The 4% Withdrawal Rule

The 4% Withdrawal Rule

Many retirement income projections are based on the work of William Bengen, a financial advisor who created the 4% withdrawal rule. Today, in part three of our five-part series on creating retirement income, we look at Bengen’s 4% Rule and what it can mean for your retirement.

Bengen’s Research

Twenty-five years ago, there had been little research done on how to create retirement income from a portfolio. Thankfully, most people had pensions which guaranteed their payments. However, with the rise of 401(k) plans, the responsibility for retirement income shifted from the employer to the employee and their investment portfolio. We needed a more rigorous framework for retirement planning.

Bengen looked back at the history of the stock and bond returns and considered a 30-year retirement period. Since inflation increases your cost of living, he assumed that retirees would need to increase their retirement withdrawals annually. He then calculated, for every period, the maximum withdrawal rate that would have lasted for the full 30 years, adjusting for inflation.

He examined this for every 30 year period with available data. For example, 1930-1960, and then 1931-1961, 1932-1962, etc. all the way up to the present. In the all 30-year periods, retirees were able to withdraw at least 4% of their initial sum. In the worst case scenario, retirees with a $1 million portfolio could withdraw $40,000 in year 1, and increase it every year with inflation. This is the Safe Withdrawal Rate, or SAFEMAX as Bengen called it.

Interestingly, Bengen did not name this the 4% Rule. In interviews with reporters, they started calling it the 4% Rule and the name stuck.

Portfolio Implications

Bengen originally used a simple two asset portfolio using one-half US Large Cap Stocks and one-half US Intermediate Treasury Bonds. He assumed annual rebalancing, which helped with stock market volatility. He found that the 4% Rule would work with about one-half to three-quarters invested in stocks. With higher allocations to stocks, the portfolio became more likely to implode during bear markets. And with higher allocations to bonds, the portfolio could not keep up with the inflation-adjusted withdrawals. So, the sweet spot for a retirement allocation seemed to be from 50/50 to 75/25.

In the majority of 30-year periods, the potential withdrawal rate was much higher than 4%. In a few periods, it even exceeded 10%. The 4% rate was the worst case scenario. 4% worked for all of the 51 different 30-year periods starting in 1926 that Bengen considered in his original paper. At a 4% withdrawal rate, your money actually grew in most of the periods. If you started with a $1 million portfolio and took 4% withdrawals, your portfolio would have actually exceeded $1 million, 30 years later, in the majority of cases.

Later, Bengen added Small Cap stocks to the mix, with a portfolio of 30% large cap, 20% small cap, and 50% bonds. With this portfolio mix, he found that the safe withdrawal rate increased to 4.5%. Bengen considers this work to replace his initial 4% Rule. Unfortunately, the name had already caught on and Bengen will forever be known as the creator of “The 4% Rule”, but he would rather it was called “The 4.5% Rule”.

There is definitely room for higher withdrawals than 4%. The problem is that we don’t know what future returns will be and we don’t know the sequence of returns. So, the safest bet remains to start at only a 4% withdrawal. For people who retire before age 65, we may want to plan for a longer potential horizon than Bengen’s 30 year assumption. A longer retirement might require a lower rate than 4%.

Summary

The 4% Withdrawal Rule is a good rule of thumb for retirement income. When we use other analytical tools, such as a Monte Carlo evaluation, it often generates results similar to Bengen’s rule. If you want to use a 4% rate, your nest egg needs to be 25-times your annual needs. This is a very high hurdle for most people. It’s incredibly challenging for most Americans to save 25 times their annual expenses during their working years.

So while it is a conservative way to calculate retirement income, the 4% rule may make people over-prepared in most periods. As a result, people could have spent more money in retirement. Or they could have retired years earlier, but waited to accumulate enough assets to meet the 4% Rule. That’s a flaw with the 4% Rule.

