By Walter Updegrave
It used to be that if you wanted your nest egg to carry you through 30 or more years of retirement, you followed the 4% rule: you withdrew 4% of the value of your savings the first year of retirement and adjusted that dollar amount annually for inflation to maintain purchasing power. But that standard—which was never really as simple as it seemed— has come under a cloud.
So what’s replacing it?
Depends on whom you ask. Some research suggests that if you really want to avoid running out of money in your dotage, you might have to scale back that initial withdrawal to 3%. Vanguard, on the other hand, recently laid out a system that starts with an initial withdrawal rate—which could be 4% or some other rate—and then allows withdrawals to fluctuate within a range based on the previous year’s spending.
JP Morgan Asset Management has also weighed in. After contending in a recent paper that the 4% rule is broken, the firm went on to describe what it refers to as a “dynamic decumulation model” that, while comprehensive, I think would be beyond the abilities of most individual investors to put into practice.
So if you’re a retiree or near-retiree, how can you draw enough savings from your nest egg to live on, yet not so much you run out of dough too soon or so little that you end up sitting on a big pile of assets in your dotage?
Here are my five tips:
Tip #1: Chill. That’s right, relax. No system, no matter how sophisticated, will be able to tell you precisely how much you can safely withdraw from your nest egg. There are just too many things that can happen over the course of a long retirement—markets can go kerflooey, inflation can spike, your spending could rise or fall dramatically in some years, etc. So while you certainly want to monitor withdrawals and your nest egg’s balance, obsessing over them won’t help, could hurt and will make your retirement less enjoyable.
Tip #2: Create a retirement budget. You don’t have be accurate down to the dollar. You just want to have a good idea of the costs you’ll be facing when you initially retire, as well as which expenses might be going away down the road (such as the mortgage or car loan you’ll be paying off).
Ideally, you’ll also want to separate those expenses into two categories—essential and discretionary—so you’ll know how much you can realistically cut back spending should you need to later on. You can do this budgeting with a pencil and paper. But if you use an online tool like Fidelity’s Retirement Income Planner or Vanguard’s Retirement Expenses Worksheet—both of which you’ll find in the Retirement Income section of Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toolbox—you’ll find it easier to factor in the inevitable changes into your budget as you age.
Tip #3: Take a hard look at Social Security. The major questions here: When should you claim benefits? At 62, the earliest you’re eligible? At full retirement age (which is 66 for most people nearing retirement today)? And how might you and your spouse coordinate your claiming to maximize your benefit?
Generally, it pays to postpone benefits as your monthly payment rises 7% to 8% (even before increases for inflation) each year you delay between ages 62 and 70 (after 70 you get nothing extra for holding off). But the right move, especially for married couples, will depend on a variety of factors, including how badly you need the money now, whether you have savings that can carry you if you wait to claim and, in the case of married couples, your age and your wife’s age and your earnings.
Best course: Check out one of the growing number of calculators and services that allow you to run different claiming scenarios. T. Rowe Price’s Social Security Benefits Evaluator will run various scenarios free; the Social Security Solutions service makes a recommendation for a fee that ranges from $20 to $250. You’ll find both in the Retirement Toolbox.
Tip #4: Consider an immediate annuity. If you’ll be getting enough assured income to cover most or all of your essential expenses from Social Security and other sources, such as a pension, you may not want or need an annuity. But if you’d like to have more income that you can count on no matter how long you live and regardless of how the markets fare, then you may want to at least think about an annuity. But not just any annuity. I’m talking about an immediate annuity, the type where you hand over a sum to an insurance company (even though you may actually buy the annuity through another investment firm), and the insurer guarantees you (and your spouse, if you wish) a payment for life.
To maximize your monthly payment, you must give up access to the money you devote to an anuity. So even if you decide an annuity makes sense for you, you shouldn’t put all or probably even most your savings into one. You’ll want to have plenty of other money invested in a portfolio of stocks and bonds that can provide long-term growth, and that you can tap if needed for emergencies and such. To learn more about how immediate annuities work, you can click here. And to see how much lifetime income an immediate annuity might provide, you can go to the How Much Guaranteed Income Can You Get? calculator.
Tip #5: Stay flexible. Now to the question of how much you can draw from your savings. If you’re like most people, an initial withdrawal rate of 3% won’t come close to giving you the income you’ll need. Start at 5%, however, and the chances of running out of money substantially increase. So you’re probably looking at an initial withdrawal of 4% to 5%.
Whatever initial withdrawal you start with, be prepared to change it as your needs, market conditions and your nest egg’s value change. If the market has been on a roll and your savings balance soars, you may be able to boost withdrawals. If, on the other hand, a market setback puts a big dent in your savings, you may want to scale back a bit. The idea is to make small adjustments so that you don’t spend so freely that you deplete your savings too soon—or stint so much that you have a huge nest egg late in life (and you realize too late that you could have spent large and enjoyed yourself more early on).
My suggestion: Every year or so go to a retirement calculator like the ones in Real Deal Retirement’s Retirement Toobox and plug in your current financial information. This will give you a sense of whether you can stick to your current level of withdrawals—or whether you need to scale back or (if you’re lucky) give yourself a raise.
Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.