MONEY Planning

When Conventional Wisdom About Retirement is Good Enough

Retirement investing isn't an exact a science. Rather than worrying whether the rules need to be tweaked, just start saving.

What keeps you up at night?

As a money manager, I recently polled my clients on several questions, and that was one of them. Replies ranged from “my bladder” to worries about the Federal Reserve printing too much money.

The most common answer, though, was fear of outliving one’s savings.

For decades, people have confronted the issue of how much they need to retire. Today the topic hits with special force. People are living longer, and the financial crisis of 2007-2009 set millions of people back twenty squares on the economic game board of life.

Now, there’s much debate about whether traditional retirement planning advice needs to be tweaked.

The traditional advice on income, for instance, is that people in retirement need about 60% to 70% of their old annual income to keep roughly the same standard of living. Remember, when you retire, your taxes may be lower, your children may be grown, your commuting and clothing expenses may shrink, and you may move out of a big house into a smaller house or apartment.

If savings and investments were your sole source of income, you would need – again, by conventional wisdom – about 25 times that sum in hand when you start your retirement. That is based on the traditional assumption that you can safely withdraw 4% of your initial nest egg each year and still have it last at least 30 years, regardless of market conditions.

That means if you earned $100,000 a year at the peak of your career, you would need about $65,000 a year in retirement, and 25 times that amount is $1,625,000.

Of course, inflation may increase your costs as years pass. If inflation runs at a 3% clip, a loaf of bread that costs $2.50 today will cost $4.50 in 2034. At 5% inflation, the same loaf would cost you $6.62.

You can offset some of the effects of inflation by your savings and investments, post-retirement. My father retired at 77 but invested in the stock market, logging prices and trends on charts he kept by hand. When he died at 98, his net worth had increased 75% from the day he retired.

Social Security can help, too. Despite doomsayers’ screeds, I believe the Social Security system will be around in 30 years. But benefits may be a little less generous than they are today.

These days, I see a lot of articles by financial planners questioning the guideline that it’s prudent to withdraw 4% a year.

I’ve seen planners argue for anything from a 2.8% withdrawal rate to a 5% one.

Those arguing for a smaller withdrawal rate — which implies the need for a bigger nest egg — say it’s hard to earn 4% a year after taxes without wading into risky investments. Savings accounts are paying a paltry 1% to 2%, and that’s before taxes.

But I think that’s a short-term view. Savings rates probably won’t stay as paltry as they are – just as inflation didn’t stay sky-high, as it was in the early 1980s.

For the long run, I think the 4% rule provides a decent, if crude, approximation.

Let’s be realistic here. Accumulating a pre-retirement hoard of 25 times the expected annual need is an ambitious target to start with.

But it’s something to strive for.

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