The other weakness is that it is based on history. Just because it worked in the past century is no guarantee that it will work in the future. For example, if we have very low bond yields, poor stock returns, or higher inflation, it’s possible that a 4% withdrawal fails. One researcher, Wade Pfau, tried to apply the 4% Rule to investors in other countries. He found that it didn’t work for every country. We have had a really good stock market, and low inflation, here in the US and that’s why it worked historically.

Bottom line: the 4% Withdrawal Rule is a good starting place to understand retirement income. But we can do better by having a more dynamic process. We can adjust withdrawals based on market performance. Or you can delay or reduce inflation adjustments. We can avoid selling stocks in down years. All of these strategies can enhance the 4% rule and potentially enable you to start with a higher withdrawal rate. We will consider two such strategies in the next articles, considering Guardrails and a 5-year Bucket Approach.

Bengen is retired now, but still writing and continuing his research. He realized that his initial research left a lot of money on the table for retirees. Two months ago, he produced a new article looking at stock market valuations and inflation to refine the initial withdrawal rate. If you are retiring when stocks are expensive, future returns are likely to be lower, and you should start with a lower withdrawal rate. If stocks are cheap, you might be able to start with a higher withdrawals than 4%. Bengen believes this new process could calculate a safe-withdrawal rate of 4.5% to 13%. (The present calculation using his new method is 5.0%.) Time will tell if his new research gains wider acceptance, but for now, he will be best known as the father of the 4% withdrawal rule.

Guaranteed Retirement Income

Guaranteed Retirement Income

Guaranteed Retirement Income increases satisfaction. When you receive Social Security, a Pension, or other monthly payment, you don’t have to worry about market volatility or if you will run out of money. You’re guaranteed to receive the payment for as long as you live. That is peace of mind.

Research shows that people prefer pension payments versus taking withdrawals from an investment portfolio. When you were working, you had a paycheck show up every month and you didn’t feel bad about spending it. There would be another paycheck next month. Unfortunately, with an investment portfolio, retirees dislike spending that money. There is “range anxiety” that their 401(k) or IRA will run out of money. There is fear that a market drop will ruin their plans. After spending 40 years building up an account and it’s not easy to reverse course and start to spend that nest egg and see it go down.

Corporate and Municipal pensions have been in decline for decades. As a result, most of us have only a Social Security benefit as guaranteed income. That’s too bad. 401(k) plans are a poor substitute for a good pension. You need to accumulate a million bucks just to get $40,000 a year at a 4% withdrawal rate. It places all the responsibility on American workers to fund their own retirement, and this has led to wildly disparate retirement readiness between people. Even those who accumulate significant retirement accounts still have the worries about running out of money. Sequence of Returns, poor performance or mismanagement, cognitive decline, or longevity are all risks.

The solution to create guaranteed lifetime income is a Single Premium Immediate Annuity, or SPIA. A SPIA is a contract with a life insurance company in which you trade a lump sum in exchange for a monthly payment for life. For as long as you live, you will get that monthly check, just like a Pension or Social Security. When you pass away, the payments stop. For married couples, we can establish a Survivor’s Benefit that will continue the payout (sometimes reduced at 50% or 75%) for the rest of the survivor’s life, if the owner should pass away.

How much would it cost? For a 65-year old man, a $100,000 premium would establish a $537/month payment for life. That is $6,444 a year, or a 6.4% rate on your premium. For a 65-year old woman, it would be $487, a month, or $5,844 a year (5.8%) For a couple, if the wife was also 65, that same premium would offer $425/month for both lives (100% survivors benefit). That’s $5,100 a year, or 5.1%. The greater the expected longevity, the lower the monthly payment.

There are some fairly obvious advantages and disadvantages of a SPIA.

