Welcome to another installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. This one has been requested by a lot of folks: Let’s not restrict our safe withdrawal calculations to paper assets only, i.e., stocks, bonds, cash, etc. Lots of us in the early retirement community, yours truly included, have at least a portion of our portfolios allocated to real estate. What impact does that have on our safe withdrawal rate? How will I even model real estate investments in the context of Safe Withdrawal and Safe Consumption calculations? So many questions! So let’s take a look at how I like to tackle rental real estate investments and why I think they could play an important role in hedging against Sequence Risk and rasing our safe withdrawal rate…
Welcome back to another installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. This one is about taxes. Amazing, how after 30+ installments in the series, I have written conspicuously little about taxes. Sure, I’ve done some Case Studies where, among many other issues, I delved into the tax planning, most recently in the Case Study for Becky and Stephen. But I’ve never written much about taxes and tax planning in the context of the Series.
There are two reasons why I kept the tax discussion on such a low burner: First, my background: If I had an accounting Ph.D. and CPA instead of an economics Ph.D. and a CFA charter, I would have written a whole lot more about taxes! Second, pinning down the Safe Withdrawal strategy and the safe withdrawal rate is my main concern. Most (early) retirees will have extremely low tax liabilities as I outlined in a post last year. You’d have to try pretty hard to pay more than a 5% federal effective tax rate in retirement. So, as long as you stay away from anything clearly irresponsible on the tax planning side, you’re fine. Don’t stress out over taxes in retirement unless you have a really, really large nest egg and taxable income deep into the six-figures during retirement.
But you don’t want to leave any money on the table either. So, I still want to write about taxes if I encounter something that captures my attention. And I came across a topic that’s most definitely interesting from a withdrawal strategy perspective: Asset Location (as opposed to Asset Allocation).
Imagine you target a particular asset allocation, say 60% stocks and 40% bonds. Or 70/30, or 80/20, or whatever suits your needs the best. How should we allocate that across the different account types? If we put all the different accounts into three major buckets…
- Taxable, i.e., your standard taxable brokerage account: Interest, dividends and realized capital gains are taxable every year they show up on your 1099 tax form. But you don’t have to pay taxes on capital gains until you realize them.
- Tax-deferred, i.e., your 401(k) or your Traditional IRA. Your account grows tax-free until you actually withdraw the money (or roll it over to a Roth). So, so can realize as much in interest income, dividends, capital gains along the way, as long as you keep the money inside the account.
- Tax-free, i.e., your Roth IRA or your HSA. The money grows tax-free and you can withdraw tax-free as well.
… then where do we put our bonds and where do we put our stocks? It would be easy, though likely not optimal to simply keep that same asset allocation in all three types of accounts. But is there a better way to allocate your stock vs. bond allocation?
Sure, there is! One of the oldest pieces of “conventional wisdom” investment advice I can remember is this:
“Keep stocks in a taxable account and bonds in your tax-advantaged accounts.”
Or more generally:
“Keep the relatively tax-efficient investments in a taxable account and relatively tax-inefficient investments in a tax-advantaged account.”
Most stocks would be considered more tax-efficient than bonds because a) dividends and capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than interest income and b) you can defer capital gains until you actually withdraw your money, which is a huge tax-advantage (more on that later).
So, it appears that we should ideally load up the taxable account with stocks and the tax-advantaged accounts with bonds. Hmmm, but that doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Why would I want to “waste” the limited shelf space I have in my tax-advantaged accounts with low-return bonds while I expose my high-return stocks to dividend and capital gains taxes? So, it would be completely rational to be skeptical about this common-sense advice!
So who’s right? Conventional wisdom or the skeptics? Long story short: they’re both wrong! You can easily construct examples where either conventional wisdom or the skeptics prevail. So neither side should claim that their recommendation is universally applicable. The asset location decision depends on…
- Your expected rates of return,
- Your expected tax rates,
- Your investment horizon. Yup, you heard that right, it’s possible that you want to go either one way or the other depending on the horizon. Though, this is not really a separate case but really only a result of asset allocation drift. Accounting for that, we’re back to the two cases, but more on that later!
