If you ask someone what’s important about their work and life, chances are that “balance” is the answer. Unfortunately, while work-life balance is important for most, many don’t even know the elements necessary for achieving it, let alone where to go find it. To help you identify the best places to live a quality life, FitSmallBusiness crunched the numbers to define what “work-life balance” even means and find which United States cities have it. While cities with sunshine and entertainment seem like the best for work-life balance, we found that a low cost of living and short work hours are more important.
For example, you might think that entertainment cities like Las Vegas or cultural destinations with outdoor activities like Portland, Oregon, are the best places to strike a balance between “life” and “work.” While these cities did make the list, overall, you’d be wrong. This is because the lion’s share of the places that made the cut are represented by surprising places like Buffalo and Cincinnati — cold-weather cities known to be inexpensive and with shorter work weeks and commutes — not to mention work from home snow days!
These more surprising cities could be perfect for your work-life balance as they’re less populated and, therefore, not as impacted by things like aggravating Los Angeles traffic or stiff competition for job opportunities in places like New York or Chicago. To help you identify the best places to live for a healthy work-life balance, we reviewed publicly available data reflecting the most affordable markets and those with an abundance of activities to promote health and happiness while also evaluating work hours and average commute time.
To create this list, we evaluated cities based on economic factors, time expectations like weekly hours worked and the availability of nonwork-related activities. We identified important metrics and scoured the web for representative data, eliminating cities where information for our metrics was not available. We then narrowed it down to 46 cities and ranked them based on the average work week, availability of entertainment, cost of living, exercise frequency, commute times and home ownership.
In ranking each city, we chose six categories key to work-life balance:
- Hours worked per week: We ranked each city based on the average number of hours someone living in the metropolitan area works per week’ cities with longer work weeks ranked poorly for purposes of our analysis
- Exercise frequency: For many, having time to exercise each week represents a good work-life balance; to account for this, we ranked the cities based on the percentage of residents who exercise three or more times per week
- Commute time: Generally, developing health work-life balance necessitates having free time away from the stresses of work; we ranked cities based on the average length of a one-way commute to evaluate how much time residents have to spend stuck in traffic instead of enjoying downtime
- Cost of living: The higher the cost of living in each city, the more residents have to work to meet basic daily needs; we ranked cities based on a cost of living index obtained from Numbeo
- Homeownership: Each city was ranked based on the percentage of the population with negative equity in their home; higher negative equity demonstrates cities where residents have to work harder to keep up with their mortgage and, therefore, are less likely to have good work-life balance
- Entertainment: The availability of entertainment in each city was evaluated based on three subcategories: the number of bars, availability of recreational activities and percentage of parkland in each metropolitan area; cities were ranked based on each of these metrics and then rankings were averaged to obtain an overall rank
Overall, the best cities for work-life balance come from a broad spectrum, from entertainment capitals like Las Vegas with fun things to do as well as places with a low cost of living and a better quality of life due to shorter commutes and total hours worked. Read on to see which cities made the top 10 in 2018. We also list our ranking of all the cities we evaluated below, including the research methodology used to rank each city.
The top 10 cities for work-life balance are:
1. Madison, Wisconsin
Snagging the number one spot on our list, Madison, Wisconsin, ranks well in several categories ranging from the cost of living and home equity to entertainment availability and work week longevity. The city ranked seventh for low cost of living — a factor that has enabled local residents to earn the third-highest home equity of the cities we reviewed.
The city also ranked third overall for entertainment, largely because of the availability of bars and recreation, which are likely drawn to the city by the University of Wisconsin’s local campus. Plus, with the fifth-shortest work week (33.7 hours) and fifth-shortest commute (22.73 minutes), Madison residents have more time to enjoy the city and develop a healthy work-life balance. However, perhaps because of the city’s chilly winter weather, Madison only ranked 21st for exercise frequency, with only 53 percent of locals exercising three or more times per week.
2. Reno, Nevada
Reno ranks in the top 20 for each of the categories we considered, earning it second place overall. Not only does the city rank second for lowest cost of living, but residents also enjoy the third-shortest work week of cities we considered (33.2 hours/week on average). Traffic in the city is also limited, making the average commute time the eighth-shortest overall (about 23.88 minutes).
With a low cost of living and a low percentage of homeowners who are underwater on their mortgage (seventh overall), Reno residents also have more time to improve their work-life balance with exercise and entertainment like resorts and casinos. The city ranks 11th for the percentage of people who exercise three or more times per week (56 percent) and 18th for the availability of entertainment.
