Rural retirement can be early and on the cheap

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Missouri (Reuters) - When my parents moved to the outskirts of this rural town more than 20 years ago, I thought they were insane.

A retired couple take in the ocean during a visit to the beach in La Jolla, California January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

They sold their house in suburban St. Louis and built a new one on a plot of rocky clay soil off County Road 2960. It’s quiet, but isolated - with eight people per square mile in surrounding Shannon County. Mountain View, the closest town, has a population of about 2,700, but no mountain view. We joke that its Wal-Mart store must be one of the world’s smallest.

But the passage of time and my fast approach to 50 has given me a new perspective on my parent’s retirement insanity. They downshifted into a slow-paced lifestyle while slashing their overhead costs by more than half.

My late dad retired from his job at Saint Paul Fire and Marine Insurance Co, a unit of Travelers Companies Inc, in his late 50s. To him, Mountain View was a sportsmen’s paradise because of its close proximity to fishing streams such as the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers. There was bird hunting and plenty of deer and turkey to be taken, too.

Oh, and the cost of living was incredibly low.

If you live in the Northeast in a decent house, your real estate taxes are likely to be at least several thousand dollars a year. I live in a modest house on Boston’s North Shore and pay nearly $7,000 annually.

During a recent visit my mom informed me that her real estate tax bill had gone up. She now pays about $600 a year for her nice two-bedroom home on 40 acres.

About a mile from her house, a neighbor is asking $190,000 for a nine-acre hobby farm that comes with a three-bedroom house, separate garage and barn, a chicken coop and a pond stocked with fish.

Rural areas typically attract retirees with their temperate climates, attractive natural resources (mountains and lakes) and man-made amenities such as championship golf courses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. But the migration of retirees slowed considerably after the 2008 financial crisis: from 2007 to 2009 the annual growth rate of retirement-destination counties fell to 1.7 percent after the recession began, down from 3.1 percent between 2000 and 2007, according to the Urban Land Institute.

Meanwhile, U.S. rural communities are losing population for the first time ever - a 0.1 percent decline to 46.2 million between April 2010 and July 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau reported recently.

That’s mainly because of low birth rates and baby boomers choosing to remain in urban areas to keep connected to the job market. In fact, one in three workers expect to retire at age 70 or never retire, according to a survey by the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

“As they review their retirement plans, many discover that their current life expectancy is far longer than they thought or planned for,” according to an Urban Land Institute study. “Happy as they may be about this outcome, it raises the fear that their retirement funds, often depleted by the recession, may be inadequate and that they need to keep working.”

It’s depressing. And maybe equally depressing is moving to a low-cost rural town with little pizzazz. But maybe you like the idea of working fewer years.

My mom has made a nice life for herself in Mountain View. She’s been on the library board and remains active in the local garden club and church. And she has enough money to do what she wants, like her recent trip to Alaska.

In her 70s, she isn’t bagging groceries for minimum wage to make ends meet. Her lifestyle is modest, but comfortable. There’s no mortgage to worry about and her chief hobbies - reading books from the library and tending to her many perennial beds - are easy on the pocketbook.

Part of me wishes my mom lived closer to my siblings in St. Louis and had better access to top-flight medical care and a major airport. Springfield-Branson National Airport is about 115 miles away. However, I have grown to appreciate the trade off my parents made 23 years ago.

Rural living isn’t for everyone, though. But if you grew up in the city and dreamed of fly fishing and watching bird dogs hunt for quail, like my dad did, then places like Mountain View make perfect sense.

Reporting By Tim McLaughlin; Editing by Linda Stern, Lauren Young and Leslie Gevirtz