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.

MONEY IRAs

This Simple Move Can Boost Your Savings by Thousands of Dollars

Stack of Money
iStock

Last-minute IRA savers and those who keep their money in cash are paying a procrastination penalty.

Individual Retirement Account contributions are getting larger—an encouraging sign of a recovering economy and improved habits among retirement savers.

But there is an “I” in IRA for a reason: investors are in charge of managing their accounts. And recent research by Vanguard finds that many of us are leaving returns on the table due to an all-too-human fault: procrastination in the timing of our contributions.

IRA savers can make contributions anytime from Jan. 1 of a tax year up until the tax-filing deadline the following April. But Vanguard’s analysis found that more than double the amount of contributions is made at the deadline than at the first opportunity—and that last-minute contributions dwarf the amounts contributed throughout the year. Fidelity Investments reports similar data—for the 2013 tax year, 70% of total IRA contributions came in during tax season.

Some IRA investors no doubt wait until the tax deadline in order to determine the most tax-efficient level of contribution; others may have cash-flow reasons, says Colleen Jaconetti, a senior investment analyst in the Vanguard Investment Strategy Group. “Some people don’t have the cash available during the year to make contributions, or they wait until they get their year-end bonus to fund their accounts.”

Nonetheless, procrastination has its costs. Vanguard calculates that investors who wait until the last minute lose out on a full year’s worth of tax-advantaged compounded growth—and that gets expensive over a lifetime of saving. Assuming an investor contributes the maximum $5,500 annually for 30 years ($6,500 for those over age 50), and earns 4% after inflation, procrastinators will wind up with account balances $15,500 lower than someone who contributes as early as possible in a tax year.

But for many last-minute savers, even more money is left on the table. Among savers who made last-minute contributions for the 2013 tax year just ahead of the tax-filing deadline, 21% of the contributions went into money market funds, likely because they were not prepared to make investing decisions. When Vanguard looked at those hasty money market contributions for the 2012 tax year, two-thirds of those funds were still sitting in money market funds four months later.

“They’re doing a great thing by contributing, and some people do go back to get those dollars invested,” Jaconetti says. “But with money market funds yielding little to nothing, these temporary decisions are turning into ill-advised longer-term investment choices.”

The Vanguard research comes against a backdrop of general improvement in IRA contributions. Fidelity reported on Wednesday that average contributions for tax year 2013 reached $4,150, a 5.7% increase from tax year 2012 and an all-time high. The average balance at Fidelity was up nearly 10% year-over-year to $89,100, a gain that was fueled mainly by strong market returns.

Fidelity says older IRA savers racked up the largest percentage increases in savings last year: investors aged 50 to 59 increased their contributions by 9.8%, for example—numbers that likely reflect savers trying to catch up on nest egg contributions as retirement approaches. But young savers showed strong increases in savings rates, too: 7.7% for savers aged 30-39, and 7.3% for those aged 40-49.

Users of Roth IRAs made larger contributions than owners of traditional IRAs, Fidelity found. Average Roth contributions were higher than for traditional IRAs across most age groups, with the exception of those made by investors older than 60.

But IRA investors of all stripes apparently could stand a bit of tuning up on their contribution habits. Jaconetti suggests that some of the automation that increasingly drives 401(k) plans also can help IRA investors. She suggests that IRA savers set up regular automatic monthly contributions, and establish a default investment that gets at least some level of equity exposure from the start, such as a balanced fund or target date fund.

“It’s understandable that people are deadline-oriented,” Jaconetti says. “But with these behaviors, they could be leaving returns on the table.”

Related:

 

MONEY 401(k)s

How to Fix the 401(k) and Income Inequality in One Fell Swoop

A top economic adviser wants to cut the tax break for 401(k) savings for high earners and launch a new government plan with a generous match and low fees.

Two hot-button economic issues appear to be colliding: the failed 401(k) plan and growing income inequality. Both have been garnering headlines, and now a noted expert is tying them together through proposed reform.

