You’ve scrimped and saved and maximized your retirement savings. Tuition bills are paid in full for the kids. You’re in the homestretch; planning to retire in the next five to 10 years.
What could you have possibly forgotten?
After saving their entire lives, many people forget to figure out how to turn that retirement nest egg into income that could last the rest of their lives. And trying to do that the wrong way could have huge implications.
According to a survey last year by Bankrate.com, 23 percent of Americans said their biggest fear in retirement is running out of money.
After 30 or 40 years of saving, it’s tough for people to shift their mindsets to managing that nest egg and making it last. “People are struggling with the idea of making that mental shift from saving to spending,” says Patrick Meyer, director of wealth management at Unified Trust Co. in Lexington, Ky.
You are no longer adding to your savings and investments. “You are subtracting, worrying about inflation, taxes and protecting your money from being overly aggressive when a bear market comes,” he says. “The mind-set is 180 degrees different.”
A key, he says, is to plan the change over a matter of years so that when you finally go into retirement, “it isn’t so much like a light switch—one day I’m saving, and the next I’m spending.”
“Doing it right is really important,” says Ken Moraif, senior adviser at Money Matters and author of the book “Buy, Hold and Sell.” “If you do it wrong and retire, the likelihood that you will be able to go back to work and build up what you had is problematic. Seek help, because you have no experience.”
Susan Jennings, senior counsel at National Life Group, says this is the first generation of do-it-yourself retirees. “Now you are in charge of your money,” she says.
While our parents had pensions that provided them with lifetime monthly income, 401(k) plans have changed the way we invest. Jennings says many people of modest income think Social Security will cover a lot of their needs. “On average, Social Security only pays 40 percent of your income needs,” she says.
Some people can go it alone, but financial advisers say you should get help to come up with an income plan.
“People who have pension benefits, whether they are active or frozen, would have a different income strategy than others,” says Marina Edwards, senior retirement consultant with Willis Towers Watson in Chicago. “If I’m able to take my pension, it will pay me a lifetime annuity till I die. If you don’t, you have to figure out how to annuitize some of your account balance.”
Scott Puritz, managing director of Rebalance IRA in Bethesda, Md., says people lack not only a strategy on the income side but also an investment strategy to meet those income goals.
“We recommend to our clients that they think about their minimum needs,” he says. “Clearly, people should do family budgeting. How much are we spending now and how do we envision budgeting our financial needs going forward, including all our anticipated revenue streams, Social Security, pensions and other retirement investment pots?”
Then you must figure out what income you need. That’s when you can figure out your withdrawal rate—what percentage of your savings you can take out each year. Historically, planners have suggested 4 percent to make sure you don’t outlive your money. That means if you have saved $500,000, you can safely withdraw $20,000 a year. Keep in mind it’s not a hard-and-fast rule, and some financial advisers balk at setting any general rate.
You must also make sure your portfolio is diversified. “Some money should be in conservative investments,” Jennings says.
And a tax strategy must be a part of any income strategy. Withdrawals from your 401(k) and IRA will be taxable, so that $20,000 may end up being $16,000.
Angela Coleman, an adviser at Unified Trust, says people should initially make withdrawals from retirement accounts in this order: after-tax accounts, tax-deferred accounts, tax-deferred annuities, and finally Roth IRAs or tax-exempt accounts.
“Following this distribution pattern allows retirees to leave their tax-exempt assets until the end, to encourage growth or simply to be available to cover significant, unexpected expenses (i.e. medical bills) without the added burden of paying tax,” she says.
And that income plan should consider stock market risk, inflation risk and longevity risk (outliving your money).
One way to help with longevity risk is some kind of guaranteed lifetime income stream, such as an annuity.
“People need some level of guaranteed income to last the rest of their lives, no matter how long you live,” says Steve Vernon, adviser with the Institutional Retirement Council and research scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity. “One of the biggest problems with retirement strategy is you don’t know how long you will live. Anybody can live another five years or 20. It will be nice to have some income that will be paid to you as long as you live. That can be Social Security or an annuity.”
He says that does not mean you should put all of your money in an annuity—it should just be a part of the portfolio.
“The question is, how much?” Edwards says. “If I have $500,000 in a 401(k), who will help me figure out how much I should annuitize? It’s a tricky science. What if you get it wrong? When you pull the trigger to buy an annuity, it is irrevocable. You can’t change your mind and say, ‘I screwed this up,’ and get out of this.”
And finally, you will need to carefully watch how much you are spending—especially at the start, Meyer says: “In the first few years of retirement, for a lot of folks, there is a lot of pent-up demand. There are things they’ve been putting off, like travel or new hobbies. Spending too much in the early years can have an impact on the later years.”