When Can I Retire?

There are a couple of approaches to determine retirement readiness, and while there is no one right answer to this question, that doesn’t mean we cannot make an intelligent examination of the issues facing retirement and create a thorough framework for examining the question.

1) The 4% approach. Figure out how much you need in annual pre-tax income. Subtract Social Security, Pensions, and Annuity payments from this amount to determine your required withdrawal. Multiply this annual amount by 25 (the reciprocal of 4%), and that’s your finish line.

For example, if you need $3,000 a month, or $36,000 a year, on top of Social Security, you would need a nest egg of $900,000. (A 4% withdrawal from $900,000 = $36,000 a year, to reverse it.) That’s a back of an envelope method to answer when you can retire.

2) Monte Carlo analysis. We can do better than the 4% approach above and give you an answer which more closely meets your individual situation. Using our planning software, we can create a future cash flow profile that will consider your financial needs each year.

Spouses retiring in different years? Wondering if starting Social Security early increases your odds of success? Have spending goals, such as travel, buying a second home, or a wedding to pay for? We can consider all of those questions, not to mention adjust for today’s (lower) expected returns.

The Monte Carlo analysis is a computer simulation which runs 1000 trials of randomly generated return paths. Markets may have an “average” return, but volatility means that some years or decades can have vastly different results. A Monte Carlo analysis can show us how a more aggressive approach might lead to a wider dispersion of outcomes, good and bad. Or how a too-conservative approach might actually increase the possibility that you run out of money.

It tells us your percentage chance of success as well as giving us an idea of the range of possible results. It’s a data set which provides a richer picture than just a binary, yes or no answer to whether or not you have enough money to retire.

Even with the elegance of the Monte Carlo results, the underlying assumptions that go into the equation are vital to the outcome. The answer to not outliving your money may depend more on unknowns like the future rate of return, your longevity, the rate of inflation, or government policy than on your age at retirement. Change one or two of these assumptions and what might seem like a minor adjustment can really swamp a plan when multiplied over a 30 year horizon.

Luckily, we don’t have to have a crystal ball to be able to answer the question of retirement age, nor is it an exercise in futility. That’s because managing your money doesn’t stop at retirement . There is still a crucial role to play in investing wisely, rebalancing, managing withdrawals, and revisiting your plan on an ongoing basis.

While all the attention seems to be paid to risks which might derail your retirement, there is a greater possibility that you will actually be able to withdraw more than 4%. After all, 4% was the lowest successful withdrawal rate for almost every 30 year period in history. It’s the worst case scenario of the past century. In most past retirement periods, you could have withdrawn more – sometimes significantly more – than 4% from a diversified portfolio.

If you are asking “When can I retire?”, we need to meet. And if you aren’t asking that question, even if you are 25, you should still be wondering “How much do I need to be financially independent?” Otherwise, you risk being on the treadmill of work forever, and there may just come a day in the distant future, or maybe not so distant future, when you wake up one morning and realize you’d like to do something else.

Can You Retire In Your Fifties?

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I recently wrote that most people should plan to work to age 70 before retiring. As a society, embracing 70 as the new full retirement age, would greatly alleviate the forthcoming retirement crisis and reduce the level of poverty in senior citizens. While there are many advantages to waiting until 70, I also see how attractive it would be to retire in your fifties while you are young and healthy.

With enough planning, saving, and advanced preparation you can retire in your fifties. But, retiring at 55 is not the same as retiring at 65. Social Security won’t kick in until 62, and if you read my previous article, you know I suggest waiting until 70. You won’t have Medicare until age 65, so you will need to have your own health insurance coverage, a significant expense which keeps many would-be retirees in the workforce until 65.

I’m going to go through the math of how you might be able to retire in your fifties, and then I’m going to tell you how most fifty-year old retirees actually did it. (Which may disappoint you…)

The “4% rule” suggests that the safe withdrawal rate from a 60/40 portfolio is to start at 4% and subsequently increase your withdrawals for inflation to maintain your standard of living. This research, assumes a 30 year retirement period, such as 65 to 95. If you retire at 50 or 55, it is likely that you or your spouse could live for another 40 or 50 years, especially with continued advances in medical care.

