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state capitals

Capital cities in the United States share many of the same characteristics. Housing the state and local city bureaucracy, capital cities often times have stronger economies than other cities in the state. The best state capitals also tend to have strong local histories that broaden the local cultural offerings for residents. With that increased interest can come some problems, however. Many state capitals suffer from rising housing costs that leave residents unable to build their savings. That hurts the overall quality of life. 

Below we look at these and other factors to rank the most livable capital cities in America. Specifically, we compare the cities across metrics like discretionary income, unemployment rate, dining and entertainment establishment rate, violent crime rate and property crime rate. Check out our data and methodology below to see where we got our data and how we put it together.

This is SmartAsset’s fifth annual study of the best state capitals. Check out the 2017 version here.

Key Findings

  • New England capitals are livable – Of the six New England states – Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, three have capitals that rank in our top 10. In fact, only Hartford, Connecticut’s capital, has a poor ranking. It comes in 49th.
  • Consistency – Seven of last year’s top 10 found spots in this year’s edition. The three cities that lost their spots in the top 10 were Annapolis, Maryland; Pierre, South Dakota; and Boise, Idaho, which all ranked between 10 and 15.

capital cities

1. Honolulu, HI

Honolulu, Hawaii takes the top spot as the most livable state capital, according to our data. As far as capital cities go, Honolulu is certainly an expensive place to live. After all, it’s a favorite tourist destination. The good news is that high local incomes offset the high cost of living. The median Honolulu household earns about $63,400 per year, while the median home costs just under $1,400 per month. That should leave the average household here with about $46,800 in discretionary income. Another plus is the availability of local jobs. This city has an unemployment rate under of 2.6%, according to BLS data.

2. Madison, WI

Mad City takes second. We have ranked Madison highly in a number of different studies, including the cities with the best work-life balance. So it is no surprise to see it top this chart. Madison puts up very consistent ranking. In four out of the five metrics we tracked, Madison ranked eighth. Only in discretionary income, which ranked a respectable twelfth, did Madison not secure the eighth spot.

3. Concord, NH

The Granite State’s capital comes in third. Concord is one of the smaller state capitals in the nation with a population hovering around 43,000 since 2010. But this smaller-than-usual capital is also one of the nation’s most livable. Concord has the lowest unemployment rate of any capital at 2.3%. That should make finding stable employment an easy task for any local. And another plus is that your salary should allow you to find an affordable home. Concord ranks 11th for discretionary income.

4. Montpelier, VT

Montpelier has the jobs, the high incomes and the low crime rates that everyone imagines when picturing a livable city. In each of those metrics, Montpelier ranks in the top 10. So why is Montpelier not ranked higher? According to Census Bureau data Montpelier is not the liveliest of cities. Around 8% of all establishments in the city are dedicated to bars, restaurants or entertainment, a very low score.

5. Austin, TX

For residents concerned with saving money, Austin is a great place to be. According to our data the median household here should have about $46,400 left over after paying for housing a top 10 rate. All the discretionary income means residents can start building a down payment or invest with an Austin-based financial advisor. One area where Austin could improve is safety. While Austin ranks in the top 20 for both metrics it does fall outside the top 10. That’s why it fell to fifth.

6. Boston, MA

Massachusetts’ biggest city and capital takes the sixth spot. If you are looking to have fun, Boston is one of the best capitals in the country. According to our data, more than 12% of all establishments here are dedicated to dining, bars or entertainment. Overall, Boston ranks second in that metric. Boston also has the third-lowest property crime rate in the study. Dragging Boston down the ranks is the slightly high unemployment rate of 3.8% and the above-average violent crime rate.

7. Lincoln, NE

If you’re looking for work in a city where you can save some money, Lincoln isn’t a bad place to end up. According to Census Bureau data, the median household here should have about $40,700 left over after tackling housing costs. That’s a top-20 rate. And few cities have more available employment opportunities than Lincoln. This city has an unemployment rate of only 2.9%. Anyone looking to buy a place in Lincoln may want to be ready for increasing the amount in property tax payments. Nebraska property taxes are the sixth-highest in the nation.

8. Denver, CO

Denver is one of the most popular cities in the country. Millennials are moving here in droves. Furthermore, this city has one of the fastest growing housing markets. What makes this city so popular is its livability. Incomes have largely kept up with the large rise in housing costs. Our data suggest the median household has just under $42,500 left over after paying for housing. Coupled with the high incomes is an availability of work. This city has an unemployment rate of 2.9%.

9. Bismarck, ND

North of Colorado, and ranked one spot behind, is North Dakota, where Bismarck, its capital, comes in as the ninth most livable capital in the country. Bismarck is a great city to live for people who are looking to settle down into a quiet life filled with saving, home buying and retirement. According to our data, this city has the fourth-highest discretionary income, sixth-lowest unemployment rate and the fifth-lowest violent crime rate. Unfortunately, Bismarck residents are dependent on themselves for entertainment. This city ranks fiftieth for entertainment establishments as a percent of all establishments.

10. Helena, MT

Helena grabs the last spot in the top 10. In fact, it just beat out Boise by less than a point on our final index. This capital has good all-around scores, without scoring spectacularly well in any single metric. Its highest score came in discretionary income, where it ranked 13th, with an average discretionary income of $42,500. Its worst score came in property crime rate, where it has about 3,900 property crimes per 100,000 residents. That’s the 27th best rate.

capital cities

Data and Methodology

In order to find the best capital cities to live in, we analyzed data for every state capital in the U.S., plus Washington, D.C. We compared them across the following five categories:

  • Discretionary income. This is the different between median household income and median housing costs. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 5-Year American Community Survey.
  • Unemployment rate. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for June 2018.
  • Dining and entertainment rate. This is the number of bars, restaurants and entertainment establishments as a percent of all establishments. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 Business Patterns Survey
  • Violent crime rate per 100,000 residents. Data comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Database for 2016. Data for Carson, Nevada; Raleigh, North Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island; Nashville, Tennessee; and Richmond, Virginia came from neighborhoodscout.com
  • Property crime rate per 100,000 residents. Data comes from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Database for 2016. Data for Carson, Nevada; Raleigh, North Carolina; Providence, Rhode Island; Nashville, Tennessee; and Richmond, Virginia came from neighborhoodscout.com

First, we ranked each city in each metric. After, we found each city’s average ranking. To do this we gave each metric an equal weighting, except violent crime which we gave a weighting of 0.7 and property crime rate which we gave a weighting of 0.3. We used each city’s average ranking to create our final score. The city with the best average ranking received a score of 100. The city with the worst average score received a score of 0.

Tips for Making the Most of your Discretionary Income

  • Find the right savings account – You may be used to interest rates below 1% in your savings account. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can earn serious money through online-only savings accounts at financial institutions like Ally or Synchrony. The catch is that you won’t be able to do any banking in person but with interest rates hundred of times higher than brick and mortar institutions, switching to an online only account can be well worth it.
  • Invest – While savings accounts can make you a bit of money and offer you liquidity in a pinch, the real money is in the stock market. By investing in stocks and bonds you can make your money work for you. It can be tricky to get the best returns and of course investing in the market comes with risks. To limit your risks and get the most of your savings, you probably want to talk to a financial advisor. If you don’t know where to find a financial advisor check out SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool. It will match you with up to three local financial advisors.

Questions about our study? Contact us at press@smartasset.com

Photo credit: iStock.com/filo

Derek Miller, CEPF® Derek Miller is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh where he studied economics. He is passionate about using data to help people make better financial decisions. Derek is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®) and a member of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He is a data journalist whose expertise is in finding the stories within the numbers. Derek's writing has been featured on Yahoo, AOL, and Huffington Post. He believes the biggest financial mistake people make is waiting too late to save for retirement and missing out on the wonders of compounding interest. Derek lives in Brooklyn.
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