Fitting a square peg into a round hole …

The real problem with any of the so-called ‘safe withrawal rates’ that we explored yesterday – with 4% currently being perhaps the most popular amount advocated – is that they all assume a fixed annual spending amount, but are actually generated by a totally volatile (some would say random) portfolio.

We’re trying to fit a square peg (fixed annual spending) into a round hole ( a ‘random walk down Wall Street’) 😉

But 7m7y readers have an even more fundamental problem with planning our ‘retirement’ based on this type of common industry wisdom: we are planning on retiring early, hopefully, with a very large Number and a soon Date!

Most retirement models assume a 30 to 35 year retirement lifespan …

… I don’t know about you, but I retired at 49 and intend to live AT LEAST another 40 years 🙂

Many of my readers will be aiming to reach their Numbers even sooner .. and, may expect to live even longer!

The bottom-line: traditional retirement planning models don’t work, because we need money that will last as long as we do … we need a Perpetual Money Machine, because we don’t know how long we will live once we stop working.

A Perpetual Money Machine is anything that:

a) Protects your capital over the long-run, even allowing for the ravages of market changes and inflation, and

b) Produces a reasonably reliable stream of income, that also (at least) keeps pace with inflation.

Neither stocks nor bonds – the traditional tools of retirement investing – fit the bill for us:

1. Stocks are too volatile, and the income tends to be artificial (e.g. so-called dividend stocks attempt to fix the level of dividend provided even as the company’s profits fluctuate).

[AJC: Raiding marketing, R&D, and other seemingly non-essential budgets in lean years in order to protect the dividend stream is – to my mind – the mark of a poorly run company]

2. Bonds provide a very safe return, but the % returned each year is too low, meaning – at least, to me – an unnecessarily reduced lifestyle, especially after allowing for reinvestment to try and keep up with inflation.

That’s why my Rule of 20 is exactly that: a planning rule, NOT a 5% spending rule!

[AJC: Otherwise, I would have called it the 5% Rule, d’oh!].

In other words, my advice for PLANNING your Number, is to decide what initial income you want and multiply that by 20 in order to find your Number

… but, my advice for LIVING your Number is to turn on your Perpetual Money Machine and live off whatever it happens to produce, after allowing for taxes and provisions against inflation and contingencies.

The Myth of the Safe Withdrawal Rate …

I have noticed an unusual phenonemom: I write a post on one theme and your (i.e. our readers’) comments explore another one entirely!

This is a GOOD thing … it means – I hope – that we are building an online community dedicated to the idea of linking our finances to our life, rather than simply attempting to fit within society financial ‘norms’.

Case in point: I wrote a post exploring various windfalls, and the comments lead us down the path of exploring so-called ‘safe withrawal rates’, which is the idea that there is a Magic Percentage of your Number that is ‘safe’ to withdraw to live off each year.

The problem is, what % do you choose?

For example, I have proposed the ‘Rule of 20’ for calculating your Number, which seems the same as proposing a 5% ‘safe withdrawal rate’, but Jake disagrees:

A 5% drawn-down rate on the pot of gold is a little on the risky side if you want the money to last.

After looking at a bunch of data, I feel that a draw-down rate of 2-3% is too conservative, but 5-6% to aggressive. 4% or so seems right. I know, only 1% off from your value but over time it makes a huge difference.

So, Jake has highlighted one problem with selecting a ‘safe’ withdrawal rate … if you are out by even 1% your spending can be over (or under) the ideal by 20%. I don’t know about you, but a 20% payrise (or paycut) is a pretty big deal … people quit their jobs over less!

So, what do the experts recommend?

Believe it or not, there is support out there for just about any annual % of your nest egg that you may choose to spend, for example:

7% – Not so long ago, the financial services industry proposed spending as much as 7% of your portfolio each year in retirement.

6% – More recently, Paul Graangard wrote two books proposing a bond-laddering and stocks strategy that supported a spending rate as high as 6.6% of your portfolio each year.

