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The Cost of Living Diaries: Helena, MT

How much does it cost to live in Helena, MT? We asked a local to give us ALL the details.

By Sarah Von Bargen on October 16, 2019

Is Helena, Montana affordable? How much does rent cost? How much does a cocktail cost? If you’re curious about the cost of living in Helena, read on for insights from a local!

Name: Niki  
Age:  42 
City: Helena, MT

How long have you lived in Helena?

I’ve lived in Helena for 10 years. I moved here from Sacramento, CA to take a dream job working for a civil rights non-profit. I’ve since changed jobs, but over the years I fell in love with Montana and made Helena my home.

What’s your rent/mortgage in Helena?

My monthly mortgage payment, including property taxes and insurance, is just under $1,300 for a large two bedroom, one bath house in a great neighborhood. The price of my house was just about average for comparable homes in the area. Before buying my house, I was paying $850 a month to rent a pet-friendly two bedroom duplex just two blocks away. 

Who are the main employers in Helena? Are jobs relatively easy to find?

The State of Montana is the largest employer in the city, with the local and federal governments also being large employers. Helena is the state capital and many government agencies are based here. Our local hospital is also a large employer.

Jobs are relatively easy to find and Helena consistently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. But, as in most of Montana, wages in Helena can be much lower than what you would earn in other parts of the country. People jokingly refer to the low wages in Montana as a “scenic tax†– the price you pay to work in a beautiful place.

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How’s the access to grocery stores and food in Helena? Are you going to be able to find things like quinoa and gluten-free pizzas at your local grocery store?

The grocery store situation in Helena is not too bad, with two natural food stores and a decent variety of items at the more traditional stores. There are also some pretty great restaurants in Helena, but most places tend to focus on American-fare like steaks and burgers. And the prices can be high compared to other places.

There just aren’t as many high-quality, budget-friendly options as there are in larger cities – especially for international cuisines. We have a growing food truck scene, which is fun, and folks here tend to support unique, local restaurants, so things are always improving on that front.

How family-friendly is Helena?

I don’t have any children, but Helena seems to be really family-friendly to me. There are lots of programs at the library and kid-friendly plays and musicals at Grandstreet Theatre. The city has some really great free summer programs.

We also have fun places like a hands-on science museum – ExplorationWorks – and The Montana Wildlife Center that are geared toward kids. Even the local breweries cater to families by providing toys, books, and play areas for kids. 
















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What’s it like to be childfree in Helena?

Helena can be really fun as a childfree adult, if you’re able to put in a little time and effort. Helena has a ton of open spaces with an amazing trail system. In many parts of the city you can walk out your back door and literally be on a trail. We have a ski hill just 40 minutes away. The Missouri River and several lakes are also nearby, so fishing and boating are super accessible and popular.

If you’re into the outdoors, it’s a great place to live and there are some well-established and supportive communities of people involved in these activities. They’re a great way to meet people and make friends. 

There are also some fun events held during the summer months, an interesting arts scene, thriving local craft breweries, and a great hot springs facility. I’m also a huge fan of our small but vibrant downtown area, which includes a fantastic wine bar.

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You’re not retirement age, but do you have any insights into how elder or handicapped-friendly Helena is

Helena can be challenging for people with limited mobility or health issues. The city has done a lot over the last few years to improve wheelchair accessibility, including making our trailhead parking lots more accessible. However, many areas in the city still don’t have curb cut-outs or even sidewalks. There are some good options for primary and preventative care, but it can sometimes take a while to find the right fit.

Unfortunately, like many small cities, Helena doesn’t always shine when it comes to specialty healthcare. People sometimes go to larger cities nearby to see specialists or to take care of more advanced healthcare needs.
















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How walkable is Helena? Is there a good public transit system?

The public transit system is very limited. We have two fixed bus routes that run during business hours and a door-to-door service for people with limited mobility. The city has added more bike lanes and bike trails linking different parts of the city.

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How diverse – ethnically, politically, religiously, economically – is Helena?

Like most of Montana, Helena is not very ethnically diverse and our population is overwhelmingly white. The areas just outside of the city limits tend to be even less diverse and more conservative. 

Within the city limits, however, there is a growing progressive movement and last year we elected Montana’s first black mayor – a former refugee of the Liberian civil war.

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To give us an idea of the overall cost of living – how much does a nice, fancy cup of coffee cost? A nice cocktail?

My usual cappuccino at the coffee shop near my office costs $3. A fancy cocktail runs about $8. 

What are your absolute favorite things about Helena?

I love the people in this city and I love the landscape that surrounds us. Helena is filled with genuinely kind, generous, and friendly people. In a lot of ways, my life here is so much easier than it was in Sacramento, and that has everything to do with how nice and helpful my neighbors are. I really can’t overstate how gorgeous it is. We’re surrounded by beautiful, wide open spaces, with great trails and waterways. 
















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Most cities have a ‘catch’ – San Francisco has an insane cost of living, LA has terrible traffic, NYC has garbage bags lining the sidewalk. What’s the ‘catch’ with Helena?

The winters are obviously a very big catch. It can be really tough to slog through those days when it never gets above zero degrees. Air travel is also much more expensive, with less flexible schedules, than it is in larger cities. 

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