Ten Lessons From Ten Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Studies

Last week, we published the Tenth Safe Withdrawal Rate Study! Amazing how time flies! I did about one case study every three weeks for the last 6 months! And I could even include another one if I were to count the one I did for the ChooseFI podcast back in 2017. In fact, the ChooseFI appearance (Episode 23R and Episode 26R) started the idea because our first volunteer reached out to me after he heard me on the podcast. Since then I’ve published 10 posts, worth almost 30,000 words that generated tons of clicks, feedback and encouragement:

  • “John Smith”: Seven-figure net worth, but not quite ready for FIRE yet. Big ERN would recommend a few more years in the workforce!
  • “Captain Ron”: Early retirement on a sailboat. How much can they withdraw from their $3m portfolio to stay afloat (pun intended) in retirement?
  • “Rene”: No need to worry about the recent layoff: You are more than ready for early retirement!
  • “Mrs. Greece”: More than ready to retire due to large portfolio size and moderate living expenses, especially if the husband keeps working!
  • “Mrs. Wish I Could Surf”: Alternative investments (real estate hard money loans). Keep the mortgage or pay it off? Either way, more than ready to retire!
  • “Mr. Corporate”: Geographic Arbitrage by moving to a low-cost European country. Roth Conversions and zero tax liability!
  • “Ms. Almost FI”: Your name is a misnomer. You are ready to retire now even when self-funding substantial long-term care expenses in the future!
  • “Mr. Corporate Refugee”: How to deal with a large portion of the net worth tied up in a house in a high-cost-of-living area?
  • “Mrs. Wanderlust”: Substantial supplemental cash flows due to buying an RV and then selling it later.
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Shirts”: Ready to retire this year, but should Mr. Shirts work for another nine months for some additional big payday?

But, alas, all good things have to come to an end! I have decided to take a break from the case studies, at least for now. I might revive the series again later but for next few weeks and months, I will pursue other topics! Thanks to all volunteers who submitted their data. And thanks to all other folks who didn’t get their case studies published. I’m not even sure I properly responded to everyone whose request was denied. I think I may have some inquiries from October last year that I haven’t responded to. If you submitted a request for a case study and haven’t heard from me back, sorry, I’m just a bit disorganized!

Sooooo, ten case studies: what have I learned from them? Plenty, because that’s the topic for today’s post…

1: A case study is a lot of work!

I realized how much of a can of worms every case study became. Numerous email exchanges to get all the information and clarifications. Putting all the data into my spreadsheets, creating some custom Excel Sheets, calculate the whole thing and then finally write the post, usually two to three thousand words. The time commitment for each case study was probably more than for other posts and I think this includes the Safe Withdrawal Rate series posts! So many things to consider! From state taxes to cost basis of taxable accounts to issues of cash flows before age 59.5. And let’s not forget the timing of pensions, pension lump sum vs. annuity option, etc. Maybe it’s just selection bias because I accepted only the requests that seemed really hard. Requests like “I have $8m today and need $200k a year. Can I retire yet?” would have been pretty easy. It’s a one-word reply, “Yes” but that would have been less enjoyable for the readers, right?

2: Withdrawal Math is a lot harder than the “Saving for Retirement” Math!

Accumulating assets for retirement is relatively simple; just save a significant share of your income, invest it in low-cost index funds and eventually you’ll get there. What if market returns don’t cooperate and you don’t achieve your goal after 10 years? Simple: just work for another year or two! But retirement is different: if the money runs out at age 75 we can’t say “Just die a few years earlier” and, likewise, we can’t turn back time and work some more side hustles in our 40s and 50s. So, living off your money in retirement is a lot harder. In other words, we’re obviously exposed to the uncertainties of capital markets both while accumulating and while in retirement, but the consequences of miscalculations are a lot more serious in retirement! So, the saving for retirement math might be shockingly simple, as Mr. Money Mustache pointed out, but living off our money in retirement requires a) serious simulations to study the tail event probabilities for running out of money and b) optimizing the timing of when to withdraw from what account.

3: Safe Withdrawal Rates are all over the map.

