Cut Expenses, Retire Sooner

While we use robust retirement planning software to carefully consider retirement readiness, many of these scenarios end up strikingly close to the familiar “four percent rule”. The four percent rule suggests that you can start with 4% withdrawals from a diversified portfolio, increase your spending to keep up with inflation, and you are highly likely to have your money last for a full retirement of 30 years or more. (Bengen, 1994, Journal of Financial Planning)

Under the four percent rule, If you have one million dollars, you can retire and withdraw $40,000 a year in the first year. If you need $5,000 a month ($60,000 a year), you would want a nest egg of at least $1.5 million. If your goal is $8,000 a month, you need to start with $2.4 million. 

We spend a lot of time calculating your finish line and trying to figure out how we will get there. Once we have that target dollar amount for your portfolio, then we can work backwards and figure how much you need to save each month, what rate of return you would need, and how long it would take. Is your investment portfolio likely to produce the return you require? If not, should we change your allocation?

What we should be talking about more is How can you move up your finish line? When you reduce your monthly expenses, you can have a smaller nest egg to retire and could consider retiring sooner. In fact, under the four percent rule, for every $1,000 a month you can reduce your needs, we can lower your finish line by $300,000. Think about that! For every $1,000 a month in spending, you need $300,000 in assets! 

If you can trim your monthly budget from $5,000 to $4,000, you’ve just reduced your finish line from $1.5 million to $1.2 million. It’s not my place to tell people to cut their “lifestyle”, but if you come to the conclusion that it is in your best interest to reduce your monthly needs, then we can recalculate your retirement goals and maybe get you started years earlier. 
Cutting your expenses is easier said than done, but let’s start with five key considerations.

1. Determine your fixed expenses and variable expenses. Start with your fixed expenses – those you pay every month. Housing, car payments, insurance, and memberships are key areas to look for savings. Personally, I like to see people enter retirement having paid off their mortgage and being debt free. In many cases, it may be helpful to downsize as well, which can reduce your monthly costs or free up equity to add to your portfolio. Downsizing or relocating often also lowers your taxes, insurance, utilities, and maintenance costs. 

Your house is a liability. It is an ongoing expense. Often, it is your largest expense and therefore the biggest demand on your retirement income needs. (And now 90% of taxpayers don’t itemize and don’t get a tax break for their mortgage interest or property taxes.)

2. Insurance costs are surprisingly different from one company to another. Unfortunately, it does not pay to be loyal to one company. If you’ve had the same home and auto policy for more than five years, you may be able to reduce that cost significantly. If you’d like a referral to an independent agent who can compare top companies for you and make sure you have the right coverage, please send me a reply and I’d be happy to make an introduction.

3. When creating your retirement budget, make sure to include emergencies and set aside cash for maintenance and upkeep of your home and vehicles. Just because you didn’t have any unplanned expenses in the past 12 months doesn’t mean that you can project that budget into the future.

You will need to replace your cars and should plan for this as an ongoing expense. If you can go from being a two or three car family to a one car family in retirement, that could also be a significant saving. If you only need a second car a few days a month, it may make sense to ditch the car and just use Uber when you need it.

Read more: Rethink Your Car Expenses

4. Healthcare is one of the biggest costs in retirement and has been growing at a faster rate than general measures of inflation such as CPI. This can be very tricky for people who want to retire before age 65. If you don’t have a handle on your insurance premiums, typical costs, and potential maximum out-of-pocket expenses, you don’t have an accurate retirement budget.

5. People retire early usually start Social Security as soon as they become eligible, which for most people is age 62. This is not necessarily a good idea to start at the earliest possible date, because if you delay your benefits, they increase by as much as 8% a year. If you have family history and personal health where it’s possible you could live into your 80’s or 90’s, it may be better to wait on Social Security so you can lock in a bigger payment.

Read more: Social Security: It Pays to Wait

Reducing your monthly expenses can significantly shrink the size of the nest egg needed to cover your needs. We will calculate your retirement plan based on your current spending, but I would not suggest basing your finish line on a hypothetical budget. Start making those changes today to make sure that they are really going to work and then we can readjust your plan. 

How to Create Your Own Pension

With 401(k)s replacing pension plans at most employers, the risk of outliving your money has been shifted from the pension plan to the individual. We’ve been fortunate to see many advances in heath care in our lifetime so it is becoming quite common for a couple who retire in their sixties to spend thirty years in retirement. Today, longevity risk is a real concern for retirees.

