For many people facing retirement, the question of how to spend one’s golden years is easy to answer. They want to travel the country in an R.V. and fly to far-flung countries abroad. They want quality time spent with children, grandchildren and friends.
Whether your retirement bucket list includes splurging on season tickets to the opera or the ballpark, finally learning Spanish, joining a Master’s swimming club or perfecting your golf swing, there may be one essential question that looms large above the “what” of retirement: the “where.” You might know exactly how to spend your newfound free time, but have you figured out the best place in which to spend it?
Red vs. Blue States
As the American political landscape has become increasingly polarized over the past two decades, so has American geography. The phrases “red state” and “blue state” have become such common parlance that they now universally and immediately translate to “Republican state” and “Democratic state.” Yet while such distinctions have become all-powerful during election time, what could they possibly mean for your retirement?
A great deal, it turns out. Whatever your politics, there are undeniable benefits to decamping to either an overwhelmingly Republican state or one that leans Democrat. To suss out the benefits and drawbacks, try to throw out your political biases and look at which states offer the best practical benefits –– health care services, tax rates, estate laws, affordable housing, reasonable cost of living and safety records –– which will most benefit not only your finances, but also your physical health.
Secondly, examine how states rank when it comes to the less tangible and more difficult to measure yet supremely important matter: quality of life. One retiree’s idea of quality of life, of course, might be wildly different than the next person’s. It’s wise make a list of the top-ten quality-of-life factors that matter to you. For example, do you prize states with high levels of community involvement and volunteerism or ones that have a plethora of outdoor recreational opportunities? Do warm weather and strong cultural amenities like access to theater, live music and museums top your list? Or are you more happy flying solo?
Why Go Red?
The old adage about death and taxes holds up when looking at the benefits of retiring in a red state. When heavily Democratic states such as Minnesota, New York, California and Massachusetts (not to mention the District of Columbia) come in at the top of 'Worst Places to Retire' lists, you can usually chalk it up to high taxes and cost of living.
Then there’s the weather: on average, red states, from the Sunbelt to the Deep South to many western states, tend to have warmer summers and more temperate winters than the blue strongholds of the Midwest and East coast. Yet just because the word “retirement” might immediately bring to mind the sunny states of Florida, Texas or Arizona, keep your mind open to other options.
In fact, in Bankrate’s latest survey that ranks the best states in which to retire, neither of these three made the cut for the top 25. Conversely, Bankrate’s list puts Wyoming at the top of the pack much because of its low tax rate: at 6.9%, about half of New York’s. This western state also gets high marks on the factor that retirees report most important in a retirement destination –– even more important than low taxes. Surprisingly, that’s safety: Wyoming sits among the top five safest states in the country.
Like many other red states, Utah gets retiree kudos for a low cost of living, but this conservative stronghold outranks many other red states on high quality healthcare as well as access to outdoor recreation revolving around mountains, lakes and rivers. Another western Republican stronghold, Idaho, combines the country’s lowest crime rate with an appealingly low cost of living. And while red state North Dakota makes headlines for its oil boom, South Dakota quietly lures in retirees –– those that can stomach cold winters –– with low crime, taxes, and cost of living, as well as an admirable health care system. (For related reading, see: These 3 States Are the Worst for Retirement.)
Why to Go Blue
Blue states that show up on “best” lists for retirements tend to have a few things in common beyond lots of card-carrying Democrats. They brag of good health care (Minnesota, with its famed Mayo Clinic, ranks first nationwide) and community well-being (the friendly Aloha State, Hawaii, gets top honors). While crime rate statistics for blue states are mixed, Vermont wins out in the safety category nationwide. (For related reading, see: Retirement Travel: Doing Good and Good for You.)
Whether your ultimate retirement destination leads you towards favoring a red or blue state, make sure that your final decision takes into account the factor that might trump all of the others: proximity to friends and family. Many retirees choose to return to communities where they grew up, raised their children, and built their careers and adult friendships. Others choose to depart their hometowns, joining adult children and grandchildren in an entirely new city. Both decisions can be reasonably justified by current research that shows that, in old age, strong social connections are integral to not only physical and mental well-being, but also longevity. According to Stanford psychologist Dr. Emma Seppala, strong social connectedness strengthens the immune system, promotes longer life, and is linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression. (For related reading, see: Where to Retire Abroad? Follow Your Fellow Expats.)
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, it might be a less tricky proposition to narrow down your dream retirement destination based on proven factors such as quality of life, good weather, excellent healthcare, community well-being and safety. While choosing a retirement destination solely on family and friends remains popular, recent data presents a paradox. Surveys conducted by Top Retirements indicate that “moving close to family” was only rated fifth among top criteria for post-retirement relocation, and that those who had chosen to make the move to be near loved ones gave this factor a low score among the “best” things about retirement. Yet in the surveys, love still triumphed: among respondents, not moving near friends/family ranked second in the worst aspect of retirement. (For related reading, see: Retirement Plans for All? These States Say 'Yes.')