All. Over. The. Map!!! Another suspicion confirmed, of course! Depending on your age, depending on how generous your other retirement benefits may be, and other highly idiosyncratic parameters, Safe Withdrawal Rates have to differ wildly. In nine of the ten case studies, they came in anywhere between 3.75% and 4.60% and one was even 6.00%. And if I had received more volunteers in their early 30s the SWRs would have been much lower, probably around 3.25 to 3.50%. So I use my old saying again (see SWR Series Part 17): The only thing more offensive than the “4%” part is the word “Rule” 

Case Study Summary Table
Case Study Summary

4: The ideal Asset Allocation is between 70/30 and 80/20

Contrary to the conventional wisdom derived from the Trinity Study that any equity weight between 50% and 100% is A-OK, I found in the historical simulations that 70-80% equity weight was the most robust number. Both 50% and 100% would have generated very unpleasant and unacceptable failure probabilities. There was one outlier in the case studies, Ms. Rene in the third case study where I recommended a 60/40 allocation, but that was a bit of special case: High expected Social Security income and a husband (who keeps separate finances) with a stable and predictable income stream.

5: People are a lot more prepared for FI/RE than they think!

Maybe this is selection bias because I only accepted case study requests that looked interesting to me. Or maybe it’s because my Safe Withdrawal Rate Series scared the daylights out of everybody! But a significant number of people were afraid for no good reason. Both among the ten published case studies and among the unpublished cases, some of them I just answered with a quick Big ERN 5-minute guesstimate, it turns out that folks were pretty well positioned for early retirement! Well done everybody!

6: A lot of savers have too much money in pre-tax retirement accounts

Not that anyone did anything wrong because the asset location (as opposed to asset allocation) is what it is. For people in high-income brackets during the working years, the incentive to put money into a 401(k) vehicle is just too strong. And it should be: it’s better to have $1,000,000 in a 401(k) than $600,000 in a Roth unless you have a really high marginal tax in retirement. The good news, of course, is that despite the slightly lopsided account mix, not a single volunteer will likely face penalties on early withdrawals, see the next point!

7: The Roth Conversion Ladder works

Related to the point above, despite their lopsided asset location problem with way too much money in 401(k) Plans and Traditional IRAs, all retirees in the case studies I worked on should be able to tap their tax-deferred retirement savings without the dreaded early withdrawal penalty and without the cumbersome 72(t)/SEPP approach. Simply convert 401(k)/TradIRA balances into a Roth and then withdraw the principal after 5+ years. In some case studies, of course, the Roth Ladder wasn’t even needed, but for those volunteers that needed extra cash flow before age 59.5, the Roth ladder delivered! Every single time! Good to know!

8: The Roth Conversion Ladder idea of zero taxes in retirement is (mostly) a myth

As beautifully as the Roth Conversion Ladder worked in shifting money out of the 401(k) into the Roth and then eventually into people’s checking account to finance early retirement spending, being able to that all without getting taxed is largely an illusion. The completely tax-free Roth Ladder works beautifully in “laboratory” conditions but in reality, it likely won’t. There are multiple reasons for this:

  • State taxes. Unless you live in one of the select states without a state income tax FL, TX, WY, SD, NV, WA, AK, TN*, NH* (* means that some income is still taxed) you will likely still owe state income taxes even if you are able to avoid all federal tax liability.
  • Other supplemental income eats up some or all of the “zero percent” tax bracket (standard deduction): whether it’s a pension, a spouse’s income, interest income, etc., retirees will likely not be able to utilize the entire standard deduction for the Roth conversions.
  • Cash flow needs are too large. That means in some cases the conversions had to be much larger than just the “zero percent bracket,” i.e., the standard deduction (plus personal exemptions pre-2018)!
  • Overaccumulation in the 401k (see #6 above) will push you into the third federal tax bracket (now 22%, previously 25%) once RMDs kick in at age 70, so it’s worthwhile to do the Roth conversions all the way to the top of the second federal bracket (now 12%, previously 15%) in early retirement.

The only volunteer who can largely escape almost all future taxation was Mr. Corporate who could use the Roth conversion ladder in combination with utilizing the 0% tax bracket for dividends and long-term capital gains and very low cost of living in a foreign country. Of course, even that assumes that the tax laws don’t change in the future.

9: People avoid alternative investments

In the ten case studies, I was shocked how few people had any meaningful exposure to asset classes outside of the regular Stock/Bond world. Only Mr.Corporate Refugee has rental income and Mrs.”Wish I Could Surf” had some PeerStreet loan investments and Private Equity (Real Estate) investments. Everyone else had mostly liquid stock/bond/cash investments.