With an investment-oriented retirement plan, we typically recommend a 4% withdrawal rate. We can then run a Monte Carlo simulation to estimate the possibility that you will deplete your portfolio and run out of money. And while that possibility is generally small, even a 20% chance of failure seems like an unacceptable gamble. Certainly if one out of five of my clients run out of money, I would not consider that a successful outcome.

Social Security has become more important than ever because many Baby Boomers don’t have a Pension. While Social Security does provide income for life, it is usually not enough to fund the lifestyle most people would like in retirement.

What can you do if you are worried about outliving your money? Consider a Single Premium Immediate Annuity, or SPIA. A SPIA is an insurance contract that will provide you with a monthly payment for life, in exchange for an upfront payment (the “single premium”). These are different from “deferred” annuities which are used for accumulation. Deferred annuities come in many flavors, including, fixed, indexed, and variable.

Deferred annuities have gotten a bad rap, in part due to inappropriate and unethical sales practices by some insurance professionals. For SPIAs, however, there is an increasing body of academic work that finds significant benefits.

Here’s a quote on a SPIA from one insurer:
For a 65-year old male, in exchange for $100,000, you would receive $529 a month for life. That’s $6,348 a year, or a 6.348% annual payout. (You can invest any amount in a SPIA, at the same payout rate.)

You can probably already guess the biggest reason people haven’t embraced SPIAs: if you purchase a SPIA and die after two months, you would have only gotten back $1,000 from your $100,000 investment. The rest, in a “Life only” contract is gone.

But that’s how insurance works; it’s a pooling of risks, based on the Law of Large Numbers. The insurance company will issue 1,000 contracts to 65 year olds and some will pass away soon and some will live to be 100. They can guarantee you a payment for life, because the large number of contracts gives them an average life span over the whole group. You transfer your longevity risk to the insurance company, and when they pool that risk with 999 other people, it is smoothed out and more predictable.

There are some other payment options, other than “Life Only”. For married couples, a Joint Life policy may be more appropriate. For someone wanting to leave money to their children, you could select a guaranteed period such as 10 years. Then, if you passed away after 3 years, your heirs would continue to receive payouts for another 7 years.

Obviously, these additional features would decrease the monthly payout compared to a Life Only policy. For example, in a 100% Joint Policy, the payout would drop to $417 a month, but that amount would be guaranteed as long as either the husband or wife were alive.

There are some situations where a SPIA could make sense. If you have an expectation of a long life span, longevity risk might be a big concern. I have clients whose parents lived well into their nineties and who have other relatives who passed 100 years old. For those in excellent health, longevity is a valid concern.

There are a number of different life expectancy calculators online which will try to estimate your longevity based on a variety of factors, including weight, stress, medical history, and family history. The life expectancy calculator at Time estimates a 75% chance I live to age 91.

Who is a good candidate for a SPIA?

  • Concerned with longevity risk and has both family history and personal factors suggesting a long life span,
  • Need income and want a payment guaranteed for life,
  • Not focused on leaving these assets to their heirs,
  • Have sufficient liquid funds elsewhere to not need this principal.

What are the negatives of the SPIA? While we’ve already discussed the possibility of receiving only a few payments, there are other considerations:

  • Inflation. Unlike Social Security, or our 4% withdrawal strategy, there are no cost of living increases in a SPIA. If your payout is $1,000 a month, it stays at that amount forever. With 3% inflation, that $1,000 will only have $500 in purchasing power after 24 years.
  • Low Interest Rates. SPIAs are invested by the insurance company in conservative funds, frequently in Treasury Bonds. They match a 30-year liability with a 30-year bond. Today’s SPIA rates are very low. I can’t help but think that the rates will be higher in a year or two as the Fed raises interest rates. Buying a SPIA now is like locking in today’s 30-year Treasury yield.
  • Loss of control of those assets. You can’t change your mind once after you have purchased a SPIA. (There may be an initial 30-day free look period to return a SPIA.)

While there are definitely some negatives, I think there should be greater use of SPIAs by retirees. They bring back many of the positive qualities that previous generations enjoyed with their corporate pension plans. When you ask people if they wish they had a pension that was guaranteed for life, they say yes. But if you ask them if they want an annuity, they say no. We need to do a better job explaining what a SPIA is.

