Best Places to Retire Lists – Fact, Fiction, or Fantasy?

There are now hundreds of Best Places to Retire lists on the Internet, as well as some Worst Places to Retire lists. They all offer different results. With so many contradictory lists, how are you to make sense of it all?

Best Places to Live lists have a long history. Money magazine published a Best Places to Live list annually for decades. Oddly, the lists come out differently every year. Regional booms and recessions will certainly impact any city over time, but could things really change that much in one year?

The explanation, of course, lies with which selection criteria the list creators consider and how much weight they place on the various factors. You don’t have to tweak the criteria or the weighting very much for the list to change significantly.

Some lists are created by analyzing data, and the data categories which are selected vary widely. For example, one list may be driven by low cost without regard to weather or climate. Another might sort by how many people in a location are over 65 or by longevity. Others are created based on paying the lowest taxes or most sunny days.

Then there are lists that are based on such subjective criteria such as ‘livability’ and ‘quality of life.’ How do you define and measure that?

Other lists use various ‘well-being’ factors, such as the percentage of people who smoke, consume soda, or are overweight. To me, these are of little value. The lifestyle habits of the majority of the population have no direct impact on you. Whether you live a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle is completely up to you, and you can make those choices no matter where you live.

Consider the source.

Some of the more popular lists are published by entities that have no direct experience with retirement. For example, Bankrate and Wallethub are financial services companies that offer credit cards and loans. Smart Assets promotes financial advisors. These firms and many others use these lists as magnets for promoting their products. This strategy works – these lists are often cited in many other articles.

Yet, because they are created using limited criteria and arbitrary weightings, they produce wildly different and often questionable results.

I suspect some lists are just created on the fly by content marketing writers facing a publishing deadline. And whenever they are presented in slideshow format, as many of them are, you know that they are also serving the purpose of generating ad revenue.

International Living releases an annual World’s Best Places to Retire list. Their methodology takes into account many criteria, such as cost of buying and renting, overall cost of living, quality of healthcare, and climate. Still, much of their input comes from their correspondents located in these countries and is subjective. And while International Living does provide a lot of valuable information and interesting reading, my perception is that they view the expat world through rose-colored glasses. Their articles wax eloquent about how beautiful and inexpensive a featured country is, yet they rarely mention any drawbacks to living there.

Also keep in mind that websites such as International Living are in business to sell books. This isn’t a bad thing – I have books for sale too, after all. But it does cloud the objectivity of the information they offer. They succeed by selling a dream.

Would you decide to move to a city, a state, or a foreign country just because it ranked highly on one or more lists? Of course not.

Do these lists have any value or are they completely useless?

I think they offer some value, for several reasons:

  • They may suggest places you haven’t thought of, which may be very good options for you.
  • They stimulate curiosity and fantasy. Is the grass really greener in an intriguing new place? Is there really a Retirement Utopia out there somewhere?
  • They offer a sanity check for places you may be considering. You may gain information about a potential retirement destination that you might not otherwise discover until you have lived there for several months. Information about factors such as tax rates, quality of medical care, senior services available, and many other criteria may serve to disqualify a place you’re considering or verify that you’re making a good choice.
  • They’re fun, even if it’s just for their ‘WTF’ factor. At least half of the cities named leave me scratching my head and thinking, “I wouldn’t want to live there!”

If you know you want to move but you really have no idea where you want to end up, lists can provide some ideas. Even if you have one or two destinations in mind, lists can open up other possibilities that may suit you better.

During the time I spent researching and writing my book The Quest for Retirement Utopia, as well as the entire time I have been writing articles for RetireFabulously.com, I have seen a lot of lists. While I am pretty well-traveled and I’ve been to 47 of the 50 states and 28 countries, these lists have introduced me to a lot of places I knew little about. Some of them are interesting and worth considering.

It’s fine to look at lists, but don’t buy into any of them as the most authoritative, definitive resource. Do plenty of research and follow up with several visits of at least a week. For international destinations, longer visits are a good idea.

There’s so much data available and so many factors to consider that trying to search for your ideal place to retire by gathering and analyzing data will get overwhelming very quickly. You’ll suffer from ‘paralysis by analysis.’

