Best Cities for Freelancers and Self-Employed Workers 2024

The National Association for the Self-Employed’s membership has grown dramatically over the last few years, says Keith Hall, the group’s president and CEO. And while that growth has slowed since its COVID-era peak in 2022, he thinks flexible work is here to stay.

The boom in self-employment started when “a lot of people had to do it because of COVID. They didn’t choose to do it; they had to do it,” Hall says. “Many others saw and learned and read that you can do this. You don’t need to be tied to the desk in corporate America.”

Below is NerdWallet’s 2024 list of the 10 best U.S. metro areas for freelancers and the self-employed. Our analysis used recent metro-area data from the U.S. Census Bureau and state-level data from the Tax Foundation. The top metro areas are those where a significant percentage of the workforce is self-employed already, rent is relatively affordable, unemployment is low, worker mobility is high and state income taxes are relatively low.

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Top 10 metro areas for freelancers and the self-employed

  1. Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tennessee.

  2. North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota, Florida.

  3. Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, Texas.

  4. Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

  5. Bridgeport-Stamford-Danbury, Connecticut.

  6. Portland-South Portland, Maine 

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Once we uncover your personalized matches, our team will consult you on the process moving forward.

Key findings

  • Of our top 10 cities, Bridgeport-Stamford-Danbury, Connecticut, and North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota, Florida, have the largest percentages of the workforce that are already self-employed (8.5% and 8.2%, respectively). The median of all metro areas in our dataset is 5.3%. 

  • Housing affordability continues to benefit communities like Chattanooga and Knoxville, Tennessee; Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Maine — all places in which more than half of renters spend less than 30% of their income on rent. 

  • Tennessee, Florida and Texas all have no state income tax, which can keep a portion of income in self-employed workers’ pockets. That said, “It’s rare when I personally hear an individual relocating states just because of the tax code,” Hall says.

  • Columbus, Ohio, was boosted by a significant increase in the number of people moving to the city for work between the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023. While those people weren’t necessarily freelancers, we use this data point to better understand economic vibrancy.

Identify your self-employment goals when considering a move

What might self-employment look like for you? That depends on what you hope to get out of it.

1. Desired industry

Though some industries have shifted broadly toward remote work, others still benefit from proximity.

Brian Rood, a certified financial planner and owner of Artisan Financial Planning, knows that firsthand: He spent 27 years playing trumpet in the Kansas City Symphony before shifting to financial planning and now works primarily with artists.

In highly specialized fields like the performing arts, “you really do go where the work is,” Rood says. That might mean an industry-specific location, like New York or Los Angeles, or a small city where you landed an orchestra job and then built a network of students and professional contacts.

Seth Hodes, co-founder and managing partner at Able Wealth Management, also works primarily with artists and creatives. He says his clients often move from creative agencies to tech companies to freelance portfolios and then back again based on what opportunities arise. Living in regions that have active job markets and lots of opportunities in their industries helps facilitate such mobility.

“The artist freelancer has always been adaptable,” Hodes says. “It’s a grind out there — you’re going to have to survive and work up a certain kind of cultural capital.”

2. Financial goals

Self-employed workers typically need to set aside 25% to 30% of their income for tax payments.

Next, Rood adapts the 50/30/20 budget to each client; the budget is a framework that recommends spending 50% of your income on expenses, 30% on “wants” and 20% on savings. “It’s a little high on the first parts and a little low on the savings,” he says, but it’s a useful jumping-off point.

Rood encourages self-employed clients to have a larger-than-average emergency fund. For some performing artists, he recommends six to 12 months of living expenses.

That math can get difficult when the cost of living is high, and it can tempt people to move, especially if they can take work with them or are scaling back on hours.

When his clients leave a high-cost-of-living city, Rood says, “it’s because they either are going to retire, and so they want to go somewhere cheaper and they don’t need the work, or the rat race is too much and they want to do something else.”

Hall says he’s seen lots of older Americans strike out on their own, too. If your freelance work is a transition step out of full-time work, you may lean toward the place where you want to spend your retirement.

3. Identity, safety and values

Self-employment can afford you the freedom to live in a place for personal reasons, not just professional or financial ones.

For some, self-employment may support a move that lets them live more safely. According to a 2022 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 5% of trans people had moved out of state due to laws targeting their community and 47% of respondents had thought about it.

And Hall says family ties and hometown memories are common reasons for relocation.

“We do hear a lot from NASE members and from small-business owners moving to a different community,” Hall says. “Maybe they grew up in a small city when they were younger and they had the need to go to the big city, because that’s where the jobs were. Now they’re going back home.”

Hodes says he works with his clients to find harmony between their financial goals and how they want to live their lives more broadly.

“You have to plan for the future, but it has to be a balance,” Hodes says. “Don’t sacrifice too much in the present.”

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Methodology

To create the Best Cities for Freelancers and Self-Employed Workers 2024 list, NerdWallet pulled data for major U.S. metropolitan areas from the U.S. Census Bureau. We also pulled state tax rates from the Tax Foundation and calculated the tax rate for a household earning the median U.S. household income. We weighted the impact of each factor depending on how important we felt that factor would be in the potential financial success of a freelancer. We excluded metro areas for which there was negative or no Job-to-Job Flows Census data.

NerdWallet’s analysis includes data from the following sources:

  • U.S. Census 2022 American Community Survey data for the unemployment rate, percentage of people in Census-designated metro areas who identified as self-employed in non-incorporated businesses, and percentage of renters in a Census-designated metro area who spend less than 30% of their household income on rent.

  • U.S. Census Q4 2022 and Q4 2023 Job-to-Job Explorer data.

  • The 2024 state tax rate for the median U.S. household (which earned $74,580 in 2023, according to Census data), according to the Tax Foundation.