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!

457 403b Plan

Choosing a 457 or a 403(b) Plan

Does your employer offer both a 403(b) and a 457 Plan? What should you do and what is a 457 anyways? A 457(b) Plan is an employer sponsored retirement plan for state or local government employees. It is a pre-tax, salary deferral plan, with an annual contribution limit of $19,500. Sounds just like a 401(k) or 403(b), right? Yes, but with one very interesting difference.

If you have more than one 401(k) or 403(b), your combined contribution to all 401(k) and 403(b) accounts cannot exceed $19,500 a year. 457 Plans are not included in this rule. That means that if you work for a government employer who offers both a 403(b) and a 457, you can contribute the maximum to both!

IRS Publication 4484: Choose a Retirement Plan for Employees of a Tax-Exempt Government Entity

457 Versus 403(b)

Besides the amazing tax-savings of doubling your contributions, there are a couple of other unique features of 457 plans.

The 457 has the same catch-up feature as a 403(b). Participants age 50 and higher can contribute an extra $6,500 a year. Additionally, if you are within three years of normal retirement age, you may be able to contribute up to two times the usual limit. Instead of $19,500, you could contribute up to $39,000 to a 457. Eligibility for this catch-up is limited by your previous contributions, so check with your HR to calculate your actual amount.

Most employers do not contribute to a 457 Plan. If they do, their contribution is counted towards your $19,500 limit. That’s a difference from a 403(b), where an employer contribution is on top of your individual limit.

There is no 10% penalty on distributions before age 59 ½. At whatever age you retire, you can access your 457 Plan without penalty. This is a big advantage compared to a 403(b) or IRA for people who want to retire early. And it’s a good reason to not rollover a 457 into an IRA. Once it’s in the IRA you would have to wait until after 59 ½ to avoid the penalty.

Let’s Evaluate Your Options

If your employer offers a 457 in addition to a 403(b), look into the 457. Want to contribute the maximum to both plans? That would be $39,000 for 2020, or $52,000 if you are age 50 or above. And potentially even higher if you are within three years of normal retirement age. Of course, you will also want to compare both plans being offered to you. Consider if any match is available, as well as the investment options and expenses of each plan.

You’d love to do both, but not sure you can contribute more than $19,500? Start here: 5 Steps to Boost Your Savings

Whatever type of retirement plan you have, let’s make sure you are taking full advantage of the benefits available to you. Not sure where to begin? I’m here to help, just send me a note.

Unplanned Retirement

Unplanned Retirement

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

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

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

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

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

Unplanned Retirement Steps

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

Be Prepared for the Unexpected

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

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

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

Using the ACA to Retire Early

A lot of people want to retire early. Maybe you’re one of them. The biggest obstacle for many is the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. It’s such a huge expense that some assume they have no choice but to keep working until age 65 when they become eligible for Medicare.

However, if you can carefully plan out your retirement income, you may be eligible for a Premium Tax Credit (PTC) when you purchase an insurance plan on the health exchange, under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). The key is to know what the income levels are, what counts as income, and then to have other sources of savings or income to cover you until after the year in which you reach age 65 and enroll in Medicare. If we can bridge those years, maybe you can retire early by having the PTC cover a significant portion of your insurance premiums.

You are eligible for a PTC if your income is between 100% and 400% of the Federal Poverty levels. For a single person, those income amounts are between $12,140 and $48,560 for 2019. For a married couple, your income would need to be between $16,460 and $65,840. The lower your income, the larger your tax credit. Please note that if you are married filing separately, you are not eligible for the PTC. You must file a joint return.

The PTC will be based on your estimate of your 2020 income. If your actual income ends up being higher, when you file your 2020 tax return in April 2021, then you have to repay the difference. So it is very important that you understand how “income” is calculated for the PTC.

Under the ACA, income is your “Modified Adjusted Gross Income” (MAGI), which unfortunately is not a line on your tax return. MAGI takes your Adjusted Gross Income and adds back items, such as 100% of your Social Security benefits (which might have been 50% or 85% taxable), Capital Gains, and even tax-free municipal bond interest.

