What’s a “safe” withdrawal rate?

Dear Liz: After working all out for 28 years in a small business, I have put away $2.6 million in stocks, bonds and some cash. (I am a reasonably smart investor.) I’m 58 and want to be done at 60. I’m not tired of my business, just tired of working. How much do you think I could draw out and not get myself into trouble? I’m in great health, so I could last 30 more years. Our house is paid off, and my wife gets about $40,000 a year from a nice pension. Any ideas?

Answer: Financial planners typically recommend an initial withdrawal rate of 3% to 4% of your portfolio. With $2.6 million, your first year’s withdrawal would be $78,000 to $104,000. The idea is that you could adjust the withdrawal upward by the inflation rate each year and still be reasonably confident you won’t run out of money after 30 years.

Some studies indicate you can start with a higher withdrawal rate, as long as you’re willing to cut back in bad markets.

There is still some risk of going broke, though, even with a 3% withdrawal rate. Particularly poor stock market returns at the beginning of your retirement, for example, could increase the chances your nest egg will give out before you do.

This is an issue you really should discuss with a fee-only financial planner who can review your investments and your spending to make personalized recommendations. (You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors or the Garrett Planning Network.) If you’ve chosen especially risky stocks or have too much of your portfolio in bonds, for example, your retirement plan could fail even if you choose a conservative initial withdrawal rate.

You’ll also want to talk about how you’re going to get health insurance, and how much it’s likely to cost. If you’ve been arranging coverage through your business, you might face some sticker shock when you have to buy a policy on your own. But it’s essential to have this coverage, since you won’t qualify for Medicare until you’re 65.

If you’re not tired of your business, you might consider phasing in retirement, if that’s possible in your situation. That would mean starting to take some long breaks to travel or pursue the interests you plan to indulge in retirement. Delaying retirement even a few years can dramatically increase the chances your nest egg will last.

Don’t start Social Security too soon

Dear Liz: I am 66-1/2 and eligible to collect my full Social Security benefit now. I am in good health and assume I will live into my 80s. I am still working and don’t need the extra money. Is it better to put off taking my benefit so that it will grow 8% with Uncle Sam, tax free and guaranteed, or should I take the money now, pay taxes on it and invest it? Politically speaking, I think I should take it, but my gut says let it grow. What do you think? Is there a program available to demonstrate the differences?

Answer: Far too many people grab their Social Security checks too early, locking themselves into lower payments for the rest of their lives. Some do so in the mistaken belief that their benefits, or Social Security itself, will go away or be dramatically altered if they don’t “lock in” their checks. It’s true that Congress needs to change the Social Security program if it is to meet all its future obligations. But lawmakers are far more likely to change benefits for young people than they are to mess with promised benefits for people close to retirement age.

As you’ve noted, when left untouched benefits grow about 8% a year, which is a strong incentive to delay filing. You’d be hard-pressed to find an investment with that kind of guaranteed annual return, let alone one that would offer that yield plus enough extra return to offset the taxes you’d pay on those benefits if you took them earlier.

The Social Security site has a benefit estimator that can show you the effects of claiming your benefit at various ages. You’ll find it at http://www.ssa.gov/estimator.

AARP also has an excellent retirement calculator that can help you plan various scenarios using not just Social Security but all of your retirement benefits. It’s at http://www.aarp.org/work/retirement-planning/retirement_calculator.

Finally, you should check out mutual fund company T. Rowe Price’s information about “practice retirement” at troweprice.com/practice, which details the benefits of continuing to work through your 60s while saving less for retirement. The growth in Social Security benefits and retirement accounts is so great during that decade that it often more than offsets a sharp reduction in savings, which would mean you’d have more money to spend on vacations and other fun pursuits even before you retire.

Most investors under 50 plan to work in retirement

A new T. Rowe Price survey shows seven out of 10 investors aged 21 to 50 plan to work at least part time during their retirement years, and most (75%) will do so because they want to stay active. Only 23% expect to work out of necessity, because they won’t have saved enough.

T. Rowe Price has been surveying the investment practices of Generation X (defined as people aged 35 to 50) and Generation Y (ages 21 to 34).  Harris Interactive conducted the poll in December, surveying 860 adults aged 21-50 who have at least one investment account.

Gens X and Y are following in the path of the Baby Boomers, a majority of whom have told pollsters over the years that they plan to continue to work. The percentages who expect to do so by choice vary with economic conditions, but the polls show a new vision of an active retirement has emerged, said Christine Fahlund, CFP®, senior financial planner with T. Rowe Price.

Continuing to work into your 60s, if you can do so, can have hugely positive effects on your finances as well, even if you cut back on saving for retirement.

From T. Rowe Price’s press release:

“We believe that beginning to incorporate more leisure in your 60s, when you’re still likely to be in good health can be a fun way to make the transition from work to retirement easier,” she added.  “By working a little longer and playing, investors can maintain earned income to fund their activities, hold off on tapping their nest eggs earmarked for retirement, and defer taking Social Security payments.  Delaying Social Security, in particular, positions people to have potentially considerably higher guaranteed payments – adjusted annually for inflation – for the rest of their lives.”

If you want to read more about how you can work longer and have fun, too, read “Retire without quitting your job.”

Want to know more about Roths? Check out these links

Nearly 150 bloggers so far have contributed posts to the Roth IRA Movement, which financial planner Jeff Rose organized after speaking to a group of college seniors and discovering none of them knew what a Roth was, or how important it was to their financial futures. (It’s “the best thing since sliced bread,” and really, really important, as you can read in my post “Young and broke? Open a Roth.”)