Gene B. Sperling, a former White House economic adviser in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, wants to cut the tax advantage of 401(k) contributions to top earners. He also wants to create a government-funded universal 401(k) plan that would incorporate all the best parts of these plans—low fees, safety, a generous match, and automatic enrollment.

Presumably, a government-backed 401(k) plan also would offer an option like deferred annuities, which the industry has been resisting, and an easy way to convert some or all of your 401(k) balance to guaranteed lifetime income upon retirement. Both those provisions have had strong backing from the White House.

In a New York Times op-ed, Sperling blamed an “upside-down tax incentive system” for contributing to income inequality in America, adding “it makes higher-income Americans triple winners and people earning less money triple losers” as they save for retirement.

Currently top earners pay a federal tax rate of 39.6%, which makes their tax deduction for 401(k) contributions more valuable than the deduction for contributions of those in lower tax brackets. Top earners also have more tax-advantaged savings opportunities, and they benefit more from employer matches. The upshot, Sperling asserts, is that the top 5% of earners get more tax relief for saving than the bottom 80%. He proposes a flat 28% tax credit for saving, regardless of income.

His universal 401(k) plan also would skew toward lower income households with a dollar-for-dollar match up to $4,000 a year below certain income thresholds. Higher income households would be capped at 60 cents on the dollar—still about double the average match today.

Sperling isn’t the first to champion a universal 401(k) or fret publicly about income inequality. President Clinton floated universal accounts in 1999. Versions of this government-funded plan exist in parts of Europe, and Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor of economics at the New School and author of When I’m Sixty-Four, has been arguing for years for private sector workers to be able to enroll in cost-efficient and professionally managed state-operated retirement programs.

So far the idea hasn’t gotten much traction. The debate in Washington has centered on Social Security and tax reform. Maybe this op-ed from a beltway insider is a sign that 401(k) reform—and income inequality—will heat up as an issue in the coming election cycle.

If so, paying for it all will surely be part of the debate. But not to worry, writes Sperling. Among other possibilities, we could cut the federal estate tax exemption. Currently a married couple can leave $10.7 million to heirs tax-free. Cutting the exemption to $7 million would free up billions to bolster the retirement accounts of lower earners and shore up some of what’s wrong with 401(k) plans today—and take a further whack at income inequality in the process.

Related:

Half of Workers Are on Track to Retire Well—Here’s How to Join Them

Why Your 401(k) Won’t Offer This Promising Retirement Income Option

This Nobel Economist Nails What’s Really Wrong with Your 401(k)

MONEY Get On The Right Path

Half of Workers Are on Track to Retire Well—Here’s How to Join Them

140618_money_gen_13
iStock

Save 15% of pay for 30 years and you will be fine, a new study shows. Save for longer, and it gets much easier.

The shift from traditional pensions to 401(k) plans hasn’t gone well for most workers. One in two U.S. households are destined for a lifestyle downgrade in retirement, data show, as guaranteed lifetime income from old-style pensions disappears. But new research finds that most families can stay on track to a comfortable retirement by regularly saving 15% of pay over 30 years. Start earlier, and you only need to put away 10%.

The news isn’t all bad if you’re starting late. Even folks past age 50 have time to adjust. But clearly those with the shortest windows to retirement have the steepest hill to climb—and probably need to start factoring in a longer working life and more austere retirement lifestyle right away.

The typical middle-income household headed by someone 50-plus, and with a projected retirement shortfall, would need to boost its savings rate by 29 percentage points to retire comfortably at age 65, according to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That would mean saving, say, 39% of every paycheck instead of 10%.

Calling this savings rate “unrealistic,” researchers Alicia H. Munnell, Anthony Webb, and Wenliang Hou conclude in their paper, “A better strategy for these households would be to work longer and cut current and future consumption in order to reduce the required saving rate to a more feasible level.” One thing the paper does not mention is that one in 10 U.S. workers is limited or unable to work due to poor health—and those past age 65 are three times more likely to have this issue, according to the National Health Interview Survey.

