Principles of Retirement Tax-Planning – SWR Series Part 44

March 22, 2021

It’s tax season in the U.S. right now! Even though that deadline has just been pushed back to May 17, taxes are on everybody’s mind, so this is a good time to write about the topic in the context of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. Until now, I haven’t written all that much about taxes and the main reasons are:

  1. While I do have a combined 6 letters behind my name (Ph.D. & CFA), I’m missing the three letters “CPA” to write anything truly authoritative about the topic.
  2. My primary focus is on getting the Safe Withdrawal Rate right. It’s the first issue everyone should worry about. I did some case studies years ago for early retirees and some of them could actually raise their SWR to more than 5% if they do their accounting for future cash flows right. That’s 25% better than the naĂŻve 4% Rule. If you start with a tax plan that’s already somewhat OK and close to optimal, I doubt that you can squeeze out another 25% in after-tax withdrawals through a truly “optimal” tax plan. Hence my approach: get your SWR right and factor in the tax optimization plan afterward to make sure you squeeze maybe another percent or two in the after-tax numbers!   (And likewise, if you have a 60-year horizon and not much in the way of supplemental cash flows and you’re looking at a 3.25%, maybe a 3.5% withdrawal rate, you’re not going to “tax-hack” yourself to a 4% withdrawal rate either!)
  3. Taxes are very personal and it’s difficult to give any generalized advice. As much as I would like to create a spreadsheet like the Google Sheet to simulate safe withdrawal rates (See Part 28 for the details) where you plug in your numbers and the sheet spits out a detailed plan, it’s not so trivial. Very likely, the tax analysis would have to be more custom-tailored!  And just to be sure, my Google SWR simulation sheet isn’t trivial either! 🙂

But of course, even if you first do your SWR analysis in before-tax terms, you will want to know how much of a haircut you need to apply to calculate your after-tax retirement budget. Some retirees can indeed make over $110,000 a year and don’t owe any federal tax as I showed in my post in 2019 (“How much can we earn in retirement without paying federal income taxes?“). And in the same post, I showed that to get to a 5% average tax you’ll likely need a $150k annual retirement budget. So, it’s a fair assumption that most of us in the FIRE community will likely get away paying less than 5% of our retirement budget in federal taxes. Add another 0-5% or so for most state tax formulas, and you will likely stay below 10% effective/average tax rate.

But I get the message: because we can’t completely ignore taxes, I wrote today’s post to talk about the general ideas and principles in retirement tax planning. In at least one additional future post (maybe two, maybe three) I will also do a few case studies to see the general principles in action. At that point, I will also include the Excel Sheet I use to perform the tax planning analysis because a lot of readers asked for that tool when I published the Case Studies 3+ years ago! And as I warned before: it’s not as simple as just putting your parameters and Excel automatically spits out your plan. It involves a bit more human input and analysis, stay tuned!

But before we even get to the messy parts, let’s take a look at some general principles…

Continue reading “Principles of Retirement Tax-Planning – SWR Series Part 44”

Pre-Retirement Glidepaths: How crazy is it to hold 100% equities until retirement? – SWR Series Part 43

March 2, 2021

A while ago I wrote about the challenge of designing pre-retirement equity/bond glidepaths (“What’s wrong with Target Date Funds?“). In a nutshell, the main weakness of Target Date Funds (TDFs) for folks planning an early retirement is that if you have a short horizon and a large savings rate then the “industry standard” TDF is probably useless. 10 years before retirement, the TDF has likely shifted too far out of equities, likely below 70%!

The problem is that the traditional glidepaths are calibrated to the traditional retiree (who would have guessed???) with a sizable nest egg ten years away from retirement. In that case, you want to hedge against the possibility of a bear market so close to retirement from which you might have trouble recovering due to the relatively small contributions of “only” 10-15% of your income. But people planning early retirement with a small initial net worth and a massive 50+% savings rates should clearly take more risk to get their portfolio off the ground.

In any case, back then I mentioned that I had some additional material about glidepaths toward retirement for the FIRE community, to be published at a later date, which is today!

Why is this post part of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series? First, today’s post is a natural extension of the FIRE glidepath posts (Part 19, Part 20) in this series. Moreover, the majority of readers of the series are not necessarily retired yet. Many seek guidance during the last few years before retirement. In fact, one of the most frequent questions I have been getting is that people who are almost retired and still holding 100% equities wonder how they are supposed to transition to a less aggressive allocation, say 75% stocks and 25% bonds at the start of retirement. Should you do a gradual transition? Or keep the allocation at 100% equities and then rapidly (cold-turkey?) shift to a more cautious allocation upon retirement? 