5% – Investment funds routinely allow spending of 5% of the portion of their investment portfolios dedicated to simply keeping up with inflation. Indeed, my Rule of 20 appears to support this withdrawal rate, too.

4% – A large number of studies – probably, the most famous of which is the so-called Trinity Study – advocate spending up to 4% of your initial portfolio (ideally, 50% stocks and 50% bonds, rebalanced each year), which provides somewhere between a 90% and 100% certainty that your money will last at least 35 years.

3% –  A whole slew of new retirement planning tools (generally using a Monte Carlo approach to modelling tens, hundreds, or even thousands of potential economic scenarios) have been released over the last 4 or 5 years by the financial services industry, purporting to analyse hundreds of alternative economic scenarios to try and model what would happen to your retirement portfolio (i.e. simulating changes in interest rates, market booms and busts, etc.) to find the ideal ‘safe’ withdrawal rate. The trouble is that a lot of these advocate very low withdrawal rates, typically in the 2.5% – 3.5% range. 

2% – Some even advocate a totally ‘risk-free’ approach to retirement savings by investing close to 100% of your retirement portfolio in inflation-protected bonds (i.e. TIPS); historically, these have provided a 2% return, after inflation and with total protection of your starting capital.

So, which is right?

None, as TraineeInvestor explains in his comment to my post:

I’m not fan of draw down models either. If you have to spend your capital to avoid eating cat food (or the cat) or are working with a very limited time period fair enough. But with a sufficiently long time horizon, my view is that any draw down rate is dangerous – in fact I would be uncomofortable if my nest egg was not growing at at least the rate of inflation (after taxes and spending).

Another way of looking at it is that if you are relying on draw down of capital for living expenses you are very vulnerable to adverse events. No thanks – I’d rather sleep soundly at night.

Me too! 🙂

Retiring with enough …

Philip Brewer has written a couple of articles for Wise Bread exploring the question: “Can You Buy Your Way Out of the Rat Race?”.

He says:

If you’re tracking your spending, you know how much money it takes to live on. If you’re tracking your investments, you know about how much return you’re getting from your capital. With those two numbers, you can get a pretty good estimate of how much money it takes to buy your way out of the rat race.

In its simplest form, the cost to buy your way out is just your annual spending divided by the return on your investments. I used to do that calculation a lot. When I got my first job interest rates were in double digits, so I could imagine getting $30,000 or even $40,000 a year — plenty of money to live on — from an investment as small as $300,000.

This is good advice if you want to retire on “$30,000 or even $40,000 a year” … I don’t 😉

The problem with these types of retirement articles is that they usually start from the assumption that your current salary +/- 30% is what you want to live off.

When my salary was $250k, this probably also held true for me … but, just a year or two earlier (when I was actually planning my own retirement) my salary was only $50k – plus my wife’s $60k, making our total household income less than half my ‘required retirement salary’.

So, I describe the retirement calculation process much as Philip describes it, with an extra step:

1. Decide what you want to do with your Life

2. Decide how much annual income you require (probably, without needing to work … but, that’s up to you)

3. Convert that amount to the capital that you need.

Now, Philip would say that you should subtract any income and/or pensions that you expect to receive along the way …

… I recommend that you don’t.

You see, you may not want to – or be able to – continue work through your ‘retirement’ – and, government pensions can always be taken away.

Rather, I recommend that you assume neither of these while you are ‘retired’, and reinvest any such ‘windfall income until you have enough accumulated to effectively increase your Number, hence your standard of living.


Well, Philip suggests:

Among people who invest for large institutions, there’s a rule of thumb that you can spend 5% of your endowment each year, and then expect to have a bit more to spend next year than you spent this year.

Of course, they can’t expect that 5% to be more every single year. Some years the investment portfolio does poorly–and after one of those years, the 5% that’s available for spending will be less than the previous year. Maybe much less.

