Best US Cities for Retirees in 2024: Flagstaff, AZ

Best US Cities for Retirees in 2024: Flagstaff, AZ

Would you be surprised to find that Americans looking for retirement destinations search for Flagstaff, Arizona, more than 33,000 times each year? (2024 Semrush search volume data)

That’s not a small number. And according to the most recent IRS data, 7,782 taxpayers actually followed through, moving into Coconino county, where Flagstaff is located.

This compares to just 3,285 taxpayers who moved out in that year, translating to a net inflow that is 2.36 times higher than outflow.

So, on the face of it, Flagstaff appears to be a popular city for people to move to. But what is it really like to live in, and does it make for a great retirement destination?

 

I decided to find out, and so, in typical PlayLouder fashion, I dug deep into the numbers, and analyzed the cost of everything in Flagstaff, AZ — from housing, to healthcare, utilities, and even coffee. (Gotta have that cuppa!)

My wife and I also spoke to people who have made the move, to get the real insider perspective from outsiders who’ve retired there.

So, here’s what Flagstaff is like as a retirement destination in 2024.

Main Pros and Cons of Flagstaff, Arizona for Retirees

In case you’re pressed for time and want to come back later for a detailed read, here’s the quick takeaway.

Pros

Flagstaff is an ideal retirement destination if a healthy, outdoorsy lifestyle combined with home-based cooking and entertainment appeal to you. In particular, if you’re looking to rent instead of own property—possibly because you already own a home elsewhere—Flagstaff represents significant cost savings.

Cons

On the other hand, if owning a home in your new city is top priority, the move to Flagstaff may require careful budget balancing. Also, if big city life with its endless variety of cuisine and culture is a deeply embedded part of your lifestyle, transitioning to the quieter Flagstaff life might prove challenging.

Cost of Living

Overview

While Flagstaff is not the absolute cheapest US city to live in, it isn’t particularly expensive either.

Excluding certain expenses like dining out and internet, the cost of living in Flagstaff is more affordable than the national average.

On the whole, if you plan on a modest lifestyle without excessive dining out, retiring in Flagstaff will take your dollars much further compared to the national average.

Here’s how each facet of life in Flagstaff stacks up on the costs front.

Housing and Utilities

The housing market in Flagstaff can be a mixed bag for retirees.

While rentals are on average 40% lower than the national average, the higher costs of purchasing property might be a problem if you’re looking to invest in real estate or downsize efficiently.

The purchase price per square foot for apartments in Flagstaff is higher than the national average. I saw on Zillow that the average apartment costs over $620K, so you might save as much as $155K on similar housing in another city (even more when you consider financing costs).

That said, utility costs for a standard apartment in Flagstaff are 34% lower than the U.S. average, which could significantly reduce monthly living expenses.

Food, Grocery and Apparel

Dining out in Flagstaff is slightly more expensive compared to the U.S. average. Whether grabbing a quick meal at an inexpensive bistro or having a relaxed evening out at a nice restaurant, the check in Flagstaff is likely to be a bit bigger.

Grocery prices are typically lower than the U.S. average, barring a few items like eggs and cheese. If you’re willing to cook meals rather than eat out, groceries aren’t that expensive here.

Clothing and footwear also tend to be slightly less expensive (-10%) compared to the national average.

Transportation and Fuel

The low cost of public transportation is a significant plus if you prefer not to drive. The cost of an entry-level mid-size sedan is on the higher side, indicating a marginally higher initial cost for new car buyers.

Combined with higher gasoline prices, relying on personal vehicles for transportation could lead to higher than average transportation costs.

Local Economy and Part-Time Job Opportunities

My research showed that the Flagstaff economic forecast is for modest, positive growth, in line with the 1.6% rate of growth projected for the state of Arizona in 2024-2025.

Despite the nationwide deceleration in post-pandemic economic growth, Flagstaff is set to see a decent 0.9% increase in employment opportunities (figure above), thanks to positive growth in 6 out of 10 job sectors (figure below).