My usual response: It depends on your parameters and constraints. You can certainly maintain your 100% equity allocation much longer than the traditional TDFs would make you believe. If you are “flexible” with your retirement date you can even keep the equity weight at 100% until you retire. If you are really set on a specific date and want to hedge the downside risk, you probably want to gradually shift there over the last few years. So, let’s take a look at my findings…
Continue reading “Pre-Retirement Glidepaths: How crazy is it to hold 100% equities until retirement? – SWR Series Part 43”

The Effect of “One More Year” – SWR Series Part 42

January 13, 2021

Happy New Year, everyone! And welcome to a new installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. Today I like to write about the One More Year Syndrome (OMYS) – the fear of retirement and the decision to just work another year. What I find intriguing about OMYS is that procrastination normally works the other way around. You opt for the fun and easy stuff and promise yourself to do the hard work tomorrow. Only to repeat that charade again tomorrow and postpone the unpleasant tasks to the day after tomorrow. And so on. 

But why procrastinate a fun-filled early retirement and keep working? Physician on FIRE and Fritz at The Retirement Manifesto have written about their rationales. The number one reason is that you grow your nest egg and put your retirement finances on a better footing. That was certainly my main rationale, too. I could have retired comfortably in 2017, probably even in 2016 but I delayed that decision until 2018.

So, qualitatively it’s obvious. But can we quantify by how much the OMYS improves your retirement security? Is it worth the additional year in the workforce? How can we incorporate OMYS in the Big ERN Google Safe Withdrawal Simulation Sheet? Is it possible that OMYS will boost your retirement health so substantially that it’s not as irrational as it’s sometimes made? Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “The Effect of “One More Year” – SWR Series Part 42″

How to Beat the Stock Market

December 9, 2020

Right at the start, let me point out that, no, I’ve not gone to the bad side! I will not try to sell any actively-managed funds here. If you’re a part of the passive investing crowd, which is a large portion of the FIRE community, you might find the title a bit “click-baity.” Because the thought process of the average passive investor would go like this:

  1. Underperforming the VTSAX is a non-starter. That’s highly undesirable. The only assets we’d ever consider are those with an expected return equal to or larger than the VTSAX!
  2. But the problem is that due to efficient markets, nobody can beat the market!
  3. If we intersect the two sets above, i.e., constrain ourselves to what’s both desirable and feasible we’re left with the VTSAX (or whatever close substitute you might pick, e.g., FSKAX from Fidelity).
Beat the market diagram01
A very one-dimensional view of the world: How most folks in the FIRE community justify passive investing

That line of reasoning has some advantages: it has probably convinced a lot of folks to get rid of their irrational fear of the stock market and many have benefited from low-cost index investing instead of wasting money on actively-managed funds. My concern here is that I think that this thought process of “nobody can beat the market” is overly simplistic and (literally) one-dimensional. Of course, there are ways to beat the market! Here are eight ideas I can think of… Continue reading “How to Beat the Stock Market”

What’s wrong with Target Date Funds?

November 9, 2020

Amazingly, after 4+ years of blogging and 200 posts, I haven’t written anything about Target Date Funds (TDFs). For some folks, they are certainly a neat tool. Your fund provider automatically allocates your regular retirement contributions to a portfolio that they deem appropriate for your age and/or the number of years you’re away from your retirement date. It’s a hands-off approach for people who don’t want to think about their asset allocation and simply outsource that task to a fund manager.

But I think not all is well in the TDF world. People planning for FIRE should stay away from TDFs. But even for traditional retirees, there are some unpleasant features. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “What’s wrong with Target Date Funds?”

What to make of that Q3 U.S. GDP number?

October 29, 2020

Today’s GDP release for the third quarter came in at 33.1%. Not a typo. After the disastrous second-quarter number of -31.4%, the worst quarterly number on record we now got the best quarterly reading on record. What’s going on here? What do I make of that number? Are we out of the woods now? I’m putting on my economist’s hat for today and share my thoughts in a short post. Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “What to make of that Q3 U.S. GDP number?”

Can we raise our Safe Withdrawal Rate when inflation is low? – SWR Series Part 41

October 26, 2020

A few weeks ago I wrote the post “Do we really have to lower our Safe Withdrawal Rate to 0.5% now?” about the pretty ridiculous claim that the Safe Withdrawal Rate should go all the way down to just 0.5%, in light of today’s ultra-low interest rates. The claim was transparently false and it was great fun to debunk it. But recently I came across another proclamation of the type “We have to rethink the Safe Withdrawal Rate” – this time proposing to raise it all the way up to 5% and even 5.5%! Well, count me a skeptic on this one, too. Though I’d have to tread a bit more cautiously here because the 5.5% SWR claim doesn’t come from some random internet troll but from the “Father of the 4% Rule” himself, Bill Bengen. He’s been doing the rounds recently advocating for a 5% and even 5.5% Safe Withdrawal Rate:

  • In September in a piece he wrote for FA-mag with a recommendation to raise the SWR to 5%.
  • On October 1, the same article, reprinted almost verbatim under a different title in the same magazine: “Choosing The Highest Safe Withdrawal Rate At Retirement”
  • On October 13 on Michael Kitces’ podcast, Bengen made another explicit SWR recommendation: “[I]n a very low inflation environment like we have now, if we had modest stocks, I wouldn’t be recommending 4.5%, I’d probably be recommending 5.25%, 5.5%” It’s not clear what made him raise the SWR by another 0.25-0.50%, though.

