The 0% ‘safe’ withdrawal rate …

What % of your retirement ‘nest egg’ can you safely withdraw each year, to make sure that you money lasts as long as you do?

Many would say that this is a question best answered by highly educated practitioners of the highly specialized field of Retirement Economics, who will give you an answer – or, more likely, a range of answers – accurate to many decimal places.

But, I can give you a single answer …

… one that is accurate to at least 17 decimal places, yet I am not an economist of any kind.

You see, Retirement Economics is an oxymoron.


First, let me give you an excellent example of what retirement economics is …

In his blog dedicated to pensions, retirement plans, and economics, Wade Pfau provides the following chart:

It superimposes two charts:

– one shows descending survival rates for men, women and couples who retire at age 65.

For example, if you retire at 65, there’s only a roughly 18% chance that at least one of you will live past the age of 95. Reduce that to 90, and there’s a 40% chance that one of you will survive.

– The other is an increasing probability that your money will run out before you do the larger the % you withdraw from your retirement portfolio.

For example, if you only withdraw 3% from your portfolio (if invested in the exact 40%/60% mix of stocks and bonds assumed by Wade) then there’s almost 0% chance that you’ll run out of money by the time you reach 95 (and a small chance thereafter).

But, there’s a 30% chance that you’ll run out of money by age 95 if you increase that ‘safe’ withdrawal rate to just 5%.

You’re supposed to use these ‘retirement economics’ to make decisions like:

“Well it’s very likely that either my wife or I will live to 95 and we don’t want our money to run out, so we’ll invest all of our savings in a 40% stocks / 60% bonds portfolio, and we’ll only withdraw 3% of it each year just to be sure that our money won’t run out.”

That seems like sound economical judgement for the average person …

… BUT, you are not average!

For better or worse, you are … well … you.

Besides the obvious [AJC: who says you want to wait until you’re 65 to retire?!], when YOU are 95 (albeit in the 10th percentile), how happy will you be if your money has either either already run out or there’s a reasonable chance that you will soon be out of money, hence out of care?

I would argue that only a 100% chance of your money outliving you is acceptable.

Even then, only with a LARGE buffer, so you never need to worry about even the possibility of your money running out!

In my opinion:

Only a 0.00000000000000000% withdrawal rate is acceptable.

Now, 0% does not mean withdrawal nothing, but it does mean having a sustainable, self-regenerating supply of income; this is not as hard to achieve as you might think.

For example, you can create an ongoing stream of income from:

1. Inflation protected annuities (albeit expensive)

2. TIPS (albeit a low return)

3. 100% owned real-estate (albeit, needs management)

4. Dividend stocks (my least preferred as they are sometimes a sub-par investment that tends to rise-fall with the markets).

Remember, when you retire, you want not only ZERO chance that your money runs out, but you don’t even want to get anywhere near to zero by a wide margin.

Don’t you?

Punch Buggy Blue!

Let’s say that you do agree that real-estate is one of the best MM301 (wealth preservation) strategies … although, many of my readers would disagree …

[AJC: I’m happy to meet all the dissenters in, say, 50 years – at a very cheap restaurant, as they won’t be able to afford much more – to discuss how they went with their TIPS, bonds, cash and stocks-based retirement strategies. Then I’ll meet Scott, Ryan and all the other RE and business-based retirees on their private golf-course in Palm Beach for a second debrief 😉 ]

… but, what type of RE would fit the bill?

After all, many of my readers, Evan included, have had mixed experiences with RE:

I have watched my dad deal with C R A P for years. He owns 2 properties:
1) CASH COW – 2 family residential unit income exceeds mortgage payments. They always pay on time and there mostly are no problems

2) 2 family unit with a bar attached. I have listened to him say for YEARS, that if the bar paid its rent things would be different. I feel like the stress associated with this property is going to kill him eventually, and that is the commercial part.

In NY it takes 9 to 18 months to get someone out, so even if you try to evict you are looking at legal and time costs that could literally eat 6 months profit.

As I said to Evan:

That’s why we keep TWO YEARS’ buffer 😉

But, we all have a Reticular Activating System (RAS) that attracts us to whatever it is that has caught our attention … for example, have you ever played the Punch Buggy / Slug Bug game with your friends and / or kids?