3. Portland, Oregon
Ranking third overall, the city of Portland boasts ample entertainment options as well as physically fit residents. The city, which has a thriving bar, restaurant and music scene, landed second place in our entertainment category, ranking well for the availability of parks, recreation and bars. What’s more, 57.7 percent of Portland residents exercise three or more times per week — fifth-highest of the cities we considered.
Plus, local homeowners enjoy the fourth-lowest rate of negative home equity among metropolitan areas in our study. In spite of performing well in many of our happiness-related categories, Portland residents work very hard. Specifically, Portland exhibited only the 19th-shortest work week (34.5 hours) and average commute times ranked 20th overall (32.18 minutes). The cost of living in Portland is also extremely high (34th overall), so locals likely work hard and play hard.
4. Las Vegas, Nevada
In fourth place overall, the work-life balance of Las Vegas that residents benefit most from is a 33.6-hour work week — fourth-shortest among cities we evaluated. The city also performs moderately well for both cost of living and entertainment, ranking 16th and 14th, respectively. It’s not surprising that Sin City ranked fourth overall for the availability of bars, but the city’s number one spot for parkland is what garnered the city high marks for entertainment and the area boasts gorgeous desert hikes, five-star restaurants and more.
However, in spite of making our top 10, Las Vegas residents suffer from low exercise rates, long commutes and strained home ownership. Not only do Las Vegas residents have to deal with only the 26th-shortest commute times (averaging 34.44 minutes), only about 52 percent of them make up for it in the gym. Work-life balance in Las Vegas is further strained by high negative home equity, which was 27th of the cities we considered.
5. Buffalo, New York
Buffalo ranked fifth overall largely due to the brevity of the average local work week. Work-life balance is dramatically improved due to the shortest work week of all the cities we analyzed. Plus, Buffalonians enjoy the sixth-shortest commute of cities on our list — just under 23 minutes each way — and the 12th most abundant entertainment options with sports teams like the Bills topping the list.
Despite the qualities that help Buffalo rank well, the city also suffers from the 20th-highest percentage of negative home equity. Unfortunately, mortgage struggles paired with the 11th-highest cost of living mean residents have to work harder for work-life balance. The city also ranked 45th for exercise frequency with only 46.5 percent of area residents exercising three or more times per week.
6. Raleigh, North Carolina
Ranking sixth on our list, Raleigh benefits from top-20 rankings in four categories. Residents strive for work-life balance with the 13th-highest percentage of people who exercise three or more times per week (55.1 percent), made possible by the Capital Area Greenway Trail System with more than 100 miles of trails. The city also has the 12th-lowest percentage of residents with negative equity in their home.
Raleigh residents are more likely to have a healthy work-life balance because of their access to exercise and entertainment but are still likely to spend a lot of time at work. This is perhaps because of the city’s proximity to Raleigh-Durham’s technology hub, the Research Triangle Park. The city ranked 19th overall for hours worked per week (34.5 on average) and commute times ranked 23rd at 32.74 minutes one-way. Long work weeks are also consistent with the city’s higher cost of living, which ranked 23rd overall.
7. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Coming in seventh overall, Milwaukee offers residents impressive entertainment options that garner it a fourth-place ranking in the category. Once known as the beer capital of the world, it’s not surprising that the city ranks fifth for the number of bars. Those wanting to improve their work-life balance will also benefit from the city’s moderate work weeks, which average 34.4 hours (15th) and commutes, which last an average of 26.12 minutes (12th).
Milwaukee’s proximity to Lake Michigan and three rivers means there’s a ton of boating and recreational water sports. Likely because Milwaukee residents have more free time and accessibility to awesome outdoor activities than those living in other cities, they don’t always spend time exercising at the gym. Specifically, the city ranks 21st for exercise, with only 53 percent of residents exercising three or more times per week. Milwaukee’s ranking is also hurt by the high cost of living (26th) and the high percentage of residents with negative equity in their home.
8. Minneapolis, Minnesota
Minneapolis ranks eighth on our list in spite of the city’s high cost of living (35th). City residents benefit from the ninth-shortest work week (about 34.1 hours), but face one of the longer commute times on our list (33.73 minutes), ranking 24th for that metric. People living in the city may also have to work a little harder to maintain a work-life balance because the city ranked 17th for negative home equity.
Despite having to work harder to pay off housing-related debt, residents of Minneapolis enjoy more exercise and entertainment than many of the other cities we considered. In fact, the city ranked 10th for exercise, with 56.2 percent of residents exercising three or more times per week. The city also ranked moderately well for entertainment — 19th overall — and features incredible options like the Minnesota and Saint Paul chamber orchestras, Town Green and more.
