What Percentage Should You Save

What Percentage Should You Save?

One of the key questions facing investors is “What percentage should you save of your income?” People like a quick rule of thumb, and so you will often hear “10%” as an answer. This is an easy round number, a mental shortcut, and feasible for most people. Unfortunately, it is also a sloppy, lazy, and inaccurate answer. 10% is better than nothing, but does 10% guarantee you will have a comfortable retirement?

I created a spreadsheet to show you two things. Firstly, how much you would accumulate over your working years. This is based on the years of saving, rate of return, and inflation (or how much your salary grows). Secondly, how much this portfolio could provide in retirement income and how much of your pre-retirement salary it would replace.

The fact is that there can be no one answer to the question of what percentage you should save. For example, are you starting at 25 or 45? In other words, are you saving for 40 years or 20 years? Are you earning 7% or 1%? When you change any of these inputs you will get a wildly different result.

10% from age 25

Let’s start with a base case of someone who gets a job at age 25. He or she contributes 10% of their salary to their 401(k) every year until retirement. They work for 40 years, until age 65, and then retire. Along the way, their income increases by 2.5% a year. Their 401(k) grows at 7%. All of these are assumptions, not guaranteed returns, but are possible, at least historically.

In Year 1, let’s say their salary is $50,000. At 10%, they save $5,000 into their 401(k) and have a $5,000 portfolio at the end of the year. In Year 2, we would then assume their salary has grown to $51,250. Their 401(k) grows and they contribute 10% of their new salary. Their 401(k) has $10,475 at the end of Year 2.

We continue this year by year through Year 40. At this point, their salary is $130,978, and they are still contributing 10%. At the end of the year, their 401(k) would be $1,365,488. That’s what you’d have if you save 10% of your 40 years of earnings and grow at 7% a year. Not bad! Certainly most people would feel great to have $1.3 million as their nest egg at age 65.

How much can you withdraw once you retire? 4% remains a safe answer, because you need to increase your withdrawals for inflation once you are in retirement. 4% of $1,365,488 is $54,619. How much of your salary will this replace? The answer is 41.7%. We can change the amount of your starting salary, but the answer will remain the same. With these factors (10% contributions, 2.5% wage growth, 7% rate of return, and 40 years), your portfolio would replace 41.7% of your final salary. That’s it! That could be a big cut in your lifestyle.

What percentage should you replace?

41.7% sounds like a really low number, but you don’t necessarily have to replace 100% of your pre-retirement income. To get a more accurate number of what you need, we would subtract the following savings:

  • You weren’t spending the 10% you saved each year to your 401(k)
  • 7.65% saved on FICA taxes versus wage income
  • Some percentage saved on income taxes, depending on your pre- and post-retirement income.
  • Your Social Security Benefit and/or Pension Income
  • Have you paid off your mortgage, or have other expenses that will be eliminated in retirement?

Many people will only need 75% to 80% of their final salary in retirement income to maintain the same standard of living. If their Social Security benefit covers another 20%, then they would only need a replacement rate of 55% to 60% from their 401(k).

Time Value of Money

The biggest factor in compounding is time. In our original example of 40 years of accumulation, the final portfolio amount was $1,365,488. However, what if you only save for 30 years? Maybe you didn’t start investing until 35. Perhaps you want to retire at age 55 and not 65? Either way, at the 30 year mark, the portfolio would have grown to $666,122. By saving for another 10 years, your accumulation will more than double to $1.365 million.

Here’s a chart that is perhaps a more useful answer to the question of what percentage you should save. It depends on how many years you will save and what percentage of your income you want to replace.

Income Replacement50%60%70%
in 40 Years12.0%14.4%16.8%
in 35 Years15.7%18.8%22.0%
in 30 Years20.9%25.1%29.2%
in 25 Years28.5%34.2%39.9%
in 20 Years40.3%48.4%56.4%

How do you read this? If you want to replace 50% of your income in 40 years from now, starting at zero dollars, you need to save 12% of your income. Actually, this is pretty close to the 10% rule of thumb. But no one says “If you are starting at age 25 and are planning to save for the next 40 years, 10% is a good rule of thumb”. What if you are starting later? Or, what if you want to have your portfolio replace more than 50% of your income.

As you reduce the accumulation period, you need a higher contribution rate. For example, at the 50% replacement level, your required contribution increases from 12% to 15.7% to 20.9% as you go from 40 to 35 to 30 Years. And if you are planning to retire in 20 years and have not started, you would need to save 40.3%.

Similarly, if you want your portfolio to replace more than 50% of your income, the percent to contribute increases as you stretch to 60% or 70%. These figures are quite daunting, and admittedly unrealistic. But one thing that may help slightly will be a company match. If you contribute 10% and your company matches 4% of your salary, you are actually at 14%. Don’t forget to include that amount!

What can you do?