Pros

  • Lifetime income, fixed, predictable, and guaranteed
  • No stock market risk, no performance concerns, no Sequence of Returns risk

Cons

  • Permanent decision – cannot reverse later
  • Some people will not live for very long and will get only a handful or payments back
  • No money leftover for your heirs
  • No inflation protection – monthly payout is fixed

I’ve been a financial advisor since 2004 and I have yet to have a client who wants to buy a SPIA. For some, the thought of spending a big chunk of money and the risk that they die in a year or two, is unbearable. However, the payout is fair, because some people will live for much longer than the average. The way insurance works is by The Law of Large Numbers. An insurance company is willing to take the risk that someone will live for 40 or 50 years because they know that if they sell thousands of annuities, it will work out to an average lifespan across the group. Some people live longer than average and some live less than average.

Two Ways to Use a SPIA

Although they remain unpopular, SPIAs deserve a closer look. Let’s immediately throw away the idea that you should put all your money into a SPIA. But there are two ways that a SPIA might make sense as part of your retirement income plan.

  1. Use a SPIA to cover your basic expenses. Look at your monthly budget. Assume you need $3,000 a month to cover all your expenses. If you have $2,200 in Social Security benefits, buy a SPIA that would cover the remaining $800 shortfall. For the 65-year old couple above, this $800/month joint SPIA would cost $188,235. Now you have $3,000 a month in guaranteed lifetime income to cover 100% of your basic expenses. Hopefully, you still have a large investment portfolio that can grow and supplement your income if needed.

The nice thing about this approach is that it takes a bit less cash than if you follow the 4% rule. If you needed $800 a month ($9,600 a year), a 4% withdrawal rate would require you have a portfolio of $240,000. The SPIA only requires $188,235.

Let’s say you have a $1 million portfolio. You could (a) put it all in the portfolio and start a 4% withdrawal rate, or (b) put $188,235 into the SPIA and keep the remainder in the portfolio. Here’s what that would look like for year one:

  • a. $1 million at 4% = $40,000 potential income
  • b. $188,235 SPIA = $9,600, PLUS $811,765 portfolio at 4% = $32,470. The combined income from the SPIA and portfolio is now $42,070

You have increased your income by $2,070 a year and you have established enough guaranteed income to cover 100% of your monthly needs. Then, you are not dependent on the market to cover your basic expenses each month.

2. The second way to think of a SPIA is as a Bond replacement for your portfolio. Instead of buying Treasury Bonds and worrying if you will outlive them, you can buy a SPIA, and the insurance company will buy very safe bonds. The insurance company then assumes your Longevity risk.

Back to our example above, let’s say your $1 million portfolio is invested in a 60/40 allocation (60% stocks, 40% bonds). Just consider the SPIA as part of your fixed income sleeve. If you had a target of $400,000 in bonds, rather than letting them sit in 10-year Treasuries earning 0.7% today, go ahead and put $188,235 in the SPIA and keep $211,765 in bonds. Your $600,000 in stocks remains the same. Now, on your SPIA, you are getting a withdrawal rate of 5.1% to 6.4%. And although you are eating your principal with a SPIA, you have no longevity risk, it’s a guaranteed check. You have reduced the withdrawal requirement from your equities and can better weather the ups and downs of the stock market.

Is a SPIA Right For You?

A SPIA isn’t going to be for everyone. But if you want lifetime guaranteed retirement income a SPIA is a solid, conservative choice. Used in conjunction with the other pieces of your income plan (Social Security and Investment portfolio), a SPIA can help you sleep well at night. Especially for investors who are in great health and with a family history of longevity, it may be worth putting some money into a SPIA and turning on that monthly check. It can help offset the stock market risks that could derail your plans.

I know many parents think putting money into a SPIA will reduce money for their kids to inherit. That might be true. Of course, if you live a long time and run out of money, you won’t be leaving any money to your kids either. Our goal with any retirement income solution is to make sure you don’t outlive your money, which hopefully also means you are able to leave some money to your heirs.

What if the insurance company goes under? Isn’t that a risk? It is. Thankfully, most states protect SPIA policy holders up to $250,000. If you are planning to put more than $250,000 into a SPIA, I would seriously consider dividing your funds between several companies to stay under the limits. Read more: The Texas Guaranty Association. (Note that this information is provided solely for educational purposes and is not an inducement to a sale.)