Read more: What to Include as Income

Here are some examples of the Premium Tax Credit, based on Dallas County, Texas, for non-tobacco users:

  • Single Male, age 63 with $45,000 income would be eligible for a PTC of $580 a month
  • Single Male, age 63 with $25,000 income, PTC increases to $811 a month.
  • Married couple (MF) age 63, with $60,000 income would have a PTC of $1,404/month
  • Married couple (MF) age 63, with $40,000 income would have a PTC of $1,633/month

(Same sex couples are eligible for a PTC under the same rules: they must be legally married and file a joint tax return.)

For this last example of a 63 year old couple making $40,000, the average cost of a plan after the Premium Tax Credit would be $332 (Bronze), $428 (Silver), or $495 (Gold) a month, for Dallas County. That’s very reasonable compared to a regular individual plan off the exchange, or COBRA. 

Check your own rates and PTC estimate on Healthcare.gov

Here’s how you can minimize your income to maximize your ACA tax credit and retire before 65:

  • Don’t start Social Security or a Pension until at least the year after you turn 65. Consider that if you start taking $2,000 a month in income, it means you could lose a $1,400 monthly tax credit.
  • Don’t take withdrawals from your Traditional IRA or 401(k). Those distributions count as ordinary income.
  • You can however take distributions from your Roth IRA and that won’t count as income for the PTC. Just make sure you are age 59 1/2 and have had a Roth open for at least five years. 
  • Build up your savings so you can pay your living expenses for these bridge years until age 65. 
  • If you have stocks or funds with large capital gains, consider selling a year before you sign up for the ACA health plan. Although you might pay 15% long-term capital gains tax, you can avoid having those sales count as MAGI in the year you want a PTC.
  • In your taxable account, you can sell funds or bonds with low taxable gains in the years you need the PTC. That can be a source of liquidity. Rebalance in your IRA to avoid creating additional gains.  
  • You can pay or reimburse yourself from a Health Savings Account (HSA) for your qualified medical expenses. Those are tax-free distributions.
  • If you still have earned income when “retired”, a Traditional IRA contribution (if deductible) or a 401(k) contribution will reduce MAGI. 
  • If you sell your home (your primary residence), and have lived there at least two of the past five years, then the capital gain (of up to $250,000 single or $500,000 married) is not counted towards MAGI for the ACA.  

An important point: your goal is not to reduce your income to zero. If you do not have income of at least 100% of the poverty level, you are ineligible for the premium tax credit and will instead be covered by Medicaid. That’s not necessarily bad, but to get a large tax credit and use a plan from the exchange, you need to have income of at least $12,140 (single) or $16,460 (married).

If you can delay your retirement income and have other assets available to cover your expenses until after 65, you may be able to take advantage of the Premium Tax Credit. This planning could add years to your retirement and avoid having to wait any longer. If you want to retire before 65, let’s look at your expenses and accounts, and create a budget and plan to make it happen using the Premium Tax Credit.

Consider, too, that the plans on the exchange may have different deductibles and co-pays than your current employer coverage. Check if your existing doctors and medications will be covered in-network and create an estimate of what you might pay out-of-pocket as well as what your maximum out-of-pocket costs would be. 

7 Strategies If The Stretch IRA is Eliminated

On May 31, I sent a newsletter about US House of Representatives approving the SECURE Act and six changes it would create for retirement plans. To pay for the cost of new rules, like extending the RMD age from 70 1/2 to 72, the legislation proposes to eliminate the Stretch IRA starting in 2020. While the Senate has yet to finalize their own version of this legislation, odds are good that something is going to get passed. And if the Stretch IRA manages to survive this time, it will likely be back on the chopping block in the near future.

A Stretch IRA, also known as an Inherited IRA or Beneficiary IRA, allows the beneficiary of an IRA to continue to enjoy the tax-deferred growth of the IRA and only take relatively small Required Minimum Distributions over their lifetime. Congress has recognized that while they want to encourage people to contribute to IRAs to save for their retirement, they’re not as happy about the IRAs being used as an Estate Planning tool.

If you have a large IRA, one million or more, you might have more in assets than you will need to spend. If you leave it to your spouse, they can still roll it into their own IRA and treat it as their own. Once the Stretch IRA is eliminated, and you leave the IRA to someone other than a spouse, they will have to withdraw the entire IRA within 10 years. Those distributions will be treated as ordinary income and there could be substantial taxes on a seven-figure IRA.