For households, therefore, the rule of thumb is 4%.

We have a similar rule: The Rule of 20, which seems effectively the same as Phil’s 5% Rule [AJC: we’ll explain why it’s actually a VERY different concept, in a series of MM301 posts, coming up soon] … this is probably enough because you will probably:

– Earn some additional money in retirement (remember those part-time income and pensions that we mentioned?)

– Spend a little less as you get older (unless you feel that health care will outweigh all of those Learjet trips?)

– Overshoot your Number, if you wait until reaching your Number (on paper) before actually trying to sell your business / real-estate, etc.

BUT, don’t let me stop you from building in an additional buffer by modifying my ‘rule’ to anywhere between the Rule of 20 to the Rule of 40.

Hint: I wouldn’t bother … the Rule of 20 is plenty to aim for; but, don’t let me stop you from aiming for more …

…. just don’t try and make it LESS 🙂

Are you saving enough for retirement?

This video asks an important question, one that we asked our readers some time ago (and, will answer tomorrow).

It also seems to indicate that roughly 8% is a safe withdrawal rate, at least for men who choose to retire at the standard retirement age in the USA … we’ll explore this further, through a series of posts beginning later on this week.

For now, what do you think is a ‘safe’ % of your Number to live off each year?

So, who’s missed the point?

Philip Brewer, a freelance writer for Wisebread (I presume, amongst others) has had a couple of mentions here, lately; this one for a comment that he made on his review of the book: Your Money Or Your Life [AJC: snappy title]:

The book has a very simple investment program that many people have taken issue with. The authors want you to invest your surplus money (a growing amount, once you make some progress on maximizing income and minimizing expenses) in long-term treasury bonds. More than a few people have criticized the program on the grounds that a diversified stock portfolio would produce higher returns. These people have missed the point: The goal of the investment portfolio is to produce a very secure stream of income. Long-term treasurys are a perfect choice.

Since I haven’t yet read the book, I can only say that I disagree if the authors – hence Philip – were talking about investing for retirement; after retirement – Making Money 301 – I wholeheartedly agree that the “goal of the investment portfolio is to produce a very secure stream of income.”

I also agree that “Long-term treasurys [sic] are a perfect choice”, especially if they are inflation-protected (e.g. TIPS in the USA), and perhaps laddered in some way; alternatively, you could try:

– income producing real-estate purchased in whole or in large part for CASH,

– index funds (although, you open yourself up to a certain volatility),

– Covered calls, perhaps protected by PUTS (if the option pricing allows).

But, not when you are still trying to build up your nest-egg unless you have such a low required annual compound growth rate (which probably means that you came by the page accidentally and are about to click off, never to return) that bonds / treasuries will do the job.

Until you do get within a few years of retirement, the goal of your investment portfolio is simple: it should be to produce your Number 🙂

Will a million dollars be enough when I retire?


It seems like we have visited this question a lot … on the other hand, we have new readers every day, so it’s important to revisit the basics – and, I hope, it never hurts us to refresh our point of view either.

So, I couldn’t resist jumping in when Peter of Bible Money Matters posed the question: “Will a million dollars be enough when I retire?”

I told Peter that I love this question because it’s such a loaded one …

… we’d love to BELIEVE that it will be enough, but for most, it won’t.


Simple mathematics:

If you have $1 million (by the time that you retire in, say, 20 years) and inflation is averaging 4%, then the first 4% of your return goes just to keeping up with inflation. So, now just keeping your money in the bank isn’t enough.

So, let’s say that you can earn 9% on your money (in the stock market … crashes – and, ridiculously high mutual fund fees – aside? Hopefully!), then that’s ‘just’ $50,000 a year after inflation.

But, if you’re retiring in 20 years, $50k is (again, ‘just’) like $25k today [AJC: remember, 4% inflation roughly halves your buying power every 20 years] … so the real question becomes:

Will $25k a year be enough when I retire?