On a cheerier note, younger middle-income workers currently on track to fall short of retirement income still have time to realize their dreams by boosting savings just 7 to 13 percentage points (the younger you are, the lower the savings rate needed), research shows. The impact of starting early and letting your savings compound over more years cannot be overstated.

The typical wage earner planning to retire at age 65 in 2040 would need to build a nest egg of $538,000, the paper states. By purchasing an immediate annuity, you would replace 34% of pre-retirement income. Social Security would replace 36% of pre-retirement income—in all giving the household 70% of pre-retirement income, which is considered an acceptable minimum level. To reach this savings goal this household would have to save 15% of every paycheck starting at age 35. But if the household planned to work to age 70—or started saving five years earlier—it would need to save just 6% of every paycheck.

In general, the typical middle-income household must save enough to produce a third of its retirement income. Low-income households need only get a quarter of retirement income from savings. High-income households (with a more expensive lifestyle) need to save enough to produce half their retirement income, the paper found.

Related links:

Why It’s Never Too Late to Fix Your Finances

The Amazing Result of Actually Trying to Save Money

 

MONEY Savings

Millennials Are Hoarding Cash Because They’re Smarter Than Their Parents

Cash under mattress
Zachary Scott—Getty Images

Sure, young adults could get higher returns by investing in stocks, but many have good reasons to stay safe in cash right now.

Another day another study about the short-comings of Millennials as investors. This time around, Bankrate.com weighs in—data from their latest Financial Security Index show that 39% of 18-29 year-olds choose cash as their preferred way to invest money they won’t touch for least 10 years. That’s three times the percentage that would choose stocks.

“These findings are troubling because Millennials need the returns of stocks to meet their retirement goals,” says Bankrate.com chief financial analyst Greg McBride. “They need to rethink the level of risk they need to take.”

Bankrate.com is not the only group trying to push Millennials out of cash and into stocks. Previous surveys have scolded young adults for “stashing cash under the mattress,” being as “financially conservative as the generation born during the Great Depression,” and more being “less trustful of others”—in particular financial institutions and Wall Street. (You can find these surveys here, here and here.)

These criticisms are way overblown. It’s simply not true that Millennials are uniquely averse to equities—many are investing in stocks, despite their responses to polls. As for cash holdings, keeping a portion of your portfolio liquid is simply common sense, though you can overdo it.

Here’s what’s really going on:

  1. Millennials are not much more risk averse than older generations. In the wake of the financial crisis, investors of all ages have been keeping more of their portfolios in cash—some 40% of assets on average, according to State Street’s research. Baby Boomers held the highest cash levels (43%), followed by Millennials (40%) and Gen X-ers (38%). That’s not a wide spread.
  2. Many Millennials do keep significant stakes in equities. This is especially true of those who hold jobs and have access to 401(k) plans. That’s because they save some 10% of pay on average in their 401(k)s, which is typically funneled into a target-date retirement fund. For someone in their 20s, the average target-date fund invests the bulk of its assets in stocks. Thanks to their early head start in investing, these young adults are an “emerging generation of super savers,” according to Catherine Collinson, president of the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
  3. Young adults who lack jobs or 401(k)s need to keep more in cash. Most young people don’t have much in the way of financial cushion. The latest Survey of Consumer Finances found that the average household headed by someone age 35 or younger held only $5,500 in financial assets. That’s less than two months pay for someone earning $40,000 annually, barely enough for a rainy day fund, let alone a long-term investing portfolio. Besides, that cash may be earmarked for other short-term needs, such as student loan repayments (a top priority for many), rent, or more education to qualify for a better-paying job.

There’s no question that young adults will eventually have to funnel more money into stocks to meet their long-term right goals, so in that sense the surveys are right. But many are doing better than their parents did at their age—the typical Millennial starts saving at age 22 vs 35 for boomers. And if many young adults hold more in cash right now because they’re unsure about their job security or ability to pay the bills, there are worse moves to make. After all, it was overconfidence in the markets that led older generations into the financial crisis in the first place.