Now is the time to start planning for the end of the Stretch IRA. There are ways that could potentially save many thousands in taxes on a million dollar IRA. But these methods may take years to work, so it pays to start early. Here are seven considerations:

1. Charitable Beneficiary. If you are planning to leave money to a charity (a church, arts organization, university, or other charity), make that bequest through your IRA rather than from your taxable estate. The charity will receive the full amount and as a tax-exempt organization, not owe any taxes on the distribution. It will be much more tax efficient to leave taxable assets to individual beneficiaries and IRA assets to charities than the reverse.

2. QCD. Better than waiting until you pass away, you can donate up to $100,000 a year in Qualified Charitable Distributions after age 70 1/2 that count towards your RMD. This reduces your IRA but preserves a tax benefit today, which is even better than leaving it as an inheritance. Plus you get to see the good your donation can make while you are still alive. (And you don’t have to itemize your tax return; the QCD is an above the line deduction.)

3. Start withdrawals at age 59 1/2. The traditional approach to IRAs was to avoid touching them until you hit 70 1/2 and had to start RMDs. With today’s lower tax brackets, if you have a very large IRA, it may be preferable to start distributions as early as 59 1/2 and save that money in a taxable account.

For a married couple, the 24% tax bracket goes all the way up to $321,450 (2019). Those rates are set to sunset after 2025. Additionally, while any future growth in an IRA will eventually be taxed as ordinary income, IRA money that is withdrawn and invested in ETFs now will become eligible for the preferential long-term capital gains rate of 15%. Your future growth is now at a lower tax rate outside the IRA.

4. If you’re going to take annual distributions and pay the tax gradually, an even better way is through Roth Conversions. Once in the Roth, you will pay no tax on future growth and you heirs can receive the Roth accounts income tax-free. Conversions don’t count as part of your RMD, so the best time to do this may be between 59 1/2 and 70 1/2. Look at gradually making partial conversions that keep you within a lower tax bracket.

5. A lot of owners of large IRAs want to leave their IRA to a Trust to make sure the funds are not squandered, mismanaged, or taken by a child’s spouse. Unfortunately, Trust taxes are very high. In fact, Trusts reach the top tax rate of 37% once they hit just $12,750 in taxable income. In the past, trust beneficiaries were able to still use the Stretch IRA rules even with a Trust. However, if the Stretch IRA is eliminated, most of these IRA Trusts are going to pay an egregious amount of taxes.

One alternative is to establish a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT). This would allow for annual income to be provided to your beneficiaries just like from a Stretch IRA, but once that beneficiary passes away, the remainder is donated to a charity. This preserves significant tax benefits as the initial IRA distribution to the CRT is non-taxable. The downside is that there are no lump sum options and the payments will not continue past the one generation named as beneficiaries. 

Still, if you have a Trust established as the beneficiary of your IRA, you will want to revisit this choice very carefully if the Stretch IRA is eliminated.

6. Life Insurance. I usually recommend Term Insurance, but there is a place for permanent life insurance in estate planning. If the Stretch IRA is repealed, it may be more efficient to use your IRA to pay for $1 million in life insurance than to try to pass on a $1 million IRA. Life insurance proceeds are received income tax-free by the beneficiary.

For example, a healthy 70 year old male could purchase a Guaranteed Universal Life Policy with a $1 million death benefit for as little as $24,820.40 a year. Take the RMD from your $1 million IRA and use that to pay the life insurance premiums. Now your heirs will receive a $1 million life insurance policy (tax-free) in addition to your $1 million IRA. This policy and rate are guaranteed through age 100. If you don’t need income from your IRA, this could greatly increase the after-tax money received by your heirs. 

7. If you are an unmarried couple, you might want to consider if it would be beneficial to be married so that one spouse could inherit the other’s IRA and be able to treat it as their own.

The elimination of the Stretch IRA has been proposed repeatedly since 2012. In some ways, its repeal is a new inheritance tax. Billionaires typically have little or insignificant IRA assets compared to the rest of their wealth and have access to complex trust and legal structures. However, working professionals who have diligently created a net worth of $1 to 4 million, likely have a substantial amount of their wealth in their retirement accounts. And these are the families who will be impacted the most by the elimination of the Stretch IRA.