In the next three articles in this five-part series, we will look at different withdrawal strategies for your investment portfolio. These approaches include the 4% rule, a Guardrails approach, and 5-year Buckets. All of these will help you manage the risks of funding retirement from stocks. But before we get to those, I wanted you to realize that you don’t have to put all your money into stocks to create retirement income. These withdrawal approaches are likely to work, and we know they worked in history. But if you want to buy your own pension and have a guaranteed retirement income, a SPIA could be the right tool for the job.

Creating Retirement Income

Creating Retirement Income

Today, we are starting a five-part series to look at creating retirement income. There are various different approaches you can take when it is time to retire and shift from accumulation to taking withdrawals from your 401(k), IRA, or other investment accounts. It is important to know the Pros and Cons of different approaches and to understand, especially, how they are designed to weather market volatility.

In upcoming posts, we will evaluate SPIAs, the 4% rule, a Guardrails Approach, and 5-Year Buckets. Before you retire, I want to discuss these with you and set up an income plan that is going to make the most sense for you. Today, let’s start with defining the challenges of creating retirement income.

Sequence of Returns Risk

During accumulation, market volatility is not such a bad thing. If you are contributing regularly to a 401(k) and the market has a temporary Bear Market, it is okay. All that matters is your long-term average return. If you invest over 30-40 years, you have historically averaged a return of 8-10 percent in the market. Through Dollar Cost Averaging, you know that you are buying shares of your funds at a more attractive price during a drop.

Unfortunately, market volatility is a big problem when you are retired and taking money out of a portfolio. You calculated your needs and planned to take a fixed amount of money out of your portfolio. If the market averages 8% returns, can you withdraw 8%? That should work, right?

Let’s look at an example. You have a $1 million portfolio, you want to take $80,000 a year in withdrawals. Imagine you retired in 2000, having reached your goal of having $1 million! Here’s what your first three years of retirement might have looked like, with $80,000 annual withdrawals:

  • Start at $1,000,000, 9% market loss = $830,000 ending value
  • Year 2: start at $830,000, 12% market loss = $650,400 ending value
  • Year 3: start at $650,400, 22% market loss = $427,312 ending value

This would blow up your portfolio and now, your $80,000 withdrawal would be almost 20% of your remaining funds. This is Sequence of Returns Risk: the order of returns matters when you are taking income. If you had retired 10 years before these three bad years, you might have been okay, because your portfolio would have grown for a number of years.

Because a retiree does not know the short-term performance of the stock market, we have to take much smaller withdrawals than the historical averages. It’s not just the long-term average which matters. Losses early in your retirement can wreck your income plan.

Longevity Risk

The next big risk for retirement income is longevity. We don’t know how long to plan for. Some people will have a short retirement of less than 10 years. Others will retire at 60 and live for another 40 years. If we take out too much, too early, we risk running out of funds at the worst possible time. There is tremendous poverty in Americans over the age of 80. They didn’t have enough assets and ran out of money. Then they end up having to spend down all their assets to qualify for Medicaid. It’s not a pretty picture.

And for you macho men who intend to die with your boots on – Great. You may wipe out all your money with your final expenses and leave your spouse impoverished. She will probably outlive you by 5-10 years. That’s why 80% of the residents in nursing homes are women. You need to plan better – not for you, but for her.

Read more: 7 Ways for Women to Not Outlive Their Money

We plan for a retirement of 30 years for couples. There’s a good chance that one or both of you will live for 25-30 years if you are retiring by age 65. There are different approaches to dealing with longevity risk, and we will be talking about this more in the upcoming articles.

Inflation Risk

Longevity brings up a related problem, Inflation Risk. At 3% inflation, your cost of living will double in 24 years. If you need $50,000 a year now, you might need $100,000 later, to maintain the same standard of living.

