Financially Fit Cities Across America: The Right Way to Keep Up With the Joneses

Young couple calculating budget

It’s Money 101: Trying to keep up with the Joneses is a surefire way to sideline your financial success.

You could probably rattle off myriad reasons why in your sleep.

For starters, just because someone else has it doesn’t mean they can afford it. Plus, in the words of one wise, Internet-famous toddler, the soundest strategy is usually to just worry about yourself.

But here’s a thought: What if the “Joneses” in your life really can afford their lifestyle—and employ some healthy money habits worth emulating? Perhaps it’s worth keeping up with them, after all.

With that idea in mind, we set out to pinpoint cities across the country where people exhibit savvier money habits than most.

In other words, in these four financially healthy cities, the Joneses are doing it right—and by taking a page or two from their books, you can too.

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Raleigh, North Carolina: Where the Joneses Are Ready for Retirement

If you want to live comfortably when it’s time to give up the 9-to-5 routine, try keeping up with the neighbors in Raleigh.

According to a 2014 Fidelity study, the North Carolina town has one of the highest average 401(k) savings rates in the country: Workers, aided by their employer matches, stash away a whopping 14% of their salaries—a full 2% more than the national average.

Notably, the two cities that boasted a slightly higher rate of 14.6%—San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.—are outliers because of their unusually high living costs.

Raleigh, on the other hand, sits comfortably in the middle of America’s fiscal bell curve. Its cost of living is just a hair above the norm—101 on an index where 100 is the U.S. average—and its median household income of $46,334 is actually a touch below the country’s average of $53,046.

So what makes these otherwise average Carolinians so interested in serious retirement planning?

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“A large part is education,” says Chad Smith, a CFP® with Financial Symmetry in Raleigh. “There are three major universities in the area—U.N.C. Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. State—so there’s a healthy base of [retirement] knowledge. And a lot of those people stick around [after graduation] because we have a growing interest from large corporations in the Research Triangle.”

Further, Smith says many residents are transplants from high-wage states like New York and California, or from overseas, who are relocating to work for the high-tech firms with operations in the Triangle, one of the largest and most respected research and development parks in the nation.

“People are coming from a situation where things were more expensive,” Smith says, explaining that they’re keeping their old salaries, which frees up money to save for retirement.

And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that many of the area’s employers—IBM, Cisco and GlaxoSmithKline—offer generous company matches.

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But even if your employer doesn’t offer that benefit, you can emulate the Raleigh Joneses by taking advantage of other smart retirement planning strategies.

If you’re looking to ratchet up your 401(k) savings, Smith suggests going big—and contributing a double-digit percentage of your gross salary. “Many of us are better off setting higher savings percentages up-front, as we’re less likely to go back in and [lower it] once it is set,” he says.

In fact, you can actually do the opposite: Once you’re comfortable with your newly adjusted take-home pay, go ahead and up your contribution rate by an additional 1% every six months.

Before you know it, you’ll be on track with the retirement-ready Joneses in Raleigh.

Washington, D.C.: Where the Joneses Live Well Within Their Means

If you were asked to think of places where people know how to live within their means, the home base of Congress and the Senate probably wouldn’t be the first locale that would spring to mind.

Yet it turns out that ordinary Washingtonians have their spending firmly under control.

According to a WalletHub study, Washington, D.C., beats all 50 states for the lowest per capita personal consumption expenditures, adjusted by cost of living and income. In layman’s terms: People in the District waste less cash than the rest of us.

WalletHub spokesperson Jill Gonzalez says Washington’s good financial standing should only surprise those with an outdated view of the city as a poor one.

“The average income level is high, and people spend nearly 3.5% of their income on [everyday expenses like] food and beverages,” she says. Contrast that with Mississippi—the state with the lowest median household income—where that figure is 9%. Gonzalez adds that a robust public transportation system also helps Washingtonians keep expenses down on cars and energy.

But you don’t have to live in the nation’s capital—or kick your auto payment—to follow these Joneses’ lead.

“It all starts with not spending more than you make,” Gonzalez says. While that may sound like a no-brainer, people tend to have trouble with the execution—especially if they’re just winging it every month.

That’s why committing to a realistic monthly budget is important for long-term financial success. Having this framework in place not only contributes to a positive cash flow—but it also gives you a valuable glimpse at your big financial picture, enabling you to see where to scale back to reach your money goals faster.

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Orlando, Florida: Where the Joneses Refuse to Pay Full Price

When it comes to everyday frugality, it’s hard to top the people of Orlando. According to a survey by, they knocked off four-year winner Atlanta to rank as the #1 city for coupon use in 2013.

Not only are Orlandoans more than twice as likely to use coupons than the average Joe, the residents of this Florida city are also the most avid users of’s money-saving mobile app GroceryiQ.

Wondering why the Joneses in Orlando are so coupon-happy? Jeanette Pavini,’s savings expert, thinks they’re simply at the forefront of the growing national trend of deal hunting.

“Frugal is the new black,” Pavini says. “Overall, consumers have been embracing strategies that allow them to have a little more control over what they’re spending. And while certain things—like housing or a car payment—are set in stone, for expenses you can control, like groceries, you can save a significant amount [if you're deal-minded].”

Clearly, the folks in Orlando have identified a big opportunity to save: Pavini says it’s possible to shave off more than one third of your grocery bill by using a coupon or two, as well as planning meals around ingredients that are on sale and in season.

Considering that the average household spends about $6,600 a year on food, doing the same could spell significant monthly savings that you can then use to fund your financial priorities—like inching closer to a retirement savings percentage of 14% … or higher.

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Detroit, Michigan: Where the Joneses Are Seriously Tackling Their Debt

Given the deep economic troubles that have plagued the Motor City since the Great Recession began, it might surprise you that an Experian survey found that Detroiters have the least consumer debt of all residents of the 20 largest U.S. cities.

And they don’t just have lower debt balances—they’re also actively hacking away at them. While the U.S. average for consumer debt rose 5% in the past four years, the numbers for Detroit actually declined by just over 7%.

After watching the local unemployment rate soar well above 20% in 2010, and having seen their city tumble toward bankruptcy, these Michigan residents responded by cutting their own spending and getting their personal financial houses in order.

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If you’re jealous of the Detroit Joneses’ success, it’s time to get on their level—and use the Snowball Method to tackle your debt.

Here’s how it works: After reviewing your budget to identify areas to scale back, set up an auto-pay to cover the monthly minimum due on each of your credit cards. Then, single out the card with the highest interest rate to tackle at full-steam, contributing more than the minimum each month, so you can pay it off first.

Keep the cycle going until you’re completely debt-free.

Feeling impatient? Consider this tip from cofounder Nick Clements for speeding up the process even more.

“One of the best ways to accelerate your debt repayment is to reduce your interest rates by moving your debt to a low interest rate credit card via a balance transfer,” Clements says. “Some credit unions offer rates as low as 2.99% for 24 months. And large banks also have incredible deals.”

Just be on your guard to avoid key pitfalls that can erase the benefits.

“Always pay on time. Failure to do so means you could lose your rate,” Clements says. “And don’t use the new credit card—the goal is to get out of debt. The credit card companies are betting you’ll start spending again, so make sure you don’t.”

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