Q&A: Don’t run out of money in retirement: Here’s how much to use per year, and why

Dear Liz: I am confused about “safe withdrawal rates” from retirement accounts. I’ve read that withdrawing 4% of savings each year is the gold standard that financial planners utilize to ensure that life savings are preserved in retirement.

However, if the Standard & Poor’s 500 index returns on average 8% a year, and if the life savings are locked down in a mutual fund that is indexed to the S&P 500, then shouldn’t the annual withdrawal amount, to preserve those savings, be 8%? Limiting my withdrawals to 4% means my retirement would be pushed several years down the road. Can you clarify?

Answer: It’s good you asked this question before you retired, rather than afterward when it might have been too late.

You’re right that on average, the S&P 500 has returned at least 8% annualized returns in every rolling 30-year period since 1926. (“Rolling” means each 30-year period starting in 1926, then 1927, then 1928, and so on.)

But the market doesn’t return 8% each and every year. Some years are up a lot more. And some are down — way down. In 2008, for example, the S&P 500 lost about 37% of its value in a single year.

Such big downturns are especially risky for retirees, because retirees are drawing money from a shrinking pool of assets. The money they withdraw doesn’t have the chance to benefit from the inevitable rebound when stock prices recover. Bad markets, particularly at the beginning of someone’s retirement, can dramatically increase the odds of running out of money.

Inflation also can vary, as can returns on cash and bonds. All these factors play a role in how long a pot of money can be expected to last. The “4% rule” resulted from research by financial planner William Bengen, who in the 1990s examined historical returns from 1926 to 1976. Bengen found there was no period when an initial 4% withdrawal, adjusted each year afterward for inflation, would have exhausted a diversified investment portfolio of stocks and bonds in less than 33 years.

Some subsequent research has suggested a 3% initial withdrawal rate might be better, especially for early retirees or those with more conservative, bond-heavy portfolios.

Free online calculators can give you some idea of whether you’re on track to retire. A good one to check out is T. Rowe Price’s retirement income calculator. But you’d be smart to run your findings past a fee-only financial planner as well. The decisions you make in the years around retirement are often irreversible, and what you don’t know can hurt you.

Monday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How not to run out of money in retirement. Also in the news: How bountiful is tax-loss harvesting, what the (almost) end of credit card signatures means for you, and how your spouse’s student loans affect you.

How Not to Run Out of Money in Retirement
Making it through the long haul.

How Bountiful Is Tax-Loss Harvesting?
A gimmick or an advantage?

What the (Almost) End of Credit Card Signatures Means for You
Less time at the register.

How Your Spouse’s Student Loans Affect You
Everything from taxes to mortgages.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 4 ways to curb your online shopping enthusiasm. Also in the news: 13 last-ditch ways to avoid the poorhouse in retirement, why you should freeze your child’s credit, and 8 inspirational stories of people who overcame debt.

4 Ways to Curb Your Online Shopping Enthusiasm
Back away from the mouse.

13 Last-Ditch Ways to Avoid the Poorhouse in Retirement
There’s still time.

Why You Should Freeze Your Child’s Credit
Identity theft starts early.

8 inspirational stories of people who overcame debt
Learning from those who have been there.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How bad credit can increase your car costs. Also in the news: Owning Bitcoin creates a complex tax situation, 13 last-ditch ways to avoid the poorhouse in retirement, and the top 7 tax deductions and credits people forget.

Good Driver, Bad Credit: What Makes Your Car Costs So High
It’s not just the monthly payment.

Owning Bitcoin Creates a Complex Tax Situation
Taxing cryptocurrency.

13 Last-Ditch Ways to Avoid the Poorhouse in Retirement
Before it’s too late.

Top 7 Tax Deductions And Credits That People Forget
Leave no deduction behind.

How not to run out of money in retirement

Americans aren’t terrific at saving for retirement. Many are even worse when it comes to figuring out how much to spend once they get there.

An actuary who’s studied the issue for three decades recently proposed a relatively straightforward strategy that can help. In my latest for the Associated Press, how to use this strategy to make your retirement savings last.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Bucking tradition at your wedding can help you save money. Also in the news: How schools can teach kids to be smart consumers, what to buy (and skip) in April, and how to save for retirement without a 401(k).

Engaged? Bucking Tradition Can Help You Save Big
Thinking outside the box.

How Schools Can Teach Kids To Be Smart Consumers
Learning lifelong skills.

What to Buy (and Skip) in April
Be careful with that refund.

How to save for retirement without a 401(k)
Options for the self-employed.