The best example of trying to determine the best places to retire by analyzing data is the Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging report released in 2014 and updated in 2017. This is arguably the most well-researched, fact-based, statistically-driven study ever conducted on the topic of best retirement cities and towns in the US. The Institute’s staff gathered and analyzed a large amount of data across many categories. This isn’t the result of opinion polls. Their methodology and their results are thoroughly presented.

Yet, their rankings of the 100 best large cities and 281 best small cities are curious at best. Most cities at the top of both lists are in the center of the country, while most sunny, warm places that are traditional retiree favorites came out at the bottom of their rankings. Why do their results differ so much from where retirees are actually moving?

The results all depend on what factors are considered and how they are weighted, and that’s how this report ends up with such curious rankings. Some factors they considered have very little to do with quality of retirement life, such as the number of banks, the percentage of adults who drink soda, and the level of college enrollment. All of these inconsequential factors crowd out some of the more important ones. In this study, weather counts for just 4.5 percent of the total weight and house prices and rentals count for just 2.7 percent, but these two factors are high on most people’s list of criteria.

Finding the best retirement destination is not a purely data-driven exercise.

There is no one-size-fits-all ideal retirement destination, and attempting to identify one strictly by data would yield the same answer for everyone.

In many ways, choosing the best place for you to retire is like choosing your sweetheart. In both cases, you can make lists of the qualities that your potential mate or your potential place to live must have and other qualities that are nice to have. Then you meet that special someone or visit that special place, and you fall in love. It’s a highly subjective and emotional choice that sometimes flies in the face of logical reasoning and statistical analysis.

At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and have never been before. - Warsan Shire

All humans make decisions based on emotion. We use facts and logic too, but these take a back seat to emotion. Facts and logic can fine-tune our decisions or, more often, verify information and convince ourselves that we are making the right choice. A thorough look at facts may reveal unfavorable information that becomes a deal-breaker.

Making decisions based on your emotions is not a bad thing. In many cases, you should trust your gut instincts. You’ll know when a place feels right and makes your heart sing.

But you should back up your emotional decision by doing as much research with your eyes wide open as you can. Don’t allow yourself to be swept away by fanciful dreaming, alluring articles with enhanced photos, or slick marketing materials. Every place has some downsides. Find out what they are and decide whether or not you can live with them before you start packing and put your house on the market.

But where you retire will always be, first and foremost, an emotion-based decision. Very few people will decide to move someplace to retire simply because that place landed at the top of some Best Places to Retire list.

Neither are you going to commit to a retirement destination because it statistically works out to be the best place. So, save yourself hours of painstaking data gathering and plugging hundreds of data points into an Excel spreadsheet. Using data in a spreadsheet is a good idea for making a side-by-side comparison of a few finalists. It’s good for creating a budget for living in a particular area.

The bottom line?

You’ll be happiest when you retire to a place you love and that offers the amenities you want to enjoy during your retirement.

Where have you retired, or where are you considering retiring? Please feel welcome to comment below.


How to find the best place to retire is covered in greater depth in my book The Quest for Retirement Utopia. This book will suggest new possibilities for where and how you might retire. It will help you clarify what factors are most important to you. It will help you evaluate each place realistically and dissuade you from making a poor choice. And it will provide you with the resources you need to make the most informed choice.
The Quest for Retirement Utopia will help you find the retirement spot that’s right for you!

Click here to learn more | BUY IT NOW!

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© 2021 Dave Hughes.  All rights reserved.

Photo credits:
North America map with pins:
Marc Levin. Some rights reserved.
World map with flag pins: Hans Braxmeier
Computer with spreadsheet: Pexels

2 Responses

  1. Excellent points Dave, especially about it ultimately being an “emotional decision”.

    Another consideration is things will change over time. For instance, that beachfront property might be your dream retirement home. As you age, better access to to amenities (such as healthcare) or closer proximity to family will likely change things. In this respect, we should also remain flexible.

    For myself, I’m thinking more of a “slow travel” philosophy. Spending the winter months in a different place each year. My list includes Greece, Portugal, Malta, and many others. At least until I’m too old and decrepit or they stick me in a home.

    • Dave Hughes says:

      Thanks, Shannon!

      I’m with you on the extended travel, and Portugal, Malta, and Greece are all high on my list. I have visited each of them briefly, but I want experience day-to-day life there outside the tourist zones and see more of each of these places.

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