Friday Finance: relax about retirement

Explicating the problem

I know a guy who’s a bit of a character.

He tells the story of the time he was driving home from a job in a distant suburb and noticed he was very low on fuel. The dial was a little under the ‘E’ line. Nevertheless, he chose to drive past several inferior servos until he reached his favourite BP another 10km down the road. As he pulled in, the engine died and he had just enough momentum to roll to a vacant bowser, coming to a halt exactly in the right place without having to apply the brakes.

The story’s funny because, while he had a win, he might not have. It was a silly thing to do.

Retirement strategies are similar.

Imagine a ‘perfect’ outcome of a given strategy: You are 98 years old. You have 7 yuan remaining in your nest egg. You hobble down to the 7-11 and spend your last 7 yuan on a Mars Bar.

You eat the Mars Bar on the way home, enjoying the full utility of the saved value of your much earlier labour. Then you get home, lie down for a nap and peacefully pass away.

Win!

You can see how ridiculous this is. Like the bloke who should fill up when the gauge is on low, not empty, and like how you need to be early to be on time, the only reasonable retirement strategy is to die with plenty left over. Unless you have social security, an annuity or some sort of pension, there’s no way around it.

In fact, the average self-funded retiree is going to leave behind a huge amount. This is already happening in Australia, where the tax-protected superannuation system is serving as a de facto inheritance vehicle because retirees are so terrified of running out of money that the principal is often left undepleted by the time they die.

This is a particular problem in Australia, where you can live in an expensive house, have considerable savings and still pull a part-pension from the government. ‘Problem’ in the sense that the age pension is meant to be welfare for those unable to save enough for retirement – a benefit superannuation was supposed to rescue by making wealthy Baby Boomers pay more for their own retirement to avoid overburdening young taxpayers.

Around the world, the large retiring demographic is putting pressure on pension systems that coped better when the smaller Silent Generation retired. In the shift towards self-funded retirement, many people are struggling to figure out how much to save and how quickly to spend it.

In defence of the 4% rule

More than 90% of retirees utilizing the 4% rule will end up with an enormous stack of cash by the time they die.

To recap, the 4% rule means that you can afford to withdraw around 4% of your retirement fund in the first year of retirement then increase withdrawals by the rate of inflation for each subsequent year.

Assuming a share:bond ratio of somewhere between 50:50 and 75:25, this strategy has worked well enough that anyone retiring in any year over the past century, even 1929, would have seen their savings last 30 years.

Look up this rule online and you’ll find pages of panickers telling you why it’s not enough. Bond and stockmarket returns won’t be that high in the future! Inflation will kill you! You’ll live too long! A market crash will wipe you out!

When dealing with the future, remember that we can only talk in probabilities, not certainties. So far, the 4% rule has worked well enough for everybody. In the future, if conditions tighten, it may leave a few unlucky people out of pocket while continuing to leave most people with a massive surplus by the time they die.

It’s impossible to plan a future of zero risk. An asteroid might strike the earth. You might get shot by a crook on your last day on the force, prompting your loyal other-race partner to avenge your death. Maybe automation and AI will mean an end to scarcity. We don’t know.

If unsure, fine. Save extra. Just be aware that you are most likely saving up an even larger stash of cash for your ungrateful nephew to blow on OnlyFans.

The first decade

How well your retirement fund works out will not remain uncertain forever. The first decade is the make-or-break time. You’ll soon arrive at one of two situations: you’ll realize that you’re running out of money or your fund will compound into an amount so high that you’ll struggle to spend it all. The second is more likely.

If you overspend or suffer a really bad downturn early on, you may fall into the first category. If your spending is in line with your budget or below and returns are okay, you should be in the second category.

Given this, the following tweaks are most important in the first decade of retirement. After that you can probably relax and forget about it.

Tweaking the 4% rule

The original 4% rule is very dumb. It assumes a retiree simply withdraws the same inflation-adjusted amount every year, regardless of all other circumstances. By tweaking it just a little you can make this safe strategy even safer.

