What’s the best place to live in retirement?
New Hampshire boasts low taxes and a vital cultural climate. Mexico has warm weather and a low cost of living. The Provo-Orem metropolitan area of Utah, with about 115,000 residents, promises an outdoorsy lifestyle, proximity to Salt Lake City and plenty of opportunities to take classes at local colleges.
All three were the top suggestions in recent retirement location rankings. And there are more studies — actually, many, many more. Bert Sperling, the founder of a website that ranks places across the United States based on quality-of-life factors, keeps a running tab of best-places-to-retire surveys, and he counts nearly 40 of them. Media and personal finance websites, think tanks and even insurance companies produce the rankings.
The quality varies, Sperling said: “Some are very analytical, and others are casual in their approach, with little justification provided for their choices.”
With so many surveys and rankings, you’d think that America’s retirees are a horde of itinerants. But relatively few people really do move in retirement.
Only six-tenths of 1 percent of Americans over age 55 moved across a state line in 2015, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. (The population he looked at includes people who are still working.) And those who do move generally are not following the more creative, and sometimes chilly, recommendations found in many surveys. The top five destinations between 2010 and 2015 were all in the Sunbelt: Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada, followed by Texas, North Carolina and Georgia.
The Sunbelt has also been a magnet for people who aren’t quite ready for retirement. “These are regions that attracted plenty of baby boomers during their prime working years, and they are just staying there as they grow older,” Frey said.
But eyebrow-raising studies keep coming. Common criteria cited include the cost of living, the tax burden, the quality of health care, weather, crime, cultural vitality and the prevalence of other older citizens.
New Hampshire topped this year’s ranking from Bankrate, a personal finance site. Its list may be considered a ranking of top frostbite states for retirement; along with New Hampshire, the site suggests Colorado, Maine, Iowa and Minnesota.
Bankrate derives its results from a survey that asks people to name the factors that matter most in a retirement location; the results indicated that respondents were concerned primarily with a low cost of living, access to good health care, a low crime rate and rich cultural offerings.
“We’re trying to take a forward look at where people should be retiring now, instead of what they’ve done in the past,” said Claes Bell, a data analyst for Bankrate.
The Milken Institute, an economic think tank, suggests Provo-Orem. The institute’s rankings focus not on retirement but on the best American cities for “successful aging,” as the group puts it.
Milken’s exhaustive report evaluates 381 U.S. metropolitan areas using public data on 83 indicators, including general livability, health care, wellness, financial security, living arrangements, employment and educational opportunities. The report also breaks out separate results for younger seniors (ages 65 to 79) and older ones, recognizing that needs differ. Additionally, it separates the rankings into large and smaller metro areas.
Along with Provo-Orem, Milken’s rankings among large metro areas include Madison, Wisconsin; and Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The small metro list was topped by Iowa City; Manhattan, Kansas; and Ames, Iowa.
Paul Irving, chairman of Milken’s Center for the Future of Aging, acknowledges that the selections may strike some as a little odd. “We’re not suggesting anyone move to a different place,” he said. “Aging Americans increasingly are inclined to continue to work, stay engaged and active, and live lives driven by purpose. We’re evaluating a series of characteristics that are likely to help enable that kind of life.”
Looking for something a bit more cosmopolitan? The Global Retirement Index ranks 24 top countries for retirement living. The index is published annually by International Living, a magazine and website about the expatriate lifestyle. The index is based on reports from expatriate correspondents in each country, and assigns a score to each of the 24 countries based on various factors. These include the cost of real estate, the availability of benefits and discounts, the ease of securing visas, the quality of social life and entertainment, and, of course, health care and climate.
Mexico has topped the list for five years running. This year, the other top countries include Panama, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Colombia; Thailand and Cambodia are also rising stars.
The list is highly subjective. “We really rely on the correspondents,” Jennifer Stevens, the site’s executive editor, said. “And we only have people working for us in the countries that we recommend.”
The factors that readers ask about most often, Stevens said, include cost of living and the ease of integrating into a foreign culture and language.
“Language can be especially off-putting,” she said. “People are worried they are too old to pick up a new language. But they should also be asking about the access to visas, climate and health care.”
Interest in retirement abroad is rising. The number of retired workers receiving Social Security benefits abroad jumped 22 percent from the end of 2009 to 2015, to just over 390,000. That figure understates the total, Stevens said, since many expats use U.S. bank accounts for their benefits. The Social Security data points to Canada, Japan and Mexico as the most popular locations for U.S. citizens interested in retiring in a foreign country.
Several websites allow you to pull together custom lists according to the factors that matter most to you. AARP offers a Livability Index that grades every neighborhood and city in the United States on a zero-to-100 scale as a place to live when you are getting older. Users can plug in an address to see how a location scores for attributes such as housing, neighborhood, transportation, health, civic engagement and opportunity.
On Zillow, the real estate site, there is a tool that lets people custom-weight results by factors like location, population, home values, weather and cultural amenities.
Sperling’s Best Places has an interactive tool that suggests locations that match your interests and preferences, based on answers to 10 questions about geographic preferences, housing affordability, cultural amenities and cost of living.
Sperling also has collected some quirky rankings, such as a list of America’s most (and least) stressful cities, the best and worst places for sleeping and where to live to avoid a natural disaster.
He cautions retirement-location shoppers against getting too obsessive about any one characteristic. For example, some studies emphasize keeping taxes low in retirement, which is odd to him. “If you have enough money to worry about taxes, then you probably don’t need to worry about it so much,” he said. “It’s much more important to think about the overall quality of life than how much you are paying in taxes.
He also worries that too many studies view retirement as a single phase of life.
“It’s a mistake to think that you can just go somewhere permanently,” Sperling said. “There really are three stages: a ‘go-go’ period where you’re very active and seeing the world, then a time where you’re slowing down and need more health care resources, and then a third where you really need to be cared for.”
Sperling emphasized that all the rankings and studies on retirement locations were simply a starting point for making a decision. “They’re just suggestions,” he said. “Maybe they can get you to think about someplace you hadn’t thought of before, but your mileage will vary.”