If not, it’s a bundle of fun – and, pain. Actually, mainly pain 🙁

It works like this: who ever sees a VW ‘bug’ first calls out “Punch Buggy [insert color of choice: yellow, green, red, etc.] !!” and gets to whack the other person on the arm … as hard as they like [AJC: usually me. ouch!] …

It’s amazing how many VW Beetles there are on the roads, these days!

We used to play a similar game – many, many years ago – when I was on the school bus: we used to look for Chrysler Chargers, and whomever saw one first would yell out “Hey, Charger!” and hold up their hand with a Richard Nixonesque V-For-Victory sign.

The winner for the day was the one who scored the most ‘victories’ …

It’s amazing how many Chrysler Chargers there were on the roads, in those days 🙂

Of course, what’s happening is that our RAS is simply filtering IN Chargers (or VW Beeltes) and filtering OUT other types of vehicles, making it SEEM as though Chargers / Beetles are everywhere … of course, there are no more / less than there were before we started looking out for them.

Similarly, with RE – or other – investments:

Our view tends towards our first direct – or, even indirect – experiences; which helps to explain why my generation is more conservative (we went through some down cycles in the late 80’s and early 90’s) and younger folk were more bullish, having had 15 to 20 good years … until resetting their RAS’ in the current cycle.

Similarly, Evan’s views may be colored by his Dad’s experiences albeit mixed.

But, Evan’s Dad could have avoided many of his RE problems by buying well … now, for MM301, buying well is NOT the same as buying well for MM201:

While we are still building towards our Number, we need to buy RE that will appreciate strongly, with rents just covering cashflow (of course, we wouldn’t say “no” to more!) …

… but, when we have reached our Number, we need to generate INCOME, so buying well really means that we need to:

Buy to protect our future income / rental stream

As I have shown you, it’s easy to get a positive cashflow from RE; just pay cash!

And, live happily from 75% of the rents (less taxes), knowing that the other 25% will cover all of your ‘normal’ costs (management fees, vacancies, repairs and maintenance, etc.), and will keep up with inflation.

It’s the last part that is key: since we are never selling these properties [AJC: lucky kids!], we don’t really care how much/little the RE itself appreciates, we just care how much the rents appreciate, and our benchmark for this is:

The rents must appreciate at least as much as inflation

That is through both UP and DOWN markets …

… so, I would keep away from bars and other retail EXCEPT for counter-cycle retailers such as dollar stores, groceries / food stores (food staples only), and – of course – Walmart and Walgreens [AJC: if I could get my hands on the freehold!].

Remember, we’re not looking for extraordinary capital growth (any more), but protection in down-cycles.

[AJC: oh, and if you were going to buy stocks (again, for retirement capital protection and dividends); these types of retailers and food businesses would be great ‘protection stocks’ to own, as well]

And, moving away from retail, I would also happily buy small offices, say, housing a number of separate professionals (e.g. doctors, attorneys, etc.), as these professions are required in all markets and my risks are well spread.

But, I would avoid large offices – or industrial showrooms and warehouses – housing SME’s, as these are prime candidates for simply shutting shop in a down cycle, and I may only have one tenant per property (even though buying 6 or 7 of these would certainly help to insulate the ‘shock’)

And, you might be surprised to find that I am not all that excited about residential (even multi-family) for MM301, simply because the rental returns are usually not that great (but, they can make a fantastic MM201 strategy).

Remember, RE isn’t the only MM301 Wealth Protection strategy that you can base your retirement (or, life after work) around, it’s just that I am struggling to find another one that has both income and capital that can keep up with inflation, fairly consistently, through at least the 30 to 50 years that I still plan to be around …

… can you?

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 🙂

Business for sale?

As you know, I’m a member of Networth IQ – and quite an active member, at that! I love reading and answering questions … 

[AJC: you’ve probably already seen that from the detailed responses that I try and give commenters on my posts on this blog … try me, if you have a question … I just won’t give direct personal advice, because I am not a qualified professional, but I will give general advice if I think it will benefit all of our readers]

… and this unique site provides a great platform (as does Tickerhound, which provides a great Q&A forum on everything from stocks to real-estate).

For those of you who aren’t members of Networth IQ, here is an exerpt of a great question:

I found a business for sale that has generated the following free cash flows since 1998.

