Your dollar goes nearly 6 percent farther in Chattanooga than the average U.S. city.
In Cookeville, consumers get 14 percent more bang for their buck, according to recently released 2011 cost of living data from the Center for Regional Economic Competitiveness. That's the sixth-lowest cost of living out of 314 urban areas across the country.
Both cities earn their affordability distinction largely because of low housing costs. Chattanooga housing costs almost 14 percent less than the national average. Cookeville homes come in just below 75 percent of the average.
"I don't think it's one thing, it's just a total business climate and governmental climate," said George Halford, president of the Cookeville-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce. "If people could sell their houses, they'd be here."
Many people are doing just that. Halford said his town's consistently low cost of living is a major draw for retirees. People living in more expensive markets such as New York City, San Francisco or Washington D.C., can move to the Tennessee town and find better housing, food and other amenities for the same prices they were paying.
The cost-of-living numbers are a composite of housing, grocery, transportation, utilities, health care and miscellaneous goods and services, with housing carrying the heaviest weight in the equation.
All of Cookeville and Chattanooga's numbers are below the national average in those areas except for Chattanooga's transportation, which is less than 2 percent higher than national averages.
But Bruce Hutchinson, an economics professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said a low cost of living can be a mixed blessing.
"It's one of the things that makes Chattanooga an attractive place to relocate to," he said. "The negative thing related to that, of course, is in many instances, when an employer quotes a salary to these people they may well look at it and say, 'Oh, that's not in my ballpark.'"
The average hourly wage in Chattanooga was $15.54 in 2010, the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's nearly 31 percent below the national average of about $22.61 for that same year.
But employers are often able to ease any low-salary fears new Chattanoogans have when moving by pointing out the low cost of living. In fact, it helps businesses decide to locate in Chattanooga in the first place, said J.Ed. Marston, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of marketing.
"Executives see it as a bonus," he said. "They typically translate it into cost of doing business, which we also have a very affordable cost of."