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10 Secrets of a Happy Retirement

Save before you retire, spend after — but not too much. And don't neglect your health

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Just about everyone who is still slaving away at the office shares the very same goal as those of us who have long since left the workplace: a happy retirement.

Ah, but how to get there?

A happy retirement means many things to many different people. Even then, there are 10 habits that can certainly help to make retirement more gratifying. AARP reached out to three experts who all have written important books on retirement. Here are their 10 top tips for a truly happy retirement.

1. Be a saver, not a spender.

It’s much easier to spend money than to save it, but the gratification you’ll enjoy in retirement by having enough of it is a strong argument to save plenty through your working years. The key is starting to save as early as possible, with a goal of having at least $500,000 saved at the time of retirement, says Wes Moss, chief investment strategist at Capital Investment Advisors in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of What the Happiest Retirees Know: 10 Habits for a Healthy, Secure and Joyful Life. Of course, not everyone can save that much, but it’s a good goal, he says. It’s also a good idea to have your mortgage paid off or almost paid off, and Moss says that those who are within five years of repayment are four times more likely to be happy. It’s also best if the retirement money comes from a mix of sources, such as Social Security, pension, rental income, investment income and perhaps part-time work.

2. Have a bunch of interests. 

Sitting on the couch watching reruns of Fantasy Island will not likely result in a fantasy retirement. The happiest retirees know very well how to travel, play and explore, and they wholeheartedly engage in three or more hobbies on a regular basis, says Moss. “Curiosity may have killed the cat, but a lack of curiosity kills the happy retiree,” he says. Keep in mind, it doesn’t really matter what your interests are. It might be hiking or biking. It might be photography or volunteering. It might even be painting theatrical sets for the community playhouse. The one thing that matters is that you feel passionate about these interests, he says.

3. Establish satisfying daily routines.

Few things are more important to a happy retirement than creating daily routines — and ultimately sticking with them, says Nancy Schlossberg, professor emerita from the department of counseling and personnel services at the College of Education at the University of Maryland, and author of several books on retirement, including Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life. Figuring out the right routines that bring you pleasure can take time. Most retirees may have to experiment quite a bit and accept the fact that it can take a while to figure out which routines work and which don’t, she says. “Retirement is a major transition that changes your roles, your routines, your relationships and your assumptions about yourself and the world,” she says. “You may struggle to find your path and to develop a new set of routines. You have to be patient.”

4. Keep close to your kids — but not too close.

The happiness level of most retirees skyrockets when they live near at least one — and preferably two — adult children, says Moss. But the kids should not be dependent on you. The adult children of the happiest retirees "are out in the world living their own lives rather than suckling off the financial teats of their parents,” Moss says in his book. In fact, he says, in many cases, the more parents spend on supporting their adult children the less happy they often are in retirement.

5. Create a new identity that has nothing to do with work. 

For most of our lives, our work is our identity, and once we retire, our identity is gone. But that work identity becomes a distorted self-image once you retire. It’s critical to find a new, overarching purpose, says Ernie Zelinski, a life coach and author of How to Retire Happy, Wild and Free: Retirement Wisdom That You Won't Get From Your Financial Advisor. For Zelinski, 72, retirement has become all about writing books that he’s always wanted to write. He had a new T-shirt made for himself shortly after he retired that says, “Connoisseur of leisure.” Unlike during his working years, he says, his identity “is now based on my creativity and peace of mind.”


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6. Connect with friends. 

The importance of having lots of friends in retirement cannot be overstated. People with lots of good friends tend to not only be happier but live longer, says Zelinski. But don’t limit friendships to workplace friends. “Most workplace friends are not real friends,” he says — and most disappear after you leave he workplace. It’s important that friendships branch out to your personal interests beyond work — and particularly important that some of these friendships be with younger people, too. Men tend to have a tougher time forming these friendships than do women, but it’s still critical to try. “In the end, a happy retirement requires friends of different ages from different walks of life,” he says.

7. Try new things.

No less important than establishing routines in retirement is also having the wherewithal to regularly try new things. Consistently staying within your comfort zone can lead to a lack of initiative and lethargy in retirement, says Schlossberg. When Schlossberg retired, she moved the very same year, which required her to not only try new things but also to reach out to meet new people. While she’s not recommending moving the same year you retire, she is encouraging sticking your toes in unfamiliar waters during retirement and seeing how new things feel.

8. Invest for income, not growth. 

One thing that retirement should absolutely not be is a time of uncertain income. That is certain to add anxiety and discomfort to your retirement, says Moss. This not only requires preplanning but also someone (whether it’s yourself or a financial advisor) regularly keeping tabs on your investments and updating your investment plan, as needed. Think of your retirement as a time to live off of well-earned dividends and not a time to focus on expanding your portfolio, he says.

9. Take your health seriously.

Typically, the happiest retirees also are among the healthiest retirees. “They are often on the move,” says Moss. While you can’t do a lot about genetics, you can still take simple and regular actions to care for your body, he says. It’s not about dieting but it is about paying attention to what you eat. It’s not about suddenly becoming a gym rat, but it is about finding the time for modest exercise such as walking, biking or swimming every day.

10. Don’t penny-pinch. 

While retirement should not be a time of extravagance, it most definitely should not be a time of serious penny-pinching. Instead, says Moss, retirement is the time to “master the middle.” While you might not want to dine regularly at pricey restaurants in retirement, you also don’t want to deny yourself simple pleasures like that Starbucks latte. It’s also important to spend some of your retirement savings on pleasure-inducing things like travel and visits to see family members. No, you probably don’t need to fly on bargain-basement airlines and stay at dirt-cheap hotels, but neither is it wise to spend your retirement dollars on first-class flights or at five-star hotels.

Bruce Horovitz is a contributing writer who covers personal finance and caregiving. He previously wrote for The Los Angeles Times and USA TODAY. Horovitz regularly writes for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Investor's Business Daily, AARP Magazine, AARP Bulletin, Kaiser Health News, and PBS Next Avenue.