Let’s look at the details…
Happy New Year! It’s time for another installment in the Safe Withdrawal Series! Here’s a topic that I’ve thought about for a while and that was also requested dozens, maybe even hundreds of times from commenters: What about gold? Gold has been a safe haven asset for many decades (Centuries? Millenials???) and it should have the potential to hedge against Sequence of Return Risk. And I recently found this article on Yahoo Finance: “The world’s super-rich are hoarding physical gold“. Maybe it’s just click-bait. Yahoo Finance must have lowered its standards substantially because they even (re-)published one of my articles last year. 🙂
But seriously, in light of the recent runup in gold prices, rising interest by the world’s super-rich and the many requests by readers, I’ve finally gotten around to studying this subject in the context of Sequence Risk. Let’s take a look at how useful gold would be as a hedge against running out of money in retirement…
Continue reading “Using Gold as a Hedge against Sequence Risk – SWR Series Part 34”
It’s time for a new post in the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. It’s been a while, I know! This is a post I’ve been mulling over for a long time and a recent suggestion from a reader made me revisit my notes again. Why not calculate sustainable withdrawal based on how accountants or actuaries work. No simulations necessary! Neither historical nor Monte Carlo simulations! And here’s the kicker: you run this SWR calculation with all the data you’re going to assemble to use my Google SWR Sheet already. No extra work necessary! So, what do we have to do? Very simple:
- Take stock of all of your asset and liabilities today
- Take stock of all of your future expected cash flows: both positive (Social Security, Pensions, etc.) and negative (health expenses, kids’ college expenses, etc.).
This is essentially the information that you’d already need to know when doing a Safe Withdrawal Rate analysis, specifically, the inputs for the Safe Withdrawal Google Sheet, see Part 28 of this series!
So, how do you calculate a safe withdrawal rate without simulating anything? Very simple, use Net Present Value (NPV) calculations to transform all future cash flows (Social Security, Pensions, annuities, etc.) into today’s values, so you will end up with an adjusted net worth that takes into account not just your current assets and liabilities but also all of the future flows. And again, those future flows can be positive (Social Security, pensions) or negative (setting aside money for health expenses, nursing homes, etc.)
Once we have this “adjusted net worth” we can simply do a “reverse NPV calculation” to determine what retirement budget will exactly match our net worth. And that’s a sustainable retirement budget the way an actuary or an accountant would likely compute it.
Before everybody gets too excited, though, let me state the obvious: I would not recommend relying exclusively on this one approach and you’ll need to rely on simulations after all – more on the disadvantages below. But I certainly like the simplicity and some of the information we can gather from this approach!
Update 11/22/2019: After I published a shorter version of this piece on MarketWatch and the story was picked up by YahooFinance as well I got a lot more readers! Thanks and welcome to my blog! Make sure you subscribe to be notified of future blog posts! Both on Yahoo and MarketWatch I saw the expected assortment of hate comments. They fall into two categories, see below plus my response:
- “I’m a CPA and this doesn’t make any sense!” My response: You’re either not a CPA at all or you’re a really bad & incompetent one. The standard deduction and the 0% bracket for capital gains are all very well-known in the financial/tax planner community. The same goes for the taxability worksheet for Social Security.
- “How unfair that you retired already and don’t pay taxes while I’m working so hard and pay a lot of taxes!” My response: I hear ya! I’ve paid a ton of taxes throughout my work life. A seven-figure sum, more than most people pay over their entire lifetime. Keep that in mind if you complain about the unfairness of the U.S. federal tax system!
* * *
The question “how much can we earn without paying federal income taxes” is relatively easy to answer for most people. The standard deduction for a married couple is $24,400 in 2019 (if both are under 65 years old) and the top of the no-tax bracket for capital gains is $78,750. So, we can make a total of $103,150 per year, provided that our ordinary income stays below the standard deduction and the rest (2nd bracket + any leftover from the std. deduction) comes from long-term capital gains and/or qualified dividends. With our daughter, we also qualify for the child tax credit ($2,000 p.a.), so we could actually generate another $13,333 per year in dividends or capital gains, taxed at a 15% so that the tax liability of $2,000 exactly offsets the tax credit for a zero federal tax bill.
Once people file for Social Security benefits, though, things become a bit more complicated. That’s due to the convoluted formula used to determine how much of your Social Security is counted as taxable income, see last week’s blog post! So, calculating and plotting the tax-free income limits is a tad more complicated. Oh, and talking about tax planning in retirement: as promised, I will also go through an update on the Roth Conversion strategy for the Becky and Stephen case study from two weeks ago.
Let’s get started…
I was always working under the assumption that once we claim Social Security, 85% of our benefits will be counted as ordinary income on our federal tax return. That may also be a good assumption for a lot of retirees, especially if their overall income in retirement – pensions, capital gains, dividends, distributions from retirement accounts, Social Security, etc. – is high enough. Then, indeed, exactly 85% of your benefits will be taxed. This 85% figure is also the absolute maximum you’ll ever have to include in your federal taxable income. So, as a conservative estimate, it’s fine to use this 85% figure for our retirement cash flow and tax planning.