MONEY 401(k)s

Stock Gains (and Saving) Push 401(k)s to Record Highs

Staying the course has rarely paid off so well as average retirement account balances soar.

The financial crisis is so yesterday. Retirement savings accounts have never been plumper, according to a new survey of 401(k) plans and IRAs at Fidelity Investments.

At mid-year, the average 401(k) balance stood at a record $91,000, up nearly 13% from a year ago. The average IRA balance stood at $92,600, also a record, and up nearly 15% from the previous year.

These figures include all employees in a plan, even those in their first year of saving. Looking just at long-time savers the picture brightens further. Workers who had been active in a workplace retirement plan for at least 10 years had a record average balance of $246,200—a figure that has grown at an average annual rate of 15% for a decade.

Over the past year, the resurgent stock market accounted for 77% of the higher average balance in 401(k) plans, Fidelity said. Ongoing employer and employee contributions accounted for 23% of the gain. The typical worker socks away $9,590 a year—$6,050 from her own contributions and $3,540 from an employer match.

Of course, the financial crisis still weighs on many Americans. Employment has been an ongoing weak spot and wage growth has been all but non-existent. Meanwhile, those in or nearing retirement may have fallen short of their goals after losing a decade of market growth at just the wrong point in their savings cycle. Many had to sell while prices were down.

But the Fidelity data reinforces the value of steady savings over a long period. By contributing through thick and thin, savers were able to offset much of the portfolio damage from the crisis. They not only held firm and enjoyed the market’s robust recovery but also were buying shares when prices were low. They earned a spectacular return on new money put into stocks the last five years. In calendar year 2013 alone, the S&P 500 plus dividends rose 32%.

Despite continuing contributions, savings balances did not rise as fast as the S&P 500 due to plan fees, cash-outs and broad plan exposure to lower-return investments like bonds and cash. Roughly a third of job switchers do not roll over their plan savings; they take the money, often incurring taxes and penalties. The average 401(k) investor has 33% in fixed-income securities.

Related:

 

MONEY Shopping

Seriously, Here’s How You Know If You’re Addicted to Shopping

Woman with shopping bags
Peter Cade—Getty Images

For those who shop to relieve stress, "retail therapy" is no joke.

“It’s not just shopping, it’s retail therapy.”

As a bumper sticker or a joke between friends, this may be amusing. For those who shop to relieve stress, it’s not nearly so funny. Medicating or soothing painful feelings with money is no healthier a behavior than medicating with alcohol or food. When stressed or in difficult circumstances, some people drink, some people eat, and some people shop.

As a financial adviser, I’ve worked with several clients with extreme forms of this behavior, who described their spending clearly as an addiction. It gave them a physical “high” similar to that experienced by an alcoholic or drug addict. Like other addictions, it had destructive consequences, such as overwhelming debt, loss of life savings, ruined relationships, and even theft from family members or employers.

Using spending as a medicator does not always show up in such dramatic ways, however. Even people who seem to live moderately and manage money responsibly can be “therapy shoppers” who spend in order to make themselves feel better.

When I met Alexandra, for example, she was single, in her 40s, with a well-paying job and a substantial net worth. She was investing part of her income, was current on all her financial obligations, and had only a modest amount of debt. She was certainly not spending beyond her means or jeopardizing her future security. She didn’t appear to be in any financial difficulty.

When we looked at her budget, however, Alexandra was clearly uncomfortable with some of her spending habits. Instead of simply reassuring her that she was managing her money well and not overspending, I explored this issue with her. Eventually I brought up the possibility that she might be medicating her difficult emotions with spending. It was an “aha!” moment for her. She told me, “I’ve been doing that for years.”

Alexandra’s problem wasn’t the amount she spent. It was the reasons behind her spending. If she had a stressful day at work, she would go to the mall, in much the same way another person might stop at a bar for a couple of drinks on the way home. Shopping, finding bargains, and buying herself gifts were unthinking actions she used to soothe herself when she was upset.

