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Folks are satisfied in retirement: Study

The world of retirement has been transformed since the 1980s, from changes in how people cover their expenses later in life to how long their post–work life may last.

Yet one thing has remained relatively constant: Many retirees continue to be surprisingly happy, according to a survey sponsored by TIAA, repeating questions on retirement satisfaction that TIAA pollsters last asked in 1982.

Some 93 percent of respondents reported being "somewhat" or "very satisfied" with retirement overall, a figure essentially unchanged from the last survey. And some 47 percent said life in retirement is exceeding their expectations.

TIAA's findings are in line with those in a 2015 study by Ameriprise of people who had retired in the past five years. Roughly 3 in 4 respondents said they felt "in control" of the decision to retire.

The happy retirement experience may be fueled in part by the fact that 7 in 10 respondents in both surveys had some form of annuity or defined benefit pension.

"Having that steady stream of income gives you that peace of mind," said Cathy McCabe, senior managing director of the field consulting group at TIAA.

Most participants in TIAA plans, she said, typically earn a paycheck throughout their working lives rather than relying on commissions and bonuses, so they are used to having a predictable income stream. Not only that, by investing a portion of their savings in an annuity to supplement Social Security for their basic needs, many were able to use the rest of their savings for discretionary spending and make few or no changes to their lifestyle.

Perhaps not surprising, retirement satisfaction also tends to be higher among those with more savings, like the people surveyed by Ameriprise. A study published earlier this year by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found retirement satisfaction declined with age, but those with more assets were more likely to be very satisfied with later life. Some 72 percent of people in the highest asset quartile reported that retirement was very satisfying, compared to 33 percent of those in the lowest asset quartile.

More savings may also relate to having a steady stream of income, and high earners are more likely to have a defined benefit pension plan.

Only 18 percent of people aged 55 to 64 in the lowest income quintile have ever had a defined benefit plan or a spouse with one, compared with 50 percent for those in the top quintile, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Retirement
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Unfortunately, retiring with a pension may not be the case for long. And annuities, another source of lifetime income, may come with high fees and complicated terms. McCabe said to do your homework before choosing an annuity. She said 92 percent of TIAA survey respondents who had gone that route reported being happy with their decision.

Whatever you decide, having a plan is key, McCabe said.

"We put so much time into planning a one- or two-week vacation. Retirement today can last 20- or 30-plus years, and we don't put time into planning that."

Even without a pile of savings, a plan will make you feel better prepared for the ups and downs of life, and that in itself would be a nice dividend.

The survey of 1,583 TIAA participants was conducted between May 28 and Aug. 27, 2015.