About to retire? Get some help

Dear Liz: I am approaching being able to retire in three years at 56, but I’m really concerned with the current market conditions. I have around $320,000 in 401(k) and 457 accounts now, all of it invested in stocks. Should I scale this back to more moderate allocations? My pension will pay me around $5,200 a month, so I do not anticipate needing to withdraw from my investments before age 59.

Answer: Even if you’ve been a die-hard do-it-yourself investor until now, it’s time to get help. Retirement decisions can be incredibly complicated, and you may not have time to recover from mistakes.

A fee-only financial planner would ask, among other things, what your current living costs are and what additional expenses you expect, such as buying another car, taking trips and so on. Those details can help determine whether your savings are adequate. The planner also would ask you how you plan to pay for healthcare in retirement, since Medicare doesn’t kick in until age 65, and an individual policy at your age could eat into that pension check. Even with Medicare, Fidelity Investments estimates, a 65-year-old couple retiring this year would need $240,000 to cover medical expenses throughout retirement — not counting any money they might need to pay for nursing home or other custodial care.

What a planner probably wouldn’t do is approve having 100% of your investments in stock at any age, even with a nice pension. You may have time to ride out another market downturn, but watching half of your life savings disappear might increase the chances you’d sell out in a panic. Having a more moderate allocation that includes bonds and cash could help cushion those market swings and keep you invested.

You can get referrals to fee-only planners who charge by the hour at the Garrett Planning Network, http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com. If you’re looking for fee-only planners who charge a retainer or a percentage of assets, you’ll find those at the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors, http://www.napfa.org. NAPFA has tools for consumers at http://www.napfa.org/consumer/Resources.asp and the Financial Planning Assn. has tips on choosing a financial planner at http://www.fpanet.org/FindaPlanner/ChoosingaPlanner/.

High fees can break your nest egg

Dear Liz: We have $130,000 invested in mutual funds, but the returns the last few years have been less than 4%. With the financial advisor taking 2% as a fee annually, we are not satisfied with the growth. A co-worker suggested buying blue-chip stocks with a strategy to hold and reinvest the dividends. If this is done in a self-directed plan to avoid the fees, we could be netting 4% plus. Is this a good plan or should we trust the advisor’s optimism that our returns will improve soon?

Answer: You don’t mention your age, your investment mix or your goals for this money. But if your portfolio isn’t doing significantly better this year — after all, the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock market benchmark is up about 30% over the last 12 months — you have cause for concern.

Even if your returns were better, a 2% fee is pretty high. Small investors need to keep an eagle eye on costs, since expenses can have a huge effect on your nest egg. Paying even 1% too much could shave more than $100,000 off your returns over the next 20 years.

That doesn’t mean, however, that an all-stock portfolio is a better choice. Individual stocks typically are much riskier than a diversified portfolio of mutual funds or exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

What might make more sense is consulting a fee-only financial planner who can design a low-cost portfolio for you. You can get referrals to planners who charge by the hour at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

Is a 3% withdrawal rate too conservative?

Question: In a recent column you repeat advice I have often read that withdrawing about 3% of my investment capital will reduce the chances of my running out of money in retirement. But that doesn’t make sense to me. I have been retired for over 19 years and I have sufficient data now to extrapolate that I could live for 100 more years with so meager a drawdown because, through good and bad times, my earnings after inflation and taxes always exceed 3%. If I am missing something, I must be extraordinarily lucky because it hasn’t hurt me yet, and at age 77 I think it unlikely to do so in my remaining years. Can you explain this discrepancy between my experience and the consequences of your advice?

Answer: Sure. You got extraordinarily lucky.

You retired during a massive bull market, which is the best possible scenario for someone who hopes to live off investments. You were drawing from an expanding pool of money. Your stocks probably were growing at an astonishing clip of 20% or more a year for several years. Although later market downturns probably affected your portfolio, those initial years of good returns kept you comfortably ahead of the game.

Contrast that with someone who retires into a bear market. She’s drawing from a shrinking pool of money as her investments swoon. The money she takes out can’t participate in the inevitable rebound, so she loses out on those gains as well. All that dramatically increases the risks that she’ll run out of money before she runs out of breath.

It’s the first five years of retirement that are crucial, according to analyses by mutual fund company T. Rowe Price, which has done extensive research on sustainable withdrawal rates. Bad markets and losses in the first five years after withdrawals begin significantly increase the chances that a person will run out of money during a 30-year retirement.

Some advisors contend that a 3% initial withdrawal rate, adjusted each subsequent year for inflation, is too conservative. If you retire into a long-lasting bull market, it may well be. But none of us knows what the future holds, which is why so many advisors stick with the 3%-to-4% rule.

Windfall in your 50s? Don’t blow it

Dear Liz: I am 56 and will be receiving $175,000 from the sale of a home I inherited. I do not know what to do with this money. I have been underemployed or unemployed for six years, have no retirement savings and am terrified this money will get chipped away for day-to-day expenses so that I’ll have nothing to show for it. Should I invest? If so, what is relatively safe? Should I try to buy another house as an investment?

Answer: You’re right to worry about wasting this windfall, because that’s what often happens. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand dollars there, and suddenly what once seemed like a vast amount of money is gone.

First, you need to talk to a tax pro to make sure there won’t be a tax bill from your home sale. Then you need to use a small portion of your inheritance to hire a fee-only financial planner who can review your situation and suggest some options. You can get referrals for fee-only planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com.

You’re closing in quickly on retirement age, and you should know that typically Social Security doesn’t pay much. The average check is around $1,000 a month. This windfall can’t make up for all the years you didn’t save, but it could help you live a little better in retirement if properly invested.

You should read a good book on investing, such as Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101,” so you can better understand the relationship between risk and reward. It’s understandable that you want to keep your money safe, but investments that promise no loss of principal don’t yield very much. In other words, keeping your money safe means it won’t be able to grow, which in turn means your buying power will be eroded over time.