The March 2010 issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser has an interesting article on how to avoid regrets during retirement. The article, which draws on a survey of nearly 25,000 subscribers, is simultaneously comforting and cautionary. While only about 20% of folks who haven’t yet retired are highly satisfied with their current retirement planning, 70% of actual retirees report they’re highly satisfied. According to the author, the lesson is:

While many of us tend to fret about whether we’re properly prepared for retirement, once we’re actually there we tend to adjust our situation and even thrive.

In fact, the author argues that the survey reveals money isn’t everything. Sure, it plays a large role in contentment during retirement, but other factors matter, too. The article says that to be satisfied in retirement you need to:

  • Save early. Forty percent of retired respondents wish they’d started saving earlier. I know I say this over and over again, but you should save as much as you can as soon as you can. Even starting with $10 a month is better than nothing.
  • Save often. As important as it is to save early, it’s also important to save often. In other words, save as much as you can afford to. You don’t want to live like a pauper now so that you can live like a king in retirement, but don’t sacrifice your future for unnecessary spending today. Do what you can to boost your saving rate as time goes on. (My wife saves over 25% of her income!)
  • Stay healthy. Your health is your most important asset. Without it, you’ve got nothing. And health is so easy to take for granted when you’re younger. I’m just now entering middle age (I’ll be 41 next month), but I’ve been a fool and neglected my health, so I’m beginning to see the mental and financial costs associated with being overweight and out of shape. (Just this morning I took a tumble on my bike that might not have happened if I were 40 or 50 pounds lighter.) Adopt healthy habits, and they’ll repay you in the long term.
  • Build friendships. Social capital — those connections we build when we spend time with neighbors, friends, and family — is almost more important than financial capital. Your relationships play a larger role in your happiness than your wealth does. Be positive, outgoing, and an active member of your community.
  • Have hobbies. Finally, the Money Adviser article recommends actively pursuing hobbies and interests that keep you engaged with life. Share your hobbies with others. And if you don’t have hobbies, get involved with volunteer and community organizations.

As I wrote Your Money: The Missing Manual over the past few months, I tried to target the J.D. of 20 years ago: the spendthrift and layabout. My goal was to write the book I wish I’d had when I was 20. This process made me think about what I ought to know now. What will my 60-year-old self wish he’d known when he was 40? As a result, I’ve started paying attention to retirement articles like this one. I’m doing my best to glean hints and tips from folks who are already in retirement so that I won’t be caught unaware.

Most of what I’ve learned matches this article: To be happy in retirement, I need to save, I need to be active and eat right, I need to have close friends, and I need to do things I enjoy. In other words, to be happy at sixty, I need to do the same things that make me happy at forty.

I’d love to hear from GRS readers who are at or near retirement: What do you wish you’d known when you were younger. And those of you who are still decades away from retiring, what have you gleaned from those around you? What leads to a happy, healthy retirement?

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