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 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, 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 get a better idea of the benefits and drawbacks, try to throw out your political biases and look at which states offer the best practical benefits—healthcare 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 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 to 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 happier 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.
Retirees report that safety is most important in a retirement destination. The safest states, such as Wyoming, are often red. States like Idaho have low crime rates to go with a low cost of living, and 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 healthcare system.
Why 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 healthcare (Minnesota, with its famed Mayo Clinic, ranks high nationwide). Blue states rank high on 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.
Whether your ultimate retirement destination leads you toward favoring a red or blue state, make sure that your final decision takes into account the factor that might beat 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 a longer life, and is linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression.
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. But 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 or family ranked second in the worst aspect of retirement.