The key is to think of it as a tool for part of the portfolio rather than an all-encompassing solution to your retirement needs. Consider, for example, using a SPIA plus Social Security to cover your non-discretionary expenses. Then you can use your remaining investments for discretionary expenses where you have more flexibility with those withdrawals. At the same time, your basic expenses have been met by guaranteed sources which you cannot outlive.

Since SPIAs are bond-like, you could consider a SPIA as part of your bond allocation in a 60/40 or 50/50 portfolio. A SPIA returns both interest and principal in each payment, so you would be spending down your bonds. This approach, called the “rising equity glidepath“, has been gaining increased acceptance by the financial planning community, as it appears to increase the success rate versus annual rebalancing.

There’s a lot more we could write about SPIAs, including how taxes work and about state Guaranty Associations coverage of them. Our goal of finding the optimal solution for each client’s retirement needs begins with an objective analysis of all the possible tools available to us.

If you’re wondering if a SPIA would help you meet your retirement goals, let’s talk. I don’t look at a question like this assuming I already know the answer. Rather, I’m here to educate you on all your options, so we can evaluate the pros and cons together and help you make the right decision for your situation.

How Much Income Do You Need In Retirement?

Many people significantly underestimate how much income they will need to maintain their lifestyle in retirement. We’re going to point out how people underestimate their needs, explain why a common “rule of thumb” is a poor substitute, and then share our preferred process.

If we begin with the wrong budget, then our withdrawal rates, target nest egg, and portfolio sustainability are all going to be inaccurate, which is very difficult to correct after you’ve retired.

In general, when I ask someone to estimate their monthly financial needs, they use a process of addition. They think of their housing expenses, utilities, taxes, food costs, etc., and try to add those up. Unfortunately, the number many arrive at can be significantly too low, and here’s how I know.

They tell me that they spent $5,000 a month, or $60,000 last year. But I ask how much they made and they tell me $150,000. How much did they save last year? $30,000. To me, that suggests they spent $120,000, not $60,000. If they only spent $60,000, they would have saved more than $30,000. You either spend or save money; if it wasn’t saved it was spent, even if that spending wasn’t discretionary.

Here’s why most people fail with the “addition method” of trying to create a retirement income budget:

  • They don’t include taxes. Taxes don’t go away in retirement; pensions, Social Security (up to 85%), and IRA withdrawals are all taxable as ordinary income.
  • Unplanned expenses such as home repairs, emergencies, or car maintenance can be substantial and fairly regular, if not consistent or predictable.
  • Your health care costs may be much higher in retirement than you anticipate, especially in the later years of retirement.
  • You may finally have time to pursue activities which you did not have time for while working, such as travel, golf, or spoiling your grandchildren. With an additional 40 hours a week available, you will likely be spending money in new ways.

Some financial calculators use a rule of thumb that most retirees will need 75% (or 70-80 percent) of their pre-retirement income. This is called the “replacement rate”. And while there have been a number studies that confirm this 75% estimate as an average, its applicability on an individual basis is poor.

We know for example, that lower income people will need a higher replacement rate than higher income people. That’s because the lower income levels may have had a lower savings rate, a smaller proportion of discretionary spending, and little tax savings in retirement. Higher income workers may have been saving more and find significant tax savings in retirement, and therefore have a lower replacement rate.

Instead of trying to use an addition method or a one-size-fits-all rule of thumb, I’d suggest using subtraction:

  1. Begin with your current income.
  2. Subtract any immediate savings you will experience in retirement, including: the amount you were actually saving and investing each year, payroll taxes (7.65% if a W-2 employee), and work expenses, if significant.
  3. Examine your sources of retirement income and if you calculate any income tax reduction, subtract those savings.
  4. Consider any increases in retirement spending, starting with health care costs and discretionary spending (travel, hobbies, etc.). Add these back to your spending needs.

Unless you are planning to have paid off your mortgage, substantially downsize your house, get rid of a car, or stop eating out, I think most people will initially continue their spending habits in retirement very much the same as they did while they were working. Like everyone else, retirees spend a significant portion of their income on things which they did not want (property tax, income tax, insurance) and on things which were not planned (replacing a roof, medical expenses, etc.).

Underestimating your retirement income needs could lead to some very painful outcomes, such as depleting your nest egg, being forced to downsize, or impoverishing your spouse after you pass away. You have to still plan for occasional expenses, such as replacing a car, home repairs, and emergencies, in a retirement budget.