We’ve made some conservative assumptions and perhaps things will go even better than we calculated. For example, if you achieve an 8% return instead of 7%, these contribution requirements would be lower. Or if the inflation rate is lower than 2.5%. Or if you can withdraw more than 4% in retirement. All of those “levers” would move the contribution rate lower. Of course, this cuts both ways. The required contribution rate could be higher (even worse), if your return is less than 7%, inflation higher than 2.5%, or safe withdrawal rate less than 4%.

If you want to consider these factors in more detail, please read the following articles:

If you’d like to play around with the spreadsheet, drop me an email (scott@goodlifewealth.com) and I’ll send it to you, no charge. Then you can enter your own income and other inputs and see how it might work for you. While our example is based on someone who is starting from zero, hopefully, you are not! You can also change the portfolio starting value to today’s figures on the spreadsheet.

The key is this: Begin with the End in Mind. The question of What percentage should you save depends on how long you will accumulate and what percent of income you want to replace in retirement. Saving 10% is not a goal – it’s an input rather than an outcome. Having $1.3 million in 40 years or $2.4 million in 35 years is a tangible goal. Then we can calculate how much to save and what rate of return is necessary to achieve that goal. That’s the start of a real plan.

You don’t have to try to figure this out on your own. I can help. Here’s my calendar. You are invited to schedule a free 30 minute call to discuss your situation in more detail. After that, you can determine if you’d like to work with me as your financial advisor. Sometimes, it isn’t the right fit or the right time, and that’s fine too. I am still happy to chat, answer your questions, and share whatever value or information I can. But don’t use a Rule of Thumb, get an answer that is right for your personal situation.

Retirement Withdrawals Without Penalty

Retirement Withdrawals Without Penalty

If you have multiple retirement accounts, when can you start withdrawals without penalty? This is very important if you want to retire before age 59 ½ and be able to access your money. The rules vary by the type of account, so advance preparation can make it easier to plan your withdrawals.

In our retirement income planning, we carefully choose the order of withdrawals. This can make a big difference in your tax bills. It’s also helpful to have multiple types of accounts so you can select from capital gains, tax-deferred accounts, and tax-free accounts. Let’s start with the early retirement penalties, by account type.

Five Retirement Plans with Different Rules

  1. 401(k) and 403(b): 10% penalty on distributions prior to age 59 ½.
  2. A 457 Plan can be accessed after you retire without penalty, regardless of your age. This is the easiest plan for accessing your money.
  3. Traditional IRA: 10% penalty for distributions prior to age 59 ½. This also applies to a SEP-IRA.
  4. SIMPLE IRA: 10% penalty prior to age 59 ½. Additionally, any distributions within the first two year of participation are subject to a 25% Penalty. Ouch. Don’t do that.
  5. Roth IRA. 10% penalty on earnings before age 59 ½, AND the five-year rule. You must have had a Roth open for five years before taking penalty-free withdrawals. So, if you open your first Roth at age 57, you’d have to wait until age 62 to get the tax-free benefit. However, you can access your principal at any time without tax or penalty. It is only when you start drawing down your earnings that the tax and penalty might apply. To withdraw tax-free and penalty-free, you must be over 59 ½ and have had a Roth for at least five years.

Read more: The Secret Way to Contribute $35,000 to a Roth IRA

Exceptions to the Penalty

  1. For 401(k) and 403(b) Plans: if you are at least age 55 and have separated from service, the penalty is waived. This means that if you retire between 55 and 59 ½, you can access your account without penalty. You would lose this exception if you roll your money into an IRA.
  2. 72(t) / Substantially Equal Periodic Payments (SEPP). If you are before age 55 and want to access your 401(k), 403(b), or Traditional IRA, you can take Substantially Equal Periodic Payments and waive the penalty. This means that you commit to taking the same amount from your account, annually, for at least five years or until age 59 ½, whichever is longer. Even if you later don’t want or need the distribution, you must continue to withdraw the same amount.  
  3. You may be able to avoid the 10% Penalty on an IRA or 401(k)/403(b) distribution if you qualify for these exceptions:
    • Total and Permanent Disability
    • An IRS Levy
    • Unreimbursed Medical Expenses in excess of 10% of AGI
    • Qualified Military Reservists called to Active Duty
  4. There are some exceptions which are available to IRAs (including SEP and SIMPLE), but not allowed from a 401(k) or 403(b). For these exceptions, you may want to roll your 401(k) into an IRA to qualify.
    • Qualified higher educational expenses
    • Qualified first-time homebuyers, up to $10,000
    • Health insurance premiums paid while unemployed

Full List from IRS: Exceptions to Tax on Early Distributions

Using Exceptions and Planning Your Income

I’m happy to let people know about these exceptions for retirement withdrawals without penalty before age 59 1/2. However, you should be very careful about tapping into your retirement accounts in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s. This money needs to last a lifetime. I sometimes hear of people who take from their 401(k) accounts to buy a car or build a pool. And they have no idea that taking $50,000 now is stealing $400,000 from their future. Here’s the math: At 8%, your money will double every 9 years. That’s the Rule of 72. $50k will become $100k in 9 years, then $200k in 18 years, and $400k in 27 years. (Yes, this is a hypothetical rate of return, not a guarantee.)

