Inflation Investments

Inflation Investments

With the cost of living on the rise in 2021, many investors are asking about inflation investments. What is a good way to position your portfolio to grow and maintain its purchasing power? Where should we be positioned for 2022 if higher inflation is going to stick around?

Inflation was 5.4% for the 12 months ending in July. I share these concerns and we are going to discuss several inflation investments below. Before we do, I have to begin with a caveat. We should be cautious about placing a lot of weight in forecasts. Whether we look at predictions of stock market returns, interest rates, or inflation, these are often quite inaccurate. Market timing decisions based on these forecasts seldom add any value in hindsight.

What we do know for sure is that cash will lose its purchasing power. With interest rates near zero on most money market funds and bank accounts, it is a frustrating time to be a conservative investor. We like to consider the Real Yield – the yield minus inflation. It would be good if bonds were giving us a positive Real Yield. Today, however, the Real Yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is negative 4%. This may be the most unattractive Real Yield we have ever seen in US fixed income.

Let’s look at inflation’s impact on stocks and bonds and then discuss three alternatives: TIPs, Commodities, and Real Estate.

Inflation and Stocks

You may hear that inflation is bad for stocks. That is partially true. Rising inflation hurts companies’ profitability and consumers’ wallets. In the short-term, unexpected spikes in inflation seem correlated to below average performance in stocks.

However, when we look longer, stocks have done the better job of staying ahead of inflation than other assets. Over five or ten years, stocks have generally outpaced inflation by a wide margin. That’s true even in periods of higher inflation. There are always some down periods for stocks, but as an asset class, stocks typically have the best chance of beating inflation over a 20-30 year horizon as an investor or as a retiree.

We can’t discuss stocks and inflation without considering two important points.

First, if there is high inflation in the US, we expect that the Dollar will decline in value as a currency. If the Dollar weakens, this would be positive for foreign stocks or emerging market stocks. Because foreign stocks trade in other currencies, a falling dollar would boost their values for US investors. Our international holdings provide a hedge against a falling dollar.

Second, the Federal Reserve may act soon to slow inflation by raising interest rates. This would help slow the economy. However, if the Fed presses too hard on the brake pedal, they could crash the economy, the stock market, and send bond prices falling, too. In this scenario, cash at 0% could still outperform stocks and bonds for a year or longer! That’s why Wall Street has long said “Don’t fight the Fed.” The Fed’s mandate is to manage inflation and they are now having to figure out how to keep the economy growing. But not growing too much to cause inflation! This will prove more difficult as government spending and debt grows to walk this tightrope.

Inflation and Bonds

With Real Yields negative today, it may seem an unappealing time to own bonds, especially high quality bonds. Earning one percent while inflation is 5% is frustrating. The challenge is to maintain an appropriate risk tolerance across the whole portfolio.

If you have a 60/40 portfolio with 60% in stocks and 40% in bonds, should you sell your bonds? The stock market is at an all-time high right now and US growth stocks could be overvalued. So it is not a great buying opportunity to replace all your bonds with stocks today. Instead, consider your reason for owning bonds. We own bonds to offset the risk of stocks. This gives us an opportunity to have some stability and survive the next bear market. Bonds give us a chance to rebalance. So, I doubt that anyone who is 60/40 or 70/30 will want to go to 100% stocks in this environment today.

Still, I think we can add some value to fixed income holdings. Here are a couple of ways we have been addressing fixed income holdings for our clients:

  • Ladder 5-year Fixed Annuities. Today’s rate is 2.75%, which is below inflation, but more than double what we can find in Treasury bonds, Municipal bonds, or CDs.
  • Emerging Market Bonds. As a long-term investment, we see attractive relative yields and improving fundamentals.
  • Preferred Stocks, offering an attractive yield.

TIPS

Treasury Inflation Protected Securities are US government bonds which adjust to the CPI. These should be the perfect inflation investment. TIPS were designed to offer a return of inflation plus some small amount. In the past, these may have offered CPI plus say one percent. Then if CPI is 5.4%, you would earn 6.4% for the year.

Unfortunately, in today’s low yield environment, TIPS sell at a negative yield. For example, the yield on the Vanguard short-term TIPS ETF (VTIP) is presently negative 2.24%. That means you will earn inflation minus 2.24%. Today, TIPS are guaranteed to not keep up with inflation! I suppose if you think inflation is staying higher than 5%, TIPS could still be attractive relative to owning regular short-term Treasury Bonds. But TIPS today will not actually keep up with inflation.

