A happy retirement: 6 steps that work

Last reviewed: February 2010
Illustration of man being lifted by balloons from a bird's nest
Illustration by Dan Page

Optimism about the nation's economic prospects is back. That's the most encouraging news from our latest Consumer Reports Retirement Survey of more than 24,000 of our online subscribers.

Among the retired, semiretired, and those still in the workforce, 60 percent of 54- to 76-year-olds polled by the Consumer Reports National Research Center this fall said that they were feeling upbeat about an economic recovery. That compares with just 34 percent who felt that way a year earlier.

But if our readers feel optimistic about the national economy, they still have grave concerns about their own financial futures. Our survey found that 70 percent of retired subscribers said they were highly satisfied in retirement, but some had fears about adequate resources and health-care coverage, some were getting the wrong information about important topics, and some were disenchanted with retirement.

Among the survey's less sanguine findings:

  • Overall, median net worth declined 18 percent. Our subscribers saw an average 11 percent drop in their retirement assets.
  • Median net worth dropped 30 percent for those still working. In fact, 23 percent weren't sure they'd be able to retire. More than half of those said they wouldn't have enough money to live without working. Only 19 percent of workers were highly satisfied with their retirement planning.
  • Retirement isn't always voluntary. Twenty-four percent of full-time retirees told us they had stopped working because they were made to, their health declined, or they no longer had the energy to work. Those retirees were less satisfied than others. Among the semiretired, 33 percent said they had to scale back from full-time work for the same reasons.
  • Some people make plans based on incorrect information. Among subscribers who expected to retire early, 17 percent didn't realize they'd collect less than their full Social Security benefit. Nineteen percent thought they could bridge the gap between employer-sponsored health coverage and Medicare with a privately purchased health-insurance plan, an option Consumer Reports has long criticized as inadequate, restrictive, and impossible for many to obtain or afford.

The $1 million sweet spot

Retired subscribers' satisfaction with their retirement reached a plateau when their net worth was between $500,000 and $1 million. Having more didn't make much of a difference. But notably, even among those who reported having less than $250,000 in net worth, more than half were highly satisfied with their retirement. In addition, 38 percent of retirees said they depended on a defined-benefit pension for a significant portion of their income.

February 2010 satisfaction with retirement by net worth chart
Survey findings reflect the experiences of Consumer Reports online subscribers and might not represent the U.S. population as a whole.