When I think of the best places to retire, I envision quiet suburban communities near the beach, where the main streets are lined with palm trees and the winters are so mild you don’t need a down coat.
Basically, I’m thinking of Florida, and for good reason. The Sunshine State has long been a top hot spot for seniors, with Pew Research Center calling Florida “one of the nation’s grayest states,” noting that as of 2015, more than 19 percent of the state’s population was 65 and older — the highest percentage in the U.S. According to 2018 data from the United States Census Bureau, that number bumped up to 20.5 percent.
Another state that comes to mind is Arizona, which Philip Ellis, a financial advisor and the CEO of Brittison Financial Group says “has really taken off” as a retirement haven. Indeed, more than 17 percent of people living in the Grand Canyon State are seniors.
With stats like these, you’d think that Florida and Arizona would be tied for the #1 state to retire, but according to a new report from Bankrate, they’re decidedly not. Florida sidles in at #5. Arizona, slumps in way down the list at #38.
The best state to retire, by Bankrate’s assessment is Nebraska, followed by Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota, respectively.
“Nebraska?” I muttered in disbelief when I read the report. The Cornhusker State, smack dab in the heartland and notoriously blizzard-riddled in winters, didn’t make much sense to me as a retirement destination at first, but as I dove deeper into the report and consulted experts, I have a much better understanding of what a good retirement comprises, and why these states are top contenders.
What matters most: family and affordability
“Being near family and friends is the most important thing to retirees,” says Bankrate.com data analyst Adrian Garcia, citing data from a recent TD Ameritrade survey. “Beyond that, what’s most important to them is affordability, access to healthcare, weather, culture and crime. Those are the five buckets we looked at in this report.”
In Bankrate’s analysis, affordability made up the biggest portion of the pie, accounting for 40 percent of the study’s methodology. Wellness, including healthcare, made up for 25 percent, followed by culture (15 percent), weather (15 percent) and crime (15 percent).
Of the top five states ranked, Missouri actually came in as the most affordable, but Nebraska, the 14th most affordable state, is number 8 in the wellness category, which helped push it to the top of the list.
The same Medicare plan goes for different rates in different states
It’s important to understand that affordability and healthcare aren’t mutually exclusive categories — because healthcare is part of the cost of living. And that cost varies from state to state.
Danielle K. Roberts, a Medicare insurance expert and co-founder of Boomer Benefits, discovered that a Medicare Supplement Plan G in Miami, Florida goes for a monthly premium of around $286.
“That same exact plan in a zip code in Omaha, Nebraska goes for about $90,” Roberts says.
That difference of $200 can make or break someone living on a fixed income.
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“The average social security check is $1400,” says Roberts. “That Medicare bill can knock you out of left field. A hundred dollar monthly payment is a big bill.”
And it’s a bill that many people don’t even anticipate when heading into retirement.
“I often see people freak when they find out that Medicare isn’t free,” says Roberts.
A lot of Americans are scraping by in retirement
The worrisome fact remains that millions of Americans are not saving enough money to afford life after working. Twenty-two percent of the nation have less that $5,000 in savings, and 60 percent of Americans fear they’ll run out of money when the retire.
“People know that they need to have better retirement savings, and it’s not like they don't plan on [building their savings],” Roberts says. “But people lose their jobs, they send their kids to college, or they get ill. Something happens to throw them off track.”
Naturally, if you’re in a less than secure place with your retirement planning, your biggest concern is not beachfront views, but staying afloat, which is why none of the experts I consulted are surprised that Nebraska, which recently ran the self-deprecating tourist campaign “Honestly, it’s not for everyone”, is the best state to retire.
“I think that practical implications of retirement are a bigger part of the equation than weather,” Michael Stahl, executive vice president of HealthMarkets. “Protecting financial wellbeing and [accessible] healthcare is certainly up there when it comes to top things that matter.”
No state income tax is seductive, but you might be paying in other ways
Another interesting indication from Bankrate’s report is the suggestion that the absence of state income tax (a frequently cited perk of Florida) doesn't make a big impact for retirees living from social-security-check-to-check.
The top three states all impose state tax.
“I tell clients to look at the total taxation, not just a state’s income tax,” says Tony Drake, CFP and CEO of Drake & Associates. “States that don’t have a state income tax might have higher taxes in other areas. For example, in Wisconsin, you can register a vehicle for less than $100, and in other states, it can cost hundreds of dollars. Some states might not have tax on food or clothing, while other states have clothing tax upwards of 10 percent.”
These top states have positive attributes beyond affordability
These flyover states winning top rank in Bankrates report may not be as commercially alluring as some of the more famed retirement oases, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have wonderful attributes that anyone can enjoy.
Rob Howe, a Seniorly partner agent who works with seniors in Missouri, finds that when people visit the Show-Me State, particularly St. Louis, “they fall in love with it and stay.”
“There is a friendly, welcoming nature to Missourians that is not disingenuous,” Howe says. “People really care about their neighbors, [and] St. Louis has some of the most highly-ranked healthcare in the nation, which would ensure aging residents are provided the best care.”
Dr. Richard Collins, aka “the Cooking Cardiologist”, a Nebraska native, and his wife, Donna, lived in Colorado (ranked number 33 in Bankrate’s report) for years before deciding to return to Nebraska in their retirement. Their choice to relocate, partly based on a desire to be closer to old friends and family, came as a surprise to their community in Colorado.
"When we first told our friends and family that we were moving back to Nebraska from Colorado, everyone thought we were crazy,” Collins wrote in an email. “‘Leave the foothills for the flatland? What are you, nuts?’”
Now, the Collins’ not only have that number one retirement criteria (closeness to friends and family) met, they have more money in their pockets to enjoy themselves.
A good retirement is one where you can afford to enjoy the time you’ve earned
"What's great about living in Nebraska, is that housing is certainly much more affordable than Colorado,” Collins says. “If you're a family looking to purchase a $100,000 home, you can easily do that here. There are products and other commodities that are price tag-friendlier in Nebraska [than in Colorado] such as gas, food and sometimes even wine. We love going down the street to our local wine bar, where they serve up a glass of wine for only four bucks. If I did that back in Colorado, that would be considered a sip. We like to travel, we enjoy good food and order on Amazon just like everyone else.”
Collins touches on a significant point there: just because a person is retired, doesn’t mean that their desire to eat out or travel disappear. If anything, these things become more attractive because one finally has the time to enjoy them all without the pressures of a job.
Collins’s wife Donna admits she misses the mountains and the Whole Foods back in Denver, but that she is just fine without “the traffic, the pollution and sprawl that Denver has become.”
More importantly, “since the cost of living is a bit better [in Nebraska], we can travel anywhere we want,” says Donna.
Now that sounds like a dream retirement to me.
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