Stop Retiring Early, People!

 

When I was 30, I set a goal of being able to retire at age 50. I’m still on track for that goal, but with my 44th birthday coming up next month, I now wonder what the hell was I thinking. I don’t want to retire. I get bored on a three-day weekend. I need to have mental activity, variety, and the sense of purpose and fulfillment that comes with work. So, no, I won’t be retiring at 50 even if I can.

How Much Can You Withdraw in Retirement?

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With corporate pensions declining in use, retirees are increasingly dependent on withdrawals from their 401(k)s, IRAs, and investment accounts. The challenge facing investors is how to plan these withdrawals and not run out of money even though we don’t know how long we will live or what returns we will receive in the market on our portfolio.

Pensions and Social Security provide a consistent source of income that you cannot outlive. When I run Monte Carlo simulations – computer generated outcomes testing thousands of possible scenarios – we find that the larger the percentage of monthly needs that are met from guaranteed sources, the lower chance the investor will run out of money due to poor market performance from their portfolio.

If you do have a pension, it is very important to consider all angles when deciding between a lump sum payout and participating in the pension for the rest of your life. It is not a given that you will be able to outperform the pension payments, especially if you are healthy and have a long life expectancy.

The most obvious way to avoid running out of money (called longevity risk by financial planners) would be to annuitize some portion of your portfolio through the purchase of an immediate annuity from an insurance company. While that would work, and is essentially the same as having a pension, very few people do this. You’d be giving up all control of your assets and reducing any inheritance for your beneficiaries. With today’s low interest rates, you’d probably be less than thrilled with the return. For example, a 65-year old male who places $100,000 in a single life immediate annuity today would receive $542 a month.

The problem with annuitization, besides giving up your principal and not leaving anything for your heirs, is that it doesn’t allow for any increase in expenditures to account for inflation. There are three approaches we might use to structure a withdrawal program for a retiree.

1) Assume a fixed inflation rate. In most retirement planning calculators, projected withdrawals are increased by inflation to maintain the same standard of living. After all, who doesn’t want to keep their standard of living? The result of this approach is that the initial withdrawal rate then must be pretty low. 20 years ago, the work of William Bengen established the “4% rule” which found that a withdrawal rate of 4% would fund a 30-year retirement under most market conditions.

On a $1 million portfolio, 4% is $40,000 a year. But that is just the first year. With 3% inflation, we’d plan on $41,200 in year two, and $42,436 in year three. After 24 years, withdrawals would double to $80,000. The 4% rule is not the same as putting your money in a 4% bond; it’s the inflation which requires starting with a low initial rate.

While we should plan for inflation in retirement, this method is perhaps too rigid in its assumptions. If a portfolio is struggling, we’re not going to continue to increase withdrawals by 3% and spend the portfolio to zero. We have the ability to respond and make adjustments as needed.

2) Take a flexible withdrawal strategy. We may be able to start with a slightly higher initial withdrawal rate if we have some flexibility under what circumstances we could increase future withdrawals. In my book, Your Last 5 Years: Making the Transition From Work to Retirement, I suggest using a 4% withdrawal rate if you retire in your 50’s, a 5% rate if you start in your 60’s, and 6% if retiring in your 70’s. I would not increase annual withdrawals for inflation unless your remaining principal has grown and your withdrawal rate does not exceed the original 4, 5, or 6%.

This doesn’t guarantee lifetime income under all circumstances, but it does give a higher starting rate, since we eliminate increases for inflation if the portfolio is shrinking. Under some circumstances, it may even be prudent to reduce withdrawals to below the initial withdrawal amount temporarily. That’s where having other sources of guaranteed income can help provide additional flexibility with your planning.

3) Use an actuarial method. This means basing your withdrawals on life expectancy. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are a classic example of an actuarial strategy: you take your account value and divide by the number of years of life expectancy remaining. If your life expectancy is 25 years, we take 1/25, or 4%. The next year, the percentage will increase. By the time someone is in their 90’s, their life expectancy will be say three years, suggesting a 33% withdrawal rate, which may work, but obviously will not be sustainable. However, the more practical problem with using the RMD approach is that many people aren’t able to cut their spending by 20% if their portfolio is down by 20% that year. So even though it has a sound principle for increasing withdrawals, the withdrawal amounts still require flexibility based on market results.

But there are other ways to use the actuarial concept, and even my approach of different rates at different retirement ages is based on life expectancy. There’s no single method that will work in all circumstances, but my preference is to take a flexible strategy. But this does mean being willing to reduce spending, and forgo or even cut back inflation increases, if market conditions are weak.