But in practice, the calculation is a lot more complicated. In fact, that share is calculated through a pretty convoluted formula that takes into account not just your Social Security benefits but also other income, even some ostensibly tax-free income like Municipal bond interest. In the chart below, the x-axis is for the annual Social Security benefits for a married couple filing a joint return (0-$80k), and each line corresponds to a level of all the other income (e.g., pensions, annuities, interest, capital gains, dividends, etc.) also going from $0 to $80,000 in $1,000 steps, so there are exactly 81 lines going from blue via yellow to red. When I plotted this function it looks like the folks at the IRS created a piece of art; that portion in the upper left looks almost like a Bifurcation diagram or Mandelbrot fractal!
In any case, for retirement planning, doing a more thorough analysis of our tax on Social Security rather than using the lazy rough estimates has at least four advantages:
- The 85% estimate is likely way too conservative so you may over-prepare for retirement and over-accumulate assets. Why not enjoy your money now? Case in point, the Becky and Stephen case study last week; I was way too cautious with the tax assumptions in retirement and underestimated the sustainable, historical fail-safe retirement budget by about $2,500 per year!
- The exact calculation of taxes on Social Security benefits has implications on your Roth conversion strategy: There’s no need to be aggressive with your Roth conversions if only a tiny fraction of Social Security is taxable and you have not much other income to fill up your federal Standard Deduction!
- But for others, the convoluted formula also has a different, not-so-nice side effect. For some retirees, 401k or Traditional IRA distributions might be taxed at a higher rate than you might think. It’s called the retirement “Tax Torpedo,” more details on that below. So, if you don’t do enough Roth conversions and then later distribute money from a 401k you might face a higher tax burden than expected!
- Even some of the ostensibly tax-free income (municipal bond interest or dividends/long-term capital gains in the first two federal tax brackets) may not be so tax-free after all. Because that income is included in the Social Security tax computation, you might face backdoor taxation of seemingly tax-free income. How sneaky!!! It might be optimal to do some tax gain harvesting prior to claiming Social Security!
So, in any case, I will go through some detailed calculations here today, and also link to an easy-to-use Google Sheet I created for you if you want to calculate your own retirement tax estimates. Let’s take a look…
What? A new case study? I know, I had promised myself to wind down the Case Study Series I ran in 2017/18 after “only” 10 installments. It was a lot of work and a lot of back and forth via email. It takes forever! I mean F-O-R-E-V-E-R! But then again, there’s always a reason to make an exception to the rule! Jonathan and Brad from the ChooseFI Podcast had a very interesting guest on their show this week (episode 152). Becky talked about her experience of a late start in getting her and her husband’s finances in order. They started at around age 50 and became Financially Independent (FI) in their early 60s and retired a year ago. I should also mention that Becky recently started her own blog, appropriately labeled Started At 50, writing about her path to FI and RE so make sure you check that out, too.
In any case, Jonathan and Brad asked me to look at Becky’s numbers because I must be some sort of an expert on Safe Withdrawal Strategies in the FIRE community. I chatted with Jonathan and Brad about my case study results the other day and this conversation should come out as this week’s Friday Roundup episode. Because there’s only so much time we had on the podcast and I didn’t get to talk about everything I had prepared, I thought I should write up my notes and share them here. Heck, with all of that effort already spent, I might as well make a blog post out of it, right? That’s what we have on the menu for today… Continue reading “A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for Becky and Stephen”
We made it through October, without much volatility this time – what a change compared to last year! We even got to a new all-time high in the S&P 500 in the last few days. When you reach new records, the pessimists come out of the woodworks and declare that “this is the top” and the next bear market must be right around the corner! It’s like clockwork! And if you go to the popular forums and Facebook Groups in the FIRE community, you’ll see people poking fun at the perma-pessimists. Quite appropriately, I think!
But why are people still a bit nervous about corrections and bear markets and market crashes? Being retired now, I have to admit I feel at least a little bit uneasy right now. Why’s that? If I wanted to quantify how afraid I am of something I’d do so as follows: Fear depends on both the probability and the magnitude of something scary happening: FEAR = The probability of something scary TIMES the magnitude of something scary
In my recent post My thoughts on the “Upcoming Recession” I wrote about the probability part. I personally don’t think that the economy is at the brink of a major slowdown (yet) and with the economic growth trend, still intact the stock market will likely chug along. This all looks like a mid-cycle, temporary soft spot.