9. Cincinnati, Ohio
Cincinnati performs well on our list primarily because of the low cost of living (fourth) and high access to entertainment (seventh). Specifically, the city ranks second for recreation, 10th for parkland and 21st for the availability of bars. Residents of the Ohio city also benefit from a moderate 34.4-hour work week (15th) and a 32.35-minute commute time (21st). Even with the low cost of living and access to entertainment like the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden, the city’s ranking suffers because of low home equity (35th) and low exercise rates of just 47.8 percent (44th overall).
Residents of Cincinnati may face pressures of paying off their homes and working a longer work week than those in other cities, but they’re able to maintain work-life balance through an overall low cost of living and easy access to outdoor activities like basketball and recreation. Cincinnati also benefits from numerous universities and professional sports teams that help residents relax after a long work week.
10. San Francisco, California
Rounding out our list at number 10, San Francisco performs well in several categories. Not surprisingly, the city ranked first in the availability of entertainment with a high volume of parkland and easy access to bars. Despite the notoriously high cost of living in the city (45th overall), San Francisco also exhibits the second-lowest percentage of residents with negative equity in their home.
San Franciscans also benefit from the fourth-highest rate of exercise of cities we evaluated, with 57.8 percent exercising three or more times per week. As expected, however, the city’s high cost of living is paired with long work weeks (25th) and lengthy commutes lasting almost 47 minutes on average (44th). Even so, San Francisco is known for its awesome nightlife, beautiful bay and more.
Top Cities for Work-Life Balance in 2018
|Las Vegas, NV|
|San Francisco, CA|
|San Diego, CA|
|Kansas City, MO-KS|
|New York, NY|
|Los Angeles, CA|
|Oklahoma City, OK|
|St. Louis, MO|
|San Jose, CA|
|Greensboro-High Point, NC|
We based the ranking of the best cities for work-life balance on eight metrics across six total categories. Cities were ranked for each metric, and each of the categories was given a weight based on the likely importance of each metric to work-life balance. We then multiplied the weight for each metric by each city’s ranking to come up with the weighted ranking and added the categories together to come up with an overall score, which was used to rank each city.
We analyzed data for six categories:
Hours Worked Per Week (25%)
The number of hours an average resident works each week is an important indicator of how likely those living in certain areas are to have a healthy work-life balance. For purposes of our study, the longer people work each week, the less likely they are to prioritize work-life balance. These data were obtained from Governing and represent numbers provided by the U.S. Labor Department. We also considered the availability of flexible work schedules and gig jobs in each city.
This metric represents the availability of entertainment in each city. We averaged data for three types of entertainment to account for the varied interests of residents within each city. To obtain an entertainment ranking, we compared three metrics:
- Parkland: This metric is represented by the percentage of parkland in each metropolitan area, and the data was obtained from The Trust for Public Land
- Recreation: This is measured by the number of basketball hoops per 10,000 residents in each city; the data, which generally demonstrate the public availability of outdoor athletic equipment, were also obtained from The Trust for Public Land
- Bars per capita: The number of bars per 10,000 residents represents the availability of drinking establishments in each city; the data was obtained from a 2015 study conducted by Trulia
Cost of Living (15%)
Generally, people living in cities with a higher cost of living must work longer hours to pay for necessities like housing, food and transportation. This leaves less time for workers to develop hobbies, exercise and otherwise enjoy time off. Therefore, we considered a cost of living index provided by Numbeo when ranking the cities based on work-life balance.
Exercise Frequency (15%)
We evaluated work-life balance by considering how frequently people in each city exercise. This metric demonstrates how likely residents of each city are to prioritize their health over spending extra time in the office. Data were obtained from a study conducted by Gallup and Sharecare in 2016.
Commute Time (10%)
Time spent driving to and from work is typically time that cannot be dedicated to completing professional tasks or relaxing. For purposes of this study, cities with a longer average commute time ranked lower for overall work-life balance. These times were obtained from Numbeo and represent the average length of a one-way car trip in minutes.
The homeownership metric represents the percentage of homeowners in each city who are underwater on their mortgage. Cities with a higher rate of negative home equity are less likely to foster healthy work-life balance because residents have more debt to pay-off. Percentages were calculated by Zillow using home value data and home-related debt data from the TransUnion credit bureau.
The Bottom Line
The U.S. ranks in the bottom 20 percent of countries for work-life balance. However, some states and cities are better for cultivating a healthy work-life balance than others. If you’re contemplating a move, check out western cities like Portland or Las Vegas, Midwestern cities like Madison and Minneapolis or others from our list.