California is the sixth-worst state in which to retire.

Or 15th best.

Thats the confusing message from three recent state-by-state, best-to-retire rankings based on a myriad of economic and demographic stats.

Data crunchers at Bankrate and Kiplingers both ranked California No. 45 among the states for its desirability as a place to live out ones golden years. But statisticians at WalletHub placed California 30 notches higher!

How do you explain the gap? Well, lets look at how those grades varied, depending on who was doing the rankings.

Remember, when it comes to rankings, beauty is in the eyes of the grader. My trusty spreadsheet — filled with retirement data and rankings of WalletHub, Bankrate and Kiplingers — found that even population counts display a deep statistical divide.

Yes, California has 5 million people aged 65 or older, the largest number of seniors in the nation. Certainly, that means something. But that flock equals only 13 percent of all Californians, the sixth-smallest share of 65-plus residents nationally. Are we a young state? Or just unattractive to retirees?

Then look at the ranking divergence when it came to expenses. Yes, California is expensive … but just how much pricier than other states is up for debate.

Bankrate found California third worst for cost-of-living and third worst for its tax rates. But WalletHub scored California 14th worst for “affordability.” And Kiplingers noted Californias 65-plus households had a $65,904 average income, sixth-best among the states.

As for scoring conditions for senior care, Bankrate ranked California No. 19 for healthcare quality and No. 14 for well-being. WalletHub gave the state a No. 16 ranking for healthcare. And Kiplingers cited average healthcare costs for a retired couple of $430,867. Thats above a national average of $423,523 and 10th highest among the states.

Of course, Californias “cool” factor scored well. Bankrate gave the state a No. 14 ranking for the weather, No. 20 for culture, but 19th worst for its crime. WalletHub ranked the state third best for its quality of life.

The state appeared trickier to grade than other states as the three rankings had some agreement on the where-to-retire extremes.

Best states? Well, South Dakota made the top three among each surveyor: For Wallethub it was Florida, Colorado and South Dakota; Bankrate was South Dakota, Utah and Idaho; and Kiplingers list was topped by South Dakota, Hawaii and Georgia.

Worst states? New York and Maryland got double dings in the bottom-three grades: Wallethub (Kentucky, New Jersey, and Rhode Island); Bankrate (New York, New Mexico, and Maryland); and Kiplingers (New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland).

Adding it up[hhmc]

So whos correct? Who do you trust? Wallethub? Bankrate? Kiplingers?

Retirement choices are no small matter.

Let me take a literal middle ground by considering their collective wisdom. As a public service, my trusty spreadsheet helped me combine this trio of retirement location rankings to give a better picture of the varying strengths vs. weaknesses of the states.

I reassembled their published ranking data — overall scores, subindex grades and related data — into three evenly weighted metrics: costs (buying power); character (culture and climate); and care (healthcare and healthiness). What did I learn?

Florida is the place to retire, statistically speaking to my composite index. It ranked No. 1 for costs and character. But if you dont care for humidity, and enjoy winters chill, No. 2 was South Dakota, which enjoyed No. 4 grades for costs and care.

Third-ranked was New Hampshire (No. 4 for character; 10th best for care), then Virginia: (ninth best for character) and Hawaii (No. 40 for costs but No. 1 for care!)

Conversely, dont think about Louisiana for your golden years, according to my math. It ranked last in my reassembled scorecard. Why? No. 49 for character and No. 50 for care.

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Next worst score was Arkansas (No. 47 for character), then came Kentucky (No. 47 for care); New Mexico (No. 46 for character) and Illinois (No. 41 for care).

What about California? By my math, the Golden State ranked a middle-of-the-pack 26th for ones golden years. Californias seventh-worst ranking for costs was improved by a No. 16 grade for character and No. 18 for care.

What really matters[hhmc]

So why do rankings of all sorts often vary widely?

View the creators of all those data-driven rankings like a chef.

Sure, selection and quality of ingredients matters — or, in this case, choosing the underlying economic and demographic stats that build a rankings metrics.

But its the recipe — how the ingredients are mixed — that can truly impact the final result. You know, a dash here or a pinch there.

Take retirement. How the complex concept of personal finances figures into a persons location choice for their golden years is by no means a set number.

Did you save enough? Are you a heavy spender? What might medical costs be? All are fairly unique parts of any households happy-retirement recipe.

But recent efforts by WalletHub, Bankrate and Kiplingers to gauge the states in terms of retirement livability factors help to show how the statistical mix can alter a rankings outcome.

I used my trusty spreadsheet to combine this trios retirement rankings in order to give a composite picture of strengths vs. weaknesses. Again, I reassembled their published ranking data — overall scores, subindex grades and related data — into three categories: cost of living; character (culture and climate); and care (healthcare and healthiness).

Imagine making the costs measurement doubly as important as the other two metrics. Thats probably good for folks who are carefully watching their retirement pennies.

Florida and South Dakota were the top two states for retirement. Utah was third followed by Wyoming and Tennessee.

California was the ninth worst state when personal budgetary items were given high importance. And New York and New Jersey ranked worst by this math.

On the other hand, there are folks who dont worry much about money. Perhaps they have generous pensions or saved smartly.

Also, note that many studies of retirees quality of life often reveal that lifes intangibles — friendships, families, and health — are far more critical to seniors happiness than many of factors frequently used to study “best” locations.

So, what if costs werent part of the retirement math, just the character of a state and the quality of its senior care?

According to this formula, the top three states shift to Vermont, then Hawaii and Maine. Vermont was No. 40 when costs were a double factor.

Meanwhile, Florida and South Dakota fall into a tie for eighth place when costs arent part of the recipe. Tennessee drops to No. 40.

And California, minus its well-known high expenses? The 15th-best state for retirees.

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