She never stopped to ask herself whether she needed or even wanted the things she bought. She didn’t spend more than she could afford, but she was spending time as well as money unproductively. She was also cluttering her house and her life with clothes she didn’t wear, knickknacks she didn’t care about, and gadgets she didn’t use.

Once she realized the emotional reason for her shopping, Alexandra was able to find more constructive ways to deal with stress. She learned healthier responses to difficult days. Talking with a friend, writing in her journal, meditating, or taking a walk could serve the same purpose as a trip to the mall.

For Alexandra, simply recognizing that she was using shopping to soothe her emotions was enough to help her change. People with more deeply ingrained behavior might find change more difficult. In such cases, clients could benefit greatly from working with a financial therapist with the expertise to help them look at the emotions underlying their spending patterns.

The important point for a financial planner is to look beyond the numbers. The main issue isn’t whether a client’s “retail therapy” is affordable or whether it is causing serious financial difficulties. If a behavior is creating discomfort for clients, as it was for Alexandra, helping them explore what lies behind it can be a valuable service.

MONEY

5 Secrets to Saving for the Future While Enjoying Life Now

Piggy bank enjoying life in a field
iStock

A financial planner explains how to prepare for retirement while living the good life now.

Save? Spend? Or both?

In my work with younger clients, that’s one of the main conflicts I see: The desire to prepare for the future and save versus the impulse to live for the present and enjoy earnings now. People know that nobody is promised tomorrow, but they also don’t want to live out their retirement years with limited choices, or none at all.

So how can people strike a successful balance between these seemingly competing desires? Based on my work with financial planning clients, here’s my five-step plan:

  1. Understand your cash flow. I’m going to make a bold statement here: Nothing will affect your financial future more than your ability to understand your household cash flow. If you want more money to save for the future or to spend now, you have to understand your current spending patterns and habits to get there. Check in on your spending weekly; that takes far less time than a monthly review, and it’s easier to catch places you may have spent more than you planned. It’s easy to live lean for a week if you’ve overspent in a previous week. It’s a lot harder to catch up if you’ve been overspending for a month.
  2. Learn to say “no” by deciding on your “yes.” The clearer you are about what you want to do in the short and long term, the easier it is to make spending choices that you’ll be happy with when you look back at them. Before I married the woman who became my wife, I used to feel deprived if we weren’t going out to eat often. On our honeymoon, I discovered that what I really wanted to do was to travel the world with her. Once that became the big yes, I wasn’t depriving myself if I didn’t go out to eat. If I did go out to eat, I was depriving myself of what I really wanted, which was to travel more. That single idea helped me change my habits entirely and build up the money we needed to take a big trip every year.
  3. Limit your monthly bills. Eric Kies talks about Money Past, Money Present, and Money Future in his First Step Cash Management system. Money Past is all of the money you’ve agreed to spend at the beginning of the month — things like rent, utilities, and student loan payments. While buying a new car may not seem like a big deal if you think you can afford it, adding on a car loan to your Money Past comes with a major tradeoff: It limits your day-to-day spending (Money Present), and it cuts into your ability to save for the future as well (your Money Future). Be careful; I regularly see young couples adding to their Money Past bucket, limiting their present and future spending choices.
  4. Automate your savings for present and future goals. Chances are you get paid by direct deposit, and it’s easy to direct funds into multiple accounts. Beyond your basic emergency fund, I’ve seen clients have a lot of success in setting up multiple savings accounts to have balances grow for specific goals (a trip to Europe, for example, or a new car). This allows you to see the specific progress you’re making. The same concept applies for retirement plans at work. If you can save that money automatically before it reaches your bank account, you’re far more likely to continue saving those funds in the future and even to increase your contributions over time.
  5. Plan for spontaneity. This may sound contradictory, but I think it’s essential. Many people I’ve spoken to resist tracking their spending because it feels constraining. A good solution to this is to build in money that is purely for spontaneous spending. If you know there’s money in your budget that is there for the sole purpose of spending it, it protects the money that you’re saving into other accounts by providing an outlet for a spur-of-the-moment decision.

