Some cities are better suited to midcareer workers than to retirees, and some appeal to recent grads more than to families. That's why we picked five great cities for each of five different age groups -- young adults, mid-career professionals, families, second acts and retirees.
All of the cities on our list have reasonable living costs, strong employment growth and a population that scores high on measures of education, tech-savviness and tolerance. We sorted them further by using criteria tailored to each of our categories. For instance, we factored in rental cost for young adults; commute times for professionals; school quality for families; the arts and number of restaurants for second acts; and, for retirees, climate and number of doctors.
To identify the winners, Kiplinger teamed up with Kevin Stolarick, research director at the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank that studies economic prosperity. The cost-of-living index measures how expensive it is to live in a city; the national average score is 100. That means cities with a score below 100 have a lower-than-average cost of living. Nationwide, the median price of an existing single-family home is $157,000, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $959, median income is $43,024 and median income growth from 2006 to 2011 was 11.1%. The national unemployment rate is 8.2%.
Best city for young adults: Madison, Wisconsin (pictured above)
Population (metro area): 568,593
Unemployment rate: 4.9%
Cost-of-living index: 108.2
Median household income: $58,775
Average rent (one-bedroom apartment): $849
Let's skip the Cheesehead and cowpie references. Madison is an educated, tech-savvy city, filled with recent grads who have enough energy to launch a dozen start-ups and still have time to check out that brewpub down the block.
With the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus front and center, there's no shortage of smart people in town. Engineers, computer programmers and other eggheads work in academia or for Epic Systems, a health care software developer. An entrepreneurial community fosters homegrown start-ups.
Young adults complain of a competitive rental market, where it's tough to find a centrally located two-bedroom flat for less than $1,000 a month. But there's plenty to keep your mind off high rents in this midsize midwestern city. On a typical Saturday, you might browse the Dane County Farmers' Market, head down to Camp Randall Stadium to tailgate and watch Badgers football, or boat or fish in lakes Kegonsa, Mendota, Monona and Waubesa.
Best city for midcareer professionals: Washington, D.C.
Population (metro area): 5,582,170
Unemployment rate: 5.3%
Cost-of-living index: 136.3
Median household income: $84,424
Income growth (2006-11): 15.8%
The nation's capital boasts diversity -- from job sectors to arts and culture -- which means it's easy to find your niche. Don't peg greater Washington as just a government hub; D.C.'s biggest growth area is professional services, such as consulting companies and defense contractors. Biotech rules in the Maryland suburbs, and in the area stretching from Baltimore to the District, cyber-security jobs are growing.
While many come for the jobs, they stay for the quality of life. Check out the free Smithsonian museums, concerts hosted by embassies or the pro sports games. Neighborhoods range from leafy suburbs to trendy downtown areas with an eclectic mix of eateries, shopping and bars -- but housing costs are high downtown and in the close-in suburbs. Prices for a two-bedroom/two-bath condo in happening neighborhoods (D.C.'s Logan Circle and Arlington's Clarendon, for example) start at about $600,000. Move off the Metro line and for $500,000 to $600,000 you can find a three-bedroom single-family home.
Best city for families: Des Moines, Iowa
Population (metro area): 569,633
Unemployment rate: 5.0%
Cost-of-living index: 91.3
Median household income: $57,185
Student-teacher ratio: 14.5
A low unemployment rate, high-paying financial-services jobs and below-average housing costs allow Des Moines residents to enjoy a standard of living that's the envy of their friends in larger cities. Families can easily find a four-bedroom home with an attached garage in the $200,000 range.
Most families don't need to shell out extra money to pay for private schools. Des Moines' public schools offer small class sizes, and Iowa's test scores are above average. Rush hour is blissfully brief, an attribute highly valued by busy parents.
The city and suburbs are connected by more than 300 miles of bike and walking trails. In the summer, families can take in a minor league baseball game at Principal Park, home to the Triple-A Iowa Cubs. Brenton Skating Plaza, part of the 1.2-mile Principal Riverwalk that is scheduled for completion this year, is a popular wintertime destination.
Best city for second acts: Portland, Maine
Population (metro area): 514,098
Unemployment rate: 6.4%
Cost-of-living index: 113.1
Median household income: $54,431
Restaurants per 100,000 people: 263
Portland's lively arts scene, highly skilled workforce and inventive cuisine, along with a low crime rate and high-quality medical facilities, are drawing professionals who are making their home base here and telecommuting or flying to their jobs. The cost of living is slightly higher than the national average, but compared with big-city prices, housing is affordable. Newly built two-bedroom condos on the eastern side of downtown sell for $360,000.
Downtown Portland offers boutiques, art galleries and restaurants along cobblestone streets. The arts district includes a symphony, ballet, an opera company, a theater and the Portland Museum of Art. Portland's renowned food scene offers everything from hardwood-cooked game to its famed steamed lobster.
Portland has its challenges. Homelessness is up (a task force is addressing the problem), and winters are long and cold. Locals either wait them out in warmer climates, head north to ski, or pop in to one of the many restaurants for a hot bowl of chowder.
Best city for retirees: New Orleans, Louisiana
Population (metro area): 1,167,764
Unemployment rate: 7.2%
Cost-of-living index: 95.7
Median household income: $47,188
Doctors per 100,000 people: 136
Seven years after the monster hurricane and levee breaches, N'awlins has bounced back. The rebounding population has helped spawn a building boom of newly constructed and refurbished homes, as well as new infrastructure.
Retirees and people on the brink of retirement are finding a lot to like here. New Orleans has affordable health care and a mild climate (notwithstanding the occasional hurricane). The state offers tax breaks to retirees: Social Security and federal government and military retirement benefits are tax-free, and property taxes are low. Although warring gangs keep the murder rate high, burglaries and thefts track close to the national average.
Some retirees are gravitating to nearby Metairie and the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. No matter where you live, you will still want to stroll the streets of the French Quarter. Besides jazz and blues played by gifted street musicians, you’re likely to find a festival going on. World-renowned restaurants include Galatoire's (for French Creole), Cochon (for Cajun) and Acme Oyster House (for the oysters, crawfish and po' boys).