What makes me nervous about the bear market prospect, though, is the magnitude part; the fact that IF a bear market were to occur (however unlikely that may be) we’d most definitely go through some anxiety for a while. That’s true for all retirees and even folks close to retirement. Probably not so much for everybody just starting out in their accumulation phase, see the post “How can a drop in the stock market possibly be good for investors?” from earlier this year.
Quite intriguingly, though, if you look around in the FIRE community I get the sense that people minimize how scary a bear market will be if it were to start today. And the thought process is:
- The market will always recover (see the chart above)
- Most bear markets last only about one to two years
It sounds like the bear has really lost its teeth! So, why am I not convinced? There are multiple problems with that line of thinking. That 1-2 years estimate wildly underestimates how long it takes to recover from a bear market. If you do the math right a bear market will appear a lot scarier than it’s commonly portrayed. Let’s see why…
Remember the blog post from a few months ago, How To “Lie” With Personal Finance? I got a fresh set of four new “lies” today! Again, just for the record, that other post and today’s post should be understood as a way to spot the lies and misunderstandings in the personal finance world, not a manual to manufacture those lies. Of course!
This one is about the rent vs. homeownership debate. Is homeownership a wise financial decision? I’m not going to answer this question here. It’s a calculation that’s highly dependent on personal factors. I lean toward homeownership over renting but that’s because of our idiosyncratic personal preferences – our ideal early retirement lifestyle involves having a stable home base in a good school district. For us personally, the monetary side of homeownership has also worked out pretty well (“My best investment ever: Homeownership?!”) and I like to hedge against Sequence Risk in early retirement by taking a small chunk of our net worth – just under 10% – and “investing” it in an asset that lowers our mandatory expenses because we don’t have to pay rent. But I can certainly see how some other folks, whether retired or not, would prefer to rent. I certainly don’t want to talk anyone out of renting. But on the web, you sometimes read pretty nonsensical arguments against homeownership. And just for balance, there’s also a prominent lie in favor of homeownership. This is going to be interesting; let’s take a look… Continue reading “How To “Lie” With Personal Finance – Part 2 (Homeownership Edition)”
This is a question that’s been on my mind for a while, partially out of curiosity and also because it’s been raised by readers a few times: Suppose you didn’t get the “memo” on passive investing early enough in your life and you now have some high-expense-ratio funds in our portfolio. So, is it too late to switch to a low-cost fund now? Maybe you’re lucky and your funds are actively-managed and they actually beat the broad index reliably. Good for you, but more often than not people are unhappy with the performance of their high-fee funds and like to switch to a low-fee, passively-managed index mutual fund at Fidelity, Schwab or Vanguard. Or move to one of the many index ETFs. Fees will be in the low single-digit basis points, around 0% to 0.015% for some of the Fidelity index funds and around 0.035% for the “Admiral Shares” Vanguard funds. Of course, if this is a fund in a tax-advantaged account where you can just switch between funds without any tax consequences you should just do so if you have that option. But the story gets a lot more complicated in a taxable account! We now have to weigh the pros and cons of switching to a low-cost fund:
Pro: You get rid of that “stinker” mutual fund and replace it with a low-fee, or even zero-fee index fund and eliminate the drag from the high expense ratio. We could be talking about a 0.5% difference in fees and maybe as much as 1.0 or 1.5%. And that’s every year! This can accumulate to a very large pile of cash over time!
Cons: You may have to realize capital gains today. There is a tax inefficiency from having to realize capital gains before you actually need the money in retirement. And this inefficiency takes two forms:
1) for most of you, there’s a good chance that marginal tax rates will be lower in the future, especially in retirement. Your high income right now might put you into a high marginal tax bracket (both Federal and State), while in retirement you might face much lower (or potentially zero) marginal rates. It’s best to defer capital gains until then!
2) even if your future projected tax rate is the same, there’s a potential inefficiency due to realizing capital gains twice; once today when switching to the new fund and once in the future when liquidating that fund in retirement, thus compounding the drag from taxes. It’s best to defer capital gains and pay taxes only once in retirement.
So, depending on how much in built-in capital gains you have right now, how much you can lower your expense ratio and what your current and projected future tax rates are, it may be optimal or suboptimal to dump that high-expense fund. In other words, it is the choice between two evils: The one evil is the drag from the high expense ratio and the other is the drag from tax inefficiency. Which one outweighs the other? Hard to tell, unless you put some numbers in a spreadsheet and do a proper “horse race.” And that’s what we do here today. Let’s take a look…