Maybe it’s my bias in picking the ten volunteers. Maybe it’s selection bias because the real estate magnates don’t bother to read the ERN blog. Maybe it’s because folks who invest in real estate never even worry that much about running out of money in retirement. That might be a good explanation, just look at Coach Carson’s recent post on why rental properties are a great retirement strategy. Real Estate is a great fit for early retirees because it generates a (roughly) inflation-adjusted cash flow and it avoids having to dig into principal during downturns as in the case of equity investments (think Sequence Risk!).

I encourage folks in the FIRE community to at least consider some diversification into other asset classes (I know it’s not for everyone). If you need some encouragement, on the excellent new podcast Millionaires Unveiled, a significant number of the interviewees have had great success in building their seven-figure net worth with real estate. (and just as an aside because that’s brought up all the time: No, REITs are very likely not a good substitute for owning actual real estate!!!) 

10: Homeownership rules!

Now that’s a surprise considering #9 above! Even though folks seem to avoid real estate investments, every single volunteer reached FI as a homeowner. Coincidence? Maybe but I think it’s more likely that a home is a good investment after all. It’s also in line with the post from a few months ago “See that house over there? It’s an investment!

And in addition, nine out of ten volunteers plan to remain homeowners in early retirement (some plan to downgrade, though). And it’s my understanding that the one renter, “Mr. Corporate,” prefers renting presumably because homeownership in another country might be too much of a hassle.

In any case, homeownership in retirement makes sense because it alleviates some of the Sequence of Return Risk nightmare. In other words, mandatory expenses like rent are poison for retirement plans when the market is down! In addition, the implicit rental income that homeowners derive doesn’t show up on any W-2 or 1099 tax forms and doesn’t have any negative consequences on means-tested benefits from programs like O-care. Homeownership clearly doesn’t make sense for retirees with a nomadic lifestyle but for the overwhelming majority of retirees who like to stay put in one place, it’s likely the better option.

We hope you enjoyed today’s wrapup of the Case Study Series! Please share your thoughts below! We might be slow to respond to comments this week because we’re on the annual ERN Family Ski Vacation!

75 thoughts on “Ten Lessons From Ten Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Studies

  1. Like skiing, safe withdrawal strategies are indeed a slippery slope if you are not paying enough attention. I have enjoyed these case studies a lot and learned from all of them. Look forward to catching up with you soon.

    Enjoy with white stuff!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Big ERN,
    A nice capstone post for a really great series. I have a soft spot in my heart for meta-analysis work!

    After you “release yourself on your own recognizance” from the fetters of paid employment later this year, you could make some nice coin providing a paid consulting service akin to the service provided by Justin at Root of Good but with a more technical focus that you are famous for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! It’s definitely tempting to monetize this service in the future. But there’s also the headache of legal liability of giving advice for money. I should definitely compare notes with Justin. Will meet him in person in April at the VA CampFI! 🙂

      Like

  3. Agh. The night i email you to volunteer turns out to be the night before you end the series! LoL. What enticing scenario can i amend my request with that will prove irresistable despite your plans for a hiatus? 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you so much for your work on these case studies. We are already FI and retired, so I appreciate your takeaway that withdrawal math is a lot harder. That is one of many reasons that even though we have been retired for several years, I spend a lot of time learning from the FI community.

    I wonder if your 2 comments that people are more ready to FIRE than they think and that home ownership “rules” is possibly because all asset classes are inflated right now due to historically low interest rates. I wonder if we are in yet another housing bubble (probably not as severe as 2007) and that Jim Collins analysis of a house being a terrible investment is still valid. We live in interesting times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’m not saying that a house cannot be a terrible investment. I just find Collins’ argument terribly unconvincing. It’s a laundry list of hassles that homeowners have to deal with, true, but you can’t eliminate the hassles by renting because your landlord will price all those hassles into the rent. So you pay for all the hassles either directly as a homeowner or indirectly as a renter. See this post: https://earlyretirementnow.com/2017/11/15/that-house-over-there-is-an-investment/

      I find the view of Coach Carson or Paula Pant much more convincing: real estate investing is about getting an attractive yield not the price appreciation. That way, it’s much easier to make it through the next housing crash unscathed.