If you are planning on leaving a substantial retirement account to your beneficiaries, let’s talk about your specific situation and consider what course of action might be best for you. 

6 Changes Congress Wants to Make to Your Retirement Plan

In a rare bipartisan vote of 417-3, the House of Representatives approved the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019. The Act now goes to the Senate, which may make modifications, but is likely to still pass and reconcile a version of this legislation.

The version passed by the House has provisions which will indeed enhance 401(k)s, IRAs, and other retirement plans for all Americans. Hopefully, this will get more people saving and starting their contributions at a younger age. There are also provisions which will help retirees and people over age 70.

Here’s a partial list of the changes in the legislation:

  1. Pushing back the age for Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from 70 1/2 to 72.
  2. Allowing workers over age 70 1/2 to continue to contribute to a Traditional IRA.
  3. Allowing up to $5,000 in penalty-free withdrawals from IRAs to cover birth or adoption expenses for parents (taxes would still apply, but the 10% penalty would be waived).
  4. Allowing up to $10,000 in withdrawals from 529 College Savings Plans to pay off student loans. 
  5. Requiring 401(k) statements to show participants how much monthly income their balance could provide.
  6. Eliminating the “Stretch IRA”, also known as the Inherited or Beneficiary IRA. Currently, a beneficiary can take withdrawals over their lifetime. Instead, they will be required to withdraw all the money – and pay taxes – within 10 years.

The first two reflect the reality of how poorly prepared some Baby Boomers are for retirement and that more people are working well into their seventies today. Pushing back the RMD age will help people save for longer and reflects that life expectancy has gone up significantly since the original RMD rules were established decades ago.

Read more: Stop Retiring Early, People!

I am also a fan of showing the expected income from a 401(k). The SECURE Act will make it easier for 401(k) plans to offer participants the ability to purchase an immediate annuity and create monthly income from their retirement account. Lump sums tend to look very impressive, but when we consider making that money last, it can be a bit disappointing. 

For example, a 65-year old male with $100,000 could receive $529 a month for life. $100,000 sounds like a lot of money, but $529 a month does not. I would point out that $529 for 12 months is $6,348 a year which is a lot more than the 4% withdrawal rate we usually recommend for new retirees. (But the 4% would increase for inflation, whereas the annuity will remain $529 forever.)

Read more: How to Create Your Own Pension

The provision eliminating the Stretch IRA will be problematic for people with large IRAs. I am hoping that they will continue to allow a surviving spouse to treat an inherited IRA as their own, as is currently the law. If they do eliminate the Stretch IRA, there are several strategies which we might want to consider to reduce taxes on death. 

  • Rather than leaving taxable accounts to charity, it would be preferable to make the charity a beneficiary of your IRA. They will pay no taxes on receiving your IRA, unlike your family members. Also, you can change the charities easily through an IRA beneficiary form and not have to rewrite your will or hire an attorney.
  • You might want to leave smaller portions of your IRA to more people. Four people inheriting a $1 million IRA will pay less in taxes than one person, unless all four are already in the top tax bracket. Consider if making both children and grandchildren as a beneficiaries might help lower the tax bill on your beneficiaries. (Check with me about the Generation Skipping Tax, first. Your estate may be below the GST threshold.)
  • You could convert your IRA to a Roth, pay the taxes now and then there are no RMDs and your beneficiaries will inherit the Roth tax-free. You can spread the conversion over a number of years to stay in a lower tax bracket. Today’s low tax rates are supposed to sunset after 2025.

I will plan a full article on these strategies if the Stretch IRA is in fact repealed; we don’t know yet if existing Stretch IRAs will be grandfathered in place. This is the only negative I see in the legislation, and it will impose a higher tax burden on many beneficiaries of my clients’ retirement plans. There have been proposals to eliminate the Stretch IRA since at least 2012, but it just might happen this time.

While someone with $1 million or $2 million in a 401(k) is fairly well off, the reality is that this would be imposing a much higher tax burden on the beneficiaries of an IRA than for a genuinely wealthy family who has $10 million in “taxable” assets which will receive a step-up in cost basis upon death. The Ultra-Wealthy don’t have significant assets in IRAs, so this won’t really have an impact on them or their families, but for middle class folks, their retirement accounts are often their largest assets. Stay tuned!