Now, that’s up to you to decide …

… all I can say is that, in my own retirement years, I’m ‘struggling’ to live off $250k a year ;)

Nasty Mr Inflation – Part II

Nasty_ManLast time, we looked at dealing with inflation before we retire (a.k.a. Life After Work), to see that $40k a year of current needs means that you need to be able to generate somewhere between $100k and $125k per year, IF you want to retire in 30 years.

Even if we manage to build up the $2.8 million nest egg that Pinyo talks about (or the $1.8 million one that the following reader talks about), we have a problem, illustrated by the comment by Elaine on Pinyo’s post:

I don’t see interest included in the calculations here. Even at 4%, *just the annual interest* on 1.8 million will cover your annual needs. Not that that’s a bad thing, you’ll still have 1.8 mil left when you die. If you plan to use up all your money in retirement the necessary amount would be quite a bit lower.

Elaine has ‘forgotten’ about inflation; this doesn’t stop just because you retire!

You earn 4% on your money and before you get to spend any of it, Mr Inflation ’spends’ 3.5% for you … I asked Elaine if she can live off just 0.5% of $1.8 Million?

When you retire, if you have your money just sitting in the bank, inflation will simply kill you, financially-speaking.

On the other hand, if Elaine buys a $1.8 mill. rental property (paying 100% cash, forgetting closing costs) the property will increase in value WITH inflation, as will the rents … an inflation-proof retirement (or, she can buy TIPS, inflation-protected government bonds … etc., etc.)

The definition of insanity …

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Albert Einstein

Thankfully, this blog isn’t for everybody … only those who want to get rich(er) quick(er) … I’ve proved that it can be done successfully, and I am conducting a ‘grand experiment’ at one of my other sites to prove that it’s not just luck and that others can do it, too.

But, the vast majority are still in the ‘work for 40 years and hope to have saved enough’ mindset … and they have worries of their own, as this recent Gallup Poll showed:

Of course, recent economic woes are probably ‘skewing’ this a little … but, think about it – most aren’t retiring tomorrow, or even in the next 10 years, so markets will have plenty of time to boom and bust again for them.

No, the problem is more endemic: most people simply don’t think that they will be able to retire happy or comfortably – and certainly not wealthy – despite the ‘formidable’ array of ‘retirement weapons’ at their disposal:

So, if the majority of people are using these tools and the majority of people believe that they won’t work for them …


Surely, at some level, these people know that these tools – as I have been hammering home in this blog for some months now – simply won’t do the job?!

Let’s take a look:

1. 401k’s – High fees; low returns; lousy investment products on offer:

STRIKE 1 – I have never had a 401k and I have no idea what is even in any of my tax-advantaged / retirement accounts.

2. Social Security – An unfunded program; USA in the highest level of debt in history’ what’s the chances of Social Security being around in the same form when YOU retire?:

STRIKE 2 – When my social security statement arrives I chuck it in the trash without reading it, it’s irrelevant, it won’t be around when I retire, and I had this same line of thinking BEFORE I became rich.

3. Home Equity – Please! Where do you intend to live when you retire? By the time you buy and pay changeover costs etc. if you see any spare cash, it may be just about enough to pay off your remaining credit card debt:

STRIKE 3 – I live in my home equity, don’t you?

4. Pension Plan – Do you work for Ford/GM/Chrylser? Any airline? Just about any bank?:

STRIKE 4 [AJC: 4 strikes???!!! I’m an Aussie, what do I know from baseball?] Ditto to the above, in fact, I have never subscribed to an employer-sponsored pension plan, even where I have had the choice.

… need I go on?

The point is, if you know these tools aren’t going to work for you – as the majority of Americans surveyed by Gallup seem to – yet you keep using them – as the majority of Americans do – isn’t that the very definition of ‘insanity’?

Now, that’s a question that I would love to see the Gallup Survey for!?

