Cost of Living Diaries

Four Iowa residents share a glimpse of everyday life in their cities.

1. Cedar Rapids 
Population: 275,435

The beautiful city of Cedar Rapids offers an enviable lifestyle that simply can’t be replicated elsewhere. This city offers the perfect blend of affordability, diversity, entertainment, recreation, a booming economy and an entrepreneurial ecosystem that helps businesses thrive.

Cedar rapids

Bart Carithers grew up in the area, left for college, lived all over the U.S. for 35 years (California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island) and then returned to Cedar Rapids in 2014. He bought Next Page Books in 2015 and has been running it ever since. 

Q: How would you describe the community?

Bart Carithers (BC): It’s a good-sized city, but it feels like a small town. It’s affordable, comfortable and uncomplicated. The quality of life here is great. The people are friendly, generous and always willing to lend a hand. There are quite a few things to do here for a community this size – a lot of art and culture. The city has invested heavily in the last 10+ years in trails and bike lanes on streets, and I think people outside the area would be surprised to learn about the cycling culture here.

Q: What has it been like living in an apartment in Cedar Rapids?

BC: I’ve stayed in an apartment since I moved back, and I can say I pay a fraction of what I paid elsewhere around the country. I pay $650 a month for a 750-square-foot place in the Czech Village, a historic neighborhood that celebrates its rich heritage with a vibrant selection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. I have looked at the possibility of buying a house, so I know the median home price is around $185,000, so the cost of living here is exceptionally low. 

Q: What’s your favorite restaurant in Cedar Rapids, and about how much would dinner and drinks cost you?

Lucita's Diner in Cedar Rapids

BC: The restaurant I frequent the most is Lucita’s Diner. It’s a small Mexican place on the southwest side of town, and I meet friends there every Tuesday night after work. The owners and staff know us by name, and our margaritas are always ready for us as soon as we sit down at our regular booth. You can get a really good meal there for a pretty low price ($30), depending on how many margaritas you get.

Q: What’s a fun coffee shop, and how much would your favorite drink cost?

BC: I’m a creature of habit, so I grab a latte every morning before work at Roasters Coffeehouse, which is located directly across the street from the bookstore. It’s convenient, the staff is great, and it doesn’t hurt that they make a really good latte. A 16-ounce latte would be about $5.50. For a city this size, there’s an abundance of coffee shops.

2. Sioux City 
Population: 105,647

In northwest Iowa, Sioux City serves as the regional hub for portions of southeast South Dakota and northeast Nebraska. Here, residents enjoy great outdoor recreation, a flourishing dining scene, unique shops, excellent art attractions and much more.

Sioux City Art Center

Emily Vollmar grew up in Holstein, less than an hour from Sioux City, moved away for college and work, and returned when she got married in 2008. She moved to nearby Sioux City in 2022 and opened Rooted Boutique, a women’s clothing store, which has two locations in Holstein and in Sioux City.

Q: How would you describe Sioux City?

Emily Vollmar (EV): It’s kind of the best of both worlds. There are a lot of amenities of a bigger city – restaurants and retail, but it also has a very small-town feel, with the close-knit community, not a lot of traffic, and the market isn’t saturated in any certain business.

Q: What do you love about living here?

Sioux City Historic Fourth Street

EV: People have Midwest values, and I share parenting and just life priorities with my neighbors, friends and community. People are very supportive of one another’s businesses and try to support each other before turning to neighboring city businesses. 

Q: What was your experience like finding housing in Sioux City?

EV: We bought a home in Whispering Creek, which is on the east side of Sioux City – a new development. It was a great place for us because my husband and I drive back and forth to Holstein probably every other day. We got really lucky to find a house right when we were looking for one out there.

Q: What’s your favorite restaurant, and how much would dinner and drinks cost for two?

EV: I love The Diving Elk, which is downtown on Fourth Street. They have a great craft cocktail list, and their menu is constantly changing. It’s locally owned. Dinner and drinks for two would probably be $50. 

Q: What’s your favorite coffee shop, and how much is your go-to drink?

EV: There are some great ones – Pierce Street Coffee Works is the closest one to my store downtown. Everything is homemade. And Stone Bru Coffee Co. is a new kind of chain that started in Sioux City. They’re really great, too. I’m a “black coffee” girl, so it’s a $2.50 drink for me.

3. Mason City
Population: 50,091

Mason City

The inspiration for River City, the fictional town featured in Meredith Willson’s 1957 Broadway musical “The Music Man,” Mason City remains a thriving community that residents love to call home. Excellent food, quaint shops, beautiful outdoor attractions and historic sites adorn the city, and it offers a friendly, upbeat vibe.

Michelle Skarpness moved to Mason City from her hometown of Charles City, Iowa, in 1998. Today, she runs a photography business – Michelle Skarpness Photography – that she launched in 2010.

Q: What brought you to Mason City?

Michelle Skarpness (MS): Work, the bigger town – Charles City has kind of a small-town atmosphere, but Mason City is small-town, yet bigger. You go downtown, and you still see people that you know, yet there’s a bigger feel, more things to do, more stores, more choices.

Q: How would you describe Mason City? 

MS: The people are super friendly. You go into the grocery store, everybody is great, and I love that there are lots of things to do. We have a bike trail or a walking trail from in town out to Lime Creek Nature Center (free admission), so you can get that bit of nature yet still be in town.

Q: What’s it like starting a business in the area?

Mason City

MS: There are a lot of resources. We have a class here at our community college that is more business oriented – a whole Pappajohn section (John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center). And then, I just started reaching out to other women business owners in Mason City … opening that conversation.

Q: What is the housing market like?

MS: Even though the housing market is increasing, buying a home in Mason City is still way cheaper than anywhere else. (The median home price in Mason City in October 2022 was $149,900, according to

4. Des Moines 
Population: 719,146

Des Moines

The state’s capital city, Des Moines, is fun, fresh and humming with excitement. Residents can’t get enough of its inviting amenities, from its lively arts scene and trendy eateries to its diverse festivals, vast trails and walkable neighborhoods. It’s a space where people put down roots and then discover they never want to leave. 

Sammy Mila was born and raised in the area and now owns Crème, an Asian-inspired bakery near downtown that she took ownership of in 2022.

Q: What has kept you in Des Moines?

Sammy Mila (SM): Family, for one – that’s a big one for me. Des Moines is definitely growing. It’s a big-little city. It has kind of your favorite things about a big city, where there is always something to do, whether you are someone who gravitates toward nature, likes to go birdwatching, go on walks through nature trails, or go biking. We have some cool bars and breweries for those who want to get a little crazier, (and we have) a lot of dog-friendly places. It’s home for me.

Q: How would you describe the community and its residents?

SM: We have a term here called “Iowa Nice,” where it’s like everyone in Iowa is overly nice, and so it’s kind of quirky, but also kind of true. People are very open and accepting of everything that’s happening, so everyone is very chill.

Q: What’s it like to run a business in Des Moines?

Pappajohn Sculpture Park

SM: The sense of community is huge, and Des Moines loves to support Des Moines. That is probably one of my most favorite things about being a business owner – I can always rely on my family, my friends and my neighbors to just be there to support me, and it’s a very secure feeling that I feel like a lot of bigger cities may not have. 

This story was developed for the 2023 ‘This is Iowa’ statewide guide published in partnership with Livability

Published March 6, 2023

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