A good retirement income plan will address inflation, as this is a reality. Luckily, we have not had much inflation in recent decades, so retirees have not been feeling much pressure. In fact, most of my clients who start a monthly withdrawal plan, have not increased their payments even after 5 or 10 years. They get used to their budget and make it work. Retirement spending often follows a “smile” pattern. It starts high at the beginning of retirement, as you finally have time for the travel and hobbies you’ve always wanted. Spending typically slows in your later seventies and into your eighties, but increases towards the end of retirement with increased health care and assistance costs.

When we talk about a 4% Real Rate, that means that you would start at 4% but then increase it every year for inflation. A first year withdrawal of $40,000 would step up to $41,200 in year two, with 3% inflation. After 30 years (at 3% inflation), your withdrawal rate would be over $94,000. So, when we talk about a 4% withdrawal rate, realize that it is not as conservative as it sounds. Even at a low 3% inflation rate, that works out to $1,903,016 in withdrawals over 30 years. It’s a lot more than if you just were thinking $40,000 times 30 years ($1.2 million).

Periods with high inflation require starting with a lower withdrawal rate. Periods with low inflation enable retirees to take a higher initial withdrawal amount. Since we don’t know future inflation, most safe withdrawal approaches are built based on the worst historical case.

Invest for Total Return

There is one thing which all of our retirement income approaches agree upon: Invest for Total Return, not Income. This is counter-intuitive for many retirees. They want to find high yielding bonds, stocks, and funds. Then, they can generate withdrawal income and avoid selling shares.

It sounds like it would be a rational approach. If you want a 5% withdrawal rate, just buy stocks, bonds, and funds that have a 5% or higher dividend yield. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t work as planned or hoped!

Over the years, I’ve invested in everything high yield: dividend stocks, preferred stocks, high yield bonds, Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs), Closed End Funds, etc. They can have a small place in a portfolio, but they are no magic bullet.

Problems with Income Investing

  • Value Trap. Some stocks have high yields because they have no growth. Then if they cut their dividends, shares plummet. Buy the highest dividend payouts and your overall return is often less than the yield and the share price goes no where. (Ask me about the AT&T shares I’ve held since 2009 and are down 14%.)
  • Default risk. Many high yield investments are from highly levered companies with substantial risk of bankruptcy. Having 5% upside and 100% downside on a high yield bond or preferred stock is a lousy scenario. When you do have the occasional loss, it will be greater than many years of your income.
  • Poor diversification. High yield investments are not equally present in all sectors of the economy. Often, an income portfolio ends up looking like a bunch of the worst banks, energy companies, and odd-ball entities. These are often very low quality investments.

Instead of getting the steady paycheck you wanted, an income portfolio often does poorly. When your income portfolio is down in a year when the S&P is up 10-20%, believe me, you will be ready to throw in the towel on this approach. Save yourself this agony and invest for total return. Total return means you want capital gains (price appreciation) and income.

For investors in retirement accounts, there is no tax difference between taking a distribution from dividends versus selling your shares. So, stop thinking that you need to only take income from your portfolio. What you want is to have a diversified portfolio and a good long-term rate of return. Then, just make sure you are able to weather market volatility along the way.

Read more: Avoiding The High Yield Trap

Ahead in the Series

Each of the retirement income approaches we will discuss have their own Pros and Cons. We will address each through looking at how they address the risks facing retirees: Sequence of Returns Risk, Longevity Risk, and Inflation Risk. And I’ll have recommendations for which may make the most sense for you. In the next four posts, I’ll be explaining SPIAs, the 4% Rule, a Guardrail Approach, and 5-Year Buckets.

Even if you aren’t near retirement, I think it’s vitally important to understand creating retirement income. Retirement income establishes your finish line and therefore your savings goals. If you are planning on a 4% withdrawal rate, you need $1 million for every $40,000 a year in retirement spending. Looking at your monthly budget, you can calculate how much you will need in your nest egg. Then we can have a concrete plan for how much to invest and how we will get there. Thanks for reading!

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.

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.