Unfortunately, the 4% rule has a higher failure rate when applied to periods longer than 30 years. That’s because market volatility, especially in the early years of a plan, increases the possibility that an account will be depleted. So, if someone wants to retire in their fifties today, they may need to use an even more conservative withdrawal rate, such as 3%. That way their account will still grow, net of withdrawals, to cope with the inflation that will occur over the next 40 plus years.

Currently, we have record low yields in the bond market, and relatively high valuations (Price/Earnings or P/E ratio) in the stock market. Looking forward, our expected returns should be lower than historical returns. This is another reason why a 4% withdrawal strategy may be too aggressive today for someone who wants to retire in their fifties.

Link: BlackRock CEO says retirement savers should expect returns of as little as 4%.

An alternative to the 4% Rule is the Actuarial Method, which is what the IRS uses for Required Minimum Distributions: you take your current life expectancy and use that as a divisor to determine your withdrawal rate. If you think your life expectancy is 33 years, use 1/33 or approximately 3%.

Then to retire in your 50’s here’s the rule of thumb: at a 3% withdrawal rate, you need your investment assets to equal 33 times your annual withdrawal. For example, if you plan to spend $100,000, you should have at least $3.3 million in your investment portfolio.

This is a pretty high hurdle for most investors. Few people in their 50’s will have accomplished this level of assets, especially if they are still paying mortgages or for their children’s college educations.

The majority of people I know who have actually retired in their fifties have something I have not mentioned: an employer pension. They may have worked for the military, a municipality, school district, or increasingly rarely, a large corporation, and stayed for 25 or 30 years, starting in their twenties. Now in their mid fifties, if they are debt free, it may be possible for them to retire with a pension that pays maybe to 50 to 80 percent of their previous salary. Their taxes will be much lower, so they will actually keep a higher percentage of their pension and there will not be any OASDI or Medicare taxes withheld.

If their pension covers their basic necessities, they can avoid dipping into their portfolio, which can be used for discretionary spending. When the market is up for several years, they can spend a little more on trips or buy a new car. If their portfolio is down, they can hold off on purchases until the market rebounds. And while they may be scrimping by for now, they may get a raise later when they or their spouse become eligible for Social Security. But the key ingredient remains the guaranteed monthly income from their pension.

Link: Scott explains the Government Pension Offset and the Windfall Elimination Provision for teachers and other government employees.

Most of us will not have a pension, in which case, we will need to be very aggressive savers if we are to end up with a portfolio 33 times the size of our annual withdrawal requirements. If you want to retire in your fifties, I can help you do it. It will take years of planning, so the best time to get started is right away.

Stop Retiring Early, People!

 

When I was 30, I set a goal of being able to retire at age 50. I’m still on track for that goal, but with my 44th birthday coming up next month, I now wonder what the hell was I thinking. I don’t want to retire. I get bored on a three-day weekend. I need to have mental activity, variety, and the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes with work. So, no, I won’t be retiring at 50 even if I can.

How Much Can You Withdraw in Retirement?

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With corporate pensions declining in use, retirees are increasingly dependent on withdrawals from their 401(k)s, IRAs, and investment accounts. The challenge facing investors is how to plan these withdrawals and not run out of money even though we don’t know how long we will live or what returns we will receive in the market on our portfolio.

Pensions and Social Security provide a consistent source of income that you cannot outlive. When I run Monte Carlo simulations – computer generated outcomes testing thousands of possible scenarios – we find that the larger the percentage of monthly needs that are met from guaranteed sources, the lower chance the investor will run out of money due to poor market performance from their portfolio.

If you do have a pension, it is very important to consider all angles when deciding between a lump sum payout and participating in the pension for the rest of your life. It is not a given that you will be able to outperform the pension payments, especially if you are healthy and have a long life expectancy.

