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Five Numbers to Care About in Retirement

| May 15, 2023

Retirement planning is often all about the numbers. Will I have enough money (numbers) to sustain my expected lifespan (more numbers). What returns (numbers) to I need from my investments (more numbers). With all that numerical talk, there are five other numbers that often get ignored in planning for a healthy, successful retirement – the five digits of your zip code. Recent work by Joseph Coughlin of the MIT AgeLab highlights the importance of this, and we’re going to borrow from his work today. You may recall that we’ve cited Dr. Coughlin in the past, as we looked at “Seven Retirement Surprises” in July 2021. He and his team are leaders in thinking about longevity planning and the more qualitative aspects of a vibrant and healthy retirement.

It's no secret that zip codes impact quality of life, not just in retirement. Sadly, they also can strongly influence one’s outcome in life all the way back to infancy. In fact, a 2016 study by Garth Graham was titled “Why Your ZIP Code Matters More Than Your Genetic Code: Promoting Healthy Outcomes from Mother to Child.” We’re looking today, however, at the other end of life’s spectrum, the later years – ones where many people do have agency over where they call home. As Dr. Coughlin points out, a recent study conducted by researchers at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine provides new insights into how place affects life expectancy. Factors such as access to quality food; the density of alcohol and tobacco outlets; walkability; parks and green space; housing characteristics; and air pollution all have some impact on life expectancy. This study, and many others, indicate that within the same metropolitan area, or even the same city or town, life expectancy and quality of life can differ widely. “Sometimes only a few blocks can mean many more years of life,” notes Dr. Coughlin.

Have you thought about where you will live? Most people default to the “age in place” approach, thinking they’ll stay put in the place they have called home for years, if not generations. For some, that may be perfectly appropriate. But, as Dr. Coughlin points out, “As we age, our needs, desires, health conditions, social connections, and more will change. This can often create a disconnect between what’s working now and what will work later.”

On the other end, some soon-to-be retirees, have illustrious dreams of beaches, golf courses, and pickleball…lots of pickleball! An endless vacation, of sorts. However, with retirement lasting as long as it does for many – up to roughly a third of your adult life, “Choosing where to live based on recreational interests or vacation memories alone may not support living well in older age for decades” according to those at the MIT AgeLab.

So, we’ve cautioned against staying put and against chasing sunshine and bottomless margaritas. What then are we recommending? If you’re any student of our work at MPCA, you’ll know that the timeless answer of “it depends” is going to creep into the picture. Of course, we’ll follow that by looking at what it depends upon, and here we’ll turn back to Dr. Coughlin and his colleagues. They give us five questions to ask to help you think about what zip code might work best for you:

  1. Do you have friends or family nearby? – Consider locations that offer places and spaces that provide chances to meet new people, continue investing in your friendships, and introduce you to other people that simply make you smile. Remember, your friends may have very different ideas of where they want to retire – so you may find yourself needing to make new friends and social connections.
  2. Where might you access the healthcare you need? – The presence of an emergency room or doctor’s office nearby doesn’t ensure that you’ll be able to get the care you need. Assess your unique health conditions, those of your family, and the specialists that are nearby. One example might be, are you reliant on the VA? If so, being near a VA facility may be essential to you.
  3. Are there places to play, to experience, and to join others in something new? – No, you might not go to the museum, theater, stadium, college class, or any other fun distraction every day, but it’s nice to have the option to do so.
  4. How many places are there to work or to volunteer? – Find out if there are options to volunteer or work full-time, part-time, or even just some of the time. My own parents have shown me the importance of their volunteer work in retirement.
  5. How will you get to the places you need and want? – Even if you walk, drive, or bike today, there’s no guarantee you’ll be willing or able to do that in the future. Are there transportation alternatives to make the required trips, such as for grocery shopping and doctor’s appointments, as well as just-for-fun trips such as going out to get an ice cream cone on a hot summer night?

As you might expect, there are plenty of other questions you can ask, such as “Where’s the nearest Costco?” You can also ask these continually, as your needs and desires change. We have seen plenty of cases where clients have moved to start retirement, only to find themselves moving again just a few short years later. It’s typical and often very appropriate. The next time we meet to talk about your retirement, bring these more qualitative questions with you. After all, your money doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the more we can do to integrate the financial (quantitative) with the lifestyle (qualitative), the better your plan (and its results) are going to be.

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