During the 2024-2025 period, say insiders, the city’s economy is poised to receive a major fillip from civic and residential construction projects whose estimated total cost is over $595 million. These projects include public roads and bridges and electric utilities, as well as single family residential units.

Job Prospects for Retirees

Evaluating Flagstaff’s potential in furnishing part-time jobs suitable for retirees required setting some baseline criteria. So, after a brainstorming session, here are the requirements my wife and I shortlisted:

  1. The employee profile requires college level education.
  2. The position is mid- to senior-level within the organization (in other words, no entry-level jobs).
  3. The work ideally calls for administrative and/or managerial experience.

Using these filters, I found that, on average, the city generates anywhere from 120 to 150 positions corresponding to the above criteria during the peak hiring periods of January-February as well as September-October. The winter months (November-December) are typically a slack period, as snowy weather and holidays act as a combined damper on hiring. 

Job opportunities matching the above criteria range from supervisory office staff and managerial positions to jobs requiring advanced technical skills such as software programming and laboratory research.

The lowest hourly wage within this employment category that I found was $13.85, while the highest was $51.84. A handful of listings (under 10%) specified a yearly salary, which ranged from a low $25,000 p.a. to an executive level pay package of roughly $106,710.

Job listings were scattered across diverse platforms, including popular portals like ZipRecruiter, Glassdoor, Indeed and Salary.com, but also on regional platforms such as Adzuna and newer apps such as Geebo and Seasoned.com (see donut chart above).

Healthcare Facilities, Costs, and Quality

Flagstaff has a robust healthcare landscape by any standard, not just for a city of its size.

The backbone of healthcare provision lies in two major hospitals, Flagstaff Medical Center and Verde Valley Medical Center, offering a range of specialized care including Primary Stroke Center (PSC) and Level 1 Trauma Care.

Flagstaff Medical Center particularly stands out with its relatively low average visit cost of $21 in 2024.

Complementing these hospitals are over 33 Northern Arizona Healthcare (NAH) ambulatory sites spread across Flagstaff, Cottonwood, Sedona, and Camp Verde, ensuring accessibility to healthcare services.

There are over 250 doctors and clinicians across different specializations, including family medicine, pediatrics, OB/GYN, psychiatry, and a plethora of other specialties.

For seniors requiring specialized care and/or assisted living, there are eight facilities rated higher than 4 stars. These include Comfort Keepers, Visiting Angels, Highgate Senior Living, and Angels Care.

On the cost front, I found that the average visit to a doctor, excluding any procedures, costs around $130 (Payscale.com data), which is higher than the national average of just under $100 for a 10 to 15 minute general consultation.

On the other hand, a routine dental cleaning costs $112 (Payscale.com data), which is lower than the national average of around $127.

Safety and Accessibility

Crime and safety

What struck both my wife and myself was how often the expression, “ridiculously safe” popped up in our conversations with Flagstaff residents. Not surprisingly, the data from Numbeo backed this up – I found Flagstaff to have an overall safety rating of 73.93 (rounded up in the graph below). 

But I was curious. Is this level of safety characteristic of other cities of the same size, or does this add to Flagstaff’s unique appeal? 

Well, I ran a quick comparison of Flagstaff’s stats with the crime and safety statistics of nine other US cities with comparable populations. Impressively, Flagstaff came in at #2, second only to Pleasanton, CA.

I found that Flagstaff scored lower on practically every aspect of crime compared to the average. Even more reassuringly, I found that the city's recent growth in crime was lower than average, with a rating of 62 as compared to the 9-city average of 68, making it one of the best US cities for retirees

Safest neighborhoods

After scrutinizing multiple sources—home security services’ assessments, realtor websites and discussion forums where Flagstaff residents answered would-be settlers’ questions, I homed in on the neighborhoods in and around the city that everyone agreed were the safest. 