7 Ways for Women to Not Outlive Their Money

Once a month, my brass quintet goes to a retirement home/nursing home and plays a concert for the residents. Over the past 15 years, I’ve visited more than 100 locations in Dallas. They run the gamut from Ritz-Carlton levels of luxury to places that, well, aren’t very nice and don’t smell so great.

What all these places do have in common is this: 75 to 80 percent of their residents are women. Women outlive men, and in many marriages, the husband is older. Wives are outliving their husbands by a substantial number of years. While no one dreams of ending up in a nursing home, living alone at that age is even more lonely, unhealthy, and perilous.

For women who have seen their own mother, aunt, or other relative live to a grand old age, you know that there are many older women who are living in genuine poverty in America today. Husbands, you may not worry about your old age or what happens to you, but certainly you don’t wish to leave your wife in dire financial straits after you are gone.

Longevity risk – the risk of outliving your money – is a primary concern for many women investors. A good plan to address longevity begins decades earlier. Here are some of the best ways to make sure you don’t outlive your money.

1. Delay Social Security benefits. Social Security is guaranteed for life and it is often the only source of guaranteed income that will also keep up with inflation, through Cost of Living Adjustments. By waiting from age 62 to age 70, you will receive a 76% increase in your monthly Social Security benefit. For married couples, there is a survivorship benefit, so if the higher earning spouse can wait until 70, that benefit amount will effectively apply for both lives. Husbands: even if you are in poor health, delaying your SS benefit will provide a higher benefit for your wife if she should outlive you.Read more: Social Security: It Pays to Wait

2. Buy a Single Premium Immediate Annuity (SPIA) when you retire. This provides lifetime income. The more guaranteed income you have, the less likely you will run out of money to withdraw. While the implied rate of return is not terribly high on a SPIA, you could consider that purchase to be part of your allocation to bonds. Read more: How to Create Your Own Pension

3. Delay retirement until age 70. If you can work a few more years, you can significantly improve your retirement readiness. This gives you more years to save, for your money to grow, and it reduces the number of years you need withdrawals by a significant percentage. Read more: Stop Retiring Early, People!

4. Don’t need your RMDs? Look into a QLAC. A Qualified Longevity Annuity Contract is a deferred annuity that you purchase in your IRA. By delaying benefits (up to age 80), you get to grow your future income stream, while avoiding Required Minimum Distributions.Read more: Longevity Annuity

5. Invest for Growth. If you are 62 and retiring in four years, your time horizon is not four years, you are really investing for 30 or more years. If your goal is to not run out of money and to maintain your purchasing power, putting your nest egg into cash might be the worst possible choice. Being ultra-conservative is placing more importance on short-term volatility avoidance than on the long-term risk of longevity.

6. Don’t blow up your investments. Here’s what we suggest:

  • Don’t buy individual stocks. Don’t chase the hot fad, whether that is today’s star manager, sector or country fund, or cryptocurrency. Don’t get greedy.
  • No private investments. Yes, some are excellent, but the ones that end up being Ponzi schemes also sound excellent. Seniors are targets for fraudsters. (Like radio host Doc Gallagher arrested this month in Dallas for a $20 million Ponzi scheme.)
  • Determine a target asset allocation, such as 60% stocks and 40% bonds (“60/40”), and either stick with it, or follow the Rising Equity Glidepath.
  • Use Index funds or Index ETFs for your equity exposure. Keep it simple.- Get professional advice you can trust.

7. Consider Long-Term Care Insurance. Why would you want that? Today’s LTCI policies also offer home care coverage, which means it might actually be thing which saves you from having to move to an assisted living facility. These policies aren’t cheap: $3,000 to $5,000 a year for a couple at age 60, but if you consider that assisted living would easily be $5,000 a month down the road, it’s a policy more people should be considering. Contact me for more information and we can walk you through the process and offer independent quotes from multiple companies.

There is no magic bullet for longevity risk for women, but a combination of these strategies, along with saving and creating a substantial retirement nest egg, could mean you won’t have to worry about money for the rest of your life. The best time to start planning for your future is today.

