The Cost of Living in the Most Affordable City In America

by Rachel Ahrnsen

Forbes named Birmingham, Alabama, the most affordable city in America in their list for 2015, and as a freshly-minted Birminghamite, I’d have to agree. Birmingham has been a great city to begin my postgrad life, allowing me to pay off my debt, and coddle my new savings account for the year I’ve lived here.

For coastal Americans, the rent is often too damn high: Rent in major cities is often equal to 50 percent of take-home pay. In Birmingham, I live in a 750-square-foot one-bedroom for $600 per month. On the high end of the spectrum, a 1,700 square-foot historic loft in downtown Birmingham is $1,500 per month.

Homes are affordable as well, and some of my mid-twenties cohort are taking the leap into home ownership. According to Forbes, during the fourth quarter of 2014, the median sales price for a home here was $130,000, and 81.5 percent of homes were affordable to families making a median of $61,000 a year.

Though housing is the most significant cost I reduce by living in Birmingham, all of my other expenses are lowered as well. I’ll give you some juicy numbers (disclaimer: I am a bit of a frugal weirdo who plays games like “how long can I go without A/C” and my numbers are likely lower than average).

Utilities: Power is about $70 per month in the summer, and $140 per month in the winter (yes, Alabama does, in fact, get cold). If you have gas, it’s less than half that. Internet is $35 per month. Water/sewer is $50 per month.

Groceries: I spend $40 a week on groceries and toiletries. I shop ethnic grocery stores for the cheapest produce, and Costco, so I can build a fort out of ridiculous amounts of toilet paper.

Transportation: Gas is currently hovering around $1.89, because Birmingham is getting its groove on like it’s 1998. The scant public transport that is available is a quarter to ride, though riding the bus is only a viable option in the downtown area.

Now that I’ve laid out the cost of living expenses, let’s get to the fun stuff! How much does it cost to have a rollicking good time in Birmingham? Not much. And, let me tell you, I have a really good time.

In my Restaurants and Bars budget, I aim for about $150 a month, though I usually overspend by a twenty or two. There are fantastic new restaurants popping up every other week, and sometimes I have trouble resisting. I try to eat out only once a week, and I drink Budweiser at bars to keep my costs reasonable. I occasionally splurge on concert and event tickets (in September I saw the U.S women’s soccer team play on their victory tour).

If I am strapped for cash, Birmingham also has an abundance of free spaces and events, including movie nights at the botanical garden, or free symphony performances at the award-winning Railroad Park. If it’s a rainy day, I’ll go to the free art museum and set off the motion detector by getting too close to the samurai armor.

If I sound too rah-rah-rah about Birmingham, it’s because I’m weary of hearing the negative stereotypes from people who haven’t visited. My least favorite attitude is the one which holds Chicago as the one saving grace amid a cultural wasteland which stretches from coast to coast. That isn’t true. Birmingham has music festivals (SlossFest, Secret Stages), a renowned film festival (Sidewalk Film Festival), and James Beard award-winning chefs and restaurants. It has bizarre artisanal shops and farmers’ markets and all the other trappings of 21st century civilization in America. There are paved roads and everything! Promise.

When I talk about living in Birmingham, I’m often met with bafflement over my enthusiasm for the city. It seems that most people have this exhaustive list of problems with the South in their head and refuse to confront their outdated stereotypes. While acknowledging that this is only one white lady’s viewpoint, here’s a list of the actual cons I’ve encountered living in Birmingham:

  • There are only a few restaurants open 24 hours (mostly specializing in onion rings and regrets)
  • The local government is really terrible if you lean liberal (but you already knew that)
  • All the restaurants say they have hash browns, but they actually have tater tots (WHY?!)
  • The month of July is a humid hellscape (living that “humid subtropical region” life, y’all)
  • No alcohol is served before 12 p.m. on Sundays (brunching blasphemy)

Most individuals have a reason for living in an expensive city. Maybe they want to be near family, or they work in a specialized field. But if you don’t have a compelling reason (needing access to a 24-hour Malaysian takeout does not qualify as a compelling reason), I would encourage you to expand your mind and consider living somewhere more affordable. You may fall in love with an often overlooked city such as Chattanooga, Tennessee or Kansas City, Missouri. As for me, Birmingham has stolen my heart and leaves me enough cash for a cab ride home in the morning.

Rachel is a freelance writer living in the unexpected paradise of Birmingham, Alabama. She is frantically attempting to keep her basil plant alive.

Photo: Max Wolfe

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