How much can we earn in retirement without paying federal income taxes?

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!

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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…

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A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for Becky and Stephen

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”

Who’s Afraid of a Bear Market?

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!

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Even if we’re at a top, we’ll have another top before too long! Source: Twitter.com, StockCharts.com

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:

  1. The market will always recover (see the chart above)
  2. 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…

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Happy FIRE-versary! Reflections after one year of early retirement

Time flies! I had my first anniversary in my new “job” already last month! June 1, 2018, was my last day at the office! I even got some social media notifications from people congratulating me on the “one year early retired work anniversary,” how awesome is that? I did write a post on the eight lessons after eight weeks of retirement, but I thought I should write an update about what I learned after reaching the one-year mark. So, let’s take a look at my eight new lessons after one year of FIRE…

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So what, we retired at the peak of the bull market? Here are seven reasons why we’re not yet worried…

Wow, did you see the big stock market move in October? The worst monthly S&P 500 performance since 2011! When you’re still working and contributing to your retirement savings it’s easy to lean back and relax: you can buy equities at discount prices and you buy more shares for the same amount of savings when prices are down, a.k.a. dollar-cost-averaging. Now that we’re retired things are different. Sequence Risk creates the opposite effect of dollar-cost-averaging: you deplete your money faster while the portfolio is down. I have been writing about this theme for almost two years now and now it looks like I might become my very own poster child of Sequence Risk.

The 2018 calendar year gains were almost wiped out in October. Ouch!

So, are we worried having retired at (or close to) the peak of the market? Well, take a look at the title image: an ERN family selfie while vacationing in Angkor Wat (Siem Reap, Cambodia) in October. It doesn’t look like we’re too concerned about the stock market! And here are a few reasons why…

Continue reading “So what, we retired at the peak of the bull market? Here are seven reasons why we’re not yet worried…”

Eight Lessons After Eight Weeks Of Early Retirement

Eight weeks of retirement already! Actually, a little bit more by the time this goes online, but it was exactly eight weeks when I started writing this. Early retirement is a lot more than number crunching and safe withdrawal simulations, so today it’s time to reflect on the first two months of Early Retirement. Everybody’s experience will be different and here’s what have I learned, what surprised me and what didn’t surprise me…

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Here’s an idea for a new ETF

Actually, not one ETF, but two! Or more! How can there be a need for a new ETF? Aren’t there enough already? Earlier this year, Motley Fool argued there are too many ETFs (1,929 at that time, probably over 2,000 by now) and they are covering pretty much every thinkable (and unthinkable) benchmark. Soon we might have more ETFs than publicly traded equities in the U.S., how crazy is that??? Why would I propose a new ETF that doesn’t already exist?

Here’s some background. I’m an index investor at heart and I like tax optimization. For so many years now, I’ve held equity index ETFs and Mutual Funds in both taxable accounts and tax-deferred accounts (both retirement and deferred compensation at work). It’s so painful to see the dividend payments in the taxable accounts getting taxed every year. Sure, it’s only about 1.9% dividend yield in the S&P500 right now but for us, that’s taxed at 15% federal, 10+% state (California!) and 3.8% Obamacare tax, for a total of almost 30% marginal tax! Isn’t there a better way? Sure! Simply put the taxable equity allocation into stocks that pay zero (or close to zero) dividends and keep the high-dividend stocks in the tax-deferred account where they can compound in peace and be taxed only once upon withdrawal rather than every year along the way! So, the two ETFs that I wish existed would exactly replicate the S&P500 if held in equal shares. But individually they’d have non-index weights and one would hold the equities with the lowest dividend yield and the other with the high-yield equities!

Notice that most folks already do this tax optimization across asset classes: Hold the tax-inefficient asset classes (bonds, REITs, etc.) in tax-deferred accounts and equities in taxable accounts. So, why not do this within the equity asset class as well for additional tax efficiency? How much extra after-tax return would we get out of this? Let’s look at the numbers…

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Meet the ERN family!

Well, the day has come! I have finally announced at work that I will be retiring! We have talked to family and friends about our plans. No turning back now! One way I ensured that I’m not going to get cold feet was to do the ChooseFI podcast that I knew will broadcast on March 12. Since I spilled the beans there I might as well do so here on the blog as well! Continue reading “Meet the ERN family!”

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 3: Equity Valuation

Update: We posted the results from parts 1 through 8 as a Social Science Research Network (SSRN) working paper in pdf format:

Safe Withdrawal Rates: A Guide for Early Retirees (SSRN WP#2920322)

Welcome back to our safe withdrawal rate series! Over the last two weeks, we already posted part 1 (intro and pitfalls of going beyond a 30-year horizon) and part 2 (capital preservation vs. capital depletion). Today’s post deals with yet another early retirement pet peeve: safe withdrawal rates are likely overestimated given today’s expensive equity valuations. We wrote a similar piece about this issue before, but that was based on cFIREsim external simulation data. We prefer to run our own simulations to be able to dig much deeper into this issue.

So, the point we like to make today is that looking at long-term average equity returns to compute safe withdrawal rates might overstate the success probabilities considering that today’s equity valuations are much less attractive than the average during the 1926-current period (Trinity Study) and/or the period going back to 1871 that we use in our SWR study.

Thus, following the Trinity Study too religiously and ignoring equity valuations is a little bit like traveling to Minneapolis, MN and dressing for the average annual temperature (55F high and 37F low, see source, which is 13 and 3 degrees Celsius, respectively). That may work out just fine in April and October when the average temperature is indeed pretty close to that annual average. But if we already know that we’ll visit in January and wear only long sleeves and a light jacket we should be prepared to freeze our butt off because the average low is 8F =-13C! Likewise, be prepared to work with lower withdrawal rates considering that we’re now 7+ years into the post-GFC-recovery with pretty lofty equity valuations. Continue reading “The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 3: Equity Valuation”

The dangers of getting close to retirement: “Yeah, I’ll do that when I’m retired!”

The other day, my wife asked me to take out the trash. My response: “Yeah, I’ll do that when I’m retired!” We both got a pretty good laugh out of that one. After I took out the trash (pre-retirement, obviously), we realized that our planned retirement date, hopefully in early 2018, creates all sorts of inefficiencies; I catch us procrastinating already! YIDTWIR=”Yeah, I’ll do that when I’m retired!” Are they the seven most dangerous words for the approaching-FIRE crowd?

Procrastination is as old as humanity and if there weren’t enough temptations to postpone stuff already, a retirement date in the near future is the mother of all reasons: Procrastination-palooza! Think about how much procrastination an absolutely arbitrary date like January 1 creates: “I’ll quit smoking/go to the gym/work less/work more/etc. in the New Year!” The main reason for New Year’s resolutions is that they give you cover – a guilt-free, chain-smoking, TV-binge-watching couch potato existence between late October and December 31. There is absolutely nothing magical about January 1 but it still creates New Year’s resolutions. And, of course, resolutions are never broken but just postponed to January 1 of the next-next year.

But an upcoming retirement date is different in that you will actually have more time on your hands. Continue reading “The dangers of getting close to retirement: “Yeah, I’ll do that when I’m retired!””