The order of withdrawals does matter when planning your retirement income. While we can work to avoid the 10% penalty before age 59 ½, distributions from “Traditional” retirement accounts are still taxable as ordinary income. It’s often better to access your taxable accounts first. When eligible for long-term capital gains rate, that will be lower than IRA distributions which are taxed as ordinary income. And you have a cost basis on a taxable position, so only a portion of your sale ends up as a taxable gain.

Many retirees avoid touching their retirement accounts until they have to take Required Minimum Distributions. RMDs used to be at age 70 ½, but now are age 72. If there are years when you are in a low tax bracket (sabbatical, retired, year off, etc.), it may make sense to do a partial Roth Conversion. Start shifting money from a tax-deferred account into a tax-free account and save yourself on future taxes.

Once you reach age 72, you could be subject to a lot of taxes from RMDs. That’s the problem with being too good at waiting to start distributions from your retirement accounts. You’re creating a bigger tax bill for yourself later. While you are accumulating assets, it pays to plan ahead and know when and how you will be able to actually access your accounts. Have a question about retirement withdrawals without penalty? Let me know how I can help.

Unplanned Retirement

Unplanned Retirement

With job losses this year reaching 40 million, many Americans are being forced into an unplanned retirement. Maybe they wanted to work until age 65 or later and find themselves out of work at age 60 or 62. Job losses due to Coronavirus layoffs may be the most common reason today. However, many people also enter early retirement due to their health or to care for a spouse or parent.

Each year, the Employee Benefits Research Institute publishes a Retirement Confidence Survey Report. Here are some findings from their 2020 report published in April:

  • 48% of current retirees retired earlier than they had planned. Only 6% retired later than they originally planned.
  • Less than one-half of workers have tried to calculate how much money they will need to live comfortably in retirement.
  • Of workers who reported their employment status would be negatively effected by the Coronavirus, only 39% felt confident that they will have enough money to last their entire life.

Half of all retirees retired at a younger age then they had planned. That statistic has remained very consistent over the years. In the 1991 report, it was 51%. This is a reality that more people should be preparing for. If you want to retire at 65, 70, or “never”, will you be prepared if you end up retiring at 64, 60, or 55? Certainly, if you enjoy your work, keep on working! But sometimes, the choice is not ours and people find themselves in an early, unplanned retirement.

If you have lost your job or just want to be better prepared should that happen, you need to plan your retirement income carefully.

Unplanned Retirement Steps

  1. You should begin with a thorough and accurate calculation of your spending needs. Not what you want to spend but what you actually spend. Determine your health insurance costs until age 65 and for Medicare after age 65, including Part B premiums, and Medicare Advantage or Medigap coverage, and Part D prescription drug coverage. Read more: Using the ACA to Retire Early.
  2. Reduce your expenses. This will require setting priorities and determining where you can do better. Still, there may be some low hanging fruit where you can save money with little or no change in your lifestyle. Read more: Cut Expenses, Retire Sooner
  3. Calculate your sources of retirement income. Read more: When Can I Retire?
  4. Be careful of starting Social Security at age 62. This is very difficult for people to not access “free money”, everyone wants to do it. Be sure to consider longevity risk and the possible benefits of spending investments first and delaying Social Security for a higher payout later. Read more: Social Security, It Pays to Wait
  5. Consider going back to work, even part-time, to avoid starting retirement withdrawals. The more you delay your retirement, the more likely you will not run out of money later. Here’s the math on why: Stop Retiring Early, People!

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

I think the best way to survive an unplanned retirement is to achieve financial independence at an early age. If you could retire at 50, plan to work until 65, and end up retiring at 60, it’s no problem. This requires saving aggressively and investing prudently from an early age. And that’s why retirement planning isn’t just for people who are 64. Retirement planning should also be for people who are 54, or 44, or even 34. Plan well, and an early retirement could be a good thing. It’s your chance to begin a new adventure!

If – surprise! – you do happen to be facing an unplanned retirement, let’s talk. We can help you evaluate your options for retirement income and establish a process and budget. Our retirement planning software can help you make better informed decisions, including when to start benefits, how much you can withdraw, and if you have enough money to last your lifetime.

It certainly is a shock to people when they end up retiring earlier than they had originally planned. However, it is very common and about half of all retirees are in the same situation. Unfortunately, not everyone who has an unplanned retirement will be having the comfortable years they had hoped. Basing your retirement on the assumption that you will work until age 70 or later may not be realistic. It could even set you up for failure if you end up needing to retire early. Whatever your age, retirement planning is too important to not seek professional help.

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?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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?

DeathtoStock_SlowDown4

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?

Wood Pile

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.