We pulled together this list not to give you the definitive answer on where to retire early. But it’s more to give you a place to start looking.
What were we looking for in the best place to retire early? We looked a medium-sized cities with low cost-of-living, low crime rates, and plenty of outdoor activities. We also looked at educational options in the city, particularly at the university level, and the ability to get around the city without a car. Plus, we checked out the restaurant and entertainment scenes.
Ranking the Cities
Looking for more specifics on how we rated the cities? Here’s how we scored each of the seven factors we scored.
We looked at a list of U.S. cities by population, and we considered cities with a population of between 300,000 and 500,000 people. These places are large enough to offer a variety of options, but small enough to feel neighborly.
Cost of Living
This factor was a little trickier to rank. Most lists of cities by a cost of living index focus on larger metro areas. So we used this calculator to rank cost of living by each city. The calculator breaks out costs for specific types of expenses, such as housing.
We used the overall cost of living index number. Then, we ranked the cities by cost of living, and assigned those with lower costs a higher score in our matrix.
Keep in mind that you own cost of living in any area will depend largely on your lifestyle. Maybe real estate is expensive, but you keep costs down by choosing a smaller space. Or maybe it’s expensive to insure a car, so you decide to go without. Still, this is a good place to start when looking for an affordable place to retire.
Dealing with crime in your area can be costly and scary. So we wanted to highlight cities with a relatively low amount of crime. Keep in mind that this is just one of our rating factors. While it has a fairly heavy weight in our scale (second only to cost of living), some of the cities mentioned here may have more crime than you’re comfortable with.
The key is to figure out which neighborhoods have less crime, and consider those first. Luckily, you can get tons of great data online these days.
For this factor, we ranked the cities and gave those with a lower crime rate a higher score in our matrix.
Many early retirees are still in the parenting years with college-aged students. Some may even have students in high school. And many early retirees want to go back to school to take interesting classes or pursue a new degree.
So this is a two-factor rating. A city got more points if it had more college and university options in it. Plus, university towns tend to have plenty of affordable, interesting coffee shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. So that’s a good thing.
The second factor was from the state’s overall high school rankings. Cities in states with a higher U.S. News ranking for their high schools were given a bonus in this category.
Need for a Vehicle
One great way to keep costs down in retirement–and stay healthier–is to avoid using a car to get everywhere. This is easier in some cities than others. We used date from WalkScore to figure out these rankings.
One WalkScore, we totaled up a city’s walk, bike, and bus scores. Some cities didn’t have all three. Cities that had a higher score are easier to get around without a car. Cities with a lower score are more difficult to get around.
If you have a specific way you’d like to get around, try using WalkScore to search for places you’re considering moving. A city could, for instance, have excellent bike trails and paths but a terrible public transit system, or vise versa.
This score was based on the availability and proximity of a variety of outdoor activities. Keep in mind that most of these cities have excellent public parks systems. But we were looking for a little more here. For instance, cities with extensive walking and biking trails got a bonus, as did cities nearby to state or national parks.
Cities nearby to more interesting terrains, like beaches or mountains, got a bonus in this category, too.
Note that we decided not to include weather in any of our calculations. What you consider great weather could be way too cold for another person. So the cities with a good outdoor activities rating may be more amenable to those activities for only part of the year. It’s always a good idea to visit a location at different times of year before you decide to retire there permanently.
Restaurant and Coffee Scene
I, for one, could never retire to a place that didn’t have great local coffee shops. Where else would I write the next Great American Novel while sipping my favorite brew (dark roast, black, with a hint of cinnamon)?
If food and coffee are important to you, too, you’re in luck. We included a city’s food and coffee scene in our calculations, though this was a bit tricker.
Most of the bigger lists of top cities for foodies are for larger cities. So instead, we checked out local reviews from Yelp!. Cities with more four–and five-star-rated restaurants and coffee shops got a bigger boost in this category.
We put all this data into a decision matrix. Each factor was weighted a bit differently. In order of importance, they were:
- Cost of Living
- Need for a Vehicle
- Outdoor Activities
- Restaurant and Coffee Scene
These factors may be more or less important to you. This was just one way to rank them. Regardless, we think this system led to an interesting, eclectic blend of potential places to retire early.