If you’ve calculated your retirement income needs and your planned budget is significantly less than your pre-retirement income, please be careful. When the number you reached through addition isn’t the same number I reach through subtraction, it’s possible you are not budgeting for some costs which you currently have and are likely to still have in retirement.

Income Planning by Retirement Age

What is often missing in most academic articles about retirement is a consideration of age at retirement. Most articles just assume that someone retires at 65 and has a 30 year time horizon. We know that is not always the case! If you retire early or later, how does that impact your retirement income strategy?

Let’s consider three age bands: early retirement, full retirement age, and longevity planning.

Early Retirement (age 50-64)

Fewer and fewer people are retiring early today. In fact, more than 70% of pre-retirees are planning to continue to work in retirement. Kind of makes you wonder what “retirement” even means today? However, I can see a lot of appeal to retiring early and there are plenty of people who could pull this off. Here are four considerations if you are thinking of retiring early:

  1. Healthcare. Most people who want to retire before 65 abandon their plans once they realize how much it will cost to fund health insurance without Medicare. Let’s say you have a monthly premium of $1250 and a $5000 deductible. That means you have $20,000 a year in potential medical expenses, before your insurance even pays a penny! If you want to retire at 55, you might need to set aside an additional $200,000 just to cover your expenses to get you to Medicare at 65. It’s a huge hurdle.
  2. If you have substantial assets, you will need to have both sufficient cash on hand for short-term needs (1-3 years), and equity investments for long-term growth. This is why time-segmentation strategies are popular with early retirees: setting aside buckets for short, medium, and long-term goals. While time segmentation does not actually protect you from market volatility or sequence of returns, there may be some benefit to a rising equity glide path, and it may be more realistic to recognize that spending in future decades will depend on equity performance, rather than assuming at 55 that your spending will be linear and tied to inflation.
  3. For those who do retire early, taking withdrawals often makes them very nervous, especially after you realize that you must invest aggressively (see #2) to meet your needs that are decades away. If you have $1 million and want to take a 4% withdrawal, that works out to $3333 a month. Taking that much out of your account each month is more nerve wracking than having $3333 in guaranteed income, which leads us to…
  4. A Pension. Most people I have met who retired in their fifties have a Pension. They worked for 20 or 30 years for a company, school district, municipality, branch of the military, etc. At 55 or so they realize they could collect 50% of their income for not working, which means that – in opportunity cost – if they continue to work it will only be for half the pay! It’s kind of a convoluted way of thinking, but the fact remains that a pension, combined with Social Security and Investments, is the strongest way to retire early.

Full Retirement Age (65-84)

  1. The primary approach for retirees is to combine Social Security with a systematic withdrawal strategy from their retirement and investments accounts. We choose a target asset allocation and withdraw maybe 4% or so each year. We often set this up as monthly automatic distributions. We increase our cash target to 4% (from 1%) and reduce our investment grade bonds by the same amount. Dividends and Interest are not reinvested, and at the end of the year, we rebalance and replenish cash as needed. That’s the plan.
  2. Depending on when you start retirement, I think you can adjust the withdrawal rate. The 4% rule assumes that you increase your withdrawals every year for inflation. It also assumes that you will never decrease your withdrawals in response to a bear market. What if we get rid of those two assumptions? In that case, I believe a 65 year old could aim for 5% withdrawals and a 75 year old for 6% withdrawals. This can work if you do not increase withdrawals unless the portfolio has increased. Also, a 75 year old will have a shorter withdrawal period, say 20 years versus 30 years for a 65 year old retiree.
  3. Although retirement accounts are available after age 59 1/2, most clients don’t want to touch their IRAs – and create taxable distributions – until age 70 1/2 when they must begin Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Investors who are limiting their withdrawals to RMDs are following an “actuarial method”, which ties your income level to a life expectancy. This is a good alternative to a systematic withdrawal plan.

Longevity Planning (85+)