      Like

      • Thanks for the mention. Even as a young investor with too many properties and too much leverage, I made it through the 2008 – 2011 downturn ok because of a focus on income discipline first. Appreciation in real estate DOES build wealth, but the timing is not predictable. Better to get a minimal income level, and harvest the appreciation if and when it comes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Rental real estate scares me a little bit but home ownership scares me a lot. Imagine investing a massive portion of your net worth in one stock and then 4x leveraging it in the process. It could yield huge gains, but it could bankrupt you in the process. I wonder what percentage of bankruptcies are real estate related?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed this series a lot, especially the detail and the uniqueness of the scenarios presented. I did not find any one, in particular, that matched up with me that I could use as a blueprint, but I am pleased to know that had I requested my analysis, I probably would have qualified for “the one word answer”. 😉

    Enjoy your well-deserved ski vacation and be safe out there. Remember the three most dangerous words in skiing are, “Dad, follow me!”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much for your help! I can’t tell you how valuable the information was for me in crystalizing our plans. I’ve incorporate your feedback into my plans and have a spreadsheet to keep me honest along the way based on your feedback.

    Who knows – maybe your next series is a 5 year look back from your SWR case studies to see how we all did!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for the helpful summary. I needed it since my head was spinning after reading all the detailed examples. I also agree with you about real estate. I’m in the process of acquiring more as I’m approaching “semi-retirement.” You Rock!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for this. Could you clarify #6? Do you mean people had too much in taxable accounts or pre-tax accounts? The last bullet of #8 seems like you meant pre-tax. I ask because I am trying to max out my Solo401(k) each year and this is definitely where most of my retirement money is given I get to contribute as the employee and employer. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, my, I’m getting confused sometimes myself. #6 and the last bullet point in #6 refer to 401k and equivalent plans that have not yet been taxed and will be taxed upon withdrawal. I remember a good discussion on ChooseFI about the nomenclature of the different accounts, e.g., Taxable vs. pre-tax.
      So, I changed the name in #6 to “pre-tax retirement accounts”
      Cheers,
      ERN

      Like

      • Okay thank you for clarifying. I am worried as most of my money is wrapped up in a Traditional IRA and a Solo 401(k). I feel like I need to max this out because there is such a huge tax advantage and this income level as a 1099 may not last forever. Am I making a huge mistake?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Good point! If it’s any consolation, the tax arbitrage is probably so powerful that even with the 10% penalty you’re still better off with the 401k. But try to build up some extra reserves in a taxable (regular brokerage) account. Then do the Roth ladder. Without the 10% penalty, the tax arb is even better! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for all the work you do for the community. You’ve clearly established yourself as ann authority on early retirement matters.

    In this post you mention that you “found in the historical simulations that 70-80% equity weight was the most robust number”. I was wondering how this reconciles with your findings in the equity glide path post where the 60% to 100% seemed to be most robust.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question. If you pick one single weight and leave the weight constant you’re better off with 70-80% equities.
      If you allow for time-varying equity weight you can do slightly better with a glidepath, see SWR series parts 19-20.

      Like

  10. Great list ERN. The detailed analysis in this blog is the best out there. When I need to answer a question, this is exactly where I search first. I’ll be linking to a couple of your articles in my post tomorrow. Please look out for it when you get off the slopes. Where will you be skiing?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Big ERN,
    I’m so lucky that you took my case. It was clear that you really worked hard on each of the 10 cases. I appreciate your work!!!
    I haven’t read this ‘summary’ article yet, but after skimming it rapidly I can see that I will need to save it for my files for the future reference once I revisit our plans to retire.
    My DH still thinks to work until at least the oldest graduates HS. I’m also hanging in at my work, but I’m starting to ponder on that ‘bucket’ list more seriously. But I also have to be honest… The ‘melt-up’ markets (I’ve just learned a new term while reading Business Week today) began to concern me to the point that I said to myself that I must re-balance our portfolio through our 401k’s. I think I’m targeting 20-25% in bonds overall. It’s hard when I don’t have set in stone opinion on the AA in general. But whenever I visit Bogleheads forums, I go away with a feeling that we must have more in bonds.

    With your upcoming ER, I can see why you would like to pursue some other topics. I’ll be interested in reading them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Agree: Timing bonds this time around is so tricky! It could be that the Fed sinks the bond market with 4 rate hikes this year while the equity market marches on. I think Stocks/Bonds/RealEstate is a good mix to cover all the different bases and scenarios!
      Best of luck!