  • Invest in a greater proportion of shares. This will hedge against you living longer than you expected. Even if you are 65, you might live until 95 – thirty years away! That’s plenty long enough to justify considerable shares exposure. This will also counter the problem of worsening bond returns. Instead of 50-75% shares, I reckon someone planning retirement today should be thinking about a range more like 70-90% shares.
  • Use the Bucket Strategy. You keep three buckets of dough: cash, bonds and shares. In bad years you can draw from the low-risk buckets and in the good years you can draw from shares plus refill the other two buckets. Even if you don’t have enough in cash and bonds to bide you over a long downturn, it will still be enough to greatly reduce the amount you withdraw during such a time, thereby limiting realized losses. You don’t need to avoid any loss at all during retirement – downturns are already factored in to the 4% rule.
  • Be flexible about withdrawals. If an initial 4% is enough for a comfortable retirement, during an early downturn you could drop that to 3% and live more frugally for a while. The main lack of flexibility noted in retirees is the opposite of this: many cannot bring themselves to increase their withdrawals once it becomes clear that they have more money than they need, hence these ridiculous inheritances.
  • You could go back to work. If you retire with the mindset that you’ll return to work over the next five years or so if things go wrong, it will be much easier. You don’t have to go back to a stressful, high-flying career. You might do some online or part-time work to subsidize your living expenses and reduce withdrawals until your fund recovers.
  • Other options. A lot of retirees are very stuck-in-the-mud, unwilling to consider alternatives to their present lifestyle. You could take in a boarder, move to a cheaper home or take out a reverse mortgage.

There are many other retirement strategies like annuities, dividend investing and so on that can be suitable for some. The point of this post is not that you must follow the Bucket Strategy. Rather, the point is this: 4% will be fine so long as you can be a little flexible and adjust over the first decade as required. The 4% rule may indeed fail in the future – if you behave like a robot and do not react to evolving circumstances.

Some bloggers have suggested changing the 4% rule to the ‘x25’ rule, i.e. save up about 25 times your annual expenses in order to retire. That’s a good way of thinking about it because you are reminded that withdrawals from this fund do not have to be any particular amount.

Actually, in some retirement accounts, withdrawals are locked in. There’s a minimum withdrawal from super, for example. I forgot about that. As previously mentioned, consider saving something outside your tax-protected retirement account – enjoy the tax benefits of one and the flexibility of the other.

Of course, by the time you are quite old you won’t want to worry about shifting strategies. That’s fair enough. Be prepared for flexibility over the first decade and the rest of your retirement should look after itself.

The awesome truth: savers are fine

The 4% rule was always meant to be conservative. With 90% invested in stocks and/or a shorter retirement (i.e. by working longer), 5% withdrawals get most people through and even 6% can make the distance. More about this in a future post.

Unless you are both unlucky and inflexible, saving 25x annual expenditure is plenty.

There are many who do not have enough saved for retirement. Of Americans in their 60s, 28% have less than $5,000 dollars saved. Of all ages, 46% said they didn’t know how much they had saved.

These are the people most likely to depend upon our endangered social security systems, whether through irresponsibility or ill fortune.

If you save around 15% of your income from a young age, retirement should be fine. Be prepared to change path if required but DON’T STRESS. Your chances of living on cat food are negligible and your chances of dying with way too much money are high.

People also worry about medical expenses in old age. In general, overall expenses rise during early retirement as we rush out to do things with our newfound time, fall as we slow down a bit, then sometimes rise at the very end as our health fails.

Averaged throughout retirement, spending is usually not very high. And you have choices here. Again, relax. 25x should be okay even if you need an operation here and there.

Conclusion

If you’re still stressed, I understand. I’m exactly the same. I know that I can live on the smell of a stained serviette and yet I still feel that Northern European drive to work, save, invest, more, more, more. Winter is coming! Fill the silos and pickle the cabbages!

You need to keep telling yourself, anything above the 25x income level is a bonus and you’ll probably never use it. The saved value of your labour will outlive you. Consider pimping your retirement lifestyle, giving your kids some financial assistance or working less.

Don’t worry about retirement. If you’re the kind of person who reads this article, you’ll be fine.

