RICHARD JOY VISITED NEW MEXICO only once before moving into Del Webb at Alegria, a 55-plus community in Bernalillo. That first trip was barely a pit stop in Albuquerque’s Old Town during a move from Sacramento, California, to Kentucky. But when Joy and his wife, Barbara, made the drive back to New Mexico for a golden years adventure in 2009, they noticed parallels between New Mexico and their hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska.
“We were struck by the wide-open spaces, the live-and-let-live attitude, and the high Indigenous populations,” Joy says. “We didn’t see that in California or Kentucky, but it’s the way we grew up. It reminds us of home.”
The Joys aren’t the only transplants to be impressed. New Mexico’s abundant sunshine, range of outdoor activities, chile-forward culinary scene, rich cultural traditions, varied landscapes, and accessible museums, galleries, and arts attractions provide a fertile environment for enjoying your second act.
“Santa Fe is the only place most have heard about in New Mexico,” says Charles Lehman, project coordinator for Retire New Mexico, which provides resources and information to prospective retirees. But beyond the City Different, there are any number of communities—from Albuquerque, Las Cruces, and Carlsbad to Taos, Farmington, and Silver City—that provide their own charms, lifestyles, and opportunities.
While Lehman can happily wax on about New Mexico’s climate, history, arts, culture, and activities, most inquiries are much more practical. “The questions I get are mainly financial,” he says. “Tax rates, if Social Security is taxed, the cost of living, and housing availability.”
Those numbers add up as well. In 2022, the New Mexico Legislature eliminated taxes on Social Security benefits for individuals with less than $100,000 in income and couples with under $150,000. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham also signed legislation for a three-year tax exemption for armed forces retirees.
LAST YEAR, UNITED VAN LINES determined that New Mexico, for the very first time, was one of the 10 states with the highest influx of inbound residents. According to the United Van Lines study and its accompanying survey, baby boomers and Gen Xers moved more than any other age groups last year. About a third of New Mexico’s new residents came here to retire.
Of the top 10 states for inbound residents, four (Vermont, Oregon, South Dakota, and New Mexico) were the least populated in the nation, reinforcing a national trend of people retiring outside of dense urban centers. New Mexico, with its seemingly endless vistas and technicolor sunsets, is primed to meet that growing thirst for big views and a slower pace.
Retired University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University professor Bob Grassberger studied some of these statewide retirement trends. Between 2017 and 2019, he surveyed more than 2,000 people around the country between the ages of 50 and 70 who had an interest in retiring in New Mexico.
“The biggest reason anywhere why people would or wouldn’t move is friends and family. People are place-oriented,” says Grassberger. “It takes a pretty robust person to pick up and say, ‘I’m going to move to a place where I don’t have any friends or family.’ ”
When compared to other potential retirement destinations, New Mexico had multiple differentiators, ranging from a dry climate with lots of sunshine to property tax rates that are lower than those in the Midwest or on either coast.
Yet some surveyed had never even heard of New Mexico. “People didn’t even know it was a place,” he says. If someone had visited New Mexico as a tourist, even just once, there was a higher probability that they would be open to later calling the state home. “People enamored with moving [to New Mexico] visited one, five, 10 times,” he says.
DAN BROWNELL AND HIS WIFE, Kelly, had lived in New Mexico for five years in the mid-2000s. They’d planned to retire in South Carolina but soon realized it wasn’t the right fit. A Southern California native, Dan was unaccustomed to the dense humidity—and occasional hurricane warnings—they found in Myrtle Beach when they moved there in 2018. Eventually, they decided to return to the Land of Enchantment.
They found a house at Del Webb at Alegria that was less than 10 years old. Between the newer house and a smaller yard, the equation felt more sustainable than what the couple had in South Carolina.
But what truly captured their hearts and reeled them back was much deeper than homes, cost of living, or humidity levels. Kelly, who has both Native and Mexican ancestry, enjoyed being immersed in those rich traditions—something she couldn’t get elsewhere. “It brings her back to her culture,” Dan says.
When it comes to other everyday benefits, the Brownells enjoy the friendships they’ve built in their Alegria community as well as amenities like the indoor and outdoor pools. The Joys are especially fond of the accessibility of the Albuquerque International Sunport, where they can catch direct flights to Alaska or the West Coast to visit family. “They call Santa Fe the City Different,” Joy says, “but really, the whole state is different.”
After more than 40 years as a resident, Grassberger, the retired professor, briefly considered leaving New Mexico to be closer to family, but he couldn’t bear the thought of moving. “It’s such stunning country and beautiful people,” he says. “We’re here for life.”
Follow these tips for retiring successfully in New Mexico—from people who did it themselves.
1 Zero in on housing.
Try to find a house before you arrive in the state. “Sometimes housing is hard to find in certain price ranges,” says Kelly Brownell. Give yourself plenty of lead time to keep an eye on the market, and look for real estate agents who work specifically with retirees.
2 Accept that the Land of Enchantment is different.
Don’t move to New Mexico and expect all the same amenities you had in a previous home. If you’re in a smaller town, your shopping options may be limited. Your restaurant choices may not be as diverse. “It’s a different place,” says Richard Joy. “That’s what we’ve found to be great.”
3 Take note of existing medical systems.
Be aware of local medical providers near your ideal retirement destination, including any specialists you may need for existing health conditions. If some providers are outside of the area, know how long it would take you to reach them in an emergency. Don’t forget to think about all kinds of weather; for example, would you have to take icy roads down a mountain in the middle of an emergency? “It’s not like California—you do have four seasons here,” notes Dan Brownell.
4 Remember that New Mexicans are like onions.
It may take time to pull back the layers and earn the trust of longtime residents, but once you do, you’ll find that it was worth it.
5 Plan out fun.
Research nearby arts and entertainment options. Local colleges are a great resource for free or low-cost community programming near you. Even small towns can be seriously enriched by a small but mighty community of students and artists.
6 Give yourself time to adjust.
Expect that it might take a year or more for you to feel like you’re on solid ground in your new home. “My wife and I are two generations removed from the pioneers who settled Alaska,” Joy says. “Maybe it’s in our genes, but we’ve been adaptable all our lives. Being adaptable is a big thing here.”