1998 – $3,426.0 Mil
1999 – $3,949.0 Mil
2000 – $4,917.0 Mil
2001 – $7,133.0 Mil
2002 – $6,077.0 Mil
2003 – $8,333.0 Mil
2004 – $8,956.0 Mil
2005 – $9,245.0 Mil
2006 – $11,582.0 Mil
2007 – $12,307.0 Mil

The current owners are asking $183.49 Bil, …. I don’t have $183.49 Bil, but they said that they would sell me a smaller portion of the business if I wanted … Should I buy?

I like this question on two levels:

1. It’s a neat reminder that when we buy stocks, we’re not just buying ‘bits of paper’ … we’re buying a small piece of a real, live business!


2. It gives me an opportunity to show you the sorts of questions that I would ask – and the types of information that I would be looking at before buying into this – or any – business.

According to Warren Buffet (or sources who purport to know how he works) the intrinsic value of a business is in its discounted cashflow.

That is, a business is – or should be – a cash machine … what’s the reason for owning it, if not to get some cash out?

So, in the above example, we should be able to decide if the business is worth $183.49 Billion (not knowing the company in the above excerpt, I am assuming that this number represents the entire current market capitalization of the business) by discounting the cash-flows shown above …

… a quick look at the most recent cash-flow figure shows that it is currently producing $12 Bill. cash per year (probably growing, if history is any guide); that would mean about 15 years to get our money back … yuk.

Now you know why the stock market is generally a fool’s game … I would by far prefer to invest in my own business, or buy a private one at ‘only’ 3 to 5 years free cash-flow (better yet, Net Income), and grow it … then float it myself!

Or, at least sell it to a public company who can immediately ‘claim’ 15 times my Net Profit (hence, give me 7 to 12 times my Net Profit).

But, if we are going to play ‘the stock market’ game, what would we need to know before we can make an informed decision about ‘investing’ in this stock?

Hmmm …
As I pointed out, the free cash-flows on their own say nothing …
For example, I recently sold two similar businesses: one had been going for many years and generated ‘free cash flows’ [now that’s an oxymoron!] of $1 mill. and the other was less than 2 years old and had yet to make a dime.
Yet, I sold them both (separately) for about the same price! So, there must be more to the valuation of a business than Free Cash-flows, right? Absolutely!Let’s start with Return on Invested Capital:
I’d like to know what it has been for this company (and, the industry) over the past 5 years? I’d like to see an improving trend in excess of 15%, please.
Then, is the company growing?
Cash Flow is just one measure (but, what about operating cash-flow … have they made any strategic purchases / major capital expenditures /etc.), so what about the 10 years trends in: Earnings? Book Value? And, what about plain, old Sales?
I’d like to see a history of growth (min. 10%) in all of these …Now, how is there debt situation?
How long will it take them to cover their long-term liabilities from ‘Free Cash Flow’?
I’d like to see no more than 2 to 3 years.
Do the people who run the company own stock? Are they buying or selling?
Tell me about the company: do they have a ‘sustainable competitive advantage’ (what Warren Buffet calls a ‘Moat’ … but, that’s too much water for me!).

Do I believe this company will be around for the next 100 years … do I really want to buy THIS business in THIS industry?

Lastly, if I like the answers to all of the above (unlikely … so far I’ve only liked the answers to similar questions for 7 companies out of the 5,000+ that I can currently buy a ‘piece’ of) …

…. then how CHEAP can I get this thing!?
PS I made the ‘other’ category … waaaayyyyyy down at the bottom of the 150th Carnival of Personal Finance … whoo hoo!

How much interest do you earn on one million dollars?

Welcome new readers!

Here are three of my favorite posts to get you started; if you want to find out:

1. If $1 million will be enough to retire with, then click here, or

2. How much house you can afford, then click here, or

3. Why buying a new car is such a losing proposition, then click here.

Otherwise, please enjoy this article, then bookmark my home page (click here) and come back often …


How much interest do you earn on one million dollars?

This was the question that Clint at Accumulating Money asked in a ‘classic’ post – I commented on it earlier this year and still receive click-through’s two or three months later. It must be a very popular question!

I’m not sure why, because it implies that people are happy to just have their life savings ‘sit’ in CD’s …

… but, here’s the answer to the “million dollar” question courtesty of Accumulating Money anyway:

So, to answer the question, how much interest do you earn on One Million Dollars (assuming a 4% interest rate, compounded monthly)?

