10 cheapest places where you'll want to retire

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Top Tax-Friendly States

By Stacy Rapacon

Choosing a retirement destination with a low cost of living can really help stretch a fixed income. But the place you select should offer more than just affordability. Safety, livability and economic stability are equally important qualities to retirees.

Using data on 223 metropolitan areas across the U.S., we identified the places with the cheapest living costs specifically for retirees. We placed particular emphasis on reasonable price tags for the two biggest retirement budget-busters, health care and housing, and we also looked at states' tax burdens on retirees. Plus, in case you find that you want or need to go back to work to earn extra income, we sought out economically healthy areas with relatively low poverty. We favored areas with large populations of adults over 65, and because safety is paramount, we weeded out cities with above-average crime rates.

Metropolitan-area population data and poverty rates are from the U.S. Census Bureau. Retiree living costs are from the Council for Community and Economic Research. Each state's tax rating is based on Kiplinger's Retiree Tax Map, which divides states into five categories: most tax friendly, tax friendly, mixed, not tax friendly and least tax friendly. Crime rates are from the FBI.

After narrowing the field to 32 finalists, we selected the 10 affordable cities that, as a group, offer retirees diverse choices in terms of size, climate, geography and lifestyle.

1. Grand Junction, Colorado
  • Metro population: 146,562.
  • Share of population over 65: 15.1 percent (U.S.: 13.2 percent).
  • Cost of living for retirees: 4.6 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Colorado's tax rating for retirees: Friendly.
This small Colorado town offers retirees some big advantages. Residents 55 and older get a generous retirement-income exclusion from state taxes, and there is no inheritance or estate tax. Plus, living costs are comfortably below average. The city's median home value is $217,700, compared with $236,200 for the state as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Active retirees will especially enjoy the free amenities afforded by nature. The weather is mild, and the landscape offers plenty of opportunities for scenic hiking and biking, as well as fishing. Numerous national parks and forests are a short drive away.

Colorado Mesa University, in the heart of downtown Grand Junction, adds to the local attractions with its intellectual and cultural events. Take advantage of the Golden Scholars Program, which offers courses at the university for just $25 per credit hour (down from about $329 per hour for in-state undergrads). By auditing classes, you also gain computer and library access and receive discounts on sporting, music and theater events.

2. Pittsfield, Massachusetts
  • Metro population: 130,866.
  • Share of population over 65: 18.8 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 3.5 percent above the U.S. average.
  • Massachusetts's tax rating for retirees: Not friendly.
Think Boston in the Berkshires without Beantown's high cost of living, which is 39.1 percent above the national average for retirees. Local housing is particularly affordable, at 5.5 percent below average among retired residents, compared with 81.2 percent above average in Boston. Indeed, while the median home value is $330,100 in Massachusetts, it's just $176,500 in Pittsfield.

You can use those savings to offset the state's less than favorable tax situation. The Bay State has its own estate tax, and property taxes run high. But Massachusetts does offer one tax advantage to retirees: It does not tax Social Security and most government-employee pension income.

In addition to the fall foliage, the area offers plenty of diversions throughout the year. The Pittsfield State Forest, for example, is open year-round, offering cross-country skiing in winter and camping, fishing and hiking in summer. Music lovers have the nearby Tanglewood Music Center, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Art fans will want to make the short drive to the Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, and contemporary-art complex MASS MoCa, in North Adams.

3. Prescott, Arizona
  • Metro population: 211,280.
  • Share of population over 65: 24.3 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 2.1 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Arizona's tax rating for retirees: One of the 10 most friendly states.
You can't talk about retirement without mentioning Arizona. Not only does it offer a warm, sunny climate and desert setting, the Grand Canyon State is also the fifth friendliest when it comes to retiree taxes. For example, the state exempts Social Security benefits from taxes, as well as up to $2,500 of some other types of retirement income. Plus you won't face an inheritance or estate tax.

Located about 100 miles north of Phoenix, the state capital, Prescott proves more popular as a retirement haven -- the 65-and-older crowd make up only 12.4 percent of the Phoenix-Scottsdale metro area's total population. And while slightly more expensive than Phoenix proper, which sports retiree living costs 3.6 percent below the national average, Prescott is much gentler on fixed incomes than Scottsdale, where costs are 12.9 percent​ above the national average for retired residents.

4. Decatur, Alabama
  • Metro population: 153,478.
  • Share of population over 65: 14.3 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 9.6 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Alabama's tax rating for retirees: Friendly.
When it comes to taxes, Alabama is certainly a sweet home for retirees. The Yellowhammer State doesn't tax most retirement income, including Social Security. Also, homeowners age 65 and older are exempt from state property taxes, and exemptions from local property taxes are available based on income.

Living costs are equally favorable. The area's retiree health care and housing costs are particularly cheap, at 8.3 percent and 30.2 percent below average, respectively. While the median home value is $176,700 in the U.S., it's just $122,500 in Alabama and $120,400 in Decatur.

Situated along the Tennessee River in northern Alabama, the city stands out because of its low crime rate -- especially compared to nearby metro areas such as Florence-Muscle Shoals. So enjoy all the boating, fishing and birding the region has to offer.