Instead of TIPS, individual investors should look at I-Bonds. I-Bonds are a cousin of the old-school EE US Savings Bonds. The I-series savings bonds, however, are inflation linked. I-bonds bought today will pay CPI plus 0%. Then your investment is guaranteed to keep up with inflation, unlike TIPS. A couple of things to know about I-bonds:

  • You can only buy I-bonds directly from the US Treasury. We cannot hold I-Bonds in a brokerage account. There is no secondary market for I-bonds, you can only redeem at a bank or electronically.
  • I-Bond purchases are limited to a maximum of $10,000 a year in electronic form and $5,000 a year as paper bonds, per person. You can buy I-bonds as a gift for minors, and the annual limits are based on the recipient, not the purchaser.
  • I-bonds pay interest for 30 years. You can redeem an I-bond after 12 months. If you sell between 1 and 5 years, you lose the last three months of interest.

Commodities

Because inflation means that the cost of materials is rising, owning commodities as part of a portfolio may offer a hedge on inflation. Long-term, commodities have not performed as well as stocks, but they do have periods when they do well. While bonds are relatively stable and consistent, commodities can have a lot of volatility and risk. So, I don’t like commodities as a permanent holding in a portfolio.

The Bloomberg Commodities Index was up 22% this year through August 31. Having already had a strong performance, I don’t think that anyone buying commodities today is early to the party. That is a risk – even if we are correct about above average inflation, that does not mean we are guaranteed success by buying commodities.

Consider Gold. Gold is often thought of as a great inflation hedge and a store of value. Unfortunately, Gold has not performed well in 2021. Gold is down 4.7% year to date, even as inflation has spiked. It has underperformed broad commodities by 27%! It’s difficult to try to pick individual commodities with consistent accuracy. They are highly speculative. That’s why if you are going to invest in commodities, I would suggest a broad index fund rather than betting on a single commodity.

Real Estate

With home prices up 20% in many markets, Real Estate is certainly a popular inflation investment. And with mortgage rates at all-time lows, borrowers tend to do well when inflation ticks up. Home values grow and could even outstrip the interest rate on your mortgage, potentially. I’ve written at length about real estate and want to share a couple of my best pieces:

While I like real estate as an inflation hedge, I’d like to remind investors that the home price changes reported by the Case-Schiller Home Price Index do not reflect the return to investors. Read: Inflation and Real Estate.

Thinking about buying a rental property? Read: Should You Invest In Real Estate?

With cash at zero percent, should you pay off your mortgage? Read: Your Home Is Like A Bond

Looking at commercial Real Estate Investment Trusts, US REITs have had a strong year. The iShares US REIT ETF (IYR) is up 27% year to date, beating even the S&P 500 Index. I am concerned about the present valuations and low yields in the space. Additionally, retail, office, apartments, and senior living all face extreme challenges from the Pandemic. Many are seeing vacancies, bankrupt tenants, and people relocating away from urban development. Many businesses are rethinking their office needs as work-from-home seems here to stay. Even if we do see higher inflation moving forward, I’m not sure I want to chase REITs at these elevated levels.

Inflation Portfolio

Even with the possibility of higher inflation, I would caution investors against making radical changes to their portfolio. Stocks will continue to be the inflation investment that should offer the best chance at crushing inflation over the long-term. Include foreign stocks to add a hedge because US inflation suggests the Dollar will fall over time. Bonds are primarily to offset the risk of stocks and provide portfolio defense. We will make a few tweaks to try to reduce the impact of inflation on fixed income, but I would remind investors to avoid chasing high yield.

As satellite positions to core stock and bond holdings, we’ve looked at TIPS, Commodities, and Real Estate. Each has Pros and Cons as inflation investments. At this point, the simple fear of inflation has caused some of these investments to already have significant moves. We will continue to evaluate the inflation situation and analyze how we position our investment holdings. Our focus remains fixed on helping clients achieve their goals through prudent investment strategies and smart financial planning.

Preferred Stock Dividends

Preferred Stock Dividends

As part of our Core and Satellite portfolio models, our investors have received Preferred Stock Dividends for several years. Preferred Stocks are different from Common Stock as they are a hybrid security which combines the features of a stock and a bond. Like a stock, preferreds trade on an exchange and pay a quarterly dividend. Like a bond, preferreds are issued at a Par Value ($25) and can be called or redeemed by the issuer in the future for $25.