  1. Many retirees today will live to age 90, 95, or longer. It is certainly prudent to start with this assumption, especially for couples.
  2. Social Security is the best friend of longevity planning. It’s a guaranteed source of lifetime income and unlike most Pensions or Annuities, Social Security adjusts for inflation through Cost of Living Adjustments. Without COLAs, what may have seemed like a generous pension at age 60 will lose half of its purchasing power by age 84 with just 3% inflation. If you want to help put yourself in the best possible position for longevity, do not take early Social Security at age 62. Do not take benefits at Full Retirement Age. Wait for as long as possible – to age 70. Delaying from 62 to 70 results in a 76% increase in monthly benefits.
  3. If you are concerned about living past 85 and would also like to reduce your Required Minimum Distributions at age 70 1/2, consider a Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract (QLAC). A QLAC will provide a guaranteed income stream that you cannot outlive. Details on a QLAC here.
  4. While equities are probably the best investment for a 60 year old to get to 85 years old, once you are 85, you may want to make things much more simple. There is, unfortunately, a significant amount of Elder abuse and fraud, and frankly, many people over age 85 will have a cognitive decline to where managing their money, paying bills, or trying to manage an investment portfolio will be overwhelming. Professionals can help.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to retirement income. We have spent a lot of time helping people like you evaluate your choices, weigh the pros and cons of each strategy, and implement the best solution for you.

Reducing Sequence of Returns Risk

The possibility of outliving your money can depend not only on the average return of the stock market, but on the order of those returns. It doesn’t matter if the long-term return is 8%, if your first three years of retirement have a 50% drop like we had going into March of 2009, your original income strategy probably isn’t going to work. Taking an annual withdrawal of $40,000 is feasible on a $1 million portfolio, but not if your principal quickly plummets to $500,000.

We evaluate these scenarios in our financial planning software and can estimate how long your money may last, using Monte Carlo analysis that calculates the probability of success. For most people retiring in their 60’s, we plan for a 30 year horizon, or maybe a little longer. And while this analysis can give us a rough idea of how sound a retirement plan is, no one knows how the market will actually perform in the next 30 years.

What we do know from this process is that the vast majority of the “failures” occur when there are large drops in the market in the early years of retirement. When these losses occur later on, the portfolio has typically grown significantly and the losses are more manageable. This problem of early losses is called Sequence of Returns Risk, and often identifies a critical decade around the retirement date, where losses may have the biggest impact on your ability to fund your retirement.

There are ways to mitigate or even eliminate Sequence of Returns Risk, although, ultimately I think most people will want to embrace some of this risk when they consider the following alternatives. Sequence of Returns risk is unique to investing in Stocks; if you are funding your retirement through a Pension, Social Security, Annuity, or even Bonds, you have none of this risk.

1) Annuitize your principal. By purchasing an Immediate Annuity, you are receiving an income stream that is guaranteed for life. However, you are generally giving up access to your principal, forgoing any remainder for your heirs, and most annuities do not increase payouts for inflation. While there is some possibility that the 4% rule could fail, it is important to remember that the rule applies inflation adjustments to withdrawals, which double your annual withdrawals over the 30 year period. And even with these annual increases, in 90% of past 30-year periods, a retiree would have finished with more money than they started. The potential for further growth and even increased income is what you give up with an annuity.

2) Flexible withdrawals. The practical way to address Sequence of Returns Risk is to recognize upfront that you may need to adjust your withdrawals if the market drops in the first decade. You aren’t going to just increase your spending every year until the portfolio goes to zero, but that’s the assumption of Monte Carlo Analysis. We can do this many ways:

  • Not automatically increase spending for inflation each year.
  • Use a fixed percentage withdrawal (say 4%) so that spending adjusts on market returns (instead of a fixed dollar withdrawal).
  • Reduce withdrawals when the withdrawal rate exceeds a pre-determined ceiling.

It is easier to have flexibility if withdrawals are used for discretionary expenses like travel or entertainment and your primary living expenses are covered by guaranteed sources of income like Social Security.

3) Asset Allocation. If we enter retirement with a conservative allocation, with a higher percentage in bonds, we could spend down bonds first until we reach our target long-term allocation. Although this might hamper growth in the early years, it could significantly reduce the possibility of failure if the first years have poor performance. This is called a Rising Equity Glidepath.

Other allocation methods include not withdrawing from stocks following a down year or keeping 1-3 years of cash available and then replenishing cash during “up” years.

4) Don’t touch your principal. This is old way of conservative investing. You invest in a Balanced Portfolio, maybe 50% stocks and 50% bonds, and only withdraw your interest and dividends, never selling shares of stocks or bonds. In the old days, we could get 5% tax-free munis, and 3% in stock dividends and end up with 4% income, plus rising equity prices. Since you never sell your stocks, there is no sequence of returns risk. This strategy is a little tougher to implement today with such low bond yields.

Investing for income can create added risks, especially if you are reaching for yield into lower quality stocks and bonds. That’s why most professionals and academics favor a total return process over a high income approach.