You can read Jeff’s post here, which is also where you’ll find links to the other 146 (so far) posts. That’s probably more about Roths than anyone can absorb, so here are a few good ones to start with:

Studenomics: “Read This if You Want to Retire Before 70.” An excellent, clear guide to why it’s so important to contribute to a Roth while you’re young.

House of Rose: “I Opened My First IRA Account. Age 22.” The blogger’s personal story of early enlightenment.

Parenting Family Money: “Opening a Roth IRA for a Child.” An early start is good; an even earlier start is better.

Bible Money Matters: “10 Reasons Why I Love The Roth IRA (And Why You Should Too).” If this doesn’t convert you to the wisdom of a Roth, what will?

Amateur Asset Allocator: “Roth IRA: How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.” This blogger wrote a sonnet. Seriously. You must read this.

Lauren Lyons Cole: “How To Pay Taxes Like the Rich.” Why has no one given financial planner Lauren Lyons Cole her own TV show yet? She’s delightful, and hits the highlights of the Roth in a two-minute video.

Please share these links with your friends and anyone you know who isn’t already contributing to a Roth. Help us get the word out about this wonderful vehicle for future financial independence.

Young and broke? Open a Roth

You young’uns, listen up. Roth IRAs are the best thing since sliced bread. And the best time to contribute is when you’re young and broke, since you won’t always be that way.

Here’s the deal: contributions to a Roth don’t give you a tax break up front. But when you aren’t making much money, you aren’t paying much in taxes, so that’s an easy sacrifice to make.

The beauty of the Roth is when you take the money out. You can always withdraw your contributions without paying income taxes or penalty on the cash. But I recommend you don’t, because if you leave your Roth alone, those contributions—and all the lovely gains they’ll earn over the years—can be withdrawn entirely tax free.

Chances are, your tax rate will be higher in the future than it is now. The future you will be blessing the current you for tucking aside all that tax-free wealth. Every $1,000 you contribute in your 20s could grow to $20,000 or more by the time you’re ready to retire. If you’re so rich by then that you don’t need the money, you can pass the account on to your kids, and THEY can pull out money tax free.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore your workplace retirement plan—your 401(k) or 403(b)—especially if it has a match. But if you can possibly tuck some money away in a Roth, you probably should.

Starting one is easy—just about any bank, brokerage firm or mutual fund company under the sun will be happy to take your money. I like Vanguard’s target date retirement funds, since they do all the asset allocation and rebalancing for you, their expenses are dead cheap and you only have to have a $1,000 minimum investment to start a Roth there. (Don’t have $1,000 yet? Start a Roth at a credit union, save up and then transfer the account to Vanguard.)

Even if you aren’t so young anymore, the tax benefits of a Roth make sense if you’re likely to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement.

The ability to contribute to a Roth starts to phase out once your modified adjusted gross income exceeds $110,000 if you’re single and $173,000 if you’re married filing jointly.

Making money is a good thing. But I’ll admit to some sadness when hubby and I stopped being able to contribute to our Roths. These accounts really are a great deal.

 

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.

Retire in style: What you need to know

Reuters has a nice package of retirement stories that are worth checking out:

Ecuador seen as new retirement hot spot
I mentioned Ecuador in my column “Retire overseas on $1,200 a month,” and now it’s been named a top spot for bargain-seeking retirees, according to International Living magazine’s 2012 Global Retirement Index.

What retirees wish they’d done differently
Reuters asked several retirees what they would tell their 40-year-old selves if they could go back in time. Interestingly, the answers aren’t all about money–they’re about quality of life. (A great book on this topic is Ralph Warner’s “Get a Life: You Don’t Need $1 Million to Retire Well.”)

How low must retirement withdrawals go?
Linda Stern tackles the tricky math of how much you can afford to take from your retirement savings to have a reasonable chance of making your money last as long as you do.

Growing numbers work into retirement
I’ve written about “When only one of you can retire” and the huge numbers of people forced into early retirement by layoffs, but this article picks up the flip side: people who keep working because they want to. If that’s you, you might also want to read “Retire without quitting your job.”

Is an annuity in your future?
One solution to the risk of outliving your money is the income annuity (also known as the fixed annuity). Learn more about it here.

When to start tapping Social Security
Some people have little choice but to take Social Security benefits early. But if you can wait, you probably should.

Use windfall to pay down debt, boost savings

Dear Liz: I am closing a business deal that will net me just under $1 million. I have an interest-only loan on my home, two car loans and credit-card debt. My plan was to “clear the plate” and pay everything off, leaving me about $175,000. I am not worried about getting into further debt, as my wife and I are pretty grounded, but I wonder if I should be giving up the tax break of a mortgage. My wife and I make a fair income, so we will need advice on investment options as well.

Answer: You say you and your wife are “pretty grounded,” yet you carry a huge amount of debt, including a ticking time bomb of a mortgage.

Interest-only loans were quite fashionable in the boom years but make little sense for most people. That’s because the low initial payments ultimately reset much higher, as the interest-only period ends and the borrower must begin repaying principle.

Carrying credit-card debt is foolish as well, and a sign that you’re living beyond your apparently quite comfortable means.

Furthermore, you don’t say anything about your assets — whether you’re on track saving for retirement or if you have an adequate emergency fund. That would make a difference in how you should deploy this windfall. If your savings are inadequate, it would make sense to invest a good chunk of this money, even if it meant continuing to carry a mortgage. If you must have a home loan, though, it should be a traditional, fixed-rate version to avoid future payment shock.

The big danger is that you’ll pay off what you owe now, only to wind up deeper in debt in a few years because you haven’t changed your approach to money. Use some of your windfall to hire a fee-only (not fee-based) financial planner to review your situation. You can get referrals from the National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org).