If retirement is getting close enough to feel real, and that reality includes a change of scenery after you collect your final paycheck, you might be imagining the sunny beaches of Florida or the hot, dry golf mecca of Arizona or some other warm place. But wait—how about the 45-degree average annual temperature of South Dakota, instead? If that sounds like a stretch, open your mind—the Mount Rushmore State tops the list of the best places to retire in America according to a new study from financial site Bankrate.com…with Utah, Idaho, New Hampshire and, less surprisingly, Florida, not far behind.
Of course, what works best for you depends on many factors. And you may not even want to stay within the 50 states, preferring to pick another country for your dream retirement destination. Whatever your choice—and this is part of the philosophy behind Bankrate’s analysis—make sure your dream is based on reality. This study could convince you to take a second—or first—look at some hidden American gems that might offer the best retirement you never thought of.
Why South Dakota? Conventional wisdom suggests that a happy retirement includes lots of sun and warmth and proximity to the grandkids. But that thinking is often at odds with the realities of what actually makes happy people happy. The Bankrate study examined seven crucial retirement features and weighted them in the following order from most significant to least significant—cost of living, taxes, health-care quality, weather, crime, cultural vitality and “well-being” (which includes such factors as a reason to get up in the morning…meaningful relationships…loving where you live…and lack of money stress). It turns out that while South Dakota does not offer the balmy weather one would typically associate with retirement, the people who live there tend to be happier compared with the country as a whole. They report feeling a comparatively strong sense of community, they are in one of seven US states that don’t have an individual income tax, they have disproportionately low financial stress, they’re in better physical health and they have access to affordable, high-quality health care.
A look at the other four contenders. Utah came in second, thanks largely to its good health care and weather—both of which actually beat out South Dakota. It ranked behind South Dakota in all five other categories but never by more than eight spots. Third-place Idaho has less crime and is more affordable than both South Dakota and Utah. Idaho also beats out the number-one and number-two states in terms of well-being and health, but it lags way behind in terms of cultural vitality and has a much higher tax burden. New Hampshire came in fourth, thanks largely to its minuscule crime rate—no state in America is safer. It also offers excellent health care, low taxes and strong cultural vitality, but the Granite State is notoriously cold, and like much of New England, the cost of living is high. Florida, a traditional retirement state, came in fifth—and its prominence on the list can be credited to features that have drawn retirees there for generations. The Sunshine State earned its nickname—the average annual temperature is 70 degrees, it boasts miles of accessible beaches on both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, it’s rich with culture and its residents enjoy a low tax rate. All the other metrics, however, ranked in the middle of the pack, and Florida ranks a dismal number 36 in terms of health-care costs.
Where not to go. Every state has people who love it. That being said, with any ranking study, some states had to come in last. In terms of worst states to retire in, Arkansas took the number-five spot. It’s true that only one state, Mississippi, has a lower cost of living, but Arkansas ranked dead last in both health-care quality and culture, and it ranked numbers 47 and 48, respectively, in terms of crime and well-being. Just behind Arkansas is Louisiana with a high crime rate, low well-being index and, New Orleans notwithstanding, low level of cultural vitality. Maryland fared even worse, coming in as the third-worst state within which to retire. Nothing much stood out about Maryland except its exceedingly high cost of living and taxes (although living in Maryland, close to Washington, DC, provides plenty of cultural vitality…but that comes with an even higher cost of living. The second-to-worst state was New Mexico, which suffers from the worst crime rate in the country and ranks second-to-last in terms of health-care quality. Coming in dead last was New York. The Empire State, which, of course, includes very expensive New York City, has the highest cost of living in the country and the nation’s second-highest tax rate.