5) Laddered TIPS. Buy TIPS that mature each year for the next 30 years. Each year, you will get interest from the bonds (fairly small) and your principal from the bonds that mature that year. Since TIPS adjust for inflation, your income and principal will rise with CPI. It is an elegant and secure solution, with a 3 1/3% withdrawal rate that adjusts for inflation.

The only problem is that if you live past 30 years, you will no money left for year 31 and beyond! So I would never recommend that someone put all their money into this strategy. But if you could live by putting 80% of your money into TIPS and put the other 20% into stocks that you wouldn’t touch for 30 years, that may be feasible.

Except you’d still likely have more income and more terminal wealth by investing in a Balanced Allocation and applying the 4% rule. However, that is a perhaps 90% likelihood of success, whereas TIPS being guaranteed by the US Government, TIPS have a 100% chance of success. (Note that 30 year TIPS have not been issued in all years, so there are gaps in years that available TIPS mature.)

If the market fell 30% next year, would your retirement be okay? How would you respond? What can you do today about that possibility? If you worry about these types of questions, we can help address your concerns about risk, market volatility, and Sequence of Returns.

What we want to do for each investor is to thoroughly consider your situation and look at your risk tolerance, risk capacity, other sources of retirement income, and find the right balance of growth and safety. Although the ideal risk would be zero, you may need substantially more assets to fund a safety-first approach compared to having some assets invested. And that means that for how much money you do have, the highest standard of living may come from accepting some of the Sequence of Returns Risk that accompanies stock investing.

Bonds at a Discount: CEFs on Sale

Since the election, bond yields have risen and prices have fallen in anticipation of increased government spending and an uptick in inflation. The yield on the 10-year Treasury was 2.33% on Friday, almost a full percent higher than the all-time low, set only a few months ago in July. When bond prices fall, many investors will sell their funds at the end of the year to harvest losses and redeploy their capital into other bond funds.

The annual tax-loss harvesting creates a unique opportunity for investors to look at Closed End Funds. Closed End Funds (CEFs) are an alternative to bond mutual funds. They are similar to mutual funds in that they are diversified, professionally managed baskets of stocks or bonds. In a regular mutual fund, you buy and sell shares directly from the fund company, whereas with a CEF, you buy or sell shares on a stock exchange with other buyers or sellers. There are a fixed number of shares, so a CEF manager can focus on managing their portfolio without the impact of money flowing in or out of the fund.

This works very well for bond strategies, and indeed many CEFs have an income focus and pay dividends monthly or quarterly. Today, there are many CEFs that pay 4-6% tax-free, or 5-10% taxable. They range from high investment grade credit ratings to junk bonds. Some have been around for decades.

Here is a comparison of Closed End Funds with Mutual Funds:

Closed End Funds Mutual Funds “open end”
Professionally managed basket of stocks, bonds, etc. Professionally managed basket of stocks, bonds, etc.
Fixed number of shares Unlimited number of shares
Buy/sell on an exchange Buy/sell from the fund company
Price may be at a premium or discount to NAV Price equals net asset value (NAV)
Manager does not need to buy or sell securities; fixed pool of money Manager must buy or sell to meet inflow or outflow of cash
May use leverage Typically not leveraged

Many people have not heard of CEFs because they generally don’t advertise. The managers cannot raise new money, and their management fee is fixed, usually around 1% of assets. The fund manager has no incentive to advertise, so CEFs remain a secret of the investment community. When these CEFs trade at a discount to the underlying value of the assets, you may be able to buy the equivalent of $1,000 of bonds for $950 or $900 dollars. And that is what is happening right now – tax-loss harvesting is widening the discounts of many bond CEFs.

We generally don’t use CEFs in our portfolio models because they tend to have more price fluctuation than mutual funds. Besides the change in NAV, the discount or premium can change by as much as 10% or more in any year. But when that discount widens to 10% plus, that is often a good entry point for investors who are willing to hold the funds for long-term and who don’t mind a bit of additional volatility.

However, not all CEFs are created equal! There are many different strategies, and they have many more moving parts than mutual funds. We have an in depth process for choosing our CEFs and have been investing in these for more than a decade. If you are looking to increase your portfolio income, let’s talk about if Closed End Funds might be a good fit for you.

Funding Your Retirement With Dividends

 

Much has been studied, analyzed, and written about the “safe withdrawal rate” from a retirement portfolio, but unfortunately, there is no withdrawal rate that is guaranteed to work in all circumstances. The interest rates on bonds remains so low today that a portfolio of 60% equities and 40% bonds is almost certainly going to lag its historical return over the next decade. That’s a real danger to anyone who is basing their retirement withdrawals on past performance.

