Taxation of Social Security: The Tax Torpedo & Roth Conversion Tightrope

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!

SocSecTaxes Chart01
The share of Social Security subject to Federal Income taxes (Married filing Jointly). x-axis=Social Security benefits and each line is for a different level of other taxable income (e.g., pensions, annuities, interest, capital gains, dividends, etc.). There are 81 “other income” lines corresponding to income levels from $0 to $80,000 in steps of $1,000.

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:

  1. 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!
  2. 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!
  3. 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!
  4. 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…

Continue reading “Taxation of Social Security: The Tax Torpedo & Roth Conversion Tightrope”

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…

Continue reading “Who’s Afraid of a Bear Market?”

How To “Lie” With Personal Finance – Part 2 (Homeownership Edition)

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)”

Stuck With a High-Expense-Ratio Fund? Here’s a Google Sheet to Weigh the Pros and Cons of Dumping that “Stinker” in Your Portfolio!

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…

Continue reading “Stuck With a High-Expense-Ratio Fund? Here’s a Google Sheet to Weigh the Pros and Cons of Dumping that “Stinker” in Your Portfolio!”

My thoughts on the “Upcoming Recession”

“The recession is near!” Headlines like that have become more common recently. And I’m not talking about those ridiculous “sponsored posts” on Yahoo-Finance (“Reclusive millionaire’s warning: get out of cash now”) but the actual news; the Yield Curve inverted recently and then you add the “Trade War” and weakness abroad and everybody gets nervous. Even the U.S. Federal Reserve is nervous enough to start lowering rates again; one cut already in July and another 0.25% cut likely coming tomorrow! So, will the longest-running economic expansion end of “old age” soon and cause a sizable market correction? Or a bear market? Or a market crash? Should we even care? Since lots of readers have asked me to weigh in on those issues I thought this might be a good time to write a post on this.

First of all, hell yes, we should care. If the economy really goes South and the stock market with it, that would be detrimental for retirees and even folks well before retirement. Fortunately, despite all those bad headlines, I’m still sleeping well at night. Sure, the outlook has worsened since earlier this year and I am a bit more worried about the market now compared to before. But I’m still not too concerned in absolute terms. And my view is mostly based on economic fundamentals. Notice how that view is different from some places in the FIRE community where “no worries” has become something of a mantra. The standard applause line there is that “the market always recovers, so we don’t have to worry about a bear market!” But that’s really a strawman argument. Nobody ever argued that we’ll have a recession and a permanent bear market that we’ll never recover from! The stock market is tied to macroeconomic fundamentals and as long as the economy grows we can be confident that the market keeps delivering. But eventually getting back to the old peak is a pretty lame criterion. Why? Let’s look at the chart below from my post earlier this year, but updated to 9/13/2019. It plots the real (inflation-adjusted) total-return performance (dividends reinvested) of the S&P 500 since 2000.

SPX-Real-TR-Chart
Real, CPI-adjusted S&P500 total return (dividends reinvested) 12/31/1999 to September 2019 (month-to-date). I also marked the 2000-2002 and 2007-2009 peaks and troughs and how the index would have performed with an assumed 6% p.a. trend return.

Of course, the market recovers eventually. But it may take a while! The index didn’t reach the 2000 peak until 2013. And a zero-percent real return over 13 years is a pretty lousy goal. Or here is another way to look at the chart: Let’s start at the peak in 2000 and assume the 2001 and 2007-2009 recessions had never happened and the index had instead advanced at 6% per year (even a little bit less than the long-term average). We’d be 50+% richer today. Don’t tell me recessions and bear markets don’t matter! Also, we did catch up to the 2007 peak plus 6% growth, but even that took about 10 years. So, yes absolutely, recessions and bear markets matter because of what they can do to our retirement plans, compliments of Sequence of Return Risk.

I’m just pointing this out to stress that I’m not categorically unconcerned about a recession. I just don’t see enough evidence yet to run for the hills. Let’s take a look at the details… Continue reading “My thoughts on the “Upcoming Recession””

Another Option Strategy Failure: Why it’s “Nickels in Front of a Steamroller” and not “Benjamins in Front of a Baby Stroller!”

My little blog here may be mostly known for the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. But I’m surprised how many people share my other passion: options trading. Both here on the blog and at FinCon last weekend lots of fans of the blog asked me when I’m going to write something about derivatives again. Wait no more! I have been thinking about this one for a while; it’s another cautionary tale about markets going haywire and unsuspecting and unsophisticated investors are caught in between. And then they realize the “safe” and “conservative” strategy marketed by their financial adviser can blow up in their face!