1. Lexington, Kentucky
Cost of Living: 94
Crime Rate: Very Low
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 34/25/44
Lexington may not be the first city that comes to mind when you’re thinking about retiring early. But it’s actually got a lot going for it. It’s a pretty low-crime area, and its cost of living is fairly low. It’s a good option if you prefer a laid-back lifestyle and if your idea of fun outdoor activities is hiking rolling hills or checking out local wineries.
Lexington actually didn’t score very well on our transit rating. It’s a sprawling city, so you’ll definitely need a vehicle here. However, it ranked well for restaurants and outdoor activities.
Many of those outdoor activities and restaurants involve drinking bourbon or wine, of course. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The area is known for its bourbon, and you can spend several years just working your way slowly through all the local distilleries.
And if you like history, Lexington is a great place to be. You can visit Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort, and more, all within or nearby Lexington. And if you’re interested in digging into history–or any other topic–with a continuing degree, you can do that, too. Asbury University, Centre College, Kentucky State University, and Sullivan University are all nearby.
All in all, Lexington makes our number one spot, but not by a ton. If you prefer a more strenuous outdoor lifestyle or a hipper community, keep looking through our list of places.
2. Corpus Christi, Texas
Cost of Living: 89
Crime Rate: Low-to-Medium
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 41/29/X
Right on the ocean, Corpus Christi, Texas gives you many of the benefits of beachside living with a much lower cost than other oceanside cities. It’s a spread-out city, so you’ll need a car to get around. But you might also want to invest in a beach cruiser or a boat, because the beachfront is gorgeous.
Corpus Christi gives you access to Mustang and Padre Islands, both beautiful pieces of beach front. The beaches are not quite as smooth as many in Florida or Hawaii. But they offer great fishing and plenty of other recreational options, including sea kayaking. Plus since many of the beaches are state land, they’re pristine and unpopulated. And since Texas is warm year-round, you never have to take a break from the beach.
Texas A&M University’s Corpus Christi campus is right in town, bringing the college scene with it. In fact, the college has some beach front of its own. The high schools in the area are also fairly highly-rated.
Corpus Christi has a fairly robust food scene, including excellent seafood options, of course. One of the top-rated coffee shops in town is Island Joe’s Coffee and Gallery. They’re a local joint known for excellent baristas and a selection of great baked goods–including healthier options.
In all, Corpus Christi is an excellent option if you want to live near a beach but don’t want to pay through the nose for the privilege. Sure, you may not want to spring for an actual beach front bungalow. But in Corpus, you’re never far from the beach!
3. Mesa, Arizona
Cost of Living: 94
Crime Rate: Low
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 37/25/58
If your retirement dreams involve plenty of golfing and sunny weather, Mesa may be the place for you. With a lower cost of living than other well-known Arizona cities, it’s a great option for frugal retirees. But you won’t have to give up much to live in this less famous location.
Mesa is close to loads of natural outdoor attractions, including the Superstition Mountains, Apache Trail, Salt River, Verde River, Canyon Lake, and Usery Mountain Regional Park. Basically, it’s got everything you could possibly want to do outdoors.
Want to hike in the desert? You can do that. There is a seemingly infinite number of hikes in the area. Interested in paddling down a beautiful river? You can do that too. And there are several lakes where you can fish and watch wildlife year round.
Basically, Mesa is an outdoors-lover’s dream location. And since the weather is always warm (or, you know, really, really hot), you can spend time outside all year round.
Mesa is somewhat walkable, if you’re in the right neighborhood. And its bikeability score is almost in the “easy to bike for errands” score from WalkScore. So it doesn’t quite have that infrastructure in place. But if biking is important to you, you can choose to live in a more bikeable neighborhood.
Mesa isn’t truly a university town. But it does have a community college and Benedictine University. And it got a great score for restaurants and coffee. It’s got several highly-reviewed local coffee bars, including Black Rock Coffee Bar, The Cutting Board Bakery and Cafe, and Octane Cafe. And the city itself features a Fresh Foodie trail specifically featuring local restaurants with farm-fresh food.
In short, Mesa would be a great place to retire early if you don’t mind the heat and love to be outside. It’s a hip city with a low cost of living and plenty of outdoors options.