And the whole discussion was quickly picked up in the personal finance  and FIRE community:

The main rationale for increasing the SWR: inflation has been really tame recently and will stay subdued over the coming years and even decades. That’s his forecast, not mine! Hence, Bengen makes the case that we’d have to make smaller “cost-of-living adjustments” (COLA) to our withdrawals. Smaller future aggregate withdrawals afford you larger initial withdrawals, according to Bengen. But as you might have guessed, the calculations that justify the significantly higher withdrawal rate don’t appear so convincing once look at the details…

Continue reading “Can we raise our Safe Withdrawal Rate when inflation is low? – SWR Series Part 41”

Should we preserve our capital and only consume the dividends in retirement? – SWR Series Part 40

October 14, 2020

Welcome to a new installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series!  40 Parts already! If this is the first time you encounter this series, I recommend you check out the landing page here to find your way around. 

Today’s post is about a question I’ve encountered quite a few times recently. If Sequence of Return Risk means that you face the danger of retirement ruin from liquidating (equity) shares during a down market early during retirement, why not avoid touching your principal altogether and simply live off the dividends only in retirement? Sounds reasonable, right?

But by solving the “running out of money” problem we create a bunch of new questions, such as:

  • Will the principal keep up with inflation over a typical retirement horizon?
  • Will your dividend payments keep up with inflation over time?
  • How much volatility in the dividend payments would you have to expect?

So, in other words, the “dividend only” strategy – simple as it may seem – is somewhat more complicated than your good old Trinity-style 4% Rule simulations. In the Trinity Study, failure means you run out of money before the end of the retirement horizon – simple as that. With the dividend-only approach, failure can come in many different shapes. For example, you may not run out of money but the volatility of dividends could be too high and/or you face deep and multi-year (or even multi-decade!) long drawdowns in dividend income and/or you have to live like a miser early on because the dividend yield is so low. All those are failures of sorts, too. Then, how good or how bad is this dividend-only approach? Let’s take a look…

Continue reading “Should we preserve our capital and only consume the dividends in retirement? – SWR Series Part 40”

Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) better than a Retirement Account?

September 23, 2020

In last week’s post, I showed that if you have access to an Employee Stock Purchase Plans (ESPP) offering the full 15% maximum discount you can justify prioritizing the ESPP over an index fund investment in a taxable account, despite the higher risk. But I didn’t answer another important question: would you want to prioritize your ESPP even over retirement savings accounts? 

If your company match is 50% or even 100%, well, then you get a quick guaranteed 50% or 100% return, much higher than any ESPP discount you can expect. The retirement plan with such a high matching percentage easily mops the floor with that puny 15% ESPP discount. But what about the 401(k) contributions after the match? Should we forego those and invest in the ESPP instead? Is the ESPP better than a Roth IRA?

Well, it all depends on your personal situation, specifically, your tax and benefit parameters. So, that’s the question for today: How do we determine priorities across the different savings vehicles? Under what conditions would we forego the 401(k) contributions beyond the company match and invest in the ESPP instead?

Let’s take a closer look: Continue reading “Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) better than a Retirement Account?”

Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) Worth the Risk?

September 16, 2020

One question I’ve gotten from readers a few times over the years is whether the participation in a so-called Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) is worthwhile.

A little bit of background: some corporations offer their employees to buy stocks of their company at a discount of up to 15%. There are some strings attached, though. For example, there are often minimum holding periods, anywhere between a few months and up to two years. The discount is also taxed as ordinary income, though the subsequent capital gains may qualify for treatment as long-term gains.

If you can liquidate the stocks right away and pocket the discount, then participating is likely a no-brainer. Take the money out of the ESPP and invest it in a low-cost index fund. It’s a nice boost to your contributions in your taxable account after you’ve maxed out all your other tax-advantaged options. 15% adjusted by your marginal income tax rate – federal and state. That would still be more than 10% for most people! Pretty sweet!

But what should you do if there’s a minimum holding period? During that time, part of your portfolio is now concentrated in one single corporation. The opposite of diversification. So, it’s a tradeoff: You get the discount but you also take on additional risk. Is it still worthwhile? This is an inherently quantitative question. Without putting hard numbers behind this we can talk about this until the cows come home. The only way to answer this question is through a quantitative exercise. And it turns out, the numbers look like it’s indeed worthwhile to participate in an ESPP, especially if you can get the full 15% discount, the maximum allowed under federal law.

Let’s take a closer look…

Continue reading “Is an Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP) Worth the Risk?”