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Places Where it's Hardest to Save Money

Many Americans don’t manage to save much. According to a survey done by the Federal Reserve, 31% of respondents had no retirement savings at all. Whether it’s because of high student debt or climbing housing costs, Americans across the country are finding it hard to save. But not every place presents the same challenges. In some places, high housing costs make it hard to save, and in others, it’s low salaries. We look at these and other factors to find the hardest places to save money.

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In order to find the hardest places to save money, we looked at data on credit card debt, credit scores, mortgage-debt-to-income-ratios, non-mortgage-debt-to-income-ratios and rent-to-income ratios. Check out our data and methodology section below to see where we got the data and how we put it together.

Key Findings

  • Low income trumps low cost of living – Our data shows that metro areas with low median incomes, even areas with low costs of living, are the hardest to save money in. For example, the 10 places where it’s hardest to save money have an average median individual income of $21,500. The 10 places where it’s easiest to save money have an average median income about 50% larger or $31,400.
  • Save in the Midwest – The 10 places where saving money is easiest are all in the Midwest. Iowa leads the way with three metro areas in the bottom 10. Wisconsin and Illinois follow right behind with two metro areas each.
  • Things are tough in the South – Southern cities make up eight out of the 10 hardest places to save. Texas and Florida lead the way, with a combined five cities in top 10. California, which has two cities in the top 10, stopped the South from claiming every spot.

Places Where It's Hardest to Save Money

1. Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen, Texas

Residents of the Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen metro area may find it extremely difficult to save much of their income. For starters, residents in this area have the largest average credit-card-debt-to-income ratio in our study at 26.8%. This means just to pay off all their credit card debt, average residents would need to spend over a quarter of their annual income.

Our data also shows that on average renters here are housing cost-burdened. This means they are spending over 30% of their income on rent. Specifically, Harlingen-Weslaco-Brownsville-McAllen residents spend just over 33% of their income on rent, on average.

2. Greenville-North Bern-Washington, North Carolina

In second place is Greenville-North Bern-Washington. Average credit card debt represents 24.9% of the median individual income here. And residents have a non-mortgage-debt-to-income ratio of 1.84. Both of those scores are in the top 10.

But the housing metrics show exactly how difficult it is to save in Greenville-North Bern-Washington. Average residents have mortgage debt worth 6.5 times their annual income. Many experts say you can afford a home priced at two – three times your annual salary. Needless to say the average Greenville-North Bern- Washington resident is in far more debt than that. Renters here also typically spend just under 35% of their income on rent. It will be difficult for residents to aggressively save or even tackle their credit card debt, if they’re spending such a large chunk of their income on housing costs.

3. Laredo, Texas

Laredo, Texas residents have done a relatively good job at keeping credit card debt – one of the worst kinds of long term debt to have – down. On average Laredo residents hold credit card debt worth about 23% of the median income. That’s the fourth-best ratio in our top 10. However, that credit card debt in Laredo could easily up being very expensive. Let us explain why.

Your credit score is an important factor which determines what APR you will pay on your credit card. The higher your APR, the larger your credit card bill. This is where Laredo residents get in trouble. Our data shows that Laredo residents, on average, have the fourth-lowest credit score in the study. This means even if they hold less debt than other places, it could end up be more expensive due to the interest charges.

4. Columbus, Georgia

Columbus has the second-largest chunk of average credit card debt in the study. For the average Columbus resident to pay off all his credit card debt, he would need to fork over just under 26% of his income.

Columbus residents don’t just have a large amount of credit card debt, they have a lot of other debt, too. In fact, residents in Columbus have a non-mortgage-debt-to-income-ratio of 1.78. Non-mortgage debt includes factors like student loan debt, medical debt and auto loan debt. That means the average resident would need to save 1.78 years’ worth of salary to pay off all their debt.

5. Fresno-Visalia, California

Fresno-Visalia is our first area outside the South to crack our top 10. Residents here may struggle to save due to high housing costs and low credit scores. According to our data, the average resident in Fresno-Visalia spends 34% of her income on rent (the 13th-highest rate in the study). The average resident also has a mortgage-debt-to-income-ratio of 8.17 (the 11th-highest ratio in the study). The average credit score in the area is 646, which is considered fair.