Follow these suggestions and you’ll soon find you have money for both your current needs and your long-term goals.

—————————————-

H. Jude Boudreaux, CFP, is the founder of Upperline Financial Planning, a fee-only financial planning firm based in New Orleans. He is an adjunct professor at Loyola University New Orleans, a past president of the Financial Planning Association‘s NexGen community, and an advocate for new and alternative business models for the financial planning industry.

 

MONEY early retirement

How to Figure Out Your Real Cost of Living in Retirement

Your retirement savings “number” gets a lot of press. But your expense number is even more important, especially if you retire early.

Many financial advisors say you’ll need some fixed percent of your previous income in retirement—often 80% is considered “reasonable.” But that’s nonsense. What it costs you to live in retirement, or before, is not a function of how much you make! There are millionaires who live like college students, and college students who live like millionaires—for a while anyway, on credit.

Where are you on the lifestyle spectrum? To get serious about retirement planning, you’ve got to have an accurate picture of your monthly living expenses. You need to know your bare minimum or fixed expenses, your average or normal expenses, and your ideal expenses—allowing for some luxuries.

Spending is a personal area, so everyone’s pattern will be different. But on average the first phase of retirement is when you’re likely to spend the most, since you’re finally free to travel, dine out and enjoy other leisure activities. Among older Americans, average annual expenditures peaked at about $61,000 for those in the 45-54 year age range, according to the latest data from the Consumer Expenditures Survey. By ages 55-64, spending dipped to $56,000, and down again to $46,000 between ages 65 to 74. At 75 years and older, average spending was only $34,000, though health care expenses may spike up for many.

We are in our mid-50’s and live a modest but comfortable lifestyle, which currently costs us about $4,500 a month, in addition to housing. We rent a smaller, two-bedroom house (about $1,500 monthly), and share a single gas-efficient car ($370 a month, including gas, insurance and repairs). But we eat well, own some nice things, and have plenty of fun—mostly free or cheap outdoor activities. And our living expenses run about 25% above the national average for our age.

This past year we moved to our ideal retirement location. So we’ve had to spend a bit more than usual due to the relocation. But these have generally been one-time home or personal expenses—not recurring expenses that would inflate our lifestyle forever more.

Health care costs remain a concern, since we are too young for Medicare. Fortunately, I was able to get coverage through my wife’s retirement health plan, thanks to her former career as a public school teacher; we pay $1,100 a month on average for premiums, co-pays, deductibles and the like. That’s one of our larger expenses, but it is manageable, for now. (For more on our spending in early retirement, see my blog here.)

If you’re willing to live in a cheaper area, buy used, and eat simpler, you can probably live on much less than we do. On the other hand, if manicured retirement communities, luxury vehicles, and international travel are your idea of retirement living, you could need quite a bit more. In most surveys of consumer expenses, the biggest items are housing and transportation. So, if you want to optimize your retirement lifestyle, start with your home and vehicle.

Without a complete understanding of how much it costs you to live, your retirement planning can’t get off the ground. The best way to determine your expenses is to actually keep track of them for at least a year, as you approach retirement. You can record expenses using dedicated tools like Quicken on the desktop or Mint on the web, or you can use an electronic spreadsheet or paper journal.

As an engineer, tracking expenses was second nature to me. But what if you aren’t the detail-oriented type? You could estimate your expenses based on those government averages above, but in the long run you’ll need more accuracy to be confident about your own situation.

One approach is to sit down with your checking and credit card statements, and use them to estimate a monthly or annual amount for each important budget category. You can start with this short list: housing, transportation, food, health care, entertainment, and personal expenses. Just don’t forget those less-frequent items such as home and auto repairs, vacations, and property taxes!

Your retirement savings “number” gets a lot of press. But even more important than that is your expense number. Understanding your expenses is a critical stepping stone to building wealth and retiring comfortably. If you still don’t know where your money goes, why not get started today?

