Investor Alert

Where Should I Retire?

March 1, 2021, 6:38 p.m. EST

I want to scale back in an affordable ‘up-and-coming’ town out West where I could retire — where should I go?

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By Silvia Ascarelli

Dear MarketWatch,

I’ve worked in the luxury resort business all my life…mostly in Hawaii (big golf/beach resorts) and Colorado (high mountain ski resorts).  So I’ve always lived in great places, but also very expensive places. I’ve been able to do well financially and live well, but it is also dependent on my job and being in the hotel business, working 50 to 60 hours a week.

I am 53 years old and have about $1.4 million in 401(k) and Roth accounts plus about $900,000 in other assets. I live and play outdoors a lot, and want to live in the West. My wife is an avid rock climber, so she needs to be around that sport.

I would like to relocate in the next two to five years to a place where housing costs are reasonable, and we can have land and space to roam. I want to be in recreation country, but not necessarily work in the resort business. I could take a “regular job” to stay active and most importantly keep up with health insurance. I would plan to work for at least another 10 years, maybe longer.

My thought is to put a lot of money down on a house, so the mortgage isn’t what I have to work for, and play in the mountains. I hunt/fish/hike and generally like rural areas and small towns as long as I can support myself. I used to think getting to a college town was the way to go, as a campus has a lot of jobs, and the college supports a lot of medical and local businesses as well as having good activities. But now I’m wondering if COVID-19 will change that concept forever.

I was thinking Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas, as they are cheaper than Colorado and Utah. But I want to find an “up and coming” place, and not a “dead and dying” old town. So what are your thoughts? 


Dear John,

Colorado and Utah may seem expensive but don’t kid yourself about Idaho. Housing prices there have been climbing, in part because of COVID-19 — see Sandpoint, for example, suggested here . And in Montana, Bozeman? Whoa! 

Finding affordable housing and a job with benefits in recreation country can be tough, and COVID has made housing in many previously affordable areas more expensive. So please be realistic about the job market, or the hours you might be working for far less pay than your current job, or whether you might be standing on your feet for the entire shift, or whether the work will be only seasonal and you’re still on the hook for health insurance. 

Perhaps you can parlay your decades in the hospitality industry into a job tied to a university and its hospitality management program — but will that be a position with health insurance and a 401(k) plan? If that’s what you want to do, start networking.

Or have you considered talking to your current employer about options with fewer hours? 

Beyond work, you say nothing about the cost of the lifestyle you lead now or want to lead in retirement. So double check whether your sizable nest egg can easily fund it or you need to keep stashing away cash. There are no guarantees in financial planning, so please build in a margin of safety.

Read: This is how you can withdraw from your 401(k) at 55 — without paying a penalty

But if you could go anywhere? I asked MarketWatch’s “where should I retire” tool for fast-growing areas in the Mountain region with a below-average cost of living and a college town (MarketWatch only includes universities with big research programs, so not even all flagship state universities come up). I added the outdoor options and sought smaller metropolitan areas (under 100,000 people) if possible.

You have plenty of options, though as always, there are trade-offs. The results show government-defined metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, not a particular city. Keep that in mind when you note median home prices. You can search online for median home prices in a particular town; you’ll find quite a range in the Salt Lake City area, for example. 

So don’t rule out Colorado and Utah; Colorado Springs ( suggested here ), Logan, Utah ( suggested here ), Ogden, Utah ( suggested here ), and St. George, Utah ( suggested here ), may be more affordable than you think. You can treat them as jumping-off points for something more rural.

Here are three more suggestions to get you started in the states you asked about. 

Missoula, Montana

This city in western Montana, nestled in the northern Rockies, has close to 77,000 people, making it the second-largest city in the state after Billings. It’s also home to the University of Montana. I’m thinking its size gives you a wider range of job opportunities — or is it too big, even if you choose to live outside city limits?

You can kayak through downtown on the Clark Fork River (and the man-made kayaking wave) and explore nearby ghost towns in addition to the rock climbing, hiking, fishing and horseback riding you expect to find out west. Oh, and the Bitterroot National Forest , Lolo National Forest , Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge and the National Bison Range are all nearby.

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