6. Tallahassee-Thomasville, Florida

Tallahassee-Thomasville is the first of two Florida metro areas to crack our top 10 places where it’s hard for locals to save money. Residents have the fourth-highest income-adjusted rent costs in the study. Rent here typically costs residents just under 37% of their income. When you are paying 37% of your income toward housing, it doesn’t leave a lot for paying off debt or saving money.

7. (tie) Chico-Redding, California

Chico-Redding residents have some of the highest debt in the study. According to our data, residents have an average mortgage-debt-to-income-ratio of 9.19. That means the average resident has mortgage debt amounting to more than nine years’ worth of income. Having that amount of mortgage debt is not generally recommended. Of course, how much home you can afford also depends on other factors, like how much other debt you have and how high property taxes are in your area.

7. (tie) Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, Florida

Residents in this southern Florida metro area may struggle to save due to the housing costs. Whether you’re thinking about renting or buying in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area, both options can be expensive. Our data shows the average renter in the area spends over 37% of income on rent. In terms of buying, data shows that residents have mortgage debt worth an average of 8.45 times more than the median individual income. If residents are spending such a large portion of their income on housing, it’s likely they’re struggling to save. Plus, the Miami area has a high cost of living.

9. Lubbock, Texas

Lubbock, Texas takes ninth on our list. This area has a large amount of credit card debt. On average, Lubbock residents have credit card debt worth 25.4% of the median individual income. Credit card debt is some of the most expensive to hold and because Lubbock residents have a low average credit score (646), they’re likely paying high APRs.

Residents also have a lot of other debt they need to pay off. Our data shows they have non-mortgage debt worth almost two times the median individual income. Lubbock residents who are working hard to pay off all that debt may find it difficult to put much away into a savings account.

10. Shreveport, Louisiana

Shreveport residents face high costs of borrowing. According to our data, the average Shreveport resident has a credit score of 640. A score that low will probably mean high mortgage rates and high APRs on credit cards. If Shreveport residents could manage to raise their credit score a bit, they would be more likely to get access to low APR credit cards, reducing their monthly credit card costs.

Places Where It's Hardest to Save Money

Data and Methodology

In order to find the places where it’s hardest to save money, SmartAsset looked at data on 199 metro areas. Specifically, we looked at data on the following five metrics:

  • Credit card debt as a percent of income. This is average credit card debt as a percent of median individual income. Average credit card debt comes from Experian’s State of Credit Report for 2016. Median individual income data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2015 1-Year American Community Survey.
  • Average credit score. Data is from Experian’s State of Credit Report for 2016.
  • Non-mortgage-debt-to-income ratio. This is the ratio of average non-mortgage debt to median individual income. Data on average non-mortgage debt comes from Experian’s State of Credit Report for 2016. Data on median individual income comes from the Census Bureau’s 2015 1-Year American Community Survey.
  • Mortgage-debt-to-income ratio. This is the ratio of average mortgage debt to median individual income. Data on average mortgage debt comes from Experian’s State of Credit Report for 2016. Data on median individual income comes from the Census Bureau’s 2015 1-Year American Community Survey.
  • Rent as a percent of income. This is a statistic that the Census Bureau reports. It is an average of the percent of income that renters spend on rent. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2015 1-Year American Community Survey.

First we ranked each metro area in each metric. Then we found each metro area’s average ranking, giving all metrics equal weighting. We used this average ranking to create our final score. The city with the best average ranking received a score of 100 and the city with the worst average ranking received a 0.

Tips on Saving

  • If you’ve managed to save some money and you’re interested in growing your savings, consider shopping around for a savings account. Many savings accounts come with minuscule interest rates – around 0.01%. But the best savings accounts have interest rates above 1.2%. This means by simply switching banks you could grab a savings rate 100 times better than your current one. A savings calculator can show you the impact that will have on the growth of your money.
  • You can also use credit card rewards to save. For example if you know you spend a lot on groceries or gas, you can look for a credit card that rewards spending in those categories. Let’s say you get a credit card that has triple points on purchases made at gas stations (i.e. purchases that you’d be making anyway). You’ll be able to redeem the points you earn for statement credit, so they help cover other purchases you make, or perhaps even cash back. You could then put the cash in a savings account!

Questions about our study? Contact 

Photo credit: ©

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 for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. 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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