the group's weighted index. Still, he recommends consumers debating where to live look at not just at cost of living, but also at such things as local atmosphere and job opportunities. "Lots of people choose to live in
Cost of living: 14% below U.S. average Memphis is the most-populous community ever to make CCER's list of the top-five cheapest U.S. locales. The River City, which has placed fifth in CCER's study for two years in a row, scores well mostly because its 627,000 residents pay just 71.8% of the U.S. average for housing expenses.
Real-estate tracker Zillow ( Z - Get Report) estimates that the median Memphis home costs just $61,000, up only 1.7% over the past year. (Zillow.com lists some 15,900 Memphis-area properties for sale.) Residents also pay 16.1% below-average prices for utilities, 9.1% less for transportation, 6.7% less for groceries and 2.1% under what the typical U.S. household spends on health care.
Cost of living: 14.1% below U.S. average
This South Oklahoma city boasts cheap prices for housing and utilities.Utility costs run 21.3% below U.S. average, while real estate expenses are 21.2% less than what the typical U.S. household pays. Zillow estimates the typical Ardmore home runs only $77,300, up a modest 3.9% over the past 12 months. Ardmore's 24,000 residents also enjoy 9.7% below-average health care costs and an 8.3% discount on groceries, while transportation expenses are 4.9% less than what Americans generally pay. "Ardmore's cost of living is just low across the board," Frutiger says. Located some 100 miles south of Oklahoma City, the Ardmore area has some 180 properties listed for sale at Zillow. Third-cheapest U.S. city: Norman, Okla.
Cost of living: 14.4% below U.S. average The home of the 30,700-student University of Oklahoma makes CCER's list of cheapest locales even though Frutiger says communities with large schools usually have increased living expenses. "College towns normally tend to be a little more pricey," the economist says, although he adds that Norman bucks the trend because housing costs there are 22% below U.S. average. Located just outside Oklahoma City, 111,000-population Norman also offers cheap prices for health care (18.8% below average), utilities (13.2% less than usual), groceries (9% below average) and transportation (2% less than typical).
If you're interested in moving there, Zillow says the typical Norman home costs $134,100. Prices have only risen 3.8% in the past year, and Zillow lists some 1,100 Norman properties for sale. Second-cheapest U.S. city: McAllen, Texas
Cost of living: 14.6% below U.S. average This South Texas border town offers super-low retail prices because it caters to Mexican consumers who flock each year to McAllen's dozens of shopping malls. Some 40% of America's top 100 chains have stores in town, while the nearby Rio Grande Valley outlet mall offers low-priced goods from Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers and nearly 140 other retailers. That's helped make McAllen one of America's five cheapest locales in four of the six years the CCER has released annual rankings. The 130,000-population city also has housing expenses 25.9% below U.S. average. Zillow estimates the typical McAllen property is worth just $92,500, up 3.8% in the past 12 months. Additionally, the community boasts low costs for groceries (14.4% below average), transportation (11.4% less than typical), health care (11.3% below normal) and utilities (6.3% under average). Interested in moving there? Zillow lists roughly 800 McAllen-area homes for sale. Cheapest U.S. city: Harlingen, Texas
Cost of living: 18.2% below U.S. average Located near McAllen just a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexican border, Harlingen has placed No. 1 on CCER's list of least-expensive U.S. cities for three years running. Frutiger says that's partly because Harlingen, like McAllen, offers lots of cut-rate shopping for residents on both sides of the border. The 65,000-person city hosts a half-dozen shopping centers, and it's even closer to the Rio Grande Valley outlet mall than McAllen is. Harlingen also offers 24.5%-below-average housing costs, while groceries run 16.5% less than what the typical American pays. At the same time, transportation costs are 15.5% below average, health care is 7.5% less than typical and utilities cost 2.7% under the U.S. average. "I've never been to Harlingen, but I'm fascinated by the place," Frutiger says. "It's always at or near the top of our list."