Here’s an unranked list of the top 6 safest areas in which to make your home in Flagstaff:

  • Christmas Tree Estates in the Smokerise Valley area at the eastern end of the city
  • Equestrian Estates in the University Highlands area in western Flagstaff
  • Bellevue neighborhood, just south of the University Highlands area
  • Rock Ridge Estates in the Cheshire neighborhood in the northwestern part of town
  • Mountain View Ranches in the Elden Mountain area northeast of Flagstaff
  • Kachina Village in the Forest Highlands area to the south of the city

Safe living tips from Flagstaff residents

In the course of interviewing the city's residents, I also managed to put together a bullet list of sound advice on navigating safely around Flagstaff:

  1.  Overall, eastern Flagstaff considered safer, while the southern part of the city is more crime-prone
  2. The Sunnyside neighborhood in the heart of Flagstaff is known to be home to some of the city’s gangs, so caution is warranted in this part of town
  3. Public transport in Flagstaff is generally very safe; however, individuals are advised to exercise basic precautions against petty crimes such as pickpocketing and purse snatching
  4. Finally, as in most other places, people are advised against venturing into poorly lit, lonely neighborhoods alone at night, particularly on foot

Accessibility: Getting to Flagstaff

By road

Flagstaff Map

The city is located 144 miles north of Phoenix, AZ on the Interstate 17 (which turns into Milton Road within city limits, then into the Historic Route 66 in downtown Flagstaff). This makes Flagstaff a two and a half hour drive from the state capital. 

Flagstaff is easily accessed from major metros to the east (Albuquerque, NM; Dallas, TX) and west (Las Vegas, NV; Los Angeles, CA) via Interstate 40. Its proximity to the Grand Canyon – the city lies just 81 miles to the southeast of the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park – makes Flagstaff a mere 90-minute drive from the canyon along Highway 180.

Getting to Flagstaff via public transport is also an option, since the city is serviced by both Greyhound and Amtrak buses running regularly from Phoenix. 

By rail

Flagstaff is home to the historic Amtrak train station on Route 66. The Southwest Chief makes twice daily stops at the Flagstaff station, on its westbound (Train 3) as well as eastbound journeys (Train 4).

It may interest you to know (it certainly did me) that Flagstaff is a transit point for a dizzying 100 trains every day!

By air

Flagstaff’s own Pulliam airport (FLG) is serviced by multiple daily American Airlines flights operating to and from the air travel hubs of Phoenix (PHX) and Dallas (DFW). Another popular option is to fly to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport and then drive to Flagstaff.

Climate

For those looking to relocate to one of the best US cities for retirees, Flagstaff’s climate is arguably one of its greatest attractions. With nearly 270 days of sunshine, crisp winters and low humidity, the local weather makes it easy to stay active and fit through the year.

The city enjoys four distinct seasons: long, sunny summers and short, crisp winters, interspersed with invigorating fall weather and cool spring climate.

Weather Preparedness

From July through mid-September, Flagstaff experiences monsoonal weather, characterized by rain showers and afternoon thunderstorms. The rains sometimes cause flash flooding in the area, so residents are advised to tune in regularly to weather bulletins and advisories.

The area is prone to be windy during the months of March through May, with wind-speeds going up as high as 50mph. Late spring and early summer also brings with it a chance of wildfires, owing to the dry weather and high winds.

Altitude Advisory

Flagstaff sits fairly high up in northern Arizona’s spectacular San Francisco mountains, at nearly 7,000 feet. Quite apart from the incredible views, the thinner mountain air as well as the sunshine combine to induce a slight breathlessness when out and about. 

When moving about in the area, you’d be right in scheduling plenty of rest stops. Sunburn and dehydration can also hit quickly, so be sure to slather on the sunscreen, wear a hat, carry enough liquids and hydrate regularly.

Environment Quality

With its pristine environment and absence of heavy industry, Flagstaff’s air quality is enviable, with the AQI count ranging between 5 and 10 most days of the month. This meets the new, more stringent NAAQS standard of 9 PPM for PM2.5 set by the US EPA in February 2024. 