The most obvious way to avoid running out of money (called longevity risk by financial planners) would be to annuitize some portion of your portfolio through the purchase of an immediate annuity from an insurance company. While that would work, and is essentially the same as having a pension, very few people do this. You’d be giving up all control of your assets and reducing any inheritance for your beneficiaries. With today’s low interest rates, you’d probably be less than thrilled with the return. For example, a 65-year old male who places $100,000 in a single life immediate annuity today would receive $542 a month.

The problem with annuitization, besides giving up your principal and not leaving anything for your heirs, is that it doesn’t allow for any increase in expenditures to account for inflation. There are three approaches we might use to structure a withdrawal program for a retiree.

1) Assume a fixed inflation rate. In most retirement planning calculators, projected withdrawals are increased by inflation to maintain the same standard of living. After all, who doesn’t want to keep their standard of living? The result of this approach is that the initial withdrawal rate then must be pretty low. 20 years ago, the work of William Bengen established the “4% rule” which found that a withdrawal rate of 4% would fund a 30-year retirement under most market conditions.

On a $1 million portfolio, 4% is $40,000 a year. But that is just the first year. With 3% inflation, we’d plan on $41,200 in year two, and $42,436 in year three. After 24 years, withdrawals would double to $80,000. The 4% rule is not the same as putting your money in a 4% bond; it’s the inflation which requires starting with a low initial rate.

While we should plan for inflation in retirement, this method is perhaps too rigid in its assumptions. If a portfolio is struggling, we’re not going to continue to increase withdrawals by 3% and spend the portfolio to zero. We have the ability to respond and make adjustments as needed.

2) Take a flexible withdrawal strategy. We may be able to start with a slightly higher initial withdrawal rate if we have some flexibility under what circumstances we could increase future withdrawals. In my book, Your Last 5 Years: Making the Transition From Work to Retirement, I suggest using a 4% withdrawal rate if you retire in your 50’s, a 5% rate if you start in your 60’s, and 6% if retiring in your 70’s. I would not increase annual withdrawals for inflation unless your remaining principal has grown and your withdrawal rate does not exceed the original 4, 5, or 6%.

This doesn’t guarantee lifetime income under all circumstances, but it does give a higher starting rate, since we eliminate increases for inflation if the portfolio is shrinking. Under some circumstances, it may even be prudent to reduce withdrawals to below the initial withdrawal amount temporarily. That’s where having other sources of guaranteed income can help provide additional flexibility with your planning.

3) Use an actuarial method. This means basing your withdrawals on life expectancy. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are a classic example of an actuarial strategy: you take your account value and divide by the number of years of life expectancy remaining. If your life expectancy is 25 years, we take 1/25, or 4%. The next year, the percentage will increase. By the time someone is in their 90’s, their life expectancy will be say three years, suggesting a 33% withdrawal rate, which may work, but obviously will not be sustainable. However, the more practical problem with using the RMD approach is that many people aren’t able to cut their spending by 20% if their portfolio is down by 20% that year. So even though it has a sound principle for increasing withdrawals, the withdrawal amounts still require flexibility based on market results.

But there are other ways to use the actuarial concept, and even my approach of different rates at different retirement ages is based on life expectancy. There’s no single method that will work in all circumstances, but my preference is to take a flexible strategy. But this does mean being willing to reduce spending, and forgo or even cut back inflation increases, if market conditions are weak.

We have a number of different tools available to evaluate these choices throughout retirement, but the other key factor in the equation is asset allocation. Bengen found that his 4% rule worked with equity allocations between 50% and 75%. Below 50% equities, the portfolio struggles to keep up with inflation and withdrawals become more likely to deplete the assets in the 30-year period. Above 75% equities, the portfolio volatility increases and rebalancing benefits decrease, increasing the number of periods when the 4% strategy would have failed.