Q&A: Here are some tips for getting more retirement money into accounts with tax advantages

Dear Liz: My wife and I are about 35. I’m self-employed and contribute to a SEP IRA. My wife contributes to a workplace retirement plan. We don’t qualify to contribute to Roth IRAs. In order to get more money into retirement accounts, would you recommend doing back-door Roth contributions? What else is there to do to get retirement money into accounts that will have a tax benefit now or later?

Answer: Roth IRAs don’t provide an upfront deduction, but withdrawals are tax-free in retirement. That makes them especially enticing to people who expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement — mostly higher-income people and good savers.

People who earn more than certain limits, however, are prohibited from contributing directly to a Roth IRA. For 2018, direct Roth contributions aren’t allowed for people whose modified adjusted gross incomes exceed $199,000 for married couples filing jointly or $135,000 for single filers.

Several years ago, however, Congress eliminated income limits on who was allowed to convert a regular IRA to a Roth IRA. That change created the back-door Roth strategy, in which a high-income taxpayer contributes to a regular IRA and then converts the money to a Roth.

The strategy works best for people who don’t already have a large IRA filled with pre-tax contributions and earnings. When you convert all or some of an IRA to a Roth, you have to pay a proportionate amount of income taxes on the conversion based on all of your IRA holdings. If you don’t have an existing IRA and don’t deduct the IRA contribution, you’ll owe little if any taxes on the conversion.

The IRS hasn’t specifically blessed or banned the back-door Roth strategy, so it remains somewhat controversial. Many investing and brokerage sites promote it. Some proponents, however, recommend letting several months pass between the contribution and the conversion. The idea is to avoid IRS scrutiny by making the transactions appear to be separate decisions rather than one clearly meant to get around the contribution limits.

If you want to stay out of gray areas and potentially contribute more cash to your retirement, consider setting up a solo 401(k). This version of the popular workplace plan is meant for self-employed business owners with no full-time employees other than themselves and their spouses. Plan participants under age 50 can contribute up to $18,500 a year. Those 50 and older can contribute up to $24,500. The plan can have a Roth and an after-tax contribution option in addition to a pre-tax option. In addition, the business can make a 25% annual profit-sharing contribution (or 20% if the business is a sole proprietorship or single member LLC). The combined maximum of participant and business contribution is $55,000 for those under 50 and $61,000 for those 50 and older.

If you’re able to contribute more than these amounts each year, consider a traditional defined-benefit pension. Those involve considerable set-up and ongoing costs, so consult a tax pro to see if it’s a good fit.

Q&A: Identify the goal for rolled-over account

Dear Liz: I retired from civil service in 2014. Upon retirement, I requested that my Roth IRA funds be sent to a bank. The funds have been earning 0.6% interest. Is it possible to move the funds to another bank or elsewhere to earn a higher rate? Or, should I leave the funds at the bank until an unforeseeable emergency occurs?

Answer: It’s not clear from your letter whether you withdrew money from your Roth or simply had the whole thing transferred from one custodian to another (the bank). Either way, you’re free to move your money elsewhere. If the money is still inside the Roth, you’d move the Roth. If it’s outside, you’d just move the funds.

Before you do anything, though, figure out your goal for this money. If it’s your emergency fund, then it needs to be kept safe and liquid. An FDIC-insured bank account is likely the best bet, and many online banks are offering somewhat higher rates than you’re getting now.

If you want this money to grow, however, you’ll need to take more risk with it. That typically means investing a portion of it in stocks and bonds. If that’s your goal, look for a discount brokerage or low-cost mutual fund provider. If you’re new to investing, books such as Kathy Kristof’s “Investing 101” or Eric Tyson’s “Investing for Dummies” could be helpful.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to max out your Roth IRA in 2018. Also in the news: Why smarter cars aren’t saving us money on car insurance, 4 tax breaks that could help those caring for elderly parents, and 5 money moves that will help you retire early.

How to Max Out Your Roth IRA in 2018
Tips to keep you on track.

Why Smarter Cars Aren’t Saving Us Money on Car Insurance
Need a little more time.

If You’re Caring for Elderly Parents, 4 Tax Breaks May Help
See what’s available to you.

5 Money Moves That Will Help You Retire Early
Strategic planning.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: 5 tips to get back on budget after the holidays. Also in the news: Thinking twice about that in-flight credit card offer, how a Roth IRA works, and how paying your child an allowance can pay off in the long run.

5 Tips to Get Back on Budget After the Holidays
Reigning in the spending.

Think Twice About That In-Flight Credit Card Offer
Reading the fine print.

How Does a Roth IRA Work?
Know this important retirement tool.

Paying allowance can pay off, if you do it right
How much is enough?