12 comments

  1. luisman · January 7

    Some companies also pay some retirement benefits, if you’ve worked there long enough. And you’ll probably become the beneficiary of your parents inheritance. I don’t know what the AUS government can do to your super, but the German government takes more and more from the pension payments, in order to finance health insurance (mainly for immigrants) etc. The less governments are involved, the safer you are typically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · January 8

      So far Aus has protected super too much, making it a tax haven for the rich, because there are so many elderly voters.
      Nevertheless, I share your distrust. Who knows what will happen in the future.
      Private company pensions are usually reliable because the fund can be set up to outlast the company itself if something goes wrong. I’m more concerned about public sector employee pensions such as Chicago police etc., which are unfunded and rely upon heavily indebted and flakey governments.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Frank K · January 8

        There is a crisis brewing in the US over grossly underfunded state and municipal employee pensions. Compared to their Federal cousins, state and muni pensions often pay exorbitant annuities, sometimes equal or close to pre-retirement income and allow beneficiaries to begin collecting at a relatively young age (as low as mid 50’s). For instance, In the state of Colorado the state pension program, PERA, is woefully underfunded, as it has only about 50% of the funds it needs to pay out promised pensions.

        Many are expecting (or should I say hoping) that the Federal government will bail out these underfunded pensions, but it would take many trillions of dollars to make them all whole. I suppose that it could happen (hyper inflation be damned) but I’m not seeing the political will to do that, not even on the left.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Frank K · January 8

        “So far Aus has protected super too much”

        I am curious, what do you mean by that? Is the tax sheltering part too generous? In the US you can tax shelter almost $20,000 per year in a 401K ($26K if you are over 50). Those numbers, while not chicken feed, are not all that useful for the rich.If you earn $500K per year, sheltering $26K isn’t all that much.

        Private company pensions are all but extinct in the US, unless you have a very good union. Most companies that had one have frozen them (as in stopped making contributions to the funds) and projected payouts have been adjusted accordingly. These days if you still have a pension, you probably work for the gooberment.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Nikolai Vladivostok · January 8

          The maximum contribution per year as of today is AUD $235,680 (USD $

          Like

          • Nikolai Vladivostok · January 8

            Fat finger. That is USD $170,000.
            In addition, voluntary contributions can be subtracted from your salary and put you in a lower tax bracket.
            The whole idea of superannuation was to reduce the public pension bill, but this generous tax break is costing the government more than it saves in entitlements.
            I don’t like tax anymore than the next person but this seems unfair.

            Like

            • Frank K · January 8

              So you can defer taxes on all that? That’s a lot. In the US there is a loophole to contribute more than the limit to a Roth 401K. With a Roth you don’t get the initial tax break, but when you withdraw at retirement age, you pay no tax, not even on the appreciation. The loophole was to contribute more than the limit to a regular 401K, and the over the limit surplus would automatically go to a Roth. The Brandon administration wants to get rid of that loophole.

              Liked by 1 person

      • lemmiwinks · January 8

        Personally, by the time I reach retirement I’m not expecting the pension will be around. It wouldn’t surprise me much if the government stole my superannuation either. I have investments but again, easy for the government to disappear those too.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Laptops and the minimization project continues. – Dark Brightness
  3. Kentucky Gent · January 11

    “As he pulled in, the engine died and he had just enough momentum to roll to a vacant bowser, coming to a halt exactly in the right place without having to apply the brakes.”

    I have a similar story. My paternal grandmother lived in upstate New York, in a little town that most people have actually heard of – Woodstock.

    Well, on one of my visits, a long time ago, I rode with her while she took care of some errands. We were driving back from Poughkeepsie, going up an overpass over the New York state through-way, when suddenly the engine just died.

    Me, being the rational scientific type, immediately looked at the gas gauge. It was pegged low, below “E”. So I said “Grandma, you’re out of gas!”

    How would you respond to this, if you were driving? Yes, exactly – you would check the gas gauge yourself. What did the hard-core liberal old lady do? She didn’t even look at the gauge! Instead, she said “Can’t be. I just filled up on Tuesday.”

    No, I am not making this up!

    Fortunately, there is a gas station just past the overpass. But on the other side of the road. Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic, and the gas pump closest to us was available. We coasted in, filled up, and the engine then started immediately.

    What a great peek into the liberal mindset that was. Ignore the data; in fact, don’t even look at it! Just go with what you think the truth ought to be.

    Like

  4. Pingback: Friday Finance – the arc of descent | SovietMen
  5. Pingback: Word from the Dark Side – be me, brands of the masters, busty wallpaper and benefiting from inflation | SovietMen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s