4. Omaha, Nebraska
Cost of Living: 90
Crime Rate: Low-to-Medium
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 45/X/41
If you’d prefer a more Midwestern feel for your retirement, check out Omaha. It’s a mid-sized city that offers low crime and a low cost of living. And there are surprisingly large amount of things to do in Omaha.
The city has some great walking and biking trails, and the Omaha riverfront offers loads of different outdoor activities and community events. If you like sports, Omaha is an interesting location for this, too. It hosts the NCAA College World Series and has a professional indoor football team, a horse racing track, and a hockey team.
Omaha offers a variety of colleges and universities, including Clarkson College, the College of St. Mary, Creighton University, Grace University, Metro Community College, Nebraska Methodist, and the University of Nebraska Omaha and Medical Center.
Since it’s a college town, Omaha also has some great food and coffee options. In fact, it has loads of highly-rated coffee shops, like Howlin’ Hounds Coffee and Well Grounded Coffee. And the entertainment scene is surprisingly lively and varied.
Omaha is great if you’d like to retire in the hospitable midwest. It’s also a fairly central location to the rest of the U.S. if you’re considering where your children might wind up settling.
5. Cleveland, Ohio
Cost of Living: 87
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 60/47/51
Cleveland was one of the results on this list that was somewhat surprising. It’s not exactly the first city that comes to mind for, well, anything. However, it seems to be an up-and-comer with a low cost of living, a lot of walkability, and a great restaurant and entertainment scene.
Cleveland is somewhat lacking for outdoor activities, but it does have some beautiful city parks and, of course, lakefront walks. It’s a pretty place for walking or biking. And you can enjoy activities on the lake, if you’d like. It just doesn’t offer the variety of outdoor activities or access to large state or national parks that other cities listed here do.
One thing that sets Cleveland apart, though, is its walkability. With a score of 60, WalkScore says “some” errands can be accomplished on foot for those who live in Cleveland. However, if you live nearer the downtown area, it’s really quite walkable, with retail and restaurant options close to living areas.
One reason Cleveland is on our list is that it’s a college town. Cleveland State University, Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland Institute of Music, and Case Western Reserve University are all right in Cleveland. And plenty of other colleges and universities are just a few miles from the city center.
I speak from experience when I say Cleveland has some great, quirky coffee shops. I loved the Phoenix Coffee Co. downtown when I visited the city for a business trip. And I walked by plenty of other coffee shops that looked really interesting and worth visiting.
Again, Cleveland is a good option for those who prefer a more midwestern, back-to-basics feel in their retirement city. It offers a good variety of things to do, and definitely wins out with low cost of living.
5. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cost of Living: 85
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 62/54/40
Pittsburgh has much lower than average costs of living. And, actually central Pennsylvania is a beautiful place to live. Within Pittsburgh, you’ll find loads of museums, including the Carnegie Museum of Art and Carnegie Museum of Natural History. You can get a feel for the city as a whole by riding up the Duquesne Incline, which leads to an observation deck where you can see the whole city.
With three rivers in the city, Pittsburgh offers plenty of water-based activities to its residents. It’s also known for some beautiful trails in the Allegheny mountains. And the city has plenty of its own walking and biking trails within its city parks. There are also several beautiful golf courses in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is home to several world-class colleges and universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University, and Point Park University. Pittsburgh is also known as a great city for sports. It is home to a surprisingly large variety of professional athletic teams for a city of its size, including the Pittsburgh Steelers. It also hosts the Pirates and a professional hockey team, the Penguins.
Pittsburgh is a good option for professional sports fans who also want access to plenty of outdoor activities.
7. Aurora, Colorado
Cost of Living: 103
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 43/35/61
If you’re looking for a place to settle that will let you use your bike a ton and be outdoors all the time, Aurora could be a fantastic option. Its cost of living is a bit higher than some of the other places on this list, but it’s still just over the national average. For many, it’s not too steep a price for the views and things to do Aurora offers.
With lakes, rivers, and mountains all within an easy drive, Aurora is a beautiful place to live if you love to be outside. Camping, hiking, boating, and fishing are all great options in the area. Cherry Creek State Park is a good place to begin, but the city also has a variety of smaller parks within its city limits. And the Aurora Sports Park is a great option if your preferences run more towards organized sports like baseball or soccer.
As you might expect, Aurora has a variety of hipster local restaurants and coffee bars. Jubilee Roasting and the French Press both come up as highly-rated coffee shops featuring local roasts.