(In plain-speak, that just means that the amount of fine particulate matter in the Flagstaff air typically stays below the “safe” threshold prescribed by the EPA.)

As elsewhere, pollen count varies seasonally in Flagstaff. Allergies peak in late winter and early spring owing to juniper pollen, and again from mid-September to November due to ragweed. 

Those extremely rare cases of pine pollen allergy also need to watch out, since Flagstaff is nestled amidst the world’s largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest—the second and third weeks of June can be particularly challenging.

Education and Learning

Flagstaff's education landscape caters to individuals at different stages of life, from tots in playschool to seniors looking for personal enrichment.

Traditional Academics

Flagstaff’s educational heart is Northern Arizona University (NAU), where annual tuition for full-fledged undergraduate programs stands at approximately $15,000 (as of 2022). Besides NAU, Coconino Community College offers various degree and diploma programs with costs ranging from $2,712 to $3,254 for in-district and in-state students.

Continued Learning

Both NAU and Coconino Community College offer a plethora of continuing education and life-long learning opportunities for interested adults. The range of programs available reflects the diverse interests and needs of the community, from academic pursuits to practical skills to recreational activities.

NAU programs typically carry fees ranging from $249 to over a thousand dollars and span a variety of topics such as Mexican cuisine, tax planning, and greenhouse gas accounting and management. Programs at Coconino Community College tend to carry fees ranging from $20 to $105, and include diverse topics, such as high altitude baking, stained glass workshop, wilderness survival, EMT recertification, and financial planning

School Education

Flagstaff is home to a total of 32 public and 7 private schools. These include pre-KG, kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school grades, providing education to students of all ages. The area boasts institutions ranked among the best in Northern Arizona, such as Coconino High School, Flagstaff High School and Northland Preparatory Academy.

Demographics and Social Profile

In terms of total population, Flagstaff's metropolitan area has a population of over 75,900 people, of whom seniors aged 65 and above constitute 9.1%. Those under 18 years of age represent 21.5% of the population, highlighting the presence of a substantial youth demographic. Flagstaff is home to a significant number of US military veterans – roughly 4% of the population.  

Gender distribution in Flagstaff reveals a balanced representation, with males slightly outnumbering females, constituting 50.2% and 49.8% of the population, respectively.

Ethnically, Flagstaff showcases a diverse mix (see tree chart below). Furthermore, the city’s population diversity is increasing, as evidenced by the increasing number of foreign-born residents: from 5.6% of the population in 2021, this rose to 6.6% in 2022. The top three nationalities represented among foreign-born residents include Mexicans (33%), followed by Indians and Canadians (8% each).

Politically, Flagstaff is known as a moderately liberal city. Since 2000, Flagstaff has returned a majority Democrat vote in every presidential election. During 2021-2022, Flagstaff, along with much of Arizona, underwent some political turbulence during the ‘redistricting’ process that placed the city within District 6, which includes five Native American reservation areas.

Next Steps

As you can see, there are so many factors that go into deciding on a retirement destination. My wife and I actually did this for our own family when we moved from California to Florida, so I totally get that it can be a little overwhelming — especially when you're comparing several options.

If making good retirement choices is something you're interested in, you might want to consider checking out my Financial Independence Roadmap course. It breaks down everything you need to know about retirement planning, from budgeting to common mistakes to avoid. It even includes tools that crunch the numbers so you don't have to.

Here's what a few members have said about the courses.

Best of all, if you'd like to dip your toe in the water, you can check out my Budgeting Basics course, which is completely free.

Joe DiSanto is the founder of Play Louder! He has built multi-million dollar businesses, produced critically acclaimed documentaries and an Emmy-winning TV show, invested millions in real estate, and semi-retired at age 43. Now, Joe serves as a Fractional CFO for several creative firms and is sharing a lifetime of fiscal know-how via Play Louder, an invaluable resource that helps individuals and business owners increase their net worth and plan better for their future.