IF I HAD TO offer just one piece of retirement-planning advice, it would be: Don't live in fear. Yes, every day seems to bring new headlines about how Americans are woefully unprepared to stop working. And sure, there probably are things you should be doing to invest in your own future that you haven't gotten around to just yet. But those are reasons for making a financial plan and sticking to it with confidence, not for spending your senior years in high anxiety. To paraphrase Animal House's Dean Wormer, overworked, old and stressed out is no way to go through life.
Nowhere is it more important to stay positive than in choosing a place to live in retirement. When we think about moving, all too often we focus on avoiding things we don't like particularly, bad weather and taxes rather than on the opportunities we want to pursue in the next phase of our lives. Nobody cares too much for shoveling snow or paying the state, but simply picking up and dropping down stakes at the next open golf course or tax-sheltered cactus is a recipe for long-term boredom and isolation.
That's why I tell anyone considering relocation in retirement to look at college towns. Retirement is your chance to finally make it all the way through a Thomas Pynchon book or study Italian or learn why bridges don't fall down, and schools provide opportunities to stay intellectually active. And this time around, you can enter a classroom on your own terms, rather than taking required classes and sweating through final exams. Many schools will allow seniors to audit courses or, if you do want academic credit, to enroll in classes at a discount. And nearly 500 colleges across the country, from Harvard to Santa Rosa Junior College, now have educational programs designed specifically for seniors.
Beyond academics, college towns are typically vibrant communities. Art galleries, theater troupes, music groups and sports teams all stage events on and around campuses. Community-service activities also are easy to join. And you'll find intergenerational mingling in lots of venues, whether they're coffeehouses or movie houses. More prosaically, college towns usually offer cheap food, relatively inexpensive housing and good transportation. And cities that are home to medical schools and teaching hospitals provide excellent health care, too.
For all these reasons, the number of seniors moving to college towns has been increasing since the mid-1990s and will only accelerate further with the ongoing retirement of baby boomers, for whom college was the kind of shared peak experience that their predecessors found in war. Developers have noticed this trend, and so have colleges which will face a shortfall of students and revenue once millennials pass through campuses late next decade. Together, they have opened about two dozen retirement communities on or close to U.S. campuses, with many more on the way. Some, called continuing-care communities, offer extensive health care and other services. Lasell College in Newton, Mass., for example, pioneered Lasell Village, a retirement community that opened in 2000 and offers on-site nursing consultations, blood pressure clinics and pharmacy deliveries and requires residents to pursue 450 hours of study a year. Other communities are simply housing developments near college campuses, such as Veridian Village, which Hampshire College is planning to open in Amherst, Mass., in 2010.
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Whether you're interested in a college-linked retirement community or living on your own, it's important to establish the criteria that will matter most to you in a new hometown. For a master list of destinations, check out College Town Life. And you can use the following list for starters. I looked for college towns with outstanding educational, cultural and recreational opportunities; vibrant downtown communities; affordable housing; good access to health care; job growth; low crime rates; and low taxes. No city is at the top in all those categories; there will always be trade-offs involved in selecting your best place to retire. Warning: Comparisons are subjective, and my priorities may not be yours which is why I'm giving you eight cities and listing them alphabetically, rather than a top-five or top-10 ranking.
At the junction of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, Asheville is near abundant fishing, hiking and rafting. The downtown area, dotted with art deco buildings, is a boho mecca, and its vibrant music scene includes bluegrass and opera. Asheville is also home to the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, which offers a wide range of inexpensive classes.
Situated at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and surrounded by massive open space, Boulder offers great biking and rock climbing. It also boasts a highly educated population and claims the most used-book stores per capita in the U.S. The strong countercultural vibe centered at the University of Colorado will bring out your inner hippie.
First settled in 1670 and steeped in history with antebellum houses, cobblestone streets and gas lamps, Charleston also offers top-shelf beaches and golf courses. Chefs are local superstars, and fine dining is a community pastime.The College of Charleston's Center for Creative Retirement offers lectures and tours for $25 per semester; South Carolina law lets anyone over 60 take state college classes free.
At the base of the Blue Ridge mountains in Central Virginia, with hiking in Shenandoah National Park, hot-air ballooning and wine tours nearby, Charlottesville consistently ranks high on "best place" lists across a wide variety of categories bicycle friendliness, citizen health, municipal use of digital technology and pollution prevention to name just a few. Students over 60 who have lived in-state for at least one year can audit courses at the University of Virginia free.
The Pacific Ocean is an hour to the west, the Cascade Mountains are an hour to the east, and the city has more trees than people. It's famous for its role as an incubator for creative educational, planning and political ideas. Seniors can audit classes at the University of Oregon and audit and use campus facilities at Portland State University free.
On the edge of the Ozark Mountains, with hills, lakes, hiking trails and renowned fall foliage, the Fayetteville mix of local hunters and campus longhairs is distinctive but friendly. Students over the age of 60 can study free at the University of Arkansas.
Iowa City, Iowa
A literary capital, Iowa City is home to the University of Iowa's Writers' Workshop, the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk and five drama theaters. There are plentiful free classes and lectures at the Senior Center, which is adjacent to the lively downtown pedestrian mall. The median home price is just $157,000.
A wonderfully preserved port city filled with Victorian houses and an Arts District packed with museums, galleries and studios, Portland also claims the most restaurants and bars per capita in the country. Retirees can take classes for $25 at University of Southern Maine through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Don't let the 70 inches of annual snowfall trouble you remember, there's more to retirement than avoiding bad weather.