If you’d like a primer on Preferred Stocks, check out my previous article, Preferred Stocks Belong In Your Portfolio. Or check out Forbes, What is Preferred Stock?

The Role of Preferreds

The preferreds we own have yields from 4-6% or more. Today, with the yield on 10-year Treasury Bonds around 1.25%, preferred stock dividends offer a nice rate of return compared to bonds but without all of the volatility of common stocks. And with the current high valuations on US Stocks, Preferred Stocks offer us an alternative that complements our stock and bond holdings. It’s a nice way to diversify our holdings, but preferreds remain a small, niche investment that most people have never owned.

Presently, our Premiere Wealth Portfolios have between 7-11.5% in Preferred Stocks. In our Defensive Managers Select portfolio, we have a 20% position in Preferred Stocks. Those are significant weights for a satellite position, but it remains a small piece of our overall allocation.

We buy a basket of individual Preferred Stocks. For each client, we will own a minimum of 5 and as many as 15 individual Preferred Stocks. As of today, our largest holdings include Capital One, Wells Fargo, Regions Financial, JP Morgan, and Brookfield Finance. Most preferreds are issues by financial companies, although there are some issued by real estate and utilities, too.

I prefer to own individual preferreds to have better control over the portfolio and keep costs down. Generally, I like to buy Exchange Traded Funds. And there is an ETF for preferreds: PFF from iShares. Two problems. First, the ETF owns many preferreds trading at a very large premium to Par. That means you would be buying a preferred at $27 that could be redeemed at $25 within 5 years. We have to look at the Yield to Call to understand this. Second, the ETF has an expense ratio of almost half a percent (0.46%), and that would reduce investors’ return. In a sector where the expected return is only 4-5%, that expense ratio would be a big drag on returns.

Managing Preferreds

Within our baskets of preferreds, we’ve had quite a few trades this summer. Generally, for most of my clients, we own preferreds in IRAs, since they create taxable income. In an IRA, we can trade without any capital gains impact. With yields falling this year, there has been a high demand for Preferred Stock Dividends. And this has pushed up the price of many Preferred Stocks. This is not a good time to just blindly buy any Preferred Stocks – many are very expensive.

So, we have been rotating from preferreds with higher prices to those with lower prices. In some cases, a Preferred with a high dividend payment actually has a low Yield to Call. If you are paying $27 for a preferred that is callable for $25, you are paying an 8% premium. And that premium will decline to the call date, creating a loss of capital that will eat into your total return. I am finding opportunities to improve our preferred stock dividends with some careful trades.

Trading and Upgrading

There are a couple of scenarios where we have placed trades to replace one preferred with another.

  1. Price comparison. Here are two preferreds with the same coupon of 4.45% and similar credit ratings and call dates. The Schwab (series J) is trading at $26.57, while Regions Financial (series E) is at $25.60. This is an opportunity to sell an expensive share and use the proceeds to buy more shares of the lower priced preferred.
  2. Same company, different series. Capital One’s series L has a coupon of 4.375% and the series N is at 4.25%. Both have the same call date of September 2026. There is a one-eighth of a percent difference in coupon. So, when the L’s were trading for 2.5% more than the N’s, that is too big of a difference. We sold the L’s and bought the N’s. Then this week, the prices swapped and we were able to sell the N’s and buy back the higher yield L’s for less. Many companies have multiple series of preferred stocks. Sometimes one is more expensive and the other is less expensive, for no logical reason. We’ve also swapped between the Goldman Sachs series C and D, which both have a 4% coupon.
  3. New issues. We can buy IPOs of Preferred Stocks. We’ve bought a new JP Morgan preferred at $25 this summer and it is now up to $25.56. Other times, we have been able to buy preferreds for below $25 for a few days after the IPO, when the issue was undersubscribed. We’ve bought shares of Regions Financial and Texas Capital Bancshares at a discount this way. Over a few weeks, new issues usually move to where similar preferreds are priced.

Long-Term Outlook

I’ve been looking at all types of income securities for the last 17 years. Not just Preferred Stocks, but Closed End Funds, MLPs, REITs, and individual corporate and municipal bonds. It’s a lot of time to manage individual securities correctly, and it takes skill and knowledge that takes years to develop.

I like the idea of Preferred Stock Dividends to add income to our portfolio models. And that’s the purpose behind our Alternatives sleeve to the portfolio: to seek investments with a better return than bonds, and lower correlation and volatility compared to stocks.

