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Americans Aren't Loving Retirement Like They Used to -- Here's Why

By Sarah Szczypinski – Updated Jun 6, 2017 at 3:38PM

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Retirement satisfaction isn't what it used to be, and the reasons may surprise you.

Retirement is a time to shake off years of employment and enjoy life, right? That might be the goal, but many Americans aren't feeling it. 

Dwindling satisfaction

A 2016 Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) study analyzed retirement satisfaction trends between 1998 and 2012. Respondents who said they were "very satisfied" with their retirements dropped by 11.9 percentage points, those "not at all" satisfied increased by 2.6 percentage points, and the middle-of-the-road "moderately satisfied" response saw a gain of 9.2 percentage points.

Retirement Satisfaction 1998 2002 2006 2010 2012
Very Satisfied 60.5% 60.8% 53.1% 50.6% 48.6%
Moderately Satisfied 31.7% 33% 37.3% 39.4% 40.9%
Not at All Satisfied 7.9% 6.2% 9.6% 10.1% 10.5%

Data source: Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Happiness in retirement can seem like an elusive goal. Wealth is important, but it won't sustain long-term satisfaction. Health is also important, though it usually diminishes with age. While EBRI's study doesn't tell the whole story, it does provide insight into how you can leave the workforce on a strong note.

mature woman looking out the window

Image source: Getty Images.

Save aggressively

Wealth doesn't hold a monopoly on happiness, but it doesn't hurt, either. This is reflected in the survey's results, which found that retirees in the highest asset quartile tend to be the most satisfied in retirement.

Group 1998 Very Satisfied 2012 Very Satisfied 1998 Moderately Satisfied 2012 Moderately Satisfied
Highest Asset Quartile 72.5% 62.5% 23.9% 34.1%
Overall Sampling 60.5% 48.6% 31.7% 40.9%

Data source: Employee Benefit Research Institute estimates from Health and Retirement Study (HRS).

Both groups saw their satisfaction levels decline over time, as health and income eroded. Yet, more people in the highest asset quartile were "very satisfied" with their retirement compared to the group overall. Their net worths averaged $374,398 in 1998, compared to $202,918 for all participants. 

The difference here isn't huge, and your retirement satisfaction can be great regardless of income. That said, well-maintained retirement savings can help you manage the rising costs of living, cover health-related expenses, and provide more lifestyle choices.

mature couple using laptop

Image source: Getty Images.

Recent studies suggest that you and your spouse will need at least $360,000 to cover medical costs and long-term care expenses during retirement. If you're not sure how much you'll need beyond that, a good rule of thumb is to multiply your annual expenses by 25. Assuming you only withdraw 4% of your retirement income per year, this number is what you'll need to maintain your current standard of living. 

Find a supportive employer

Study respondents who retired with pension benefits were more likely to be "very satisfied" after 15 years in retirement compared to those without them, to the tune of 57.5% and 46.5%, respectively. Over the last decade, however, pension benefits have become less common in the public sector and even rarer in the private sector. But even without a pension, a comprehensive benefits package (health insurance, 401(k) matching, bonuses, and stock options) can catapult your savings to the right level. 

401k savings jar

Image source: Getty Images.

Suppose you contribute $18,000 to your 401(k) per year for 10 years. Assuming a 7% return, your savings will add up to $284,105. Now let's assume that your employer matches your annual contributions up to 9%. Without saving another dime, your 401(k) would increase to $309,674. Review your employment perks carefully and take advantage of every free money opportunity. Your 85-year-old self could feel happier as a result.

Maintain your healthcare coverage

Just under 80% of healthy respondents said they were "very satisfied" in retirement, compared to 25.6% who were in poor health. Wellness can transcend some of the struggles of income and aging, and you owe it to yourself to pursue physical and financial solutions. 

money with stethoscope

Image source: Getty Images.

One option is to stay in the workforce a bit longer to maintain your healthcare coverage and avoid extra costs. If you're 55 and don't yet qualify for Medicare, for instance, you'll pay an average of $5,874 in premiums a year for basic coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Early retirement might be tempting, but you can't ignore the math: Investing those funds at a 7% return for the next 10 years would yield $92,713, a hefty sum for any retiree. 

Don't bank on social security 

It's no surprise that wealthier respondents reported a higher level of retirement satisfaction, but you don't need millions to achieve happiness. One way to feel more secure is to plan your retirement based on a single source of income and use another, like Social Security, as a buffer.  

money and social security card

Image source: Getty Images.

Suppose you save $2 million for retirement. Assuming the 4% rule, you can comfortably withdraw $80,000 per year for 30 years of retirement, allowing you to delay withdrawing Social Security benefits, and even to reinvest them once you do. Sure, this strategy requires more in up-front savings, but your retirement lifestyle is less likely to suffer as the future of entitlements unfolds.  

Think beyond the green 

Despite the importance of retirement income, the study highlighted similar trends of satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) across all economic groups. The wealthiest respondents reported a decrease of 8.9 percentage points in top satisfaction from 1998 to 2012, while those in the lowest income bracket reported a 12.2-percentage-point drop.   

It's important to consider your happiness beyond a full bank account. Merrill Lynch's 2016 Leisure in Retirement: Beyond the Bucket List study found that retirees value fun and quality time with friends and family above all, and they spent more on travel and leisure than any other age group in 2015. The study also found that: 

  • 88% viewed retirement as a new beginning instead of an ending.
  • 66% prefer to try new things rather than sticking to old hobbies or pastimes.
  • 95% prefer to purchase experiences rather than things. 
grandfather holding grandson on shoulders

Image source: Getty Images.

The excitement of a new life phase can be overwhelming, and drafting a plan that aligns your goals and retirement income is key. Consider your post-workforce dreams long before ditching the nine-to-five. This strategy will help you strike a balance between emotional well-being and savings.

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