America's Best Affordable Places to Retire

Soon-to-be retirees are resetting their expectations for their golden years.

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Slide Show: America's Best Places to Retire

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Kansas City, Missouri

It's early afternoon, and Ed Smith's saxophone playing has an older Kansas City crowd up and moving. Smith's trio has drawn about 100 bystanders, and a couple of dozen are cutting a rug. It's fitting that live music is a regular feature at the Don Bosco Senior Center in Kansas City, the city that gave jazz legends Count Basie and Charlie Parker their starts and that is home to the American Jazz Museum.

To retirees like Elaine Catalano, 80, a lively music scene is part of what makes Kansas City a fun and affordable place to live. "It's easy to have a good time in this city," she says while taking a break from the music. "Like this dance—there are all kinds of free dances at senior and community centers. You just have to know where they're going on."

Smack in the country's middle, Kansas City offers a reasonable cost of living that's typical of the Midwest, with a median home price of about $118,000, nearly 20 percent below the national average. But K.C. is not a sleepy town. It offers a rich mix of sounds and flavors, from jazz clubs and symphonies to succulent barbecue and fresh sushi. It's also a place that can keep older folks busy without busting their banks: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art asks only a donation for entry, free concerts and theater are frequently held in area parks, and the Crossroads Arts District throws open the doors of its galleries once a month for free tours. Kansas City has made big-city investments in culture, including a $4 billion downtown revitalization project. Nearing completion is the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, a striking and privately funded complex that will be home to the Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera, and the Kansas City Ballet.

Retirees often say they like Kansas City because, for all its big-city benefits, the area allows easy and affordable living. Sally Chapple, 78, says that she planned to move elsewhere after her husband died 28 years ago. After all, they'd lived in Kansas City only a couple of years. She tried exotic locations in Italy, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, but she always returned. "It just felt like home to me," she says. It didn't hurt that the city offers a better bang for the buck—when health issues arose, Chapple found it easy to slip into Bishop Spencer Place, an upscale retirement community that's a short walk from Country Club Plaza, a well-known area of shops and restaurants.

There's nothing upscale about the blocks around the Bosco Center. But like many urban quarters in America, this one is changing as new immigrants arrive. Down the street are a pair of Vietnamese restaurants and the Thanh Tuna gift shop.

All that is part of the excitement of retiring to Kansas City, says Mary Fern Woods, 75, who moved here from Pratt, a small town in Kansas. "I have friends in Pratt that I do miss," she says, and she drives back occasionally to see them. But Woods likes the free Bosco Center dances, live concerts downtown, discounted group trips arranged at community centers, and the variety of restaurants and shops. "There are," she says, "just a jillion things to do here."

Tucson, Arizona

Tucson, Ariz., is a scenic southern landing for birds of all sorts. Northern snowbirds fleeing harsh winters flock here; idle military jets sprawl over a massive aircraft "boneyard" in the city limits; and a breathtaking variety of avian life fills the sky, despite the desert heat.

Kathy Olmstead, a retired teacher and longtime birdwatcher, says Tucson's outdoor offerings make it a great spot to retire cheaply. Olmstead says the first stop for local and visiting birders is the Sweetwater Wetlands, an unlikely oasis formed by a nearby sewage treatment plant. It's a reliable spot for hunting Harris's hawks, red-winged blackbirds, and more elusive species like the emerald-tinged elegant trogon. Beginning birders can take advantage of more than 150 free birding excursions led each year by the Tucson Audubon Society (where Olmstead volunteers). Tucson is a mecca for fans of outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and biking. For seniors, a visit to nearby Saguaro National Park can include what may be one of the best deals for retirees anywhere: If you're 62 or over, a National Parks Lifetime Senior Pass is good in any national park and costs just $10. "You can do a lot of things without spending money outdoors," Olmstead says. "I still feel like I'm on vacation, and I moved here in 1953."