When sorting through your options, you need candid and informed advice about what will work and under what circumstances it would not work. We hope for the best, but still have a plan for contingencies if the market doesn’t cooperate as we’d like. We will be able to consider all our options as the years go by and be proactive about making adjustments and corrections to stay on course. For any investor planning for a 30-year retirement, it’s not a matter of if the market will have a correction, but when. It’s better to have discussed how we will handle that situation in advance, rather than waiting until the heat of the moment.

Are Your Retirement Expectations Realistic?

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While many individuals have very realistic ideas about retirement, I find that some people may be significantly overestimating their preparedness for funding their financial needs.  Here are three specific mistakes which can hurt your chance of success in retirement, and a realistic solution for each issue.

Mistake #1: Thinking you can live on a small fraction of your pre-retirement income.
Occasionally, I’ll meet someone who is currently making $100,000, but who thinks that they will need to spend only $40,000 a year in retirement to maintain their current lifestyle.  On a closer look, they’re saving about $15,000 today so they are really living on about $85,000 a year.  This is a key problem with creating a retirement budget: when we add up projected expenditures, it is very easy to underestimate how much we need because we often forget about unplanned bills like home and auto repairs, or medical expenses.  And don’t forget about taxes!  Taxes do not go away in retirement, either.

Realistic Solution: Even though some expenses will be lower in retirement, most retirees find that they need 75-90% of their pre-retirement income to maintain the same lifestyle.

Mistake #2: Taking too high of a withdrawal rate.
20 years ago, William Bengen published a paper that concluded that 4%, adjusted for inflation, was a safe withdrawal rate for a retiree.  While this topic has been one of the most discussed and researched areas in retirement planning, most financial planners today remain in agreement that 4%, or very close to 4%, is the safe withdrawal rate.  However, many individuals who have a million dollar portfolio think that they might be able to take out $60,000, $70,000, or more a year, especially when the market is performing well.

There are two important reasons why it’s prudent to use a more conservative 4% rate.  The first is market volatility.  The market is unpredictable, so we have to create a withdrawal strategy which will not excessively deplete the portfolio in the event that we have large drop, or worse, a several year bear market at the beginning of a 30-year retirement.  The second reason is inflation.  We need to have growth in the portfolio to allow for the increased cost of living, including the likelihood of increased medical costs.  At just 3% inflation, $40,000 in expenses will double to $80,000 in 24 years.  And with today’s increased longevity, many couples who retire in their early 60’s will need to plan for 30 years or more of inflation in retirement.

Realistic Solution: At a 4% withdrawal rate, your retirement finish line requires having a portfolio of 25 times the amount you will need to withdraw in the first year.

Mistake #3: Assuming that you will keep working.
Some people plan to keep working into their 70’s or don’t want to retire at all.  They love their work and can’t imagine that there would ever be a day when they are not going to be working.  They plan to “die with their boots on”, which in their eyes, makes retirement planning irrelevant.

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this line of thinking.  The Employee Benefits Research Institute 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey found a significant gap between when people planned to retire and when they actually did retire.  Only 9% of workers surveyed plan to retire before age 60, but 35% actually retired before this age.  18% planned to retire between 60 and 64, versus 32% who actually retired in that age range.  The study cites three primary reasons why so many people retire earlier than planned: health or disability, layoff or company closure, and having to care for a spouse or other family member.  The study also notes that one in 10 workers plan to never retire.  Even if you’re willing to keep working, the statistics are clear: most people end up retiring earlier than planned.

For a healthy 65-year old couple, there is a good chance that at least one of you will live into your 90’s.  If you still think you don’t need a retirement plan because you will keep working, do it for your spouse, who might have 25-plus years in retirement if something were to happen to you.  Don’t make your plan’s success dependent on your being able to keep working in your 70’s and 80’s.

Realistic Solution: Make it a goal to be financially independent by your early 60’s; then you can work because you want to and not because you have to.

A comprehensive financial plan addresses these concerns and establishes a realistic framework for funding your retirement.  And whether you’re 30 or 60, it is never too early, or too late, to make sure you are on track for financial independence.