Darrow Kirkpatrick is a software engineer and author who lived frugally, invested successfully, and retired in 2011 at age 50. He writes regularly about saving, investing and retiring on his blog CanIRetireYet.com. This column appears monthly.

MONEY retirement income

Need Low-Risk Yield? CDs are Back in Fashion

Dollars and cents
Finnbarr Webster / Alamy

Retirees and other people desperate to earn interest can find respectable deals on certificates of deposit.

Getting low-risk yield has been one of the toughest challenges for retirees ever since the financial meltdown of 2008-2009. Interest rates are near zero, and many retirees are nervous about bonds out of fear that rates might jump.

All of which leaves a simple question: How about a good old-fashioned certificate of deposit?

Retirees desperate for yield can find some respectable deals on CDs. The yields may not sound sexy, but there’s no risk to principal and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation protects accounts up to $250,000.

There’s nothing new about the higher rates on CDs compared with bonds. Banks, especially those without extensive retail branch networks, have long offered generous rates on CDs, mostly online, as an inexpensive way to attract deposits. It’s also a way for banks to bring in retail clients who can be cross-sold other higher-margin products.

But there’s an especially compelling case to be made for CDs in the current rate environment.

“For retirees, it’s the one corner of the investment world where you can get additional return without additional risk,” says Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate.com.

The most aggressive banks will sell you a two-year CD with an annual percentage yield (APY) of 1.25%; compare that with current two-year Treasury rates, now at about 0.48%. Three-year CDs top out at 1.45%, compared with 0.92% on a Treasury of the same duration. If you want to go longer, five-year CDs top out over 2%.

Five or 10 years ago, the high rates came mainly from smaller no-name banks, but that’s not the case now. Some of the more aggressive offers currently come from big names like Synchrony Bank (formerly GE Capital Retail Bank), Barclays and CIT Bank. Bankrate.com lets you search and compare offers.

You could get higher yields on corporate or junk bonds. But they’re risky because the available yield isn’t adequate for the credit risk you need to take, argues Sam Lee, editor of Morningstar’s ETFInvestor newsletter.

“I’d rather be in a five-year CD than a bond fund taking on more duration or credit risk,” Lee says. “If rates do rise, you can lose a whole bunch of money on long-duration bonds — maybe 10 or 20% of your principal.”

The only risk you face locking in a longer CD — five years, for example — is the lost opportunity cost of obtaining a higher rate should rates jump. Lee likes that strategy.

“The interest rate sensitivity is very low, because you can always just get out and reinvest at a higher rate,” he says. “You’ll pay a bit of a penalty, but that is more than offset by the higher rate and value of the FDIC guarantee.”

McBride isn’t convinced rates will jump substantially anytime soon. “The long-awaited rising rate environment has yet to show itself — it might happen next year, or maybe not.”

Still, you should understand CD penalties in case you do need to make a move, because the terms can vary. The most common penalties for early withdrawal on a five-year CD are 6 or 12 months’ worth of interest, says McBride. “The terms can vary widely — some are assessed just on the amount you withdraw, others on the entire investment.”

If you’re worried about opportunity cost, some of the banks offering aggressive CD rates also have attractive savings accounts that let you make a move at any time – although some require a minimum level of deposit to qualify for the best rates. For example, Synchrony will pay you 0.95%. That’s not much less than the 1.1% it pays on a one-year CD – or the 1.2% for a two-year CD, for that matter.

The other option is a step-up CD that boosts your rate if interest rates rise in return for a lower initial rate. But those aren’t easy to find right now, McBride says. “We’ll see those become more prevalent if we get into a rising rate environment.”

No matter how long you go, Lee says, the implication for retirees is clear: Use CDs for the risk-free part of your portfolio and equities for whatever portion where some risk is acceptable.

Equities should help keep your overall portfolio returns substantially above the rate of inflation. The Consumer Price Index is up 2.1% for the 12 months ended in May.

“The U.S. stock market’s expected real [after-inflation] return right now is about 4%,” he says. “The expected inflation-adjusted yield on bonds right now is close to zero.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser