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Image shows a person taking a break from work; they are sitting by a window and a potted plant, with a mug in one hand and a notebook and pen in the other. SmartAsset analyzed data to find the best cities for work-life balance.

For most people, working is inevitable: You need a job to afford your lifestyle. The trick, of course, is to find a balance where you can earn the money you need without spending all of your time in the workplace. Some of that depends on what the work culture is like in your city, how much you need to earn to pay for housing and how long you have to spend getting to work. To that end, SmartAsset analyzed 100 of the biggest cities in the country to find the best cities for work-life balance for 2021.

To do so, we considered data on the following metrics: walk score; arts, entertainment and recreation establishments as a percentage of all establishments; restaurants as a percentage of all establishments; housing costs as a percentage of income; average weeks worked per year; average hours worked per week; average commute time; percentage of workers with a commute longer than 60 minutes; October 2020 unemployment rate and labor force participation rate. For details on our data sources and how we put all the information together to create our final rankings, check out the Data and Methodology section below.

This is SmartAsset’s fourth study on the cities with the best work-life balance. Read the 2020 version here.

Key Findings

  • Big city commuting blues. On average in our study, just 7.2% of commuters spend more than 60 minutes getting to and from work. In the biggest U.S. cities, though, that number can be much higher. For instance, 15.7% of commuters have a commute of at least an hour in San Francisco. In Boston, that figure is 11.9%. The city where the most commuters spend at least an hour on the go? New York City, where relatively packed subways and busy streets mean 27.2% of commuters spend at least an hour on travel alone, leaving even less time for recreation. New York also has the longest 2019 average commute time, at 41.7 minutes.
  • Midwest consistency up top. Four Midwestern cities – Madison, Wisconsin; Lincoln, Nebraska; Omaha, Nebraska; and Columbus, Ohio – also made the top 10 in this study last year. Three of these cities – Madison, Lincoln and Omaha – excel because of their low unemployment rate, finishing in the top 10 this year. Columbus finishes a bit lower (20th) in that metric, but it does particularly well in terms of low housing costs as a percentage of income, ranking sixth.

1. Madison, WI

For the second year in a row, Madison, Wisconsin is the best city in America for work-life balance. Madison doesn’t lead in any categories, but it does finish in the top 10% of the study for six out of 10 metrics. This includes coming in second-lowest for average hours worked per week (36.4), third-lowest for October 2020 unemployment rate (3.9%) and sixth-highest for labor force participation rate (73.2%).

2. Virginia Beach, VA

Virginia Beach, Virginia ranks in the top 10% of this study for two metrics: fourth-highest for restaurants as a percentage of all establishments (10.10%) and sixth-lowest for October 2020 unemployment rate (4.7%). The beach town also ranks in the top 20% of the study for two other metrics: 14th-best for labor force participation rate (71.9%) and 17th-best for arts, entertainment and recreation establishments as a percentage of all establishments (1.88%).

3. Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis is the first Minnesota city to make this list, and it does so on the back of finishing in the top five for two different metrics: third for a strong labor force participation rate (74.9%) and fifth for a low October 2020 unemployment rate (4.5%). Minneapolis also places 12th-best in terms of housing costs as a percentage of income at 29.43%.

4. Lincoln, NE

Lincoln, Nebraska has the lowest October 2020 unemployment rate in the study, just 2.7%. Lincoln also finishes second for the best commute time, an average of just 18.4 minutes, and places sixth-lowest for the percentage of commuters with a commute of longer than 60 minutes, just 2.7%. Lincoln finishes near the bottom of the study, though, in terms of the average weeks worked per year, at 39.65.

5. Omaha, NE

Another Nebraska locale is next – Omaha. The unemployment rate there in October 2020 was 3.3%, the second-lowest in the study – giving the top two spots in that metric to Nebraskan cities. Omaha also places eighth-best in terms of average commute time. The average commuter in Omaha spends just 20.1 minutes in transit, a far cry from the traffic-packed streets of some bigger cities. Omaha residents do work much of the year, finishing in the bottom quartile with 38.47 weeks worked per year.

6. Arlington, VA

Arlington, Virginia is a suburb of Washington, D.C., and it has the highest labor force participation rate in this study, 78.0%. Arlington also ranks second-lowest in the study for housing costs as a percentage of income – housing costs make up just 26.14% of income on average. People do work a lot in the town, though. Arlington ranks dead last in both the metrics measuring how much people work – an average of 41.3 hours per week and 41.80 weeks per year.

7. St. Paul, MN

St. Paul, Minnesota joins its twin city, Minneapolis, on this list and ranks in the top 10% percent of this study for three different metrics:

  • Fourth for average hours worked per week (36.8).
  • Sixth for October 2020 unemployment rate (4.7%).
  • 10th for arts, entertainment and recreation establishments as a percentage of all establishments (2.04%).

8. Columbus, OH

Columbus, Ohio comes in sixth for housing costs as a percentage of income, at 27.53%. That is the only metric for which Columbus places in the top 10, but it does finish 11th-best for labor force participation rate (72.4%) and 20th-best for October 2020 unemployment rate (5.4%). Columbus finishes in the bottom quartile of this study for the metric measuring how many weeks per year people work on average, at 38.16.

9. Durham, NC

In Durham, North Carolina, just 2.7% of workers have a commute of at least an hour, the sixth-lowest total for this metric in the study. The average commute in Durham is 22.6 minutes, the 25th-lowest time spent traveling to work that we observed overall. Durham is not a particularly walkable city, however, finishing in the bottom 10% of the study in terms of walk score.

10. Lexington-Fayette, KY

Lexington-Fayette is the final entry into our top 10, and it finishes in the top 15% for three metrics:

  • 14th for arts, entertainment and recreation establishments as a percentage of all establishments (1.95%)
  • 14th for average commute time (21 minutes)
  • 15th for housing costs as a percentage of income (29.66%)

Lexington suffers when it comes to walkability, though, finishing in the bottom quartile of the study in terms of walk score.

Data and Methodology

To find the best cities for work-life balance, we compared 100 of the largest cities in America across the following metrics:

  • Walk score. Data comes from walkscore.com and is for 2020.
  • Concentration of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments. This is the number of arts, entertainment and recreation establishments as a percentage of all establishments. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2018 County Business Patterns Survey.
  • Concentration of restaurants. This is the number of restaurants as a percentage of all establishments. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2018 County Business Patterns Survey.
  • Housing costs as a percentage of income. This is the median housing costs as a percentage of income for full-time workers. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey.
  • Average number of weeks worked per year. This is how many weeks per year local employees work. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey.
  • Average number of hours worked per week. This is the average number of hours a worker works in a week. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey.
  • Average commute time. This is the average number of minutes it takes for a worker to commute to work. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey.
  • Percentage of workers with a commute longer than 60 minutes. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey.
  • Unemployment rate. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for October 2020.
  • Labor force participation rate. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2019 1-year American Community Survey.

First, we ranked each city in each metric. We then found the average ranking for each city. Walk score, concentration of arts and entertainment establishments, concentration of restaurants, housing costs as a percentage of income and labor force participation rate received a full weight. Weeks worked per year, hours worked per week, average commute time and percentage of workers with a commute of more than an hour each received a half weight. Unemployment rate received a double weight. We then ranked the cities based on this average. The top city received an index score of 100 and the bottom city received an index score of 0.

Tips for Finding a Healthy Financial Balance

  • It’s easier to find balance if you can find support first. Once you have money, making sure it works for you can help you tip the scales of work-life balance in favor of life. A financial advisor can help with that. Finding the right financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors that will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • Budgeting is key. A budget can take care of your money decisions in advance and leave you with more time to actually enjoy life.
  • Save now if possible. When you retire, you’ll likely be hoping to really live life without worrying about work for the first time. Make sure you use a workplace retirement plan like a 401(k) if it is available to you, as that’s the best way to save for retirement and allow for travel and other leisure in your golden years.

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

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/MundusImages

Ben Geier, CEPF® Ben Geier is an experienced financial writer currently serving as a retirement and investing expert at SmartAsset. His work has appeared on Fortune, Mic.com and CNNMoney. Ben is a graduate of Northwestern University and a part-time student at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®). When he isn’t helping people understand their finances, Ben likes watching hockey, listening to music and experimenting in the kitchen. Originally from Alexandria, VA, he now lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
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