What Do Low Interest Rates Mean For Your Retirement?

Death_to_stock_Marzocco_Coffee_5

A 2013 study from Prudential considered whether a hypothetical 65-year old female retiree would have enough retirement income to last her lifetime. In their scenario, they calculated a 21% possibility of failure, given market volatility and longevity risk. When they added in a third factor of “an extended period of low interest rates”, the failure rate rose to 54%.

What Should You Expect from Social Security?

piggy bank

The big surprise this week was that the new budget approved by Congress and signed by President Obama on Monday abolishes two popular Social Security strategies for married couples. The two strategies that are going away are:

1) File and Suspend. A spouse could file his or her application but immediately suspend receiving any benefits. This would enable the other spouse to be eligible for a spousal benefit, while the first spouse could continue to delay benefits to receive deferred retirement credits until age 70.

2) Restricted Application. Also called the “claim now, claim more later” strategy, this would allow a spouse to restrict their application to just their spousal benefit at age 66, while continuing to defer and grow their own benefit until age 70.

Both of these strategies were ways for married couples to access a smaller spousal benefit, while still deferring their primary benefits until age 70 for maximum growth. And now, these strategies will be gone in 6 months from today. It was estimated that these strategies could provide as much as $50,000 in additional benefits for married couples. Needless to say, people close to retirement who were planning on implementing these strategies feel disappointed and upset.

Some Baby Boomers have done a lousy job of saving for retirement and are going to be heavily reliant on Social Security. According to Fidelity Investments, the average 401(k) balance as of June 30 was $91,100 and their average IRA balance is $96,300. If an investor had both an average IRA and 401(k), they’d still have only $187,400. But those figures don’t tell the true depth of the problem facing our nation, because those “average balances” don’t count the 34% of all employees who have zero saved for retirement. For many retirees, savings or investments are not going to be a significant source of retirement income.

Looking at current beneficiaries, the Social Security Administration notes that 53% of married couples and 74% of single individuals receive at least 50% of their income from Social Security. For 47% of single beneficiaries, Social Security is at least 90% of their retirement income! As of June 2015, the average monthly benefit is only $1,335, so that should give you some idea of how little income many retirees have today.

Our country simply cannot afford to let Social Security fail, and yet the current approach is unsustainable. People think that Social Security is a pension or savings program, but it is not. It is an entitlement program where current taxes go to current beneficiaries. Back in the years when the ratio of contributors to retirees was 5 to 1, there was a surplus of taxes which was saved in the Social Security Trust Fund. Currently, there are only 2.8 workers per beneficiary and since 2010 Social Security benefits paid out have exceeded annual revenue into the program. By 2035, there will be only 2.1 workers per beneficiary, and this demographic change is the primary reason the system cannot work in its current form.

Today’s estimate is that the Trust Fund will be depleted by 2034. The Disability Trust Fund will be depleted next year, in 2016, at which time funds will have to shifted within Social Security to pay for Disability benefits not covered by payroll taxes.

The 2015 Trustees Report calculates that to fix Social Security for the next 75 years, the actuarial deficit is 2.68% of taxable payroll. This represents an unfunded obligation with a present value of $10.7 Trillion. Every year, the Trustee’s Report tells Congress the size of the shortfall, so Congress can take steps to either reduce benefits or raise taxes to correct the problem.

Unfortunately, changing Social Security has become a “hot potato” which no politician wants to touch. For those who have been brave enough to propose a solution, they are attacked with one-liner sound bites, accusing them of “trying to take away your Social Security benefits.” It is so disappointing that our elected officials cannot come together on a solution to ensure the solvency of our primary source of national retirement income.

It was surprising that the two Social Security claiming strategies were abolished so quickly and with such little opposition or discussion. This will save Social Security a small amount, but it’s doubtful this will make any material improvement in the program’s long-term viability.

For workers close to retirement, it seems unlikely that there will be any significant changes to the Social Security system as we know it today. The best thing you can do is to delay benefits from age 62 to age 70, which will result in a 76% increase in benefits. If you live a long time (to your late 80’s or longer), you will end up receiving greater lifetime benefits for having waited, and the guaranteed income from Social Security will decrease the “longevity risk” that you will deplete your portfolio over time.