One Day – $109.59

One Month – $3,333.33

One Year – $40,741.54

Five Years – $220,996.59

Ten Years – $490,832.68

Twenty Years – $1,222,582.09

I think this related question asked by Afroblanco at Ask Metafilter – repeated on Get Rich Slowly (which is where I picked it up) – really goes to show how The Savers (as opposed to The Investors) think:

What’s the safest possible thing that I can do with my money?” :

I take bearishness to an extreme. Having witnessed the 2000 tech crash, I have no faith in the stock market or the US economy. I keep all of my money (USD) in a savings account. However, with the recent financial turmoil, I have a few questions:

  1. Is it conceivable for the FDIC to fail?
  2. If so, is there a place where I can put my money that will be safer than a savings account?
  3. What’s the safest, most risk-free way for me to save money and not get killed by inflation and the tanking US dollar?
  4. If there is a safe way for me to save money and not be punished by inflation and the depreciating dollar, is there a way that I can do this without having to stress out and micromanage my finances? I don’t want to be checking the finance page and making adjustments every day.

Even though I follow finance news, I’ve never done any investing or money management other than socking money away in my savings account. I’m a n00b, I admit it.

OK … I confess …. I am like our friend, Afroblanco … very risk-averse; yet I have become rich by understanding that it is actually safer to invest than not.

The GREATEST RISK that our friend can take is NOT TO INVEST … inflation will just eat up any bank deposit/CD strategy.

Take Accumulating Money’s example above:

One million dollars approximately doubles in 20 years … but, inflation will halve its buying power!

Think about it, if the average bank interest rate is 4% (pushing the value of your savings UP) and inflation averages 4% (pushing the buying power or value of your savings DOWN), what have you gained in 20 years?

Nothing …

Now, if you just push your savings into a low cost Index Fund that averages, say, an 8% return over the 20 years, then the same 4% inflation means that you should effectively DOUBLE the value (or ‘buying power’) of your million dollars over 20 years.

But, Afroblanco is even better off BUYING The Bank [i.e. investing in the Bank’s stock] than putting his money in The Bank. The risk of failure is about the same (if the bank fails you will lose the money that you have IN the bank’s vault as well as the money IN the bank’s stock), yet, as long as he has a long-term view (minimum 20 to 30 years), the former strategy will make him rich and the latter broke.

If the bank stock averages just 12% average growth over 20 years – as any well-picked Value Stock, can easily do – then Afroblanco won’t just double the buying power of his money ONCE, he will get to double it TWICE … that’s $4 million AFTER the effect of inflation (or, the $1 million grows to $10 million in ‘raw’ dollars).

What about risk? Aren’t bank deposits FDIC Insured?

[AJC: Well, yeah … up to a paltry $100kof course, you could open up 4 bank accounts at 4 different banks  … but, $400k is hardly what I hope my readers are aiming at!]

But, inflation is a much bigger risk: 100% certain to eat up your money … and, would the Federal Government (the same entity backing the FDIC) allow a Major US Retail Bank to fail?

I guess we’ll find out in the next few months!

If you don’t believe that’s likely, then isn’t your money just as safe in The Bank as it is in the bank?

[AJC: think about it 😉 ]

And, doesn’t The Bank’s stock at least meet the overall market returns which averaged 8% p.a. for the past 100 years … what have bank deposits averaged in that time? 3%? 5%?

The point here is not necessarily to buy stock in The Bank … rather it’s to think about Investing rather than Saving …

Before suggesting WHAT to invest in, we need to know HOW long is our friend is expecting his money to last? Assuming that our friend is a hands-off investor, here’s what I suggest as the lowest-risk strategies possible:

If less than 30 years, then TIPS are a an option – PROVIDED that he can live off the inflation-adjusted interest (unfortunately, very unlikely in the current low interest environment – but, in 5/10 years, who knows?).

If 30 years or more, then a low-cost Index Fund is ideal for a hands-off investor. There has been NO 30 year period since the recording of the stock market indices where the market has not produced a positive return well above inflation.

If he is more hands on and/or more knowledgeable, then I would recommend no more than 4 or 5 well-selected individual stocks and direct investment in real-estate, for any time period 10 years or greater.

Inflation forces us to invest … because of this, inflation is our friend!