Looking for the Perfect Retirement Formula?


Conventional wisdom says that you can safely withdraw 5% of your Net Worth each year following ‘retirement’ (hence, the Rule of 20), but conventional wisdom is aimed at people who conventionally retire … which, I trust, is none of us 😉

However, there are essentially two conventional ways of deciding your retirement ‘income’:

There’s the percentage of portfolio method (where you always withdraw the same % of your portfolio each year) and the dollar adjusted method (where you always withdraw the same fixed $ amount, only adjusted each year for inflation).

Colleen Jaconetti, from Vanguard Investment Counseling & Research says:

The percentage-of-portfolio method can give your money a greater chance of lasting throughout your lifetime, while dollar-adjusted gives you a more predictable, inflation-adjusted withdrawal amount each year. If you’re more concerned about someday running out of money, the percentage method may be appropriate, but you’ll need to have some flexibility in your spending.

The percentage of portfolio method tends to last longer, making it more suitable for those of us who intend to retire young … and isn’t that all of us?! Colleen agrees:

If you’re retiring early, such as in your 50s, you may want to start out withdrawing closer to 4% to help reduce the risk of a long-term shortfall.

But, the problem isn’t with the method – in fact, in the first year of your retirement, they produce the same result (it’s only in subsequent years that they vary according to your then-current Net Worth OR according to inflation, depending upon which method that you choose) – it’s with the factor that you choose.

You see, 5% (or even 4%) may be too much!

These ‘common wisdom’ percentages assume average rates of return, but the market doesn’t operate in a line that simply tracks the averages … it moves around the average return randomly

… and, if it randomly moves the wrong way too early and for too long (pity those who are recently retired) you could easily run out of money in years, not decades!

So, you could instead plug your numbers into a Monte Carlo Simulation (this is a really good one) which tend to produce much more conservative withdrawal rates – more like 2.5% (hence my Rule of 40).

Or, you can go the other way and set up a Bond Laddering strategy that Paul Grangaard claims can support a ‘safe withdrawal rate’ as high as 6.6%.

Do you see our dilemma? A doubling or tripling of life-style (or a similar scale reduction, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty) depending upon whom you believe.

This is the dilemma that you face when your retirement assets are held in bonds, Index Funds, cash or CD’s … which is why I am trying (actually, failing miserably right now) to live a $250,000 lifestyle on an income and asset-base that actually supports way more than that (I think: I’ll have to wait for the post-meltdown; post-house-purchase; post house-renovation; post-move countries fallout to clear sometime during 2009 to be REALLY sure I’m still living within my means … I think – more likely hope – I am).

So, when I find the Perfect Retirement Formula, I’ll be sure to let you know … Lord knows, if it exists, I need to find it 😉

In the meantime, I have a third method – one that makes the concept of Safe Withdrawal rates virtually irrelevant:

You invest your money in income-producing assets …

… such as, dividend-producing stocks or income-producing real-estate.

You buy the asset with little or no borrowings (which is entirely different to the Making Money 201 strategies that I recommend, but we are now in Making Money 301 – ‘post-retirement’ wealth protection mode – so things change dramatically) and gain the following two huge advantages:

1. You can live off the entire after-tax rent/dividend – with a buffer for holding costs (in the case of real-estate, this could be things like vacancies, taxes, and repairs and maintenance), if required – which is pretty much automatically inflation-adjusted, and

2. Your capital (hence estate) or Net Worth also increases pretty much at least with inflation, as long as you choose your investment/s reasonably well!

No worries about outlasting your income … and, you get to leave your heirs (and/or your favorite charity/s) the bulk of your ‘fortune’ 🙂

PS What does the image of a man running on the beach have to do with a ‘safe retirement’? I have no idea … I just googled images with the keywords ‘safe’ and ‘retirement’ and pictures of beaches and horses (lots of horses!) came up … go figure …