faucet pouring money into bottomless bucket
C.J. Burton—Corbis

The Single Biggest Retirement Mistake

Jan 07, 2015

The single biggest retirement mistake I see is that retirees don't set aside funds for income during the early years of their retirement. They go directly from accumulating retirement funds to withdrawing them. And that can be a big problem.

Let me explain. The usual approach to retirement savings is to treat the client’s funds as if they are all in one pile. Under this method, the account is divvied up between stocks, bonds, and cash. A systematic monthly withdrawal begins to provide income, typically starting out at 4% of the client's portfolio value for the first year. Each year afterward, the withdrawal amount is adjusted upward to match inflation.

This rate is considered by many advisers to be safe in terms of generating sustainable income over a two- or three-decade retirement. Unfortunately, it leaves many clients concerned about outliving their money. Let's use 2008 as an example. At the time, I saw recent retirees who had $1,000,000 in their 401(k)s and who thought, based on the 4% formula, that they were set with $40,000 of annual income. Within the first year or two of their actual retirement, however, the market crashed and they were then drawing on a balance of $600,000. Most could not decrease their expenses, so they continued to withdraw $40,000 through the downturn, which was an actual withdrawal rate of almost 7%.Worse yet, the market crash caused retirees to lose confidence in their original plans. They pulled most, if not all, of their retirement funds out of the market, thus missing the ensuing recovery.

The compounding errors of higher-than-anticipated withdrawal rates and bad market-timing decisions doomed many to outliving their funds. This syndrome actually has a name: “sequence risk.” Academics are well aware of this risk, but few planners properly address the issue with clients and almost no individual investors are aware of the concept.

The problem can be alleviated by setting aside up to ten years’ worth of income at the inception of retirement. I address this problem with an approach called the Bucket Plan, which segments a retiree’s investible assets into three categories, or buckets.

Here is the breakdown:

  • The "Now" bucket is where the client’s operating cash, emergency funds and first-year retirement income reside. It will typically be a safe and liquid account such as a bank savings account, money market fund, or CD. These are the funds on which the client is willing to forgo a rate of return, in order to keep them safe and liquid. The amount allocated to the Now bucket will vary based on the clients assets and sources of income, but typically you would want to see no less than 12 months of living expenses here.
  • The "Soon" bucket has enough assets to cover up to ten years’ worth of income for the retiree. The Soon bucket is invested conservatively with little or no market risk. That way, we know we have ten years covered going into the plan regardless of what the stock market does.
  • The "Later" bucket funds income, and hopefully an increase in income, when the Soon bucket is exhausted. By then, the Later bucket has been invested uninterruptedly for at least 10 years. We reload another round of income into the Soon bucket, and the process starts all over again. The Later bucket is the appropriate place for capital market participation.

Financial planners have long used the analogies of an emergency fund and an accumulation/distribution fund. The real innovations here are the addition of the Soon bucket for near-term income and the method for communicating the concept to clients.

A client who was recently referred to me had the 4% systematic withdrawal that most financial advisers recommend. This did not seem to make him happy, though, since he could not see how his finances would last in the long run. He was not confident about what might happen if he needed more than the 4% income because of an emergency. He wondered whether there would be anything left over for his children to inherit. He was losing sleep and not enjoying his retirement at all.

I explained our Bucket Plan method. The Later bucket funding the Soon bucket made perfect sense to him. He also loved the idea of the Now bucket for emergencies and unexpected expenses. The real beauty of this approach is it gives retirees great peace of mind. They are much less likely to make bad market-timing decisions because a market correction will have no effect on their current income.

The bucket concept is simple to explain, and clients always understand the role their money is playing and why. Most importantly, they have the confidence to ride out market volatility because they know where their income is coming from. Sometimes simplicity can be quite sophisticated.

----------

Jeff Warnkin, CPA and CFP, of the JL Smith Group, specializes in holistic financial planning for pre-retired and retired residents of Ohio. He incorporates investments, insurance, taxes, and estate planning when building financial plans for clients' retirement years. Warnkin has more than 25 years of experience in the financial services industry, and is life- and health-insurance licensed.

Read next: Here’s a Smart Strategy for Reducing Social Security Taxes

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. MONEY may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.

Quotes delayed at least 15 minutes. Market data provided by Interactive Data. ETF and Mutual Fund data provided by Morningstar, Inc. Dow Jones Terms & Conditions: http://www.djindexes.com/mdsidx/html/tandc/indexestandcs.html. S&P Index data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Terms & Conditions. Powered and implemented by Interactive Data Managed Solutions