By CATEY HILL
For the more than 36 million Americans who will turn 65 in the coming decade, the best cities and towns to retire in now have a much higher bar to clear: They can't just be great places -- they have to be affordable. Each week, SmartMoney.com tours a different state to find less-expensive alternatives to the most well-known golden year destinations.
The American South, with its verdant landscapes and trademark charm, is a natural magnet for many retirees. But if there's one Southern state that's often overlooked, it's Mississippi.
Retire Here, Not There: State-by-State
Forget your parents' retirement destinations. These less-known gems offer lower prices and peppy economies.
And there are many things about Mississippi that may suit retirees, says Tim Medley, a partner at Medley & Brown Financial Advisors in Jackson, Miss. The state charges no income tax on certified retirement income like 401(k)s and IRAs, the cost of living is low and housing prices are some of the most affordable in the country. The warm weather is another big plus, with mild winters across the state and miles of Gulf Coast beaches on which to enjoy it.
Of course, the Magnolia State does has some deep challenges, say experts: Its education system is ranked well below average and it has the highest poverty and obesity rates in the country. Summers are sweltering and mosquito-filled. On top of that, homeowner insurance rates can be very high near the Gulf, especially after Hurricane Katrina, says John Bergland Jr., founder of Bergland Wealth Management in Ridgeland, Miss. What's more, a lot of the smaller towns in the state are isolated rural outposts with little to recommend them.
But for those willing to get past some of those drawbacks, experts say Mississippi does offer a wealth of culturally rich places to retire, including charming southern towns like Oxford and Hattiesburg. "Mississippi gives you an opportunity for a slower paced lifestyle," says Bergland. Here are four places to consider.
Oxford: For the intellectual
By the numbers
- Population: 13,258
- Median home cost: $191,600
- Cost of living: 1.1% higher than average
- Unemployment: 7.1%
While Oxford may be unknown to some Americans, the town is famous among avid readers. It's the birthplace of literary giant William Faulkner -- and the model for several cities in his books. It's also home to living authors such as Richard Ford, John Grisham and Curtis Wilkie. Ole Miss, (the University of Mississippi ) is the intellectual home base for the state. As part of its lifelong learning program, seniors can take up to four hours of courses each semester for free -- perfect for the retiree who wishes he'd paid more attention to those literature, art history or language classes in college.
Retirement pros say the friendly residents and attractive downtown give Oxford a heavy dose of Southern charm. There's even have a 'newcomers club' to help retirees meet new friends, says Christy Knapp, the executive vice president of economic development. In the center of town is "The Square," which is dotted with a number of locally owned restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. "Oxford offers the urban lifestyle with a southern small town feel," says Knapp. There is also a major hospital within the city limits.
One drawback: International and numerous direct domestic flights are only available in Memphis, 72 miles away. Not ideal for the retiree who's hoping to travel frequently.
Gulfport: For the beach bum
By the numbers
- Population: 68,116
- Median home cost: $124,500
- Cost of living: 7.2% lower than average
- Unemployment: 10.3%
Those who find walking in flip-flops and the sound of waves lapping against the shore might consider Gulfport. Though it was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina, the city is rapidly being rebuilt and has much to offer, says Bergland. As the second largest city in Mississippi, Gulfport has plenty of restaurants, including renowned seafood spots, and lots of shopping and recreation. Nearby casinos offer another diversion. What's more, New Orleans is only an hour and a half away so retirees can easily indulge in the Big Easy's jazz and arts scene. Gulfport also has a thriving senior center that sponsors events and helps organize volunteer activities.
The main attraction, however, is the six miles of white sand beaches and calm Gulf of Mexico waters with all the sunning, fishing, boating and shelling you could want. Retirees can also take a ferry from Gulfport to West Ship Island, a barrier island known for quality shelling and swimming. The best part: Life on the beach comes at a cost of living that's 7.2% lower than the national average. Take that, Florida.
Hattiesburg: For the explorer
By the numbers
- Population: 51,617
- Median home cost: $103,900
- Cost of living: 10.6% lower than average
- Unemployment: 11.5%
Locals call it "The Hub City" and the name is well earned. Hattiesburg is roughly an hour and a half from Jackson, the state capital, and the Gulf Coast, and a little under two hours away from New Orleans. "Retirees love it here because they can easily travel to diverse places," says Valencia Williamson, the vice president of the area development partnership for the Chamber of Commerce.
But Hattiesburg has much going for it. The three local colleges -- University of Southern Mississippi, William Carey and Pearl River Community College -- offer lifelong learning opportunities and sponsor frequent events such as concerts and speakers. This month, for example, the University of Southern Mississippi presented an exhibit of drawings by well-known artist John Heliker, as well as a symphony concert. Hattiesburg also has a small, but thriving, historic downtown area anchored by the Saenger Theater for performances. The nearby Hattiesburg Cultural Center hosts an art gallery and historic museum. Plus, the historical society and the parks and recreation department welcome senior volunteers.
The town, however, may not work for retirees looking to work during their golden years, say experts: Unemployment is 11.5%, compared to the national rate of 8.3%.
Olive Branch: For the music lover
By the numbers
- Population: 33,524
- Median home cost: $168,800
- Cost of living: 5.6% lower than average
- Unemployment: 7.4%
This town, just over the Tennessee state line, is actually a suburb of Memphis, which means easy access to the top-notch cultural and music events that the River City has to offer. In Memphis, which is known for the blues, residents find great live music every day and night of the week. Follow up with a meal at one of the city's more than 1,110 restaurants or a visit to one of the dozens of art galleries.
Of course, living in the burbs has a downside, say advisers: If you go into Olive Branch frequently, traffic and parking can be a hassle. But residents say it's worth it. "Olive Branch has a small town, quiet atmosphere and a low crime rate," says Vickie Dupree, the executive director of the Olive Branch Chamber of Commerce. "But we are a suburb of Memphis so there is all the arts you could want." Retirees can also take advantage of the quality health care and international airport that Memphis offers, as well as the arts events -- like "Primer Martes" a series of monthly art exhibits in February, March and April -- that go on right in Olive Branch.