If you can afford to pay a bit more for housing and amenities but want to spend plenty of time outside, Aurora may be a great option for your early retirement.
8. Colorado Springs, Colorado
Cost of Living: 99
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 36/18/46
If you want many of the benefits of living in Colorado with a larger city and a slightly lower cost of living, check out Colorado Springs. It landed on our list for many of the same reasons as Aurora, though it actually has a lower cost of living by a bit. It also has low crime, decent bikeability, and, of course, a beautiful outdoor scene.
Colorado Springs may be a better option for those who are specifically interested in intensive hiking, mountain biking, and climbing. It is nearby to the Seven Falls, Pikes Peak, and the Garden of the Gods.
Colorado Springs is a bit more of a college town than Aurora, since it is home to the United States Air Force Academy and Pikes Peak Community College. It also has a higher restaurant and coffee shop rating than Aurora, partially because it’s bigger and offers more variety.
Fun coffee shops to check out include Urban Steam and Peak Place, and many of the top-rated restaurants are interesting ethnic dives.
Outdoors-people who want to check out a larger city but still have plenty of hiking and climbing available should definitely consider Colorado Springs as a retirement location.
9. Tulsa, Oklahoma
Cost of Living: 91
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 40/23/44
It’s no surprise that the midwest keeps popping up on our list, since cost of living is generally low here. Tulsa is a great option, too. It is home to the University of Tulsa, Oral Roberts University, and Tulsa Community College. And it actually has a variety of things to do, including several interesting-looking museums.
Tulsa does have a variety of outdoor activities available, too, including Tulsa river Parks. These trails and parks wind along the Arkansas River bank and feature more than 26 miles of trails. You can also visit the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness area for an outdoor experience that lets you see the city skyline.
Many of the city’s top-rated restaurants are barbecues and grills, but it does offer a variety of ethnic and traditional options, too. It’s also got a variety of great coffee bars, including Topeca Coffee and Cirque Coffee, which are both known for their local roasts and meticulous baristas.
If you’d like more of a big city feel or to live in the suburbs, Tulsa may be a good option for your early retirement.
10. Raleigh, North Carolina
Cost of Living: 106
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 30/23/41
Raleigh is a pretty hip city with all sorts of things to do. It has a bigger population than many of the cities listed here, so it gives you plenty of options for things to do. The city’s cost of living is the highest on our list. It’s still just outside of the national average, but be aware of that if you’re planning to retire here.
Raleigh is a university town that combines southern charm with up-and-coming restaurant and entertainment scenes. It hosts North Carolina State University, William Peace University, and Shaw University, among others. And it had one of the highest restaurant and coffee shop scores on our list.
Raleigh is a fairly artsy city. You’ll find lots of local boutiques and shops, plenty of restaurants featuring farm-fresh food, and lots of artisan breweries. It is also close to lots of working farms where you can check out activities like horseback riding. And the city is close to parks like the Neuse River Trail and plenty of city parks.
If you’re looking for more southern charm and an artsier feel to your retirement city, Raleigh is definitely a good option.
11. Tampa, Florida
Cost of Living: 97
Walk/Transit/Bike Score: 50/30/53
We couldn’t possibly make a list of cities to retire in and leave the quintessential retirement state–Florida–off the list entirely. Tampa has many of the benefits of other Florida cities, including year-round sunny weather. But its cost of living is a bit lower, while still offering a big-city feel.
Of course, Tampa is home to major attractions like Busch Gardens. But residents also enjoy more low-key options, such as waterfront walks and city parks. Tampa Bay is home to a variety of athletic teams, including the Buccaneers football team and the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. The city also hosts the New York Yankees for spring training each year.
Living near the ocean also has its perks. Tampa boasts activities like deep-sea fishing, and, of course, has a variety of golf courses in the area. Plus, there are lots of beaches in the area.
Tampa has a huge variety of coffee shops and restaurants, many of which are highly-rated. Of course, you can get excellent fresh seafood in town, but you should also check out the local coffee shops. Options include Ginger Beard Coffee and The Blind Tiger Cafe.
So if you’re looking for a more typical retirement location but want a lower cost of living and a more happening restaurant and entertainment scene, Tampa could be for you.