Lee Schafer
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The answer to some questions seems so obvious that checking feels like a waste of time. But it’s always good to check.

So on a morning when startribune.com said it was 26 degrees below zero outside, I typed “Minnesota” and “worst states to retire” into the Google search box. Kiplinger’s rankings immediately popped up.

That led to a piece that Kiplinger published last year on state tax burdens for retirees. This one ranked Minnesota dead last.

“One [state] treats Social Security benefits just like Uncle Sam does — taxing up to 85 percent of your benefits,” Kiplinger noted in this “least tax-friendly” feature, a sentence that sure could have been written with more care. It seemed to suggest an 85 percent effective tax rate on Social Security income, and not even Minnesota has that.

But our state does really tax Social Security income. The lowest income tax rate in Minnesota is 5.35 percent of taxable income, and the rate goes to nearly 10 percent, and of course taxable income can also include money coming out of traditional 401(k) or IRA accounts.

Minnesota has a sales tax and an estate tax, too. Connecticut ranked just behind Minnesota as the second worst on Kiplinger’s list, described as “a tax nightmare for many retirees.”

So if the tax burden here compares unfavorably to a nightmare, what explains Minnesota showing up as the 10th-best place to retire in a just-published ranking by WalletHub?

This isn’t the only place where the state has scored well for retirees, and the simple explanation is that these studies don’t just focus on taxes or even costs. WalletHub certainly noted that it’s not cheap to live in Minnesota, but in measures of quality of life and health care, WalletHub ranked Minnesota No. 1 in both.

That might be useful information when it comes to thinking about your own economic situation. The point is to live your best life, not die with the fattest bank account.

It was an economist at a Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis meeting who first drew my attention to another ranking out last year that put Minnesota in the spotlight, a state-by-state study of health published by the American Medical Association.

It included what’s called a healthy life expectancy, meaning how long people on average live free of serious disease or injury. This measure went by the delightful acronym of HALE, and in this ranking Minnesota edged out Hawaii to finish at No. 1.

Low-tax Florida, a perennial destination for Minnesota retirees, was ranked about halfway down, about in line with the national average. It’s true that there’s no income tax in Florida and no inheritance and estate tax, but Minnesotans live generally free of serious disease and disability on average about 2 ½ years longer.

It turns out that Minnesota is a contender on lots of rankings of the healthiest states. We have the fourth-healthiest state for older people, according to the Minnetonka-based United Health Foundation, a slip from the top position the year before.

A health ranking seems to include a lot of factors and could include fitness and an active lifestyle, rates of smoking and binge drinking, the cleanliness of the land, water and air where people live, and so on. Demographics matter, too, and so does educational attainment and household income.

The United Health Foundation score sheet had almost three dozen lines. It included some surprises, like how often people volunteer in the community. Here, Minnesota finished second to only Utah.

“We kind of score high on nearly everything,” said Lynn Blewett, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “If you add it all up, we rise to the top.”

As these health status rankings have evolved, she said, social and economic factors have generally gotten to be more heavily weighted. The quality of a state’s health care system isn’t as important as folks may think.

Of course in Minnesota, she said, “we have some of the best health care in the country,” although she quickly added “for those who have access,” alluding to the increasing number of Minnesotans without health insurance.

So it’s far from perfect in Minnesota. But in that same ranking of the health of seniors in which Minnesota came in fourth, Florida and another destination state for Minnesota retirees, Arizona, tied at 31.

I’m sure talk of moving to Florida picked up last week as the temperature fell to 30 below outside and tax preparation was in full swing. Financial advisers will explain that Minnesotans who can afford it often plan to move their primary residence to a place like Florida and use the airlines to remain plugged in to their Minnesota health care.

There’s more to consider in remaining healthy than keeping a doctor you trust, of course, and one of my ways to get fit and hopefully live longer is riding bikes with middle-aged friends from the neighborhood. Just to be clear, this is a beer-drinking club that rides bikes more than it’s a cycling club.

When Florida comes up with these folks, it might be because the Sunshine State easily leads the country in people getting killed on bikes.

The most dangerous spot in a dangerous state is the Tampa Bay area, a popular destination for Midwestern retirees.

Bike-lane building in the Twin Cities seems to have gotten out of hand, but one problem in Florida is that the only safe bike to ride might be the stationary one in the fitness center. As the Wall Street Journal reported last year, bike riders who leave their neighborhoods often have only one choice, and that’s to ride on a high-speed roadway. And good luck to them.

Doubts about Florida as a place to stay healthy also popped up last fall in my annual physical at a HealthPartners clinic in St. Paul. It’s my doctor’s job to help me stay healthy, and we talked briefly about retirement. It’s coming, I said, but with no firm plan yet.

“Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t go to Florida.”