For younger workers, I think it is highly probable that we will see the Full Retirement Age increase or a change in how the Cost of Living Adjustments are calculated. For high earners, I believe that you will see the current income cap of $118,500 increase significantly or be removed altogether. Another proposal is to apply a Social Security tax to unearned income, such as dividends and capital gains, to prevent business owners from shifting income away from wages in order to avoid taxes.

I think the strongest approach for investors will be to save aggressively so that your nest egg can be the primary source of your retirement income. Then you can consider any Social Security benefits as a bonus.

How to Make the 4% Rule Work for You

happily retired

Retirement planning today has largely shifted from guaranteed income from pensions to withdrawal strategies from 401(k) accounts and IRAs. Most financial planners recommend retirees start with an initial withdrawal rate of 4%. This approach was developed because historically, a 4% withdrawal rate, adjusted for inflation each year, would allow a retirement portfolio to last for 30 years under almost all circumstances.

The market was up in each of the past six years, which can give retirees a false sense of security about increasing their spending. In recent years, investors could take out 5%, 6%, or more from their portfolio and still end the year with more money than they started with. Markets go up and down, and if you withdraw all of your gains when the market is up, you can run into trouble when the market drops by 20 or 30 percent.

I find the challenge many retirees face with the 4% rule is forgetting to budget for unexpected expenses. If they have $1,000,000, a 4% withdrawal would be only $40,000 a year (before taxes). They can get by on this amount, but when their car needs replacing, they want us to send another $25,000. Suddenly, their annual withdrawal is up to $65,000. The next year, they need $10,000 for a new roof, and the next year, it’s something else. The issue is rarely reckless spending, but failing to set aside money for these unanticipated expenses.

The danger is that if a retiree takes too much, too soon, there won’t be enough remaining principal in their account to last for 30 years. Diminishing your account early in retirement means that future dividends and capital gains will be smaller in dollar terms, and cannot adequately replenish the annual withdrawals. Then the retiree may have to make drastic changes in their spending and lifestyle to avoid depleting their account. If there is a multi-year correction (like 2000-2002), combined with several years of large withdrawals, it is possible a retiree could see their portfolio drop to one-half their starting value in just five years.

I write this because the first challenge with the 4% rule is that many retirees don’t follow it and take out much more when the market is up. The good news, however, is that for the great majority of history, a 4% withdrawal rate was actually extremely conservative.

In a recent article by Michael Kitces, he examined the 4% rule, looking at 115 rolling 30-year periods, invested in a 60/40 portfolio. He found that in more than 90% of the periods, after 30 years of inflation-adjusted 4% withdrawals, a retiree would have finished with more money than they had at the beginning of retirement. In fact, the median wealth after 30 years, was 2.8 times the initial principal. The 4% rule was not an average withdrawal rate, but based on surviving a steep and prolonged downturn like The Great Depression.

Looking at all 115 30-year periods, Kitces found that retirees could have withdrawn a range of 4-10% of their initial principal, with a median of 6.5%. The 4% rule is the lowest withdrawal rate that worked, and since we don’t know future returns, the safest assumption. While that’s no guarantee that the 4% rule will work in the future, investors should feel very confident with this approach.

Now for some even better news: looking at all 115 periods, Kitces found that whenever the portfolio had grown to 50% above the starting value, withdrawals could be increased by 10%. This “ratchet” approach could be done every three years, and is on top of annual increases for inflation.

For example, let’s consider a retiree who started with a $1 million portfolio and experienced 3% inflation for 5 years. The annual withdrawal amount would have started at $40,000 (4%) and grown to $46,371 with inflation. If the portfolio were now to exceed $1.5 million, we could ratchet up their spending by an additional 10%, to $51,008 and that would become the new annual withdrawal amount.

Here’s a summary of how to make the 4% rule work for you:

1) Make sure you stick to a 4% withdrawal and don’t forget to set money aside for unexpected expenses.
2) Remember that the 4% rule is based on the worst case scenario of terrible market performance.
3) You can plan to increase your withdrawals each year for inflation.
4) If your portfolio grows to 50% above your initial starting value, you can ratchet up your annual withdrawal by an additional 10%.
5) Finally, recall that the 4% rule worked for a portfolio comprised of 60% stocks, 40% bonds. Don’t think that you can apply the 4% rule to a portfolio that is 80% invested in cash or CDs. It’s stocks that fuel the growth which enables the withdrawals to be increased.