7 Missed IRA Opportunities

Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is the cornerstone of retirement planning, yet so many people miss opportunities to fund an IRA because they don’t realize they are eligible. With the great tax benefits of IRAs, you might want to consider funding yours every year that you can. Here are seven situations where many people don’t realize they could fund an IRA.

1. Spousal IRA. Even if a spouse does not have any earned income, they are eligible to make a Traditional or Roth IRA contribution based on the household income. Generally, if one spouse is eligible for a Roth IRA, so is the non-working spouse. In some cases, the non-working spouse may be eligible for a Traditional IRA contribution even when their spouse is ineligible because they are covered by an employer plan and their income is too high.  

2. No employer sponsored retirement plan. If you are single and your employer does not offer a retirement plan (or if you are married and neither of you are covered by an employer plan), then there are NO income limits on a Traditional IRA. You are always eligible for the full contribution, regardless of your household income. Note that this eligibility is determined by your employer offering you a plan and your being eligible, and not your participation. If the plan is offered, but you choose not to participate, then you are considered covered by an employer plan, which is number 2:

3. Covered by a employer plan. Here’s where things get tricky. Anyone can make a Traditional IRA contribution regardless of your income, but there are rules about who can deduct their contribution. A tax-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA is greatly preferred over a non-deductible contribution. If you cannot do the deductible contribution, but you can do a Roth IRA (number 4), never do a non-deductible contribution. Always choose the Roth over non-deductible. The limits listed below do not mean you cannot do a Traditional IRA, only that you cannot deduct the contributions.

If you are covered by your employer plan, including a 401(k), 403(b), SIMPLE IRA, pension, etc., you are still be eligible for a Traditional IRA if your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) is below these levels for 2018:

  • Single: $63,000
  • Married filing jointly: $101,000 if you are covered by an employer plan
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000 if your spouse is covered at work but you are not (this second one is missed very frequently!)

Your Modified Adjusted Gross Income cannot be precisely determined until you are doing your taxes. Sometimes, there are taxpayers who assume they are not eligible based on their gross income, but would be eligible if they look at their MAGI.

4. Roth IRA. The Roth IRA has different income limits than the Traditional IRA, and these limits apply regardless of whether you are covered by an employer retirement plan or not. (2018 figures) 

  • Single: $120,000
  • Married filing jointly: $189,000

5. Back-door Roth IRA. If you make too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, and you do not have any Traditional IRAs, you might be able to do a “Back-Door Roth IRA”, which is a two step process of funding a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then doing a Roth Conversion. We’ve written about the Back Door Roth several times, including here.

6. Self-Employed. If you have any self-employment income, or receive a 1099 as an independent contractor, you may be eligible for a SEP-IRA on that income. This is on top of any 401(k) or other IRAs that you fund. It is possible for example, that you could put $18,500 into a 401(k) for Job A, contribute $5,500 into a Roth IRA, and still contribute to a SEP-IRA for self-employed Job B.

There are no income limits to a SEP contribution, but it is difficult to know how much you can contribute until you do your tax return. The basic formula is that you can contribute 20% of your net income, after you subtract your business expenses and one-half of the self-employment tax. The maximum contribution to a SEP is $55,000, and with such high limits, the SEP is essential for anyone who is looking to save more than the $5,500 limit to a Traditional or Roth IRA. 
Learn more about the SEP-IRA.

7. Tax Extension. For the Traditional and Roth IRA, you have to make your contribution by April 15 of the following year. If you do a tax extension, that’s fine, but the contributions are still due by April 15. However, the SEP IRA is the only IRA where you can make a contribution all the way until October 15, when you file an extension. 

Bonus #8: If you are over age 70 1/2, you generally cannot make Traditional IRA contributions any longer. However, if you continue to have earned income, you may still fund a Roth IRA after this age.

A few notes: For 2018, contribution limits for Roth and Traditional are $5,500 or $6,500 if over age 50. For 2019, this has been increased to $6,000 and $7,000. You become eligible for the catch-up contribution in the year you turn 50, so even if your birthday is December 31, you are considered 50 for the whole year. Most of these income limits have a phase-out, and I’ve listed the lowest level, so if your income is slightly above the limit, you may be eligible for a reduced contribution. 

Retirement Planning is our focus, so we welcome your IRA questions! We want to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to fund an IRA each and every year that you are eligible.