      Like

  12. ERN,
    Terrific summary! I have enjoyed reading and learned a lot from all the case studies. I’m so appreciative that you did my case study. THANK YOU!!! Your advice was invaluable and reassured me that I can actually retire now.
    I took your advice and paid off the mortgage with the extra cash (it was nerve racking to see $117k depleted from my bank account), but I’m glad that there is no monthly mortgage to worry about after I retire. I am still suffering from the OMY syndrome and afraid to quit in case there’s a downturn in the stock market. But I’ve decided to retire in Jan-2019 if not sooner. I’m hoping I can convince my boss to lay me off instead (getting severance and unemployment will be great).

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The studies have been amazing but it’s evident how much work they are! I agree with others that you should consider a side gig; they’re incredibly valuable. Love this summary!! It’s really interesting to see the grouped SWRs. I’m surprised they’re that high.

    I’m honored we were one of the few accepted as a case study. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Love it! Favorite quote from this article is: “The completely tax-free Roth Ladder works beautifully in “laboratory” conditions but in reality, it likely won’t.” Anyone with a pension coming their way needs to understand this lesson far in advance. I haven’t done the math for myself with the new tax brackets, but back in July 2017 Roth made the most sense for a guy like me with a sizeable, and safe, pension on the way: https://grumpusmaximus.com/university-of-the-golden-albatross-roth-options-vs-traditional-retirement-accounts/

    Liked by 1 person

  15. It’s been a great read these 10 case studies, can totally understand that this takes an amazing amount of effort! Thanks for this nice summary of the key findings from the 10 analysis. Hope you find the time in 2018 to make a couple more, perhaps indeed for people that have less “standard” investment portfolios. Thanks again Dr. ERN.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. This is a great series. Good job.
    I like point #10. Some people argue that a home isn’t a good investment, but I think it is essential to wealth building. It’s probably more psychological. Being a homeowner anchors you and I think that make you save and invest more.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I discovered your website a couple of weeks ago and have been in a tizzy of excitement ever since. (Of course, I was framing my own case study and hoping you would take it on.) I’m not a financial wizard so I’ll have to start with figuring out all those acronyms. Then I vow to put aside fear, saddle up my excel spreadsheets, tease apart the case studies, and put a plan in motion. Thanks for the tremendous tools and especially your optimism and joy!

    Like

  18. I can’t thank you enough ERN for using our example as a case study. You’re right about the lack of real estate investments, as those investors are almost never worried about running out of money. Risking rents and declining debt make the math easy. I also recently saw a post from Reformed Broker on Twitter about asset allocation by net worth, business interests seem to increase drastically from $1mil to $10mil. I find myself wondering about that too, I know you have some private equity/business investments and I think I’ll venture into some post-retirement after I set aside the first $1.5mil

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I for one have been hoping you’ll eventually provide this as a service. Like everybody, my situation is unique. Specifically related to timing of paying for my kids’ college years, paying off mortgage, and Roth conversion optimization. I think I’m in a pretty good position, but would love to get a second (or third opinion) when I get close to pulling the trigger.

    And I’m sure you can use a disclaimer like : http://www.legalucc.com/disclaimer.html to cover yourself. Or this one from Fidelity(!): “The Fidelity Sites are not intended to provide legal, tax, investment or insurance advice. Nothing on the Fidelity Sites should be construed as an offer to sell, a solicitation of an offer to buy, or a recommendation for any security by Fidelity or any third party. Certain investment planning tools available on the Fidelity Sites may provide general investment education based on your input. You are solely responsible for determining whether any investment, investment strategy, security or related transaction is appropriate for you based on your personal investment objectives, financial circumstances and risk tolerance. You should consult your legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation.­”

    Liked by 1 person

  20. That is a lot of useful information! I love case studies as much as the next guy but there is no way I would have had the perseverance to make it through all of this. Great research and article!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. “The Roth Conversion Ladder idea of zero taxes in retirement is (mostly) a myth” Death and taxes, death and taxes.

    I’m guessing the “4% rule” should be called the “4% guideline”? “4% suggestion”?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Thank you ERN for selecting my case! Coming off of a job elimination I was really concerned for my financial future after being fiscally responsible and saving and investing for years. After my case study I was offered a job much closer to home, nicer work environment and I can wear jeans everyday. Although I earn 15% less than my former position and the medical and retirement benefits are not as rich, I am much happier.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s