Best places to retire: with so many lists, here's how to decide

best places to retire - how do they make the lists?Checking out "best places to retire" lists is like taking a cross country road trip to obscure American towns: Lubbock, Tex. Manhattan, Kansas. State College, Penn. Why would anyone want to live out their golden years in a seemingly random town? And in the first place, why are there so many lists?

"First off, everybody knows that lists and ratings are popular. People just love that stuff," says Mike Alfred, the CEO of BrightScope, a 401k rankings and research company. "There are so many people in this country who won't be able to retire where they spent their working career. A lot of people have to consider if they can ever retire if they continue to live in Manhattan or San Diego."

These best-of retirement lists -- as random an assortment of towns and cities as they may appear -- actually focus on places that provide job opportunity for senior citizens, usually in the government, education, and health care sectors. And then, of course, there's the weather, cost of living, and social activities. (AARP has a complete list of what it looks for in determining top retirement destinations).

Alfred's favorite best-of-retirement lists are the ones that focus on places abroad, where the dollar can go farther, like this one from WalletPop. He says Americans should consider saving money and ensuring quality-of-life by looking in countries off the beaten path, like Nicaragua, for instance.

Saving money is a major factor in determining top retirement town rankings. With 43% of Americans reporting they have less than $10,000 saved for retirement, according to a recent survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, they need the lists to locate the most affordable options. As WalletPop found out in this man-on-the-street video, some people have no idea how much they should even be saving for retirement. "At a high level, a lot of people just won't have a lot of money to retire," says Alfred.

Another reason for the flood of best-places-to-retire lists is that today's generation of Baby Boomer retirees like to buck tradition. It is a generation of big thinkers and big dreamers that wants to keep the action and options going into retirement. A study by the AARP found that 70% of those 45 and older plan to work into their retirement years. This is a generation that takes meaning from work and, with the devastating recession, is being forced to work longer to compensate for hard-hit 401ks. ( is a great job search engine with advice for late-in-life career changes).

Quality of life is also a major consideration for best-of lists. And these lists often flaunt college towns as hot retirement destinations because they offer a lively atmosphere for Boomers with lots to do and a young vibrant population to help them feel connected to life, not checked-out from it. That's why cities like Madison, Wis., Portland, Ore., and Atlanta, Ga. regularly make the grade.

As we know from Florida's rep as the "Retirement State," weather is also a major factor in choosing the retirement locale of one's dreams. Sixty-eight of the 100 top retirement towns for 2010, according to via MarketWatch, are in warm climates, mostly in the Sun Belt states.

If you're having trouble deciding, these major lists have a ranking system that can help you read through the noise and pick your top spots:
  • determines its Best 25 Places to Retire list based on the town descriptions on its website that are visited the most, according to CBS Money Watch. This cyber popularity contest determines the rankings. Editors do, however, visit the towns and review them Zagat-style. So if you want to get a sense of where other retirees are looking, this list is for you. Some of its selection includes Paris, Tenn, Green Valley, Ariz, and Sarasota, Fla., a sunny city regularly featured on retirement lists.
  • U.S. News breaks up its selection by creating a number of separate retirement lists: Healthiest Places; Low-Tax Places; Places for Golf Nuts; Cities for Job-Seeking Retirees; Brainiest Places, and even lists for Democrats and Republicans. Needless to say, by breaking up the rankings this way, it almost gives one too many options. And as CBS Money Watch points out, some of the chosen winners don't compute, such as listing Clearwater, Fla. as a great place for "winter sports nuts." U.S. News doesn't reveal its data, so there's no real sense of whether these cities actually live up to their ranking.
  • Money produces three lists broken up by Six Terrific Towns on the Water, affordable homes, and The Best Places for a Long Life, as broken down by CBS Money Watch. These lists offer a lot of data on property taxes, crime, theaters, libraries and other info to best determine quality of living and affordability.
  • is a site rich with details for all retirement-living needs. Registered members can search the site's lists of best places to retire, as determined by arts & cultural activities, senior services, and tax information, among many other factors. It is one of the most comprehensive sites for choosing a dream retirement destination.
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