We have a number of different tools available to evaluate these choices throughout retirement, but the other key factor in the equation is asset allocation. Bengen found that his 4% rule worked with equity allocations between 50% and 75%. Below 50% equities, the portfolio struggles to keep up with inflation and withdrawals become more likely to deplete the assets in the 30-year period. Above 75% equities, the portfolio volatility increases and rebalancing benefits decrease, increasing the number of periods when the 4% strategy would have failed.

When sorting through your options, you need candid and informed advice about what will work and under what circumstances it would not work. We hope for the best, but still have a plan for contingencies if the market doesn’t cooperate as we’d like. We will be able to consider all our options as the years go by and be proactive about making adjustments and corrections to stay on course. For any investor planning for a 30-year retirement, it’s not a matter of if the market will have a correction, but when. It’s better to have discussed how we will handle that situation in advance, rather than waiting until the heat of the moment.

Are Your Retirement Expectations Realistic?

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While many individuals have very realistic ideas about retirement, I find that some people may be significantly overestimating their preparedness for funding their financial needs.  Here are three specific mistakes which can hurt your chance of success in retirement, and a realistic solution for each issue.

Mistake #1: Thinking you can live on a small fraction of your pre-retirement income.
Occasionally, I’ll meet someone who is currently making $100,000, but who thinks that they will need to spend only $40,000 a year in retirement to maintain their current lifestyle.  On a closer look, they’re saving about $15,000 today so they are really living on about $85,000 a year.  This is a key problem with creating a retirement budget: when we add up projected expenditures, it is very easy to underestimate how much we need because we often forget about unplanned bills like home and auto repairs, or medical expenses.  And don’t forget about taxes!  Taxes do not go away in retirement, either.

Realistic Solution: Even though some expenses will be lower in retirement, most retirees find that they need 75-90% of their pre-retirement income to maintain the same lifestyle.

Mistake #2: Taking too high of a withdrawal rate.
20 years ago, William Bengen published a paper that concluded that 4%, adjusted for inflation, was a safe withdrawal rate for a retiree.  While this topic has been one of the most discussed and researched areas in retirement planning, most financial planners today remain in agreement that 4%, or very close to 4%, is the safe withdrawal rate.  However, many individuals who have a million dollar portfolio think that they might be able to take out $60,000, $70,000, or more a year, especially when the market is performing well.

There are two important reasons why it’s prudent to use a more conservative 4% rate.  The first is market volatility.  The market is unpredictable, so we have to create a withdrawal strategy which will not excessively deplete the portfolio in the event that we have large drop, or worse, a several year bear market at the beginning of a 30-year retirement.  The second reason is inflation.  We need to have growth in the portfolio to allow for the increased cost of living, including the likelihood of increased medical costs.  At just 3% inflation, $40,000 in expenses will double to $80,000 in 24 years.  And with today’s increased longevity, many couples who retire in their early 60’s will need to plan for 30 years or more of inflation in retirement.

Realistic Solution: At a 4% withdrawal rate, your retirement finish line requires having a portfolio of 25 times the amount you will need to withdraw in the first year.

Mistake #3: Assuming that you will keep working.
Some people plan to keep working into their 70’s or don’t want to retire at all.  They love their work and can’t imagine that there would ever be a day when they are not going to be working.  They plan to “die with their boots on”, which in their eyes, makes retirement planning irrelevant.

Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this line of thinking.  The Employee Benefits Research Institute 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey found a significant gap between when people planned to retire and when they actually did retire.  Only 9% of workers surveyed plan to retire before age 60, but 35% actually retired before this age.  18% planned to retire between 60 and 64, versus 32% who actually retired in that age range.  The study cites three primary reasons why so many people retire earlier than planned: health or disability, layoff or company closure, and having to care for a spouse or other family member.  The study also notes that one in 10 workers plan to never retire.  Even if you’re willing to keep working, the statistics are clear: most people end up retiring earlier than planned.

For a healthy 65-year old couple, there is a good chance that at least one of you will live into your 90’s.  If you still think you don’t need a retirement plan because you will keep working, do it for your spouse, who might have 25-plus years in retirement if something were to happen to you.  Don’t make your plan’s success dependent on your being able to keep working in your 70’s and 80’s.

Realistic Solution: Make it a goal to be financially independent by your early 60’s; then you can work because you want to and not because you have to.

A comprehensive financial plan addresses these concerns and establishes a realistic framework for funding your retirement.  And whether you’re 30 or 60, it is never too early, or too late, to make sure you are on track for financial independence.