For now it’s working as I had hoped. What might change this? If we see the Federal Reserve start to raise interest rates and see the long-end of the yield curve move up, this would be negative for preferreds. That’s why this is a Satellite holding and not a Core. There may well come a day that we liquidate the preferreds for another asset class with better prospects. Even though we are buy and hold, long-term investors, by no means is the approach a purely passive portfolio. Rather than looking in the rear view mirror, we construct portfolios looking forward at the challenges we see facing markets today.

Have a question about Preferred Stock Dividends? Curious about your Retirement Income? Let’s talk about our portfolios and how they might work for you. Click Contact on the top of this page to get in touch!

What Percentage Should You Save

What Percentage Should You Save?

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

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

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

10% from age 25

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

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

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

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

What percentage should you replace?

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

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

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

Time Value of Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can you do?

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

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

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

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

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

retirement buckets

Retirement Buckets

Our fifth and final installment of our series on retirement income will cover the strategy of five-year retirement buckets. It is a very simple approach: you maintain two buckets within your portfolio. Bucket 1 consists of cash and bonds sufficient for five years of income needs. Bucket 2 is a long-term growth portfolio (stocks).

We could start with up to a 5% withdrawal rate. Let’s consider an example. On a $1 million portfolio, we would place $250,000 in Bucket 1. That is enough to cover $50,000 in withdrawals for five years. Bucket 1 would be kept in cash and bonds, for safety and income. Each year, you would take withdrawals from Bucket 1.

Bucket 2, with $750,000, is your stock portfolio. The goal is to let this money grow so that it can refill Bucket 1 over time. In years when Bucket 2 is up, we can refill Bucket 1 and bring it back up to five years worth of money. At $750,000, a 6 2/3% annual return would provide the $50,000 a year needed to refill Bucket 1.

Addressing Market Volatility

When the market is flat or down, we do not take a withdrawal from Bucket 2. This addresses the big risk of retirement income, having to sell your stocks when they are down. Instead, by having five years of cash in Bucket 1, we can wait until the market recovers before having to sell stocks. That way, you are not selling stocks during a time like March of 2020, or March of 2009! Instead, we hold on and wait for better times to sell.

Historically, most Bear Markets are just for a year or two, and then the market begins to recover. Sometimes, like this year, the recovery is quite fast. The goal with our Retirement Buckets is to never have to sell during a down year. And while it is always possible that the stock market could be down five years in a row, that has never happened historically.

Retirement Buckets is different from our other withdrawal strategies, such as the 4% rule or the Guardrails strategy. Those strategies tend to have a fixed asset allocation and rebalance annually. The Retirement Buckets Strategy starts with a 75/25 allocation, but that allocation will change over time. Our goal is not to maintain exactly 25% in the cash/bonds bucket, but rather to target the fixed amount of $250,000. If the market is down for two years, we may spend Bucket 1 down to $150,000.

Stocks for Growth

For most people, having five years of cash and bonds in reserve should be sufficiently comfortable. However, if you wanted to increase this to 7 years, a 65/35 initial allocation, that would also work. But, I would suggest starting with at least a 60% allocation to stocks. That’s because when Bucket 2 is smaller, you need an even higher return to refill the $50,000 a year. If you started with 60/40 ($600,000 in Bucket 2), for example, you’d need a return of 8 1/3%.

Retirement Buckets can work because you are creating flexibility around when you are going to sell stocks. When you maintain any fixed allocation, you run into the problem of selling stocks when they are down. Rebalancing is good when you are in accumulation – it means you are buying stocks when they are low. But for retirement income strategies, selling stocks when they are down is likely going to be a bad idea.

Selling Bonds First

Somewhat related to a Buckets Strategy is another income strategy, the Rising Equity Glidepath. In this approach, you sell your bonds first. So, if you started with a 60/40 allocation at retirement and withdraw 4% a year, your bonds would last you 10 years (actually a little longer, with interest). If you avoid touching your stocks for 10 years, they are likely to have doubled in value, historically, with just a 7% annual return. I see the Rising Equity Glidepath as being related to the buckets strategy because both approaches focus on not selling stocks. This reduces the Sequence of Returns risk that market losses impact your initial retirement years.

However, most investors become more conservative as they age, so they aren’t going to like the Rising Equity Glidepath. If they retire at 65, that puts them on track to be at 100% equities at age 75. That’s not what most want. So, even though the strategy looks good in theory, it’s not going to make sense in practice.

