For many Americans, retiring in California is an aspiration. Florida is overrun with retirees already; the Gulf Coast is too undeveloped; Arizona is too one-dimensional. But California has it all — big, cosmopolitan cities; beautiful natural scenery; mountains and beaches; deserts and rainforests. However, the state has a long reputation for unaffordability; retiring in California is simply too expensive. Additionally, state taxes can be as high as 9.3 percent (or higher if your income is in seven figures) and sales tax is 7.25 percent, though these high taxes are partially offset by lower property taxes, as a result of the state’s landmark Proposition 13 (1978).
Granted, the coastal areas are expensive, and the big cities — Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area, and San Diego — are among the priciest in the United States. However, given the diversity in this large state, there are cheap places to live in California as well. Retiring here does not have to bust your budget.
If you do enjoy proximity to a big city, it’s worth looking around in the Inland Empire, in the distant eastern suburbs of Los Angeles. San Bernardino and Riverside are the two largest cities here, topping 200,000 people each, but there are a number of large towns approaching that size and scores of smaller communities as well. For daily commuters to Los Angeles, it can be a two-hour drive each way depending on traffic, but if you’re retired you can choose your own “commuting” times to the big city and spend the rest of your time exploring your own neck of the woods. Palm Springs is an easy drive further east, in the desert, and you can drive to San Diego and the Mexican border to the south without having to traverse Los Angeles.
The area is so vast, you should spend some time there seeking out neighborhoods that are particularly attractive to you. The Inland Empire was hit hard by the housing crisis, and foreclosures are everywhere — so, for homes, it’s definitely a buyer’s market.
If you would enjoy proximity to Mexico, Imperial County in the far southeast of the state is much cheaper than San Diego, due west. Mexican Americans make up roughly 75 percent of the county’s population. The largest towns — Calexico, on the border, and El Centro, only ten miles to the north — are the best places to start looking; like most border towns, these towns have a scruffy appearance, but that only adds to their charm. The Salton Sea, in the northwest corner of the county, is ringed with small and very inexpensive communities, though the area’s beauty is subtle, and may have to grow on you.
California’s Central Valley is an expansive agricultural area, stretching from Sacramento in the north to Bakersfield in the south just west of the Sierra Nevada range. Sacramento, the state capital, can be pricey, but Bakersfield and Fresno — both approaching 1 million people (including suburbs) — are considerably cheaper. Bakersfield is often mentioned as a popular retirement center, and the surrounding area is beautiful, but the city suffers from a high rate of unemployment and occasional bad air quality.
In the far north of the Central Valley, Redding is an attractive and affordable option for retirees. Surrounded by mountains to the north, east, and west, with farmland directly south, Redding offers scenic beauty and four seasons; summers are hot and winters are cold, with occasional snow. There are ample opportunities for outdoor activities, plus all the amenities you would expect in a town of 100,000, including two four-year universities and a community college.
If you suffer from chronic wanderlust, the best way to retire cheaply in California, at least for a while, is to purchase an RV and move from place to place. Join an RV club to get cheap entry to RV parks and campgrounds, and explore the entire state, from the beaches to the national parks to the deserts. You’re sure to find a community you’ll fall in love with, where you can settle more permanently later on. Happy hunting!