5. Vero Beach, Florida
  • Metro population: 138,203.
  • Share of population over 65: 27.5 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 0.7 percent above the U.S. average.
  • Florida's tax rating for retirees: One of the 10 most friendly states.
Everyone knows that retirees flock to the Sunshine State for the warm weather and beautiful beaches. Even more attractive is the tax picture. Florida has no state income tax, estate tax or inheritance tax, and it doesn't tax Social Security or retirement income. (See 10 Most Tax-Friendly States for Retirees for more on Florida's taxes.)

Many of Florida's popular and affordable retirement hot spots are clustered along the Gulf, including Fort Myers, Sarasota and Tampa. But on the Atlantic side our pick is Vero Beach, which offers peaceful beaches and is a haven for golf, water sports and fishing -- all for living costs on par with the national average. Housing costs for retirees are notably affordable, at 15.2 percent below average.

6. Pittsburgh
  • Metro population: 2.4 million.
  • Share of population over 65: 17.4 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 3.7 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Pennsylvania's tax rating for retirees: Friendly.
The biggest city by far on this list still manages to be affordable. Housing costs are especially low, at 17.7 percent below the national average for retirees. Indeed, the median home value is a miniscule $89,400 in the city, compared with $164,700 for the state as a whole, according to the Census Bureau. Plus, Pennsylvania's tax laws are favorable to retirees -- Social Security benefits and distributions from 401(k)s, IRAs, deferred-compensation plans and other retirement accounts are left alone.

Despite its Rust Belt reputation, Pittsburgh offers sophisticated seniors plenty of cultural attractions, including the Andy Warhol Museum, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and a vibrant jazz scene. The presence of many educational institutions -- including Duquesne, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh -- adds further appeal. Also, the city is among the safest on this list and has a poverty rate of just 12.1 percent (compared with 14.9 percent for the U.S.).

7. Sherman, Texas
  • Metro population: 120,641.
  • Share of population over 65: 15.6 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 12.6 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Texas's tax rating for retirees: Friendly.
The smallest city on this list provides some of the biggest savings. The Sherman metro area, about an hour north of Dallas, offers the lowest overall living costs among our top 10 retirement hot spots. Housing for retirees is exceptionally cheap, at 24.7 percent​ below average. The median home value is $98,100 in Sherman proper and $79,100 in Denison (also part of the greater metro area) -- well below the state's $128,900 median. And Texas frees retirees from state income taxes.

Enjoy charming small-town amenities, such as boutique shopping, unique cafés and several community gatherings throughout the year, including an Earth Day festival and free "Shakespeare in the Grove" performances. Also explore the 12,000-acre Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, home to about 500 different wildlife species. When you feel the urge for big-city stimulation, hop in your car and head to Dallas or Fort Worth.

8. St. George, Utah
  • Metro population: 139,484.
  • Share of population over 65: 17.3 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 8.4 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Utah's tax rating for retirees: Not friendly.
Utah may not be tax-friendly for retirees, but St. George's low living costs help make up the difference. Prices on everything from groceries to health care fall below the national average. And the city's affordability isn't limited to the retired set-it also ranks as one of our Cheapest Cities You'll Want to Live In regardless of age.

Outdoorsy retirees will appreciate St. George's location just south of some state parks and conservation areas, west of Zion National Park and north of the Grand Canyon. Athletes who are age 50 and older can even participate in the Huntsman World Senior Games, an annual competition hosted in St. George. Sports include archery, basketball, golf, softball, track and field and much more. Or try your luck in Las Vegas, a two-hour drive away.

9. Roanoke, Virginia
  • Metro population: 308,238.
  • Share of population over 65: 16.4 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 8.3 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Virginia's tax rating for retirees: Mixed.
You can find cities with beautiful scenery and attractive living expenses near the East Coast, too. Roanoke's cost of living for retirees is below average in every category. In fact, groceries are the most affordable of all the cities on this list, at 8.3 percent below average. Health care and housing are also very affordable -- 5.5 percent and 13.7 percent less than the U.S. average, respectively.

Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains, Roanoke is a haven for those looking to hike through their retirements. You can find more than 600 miles of hiking trails in the Roanoke Valley -- including the Appalachian Trail -- ranging from easy strolls to challenging climbs. If you'd rather take in the views with less effort, try a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway, or visit nearby Smith Mountain Lake. For an even more leisurely afternoon, grab a pint at one of the many local craft breweries -- or hit up three at once by going on the Roanoke Craft Beer Tour.

10. Punta Gorda, Florida
  • Metro population: 160,380.
  • Share of population over 65: 34.5 percent.
  • Cost of living for retirees: 3.8 percent below the U.S. average.
  • Florida's tax rating for retirees: One of the 10 most friendly states.
Of the great many retirement hot spots in Florida, Punta Gorda tops our list (though it's not so great for young singles). Along with the state's favorable tax situation, credit the city's high ranking to its strong senior presence -- the 65-and-older share of the metro area's population is the greatest of all 223 places we considered.

And all those retirees have plenty to keep them busy. The city offers 18 miles of bike paths and pedestrian trails -- including the scenic Harborwalk along Charlotte Harbor -- that connect the various neighborhoods and parks. You can also enjoy boating and other water activities, as well as the charms of Fishermen's Village, a semi-open-air mall that's home to a marina, shops, seafood restaurants and free concerts.

If you prefer more bustle, try Tampa, about 100 miles north of Punta Gorda, with a total metro population of nearly 2.8 million. The big city keeps bills small with living costs that are 5.5 percent below the national average. But seniors aren't as dominant as in Punta Gorda, making up 17.4 percent of Tampa's population.
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