What’s Your Plan?

The Retirement Buckets approach can provide a strategy that is logical and easily understood by investors. We maintain five years of cash and bonds, and can replenish the cash bucket when the market is up. This gives you a flexible process for how you are going to fund your retirement and respond to market volatility.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our series on retirement income approaches. It is so important to understand how to create sustainable withdrawals from your portfolio. Whether you are already retired or have many years to go, we are here to help you find the right strategy for you.

guardrails withdrawal strategy

Guardrails Withdrawal Strategy

After looking at Bengen’s 4% Withdrawal Rule last week, today we turn to the Guardrails Withdrawal Strategy created by Guyton and Klinger in 2006. Bengen’s 4% Rule is a static withdrawal strategy – he tested various fixed withdrawal rates over 30-year periods to calculate a safe withdrawal rate for retirement income. This is a static approach because he did not attempt to adjust withdrawals based on market performance.

As a result, one criticism of the 4% Rule is that it is too conservative and is based on the historical worst case scenario. In many scenarios, retirees could have taken much more income than 4%. Or they could have retired years earlier! In bad market scenarios, it also seems unlikely that a retiree would continue to increase their withdrawals every year for inflation if it risked depleting their assets.

A Dynamic Withdrawal Strategy is one which adjusts retirement income up or down based on market performance. Guyton’s Guardrail approach establishes a framework for retirees to adjust their income if necessary. The benefit is that you could increase your withdrawals if performance is above average. It also means you may need to reduce withdrawals during a bad stretch. A dynamic approach means you could start with a much higher withdrawal than just 4%. The guardrails creates an ongoing process to know if your withdrawal rate is in the safe zone or needs to change.

Guyton’s Guardrail Rules

Like Bengen’s framwork, Guyton looked at historical market performance over a 30-year retirement. Here are the main points of his Guardrails Withdrawal Strategy:

  • Your initial withdrawal rate could be 5.4%.
  • You increase withdrawals for inflation annually, EXCEPT in years when the portfolio has fallen in value, OR if your withdrawal percentage exceeds the original rate of 5.4%. In those years, you keep the same withdrawal amount as the previous year.
  • If a market drop causes your current withdrawal rate to exceed 6.48%, then you need to cut your withdrawal dollars by 10%.
  • If market gains cause your withdrawal rate to fall below 4.32%, then you can increase your withdrawal dollars by 10%.
  • This strategy worked with allocations of 65/35 and 80/20. With a 50/50 portfolio, the safe withdrawal rate drops from 5.4% to 4.6%.
  • After a year when stocks were down, withdrawals should only come from cash or bonds. On years when the market is up, he would trim stocks and add to cash to meet future withdrawals.

On a $1 million portfolio, the Guardrails approach suggests you could safely withdraw $54,000 in year 1. That’s significantly higher than the $40,000 under Bengen’s static 4% rule. And while you might forgo annual inflation increases if the market does poorly, you were already starting at a much higher income level. Even if you had a 10% cut in income, from $54,000 to $48,600, you are still getting more income than if you were using the 4% Rule.

Dynamic Withdrawal Range

The Guardrails approach establishes an ongoing withdrawal range of 4.32% to 6.48%. That is a 20% buffer from your original 5.4%. If your withdrawal rate goes outside of this range, you should decrease (or can increase) your withdrawals. The static 4% rule only focused on your initial withdrawal rate and then just assumes you make no changes regardless of whether your future withdrawals are high or low. The 4% rule is an interesting study of market history, but I think retirees want to have a more strategic approach to managing market risk.

The benefit to a retiree for implementing a Guardrails approach is significant. If you need $40,000 a year, you would only need an initial nest egg of $740,740 with the guardrails, versus $1 million under the 4% rule. And you now have a clear process each year to evaluate the sustainability of your current withdrawals. You are responding to markets to aim for an effective retirement strategy.

Calculating a sustainable withdrawal rate for retirement income will always be an unknown. We’ve talked about the challenges of sequence of returns risk, inflation, and longevity. While we can’t predict the future, having a dynamic approach to retirement withdrawals is appealing and intuitive. Is a Guardrails Withdrawal Strategy right for you? Along with portfolio management, our retirement planning process can offer great peace of mind that you are taking a prudent, well-thought approach to managing your wealth.

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.