The Wall Street Journal came out with a pretty detailed article (subscribers only) a few weeks ago, but the story has been around for a while. See, for example, on WealthManagement.com or SeekingAlpha.com. And this time it’s not some obscure small shop in Florida that got into trouble. No, it’s one of the big fish: UBS!  Their so-called “Yield Enhancement Strategy (YES),” marketed as a conservative and low-risk strategy to risk-averse investors with mostly bonds in their portfolio, racked up heavy losses late last year. Well, at least people weren’t completely wiped out like the poor sobs in the OptionSellers mess. But a purported 20% loss (about $1b) is still a hard pill to swallow for investors that were told that this is completely safe. Sure, if you were 100% invested in the S&P500 last year and lost 20%, then yeah at least you knew what you’re getting into. But for the average mom-and-pop muni bond investor, a 20% loss is pretty epic. And not in a good way!

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Headlines from around the web. Source: Wealth Management, Wall Street Journal, Seeking Alpha

Of course, looking at the low-yield environment right now – in some places we even have a negative-yield environment – I don’t blame investors for shopping around for higher yields. But be aware of the charlatans. If they tell you that higher yields come with no side effects run away! There is always a catch with a higher yield! Even if it’s your trusted personal wealth advisor at a shop as famous as UBS!!! This yield enhancement strategy involved a risky options trading strategy. With 5x leverage! And most of the investors didn’t even know what they were getting into unless they had read the pages with the fine print! So, let’s do a post-mortem for this strategy. What were they doing and how and why did this go so horribly wrong?

Continue reading “Another Option Strategy Failure: Why it’s “Nickels in Front of a Steamroller” and not “Benjamins in Front of a Baby Stroller!””

You are a Pension Fund of One (or Two) – SWR Series Part 32

Before we get to the business part of today’s post, again, let me thank everybody who nominated my blog for this year’s Plutus Awards! We got into the final five in two categories: “Best Financial Independence/Early Retirement Blog” and “Best Series: Blog, Podcast, or Video.” We’ll find out at FinCon next week on Friday who will win! But let’s not forget that there’s also the People’s Choice Award. I never even actively encouraged anyone to vote for me yet – I never thought I’d have a chance anyway. But it looks like the ERN blog is among the top 10 contenders as of August 28, see screenshot below! How awesome is that? If you haven’t cast a vote yet, please consider heading over to the Plutus Award page…

https://www.plutusawards.com/nominate/?pc=earlyretirementnow.com

… to nominate the ERN blog for that category. All you need is to enter your name and email address. The blog URL is already pre-filled! 🙂

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Source: PlutusFoundation.org

But let’s get to the really important business. Safe Withdrawal Strategy business! The other day I was browsing on Amazon to look for the book “The Simple Path to Running a Pension Fund” and couldn’t find anything. Maybe Jim Collins is working on that right now? Or Mr. Money Mustache might have a blog post on the “simple math” or wait, I mean the “shockingly simple math” of running a pension fund? Duh’uh! Of course, there is no such simple path/simple math! Because it’s no simple task. Lots of people are involved in running a pension fund. And we’re not just talking about the operational people; customer service reps, lawyers, etc. There would also be a bunch of highly-trained investment professionals taking care of the portfolio. When I worked in the asset management industry I talked to them frequently because a lot of our clients were indeed pension funds. 

And I realize that – strictly speaking – I’m actually running a pension fund right now. For a married couple like us, it has only two beneficiaries, my wife and myself. I could count our daughter as beneficiary #3 because she’ll get some money for the first two decades or her life, but strictly speaking, she’s more of a “residual claimant” who’s going to get most of the “leftovers” when Mrs. ERN and I are gone. All of us in the FIRE community are running our own little one-person or two-person pension funds. And of course, in a lot of ways, running these small-potato pension funds is a lot easier than what the big guys (and gals) are doing. We don’t need fancy buildings, lawyers, customer reps, etc. But that’s the bureaucracy side. How about the mathematical and financial aspects? I’ve obviously written about how decumulating assets in retirement is clearly more complicated than accumulating assets while working (see Part 27 of this series – Why is Retirement Harder than Saving for Retirement?) but I was surprised how my DIY pension fund faces math/finance challenges greater than even a large pension fund. So, here are seven reasons why I think my personal pension fund is a heck of a lot more challenging than a corporate or public pension fund…

Continue reading “You are a Pension Fund of One (or Two) – SWR Series Part 32”

The Safe Withdrawal Rate Series: A Guide for First-Time Readers

We’re back home in Washington State after our epic 2019 Summer Tour. Four months on the road, mostly in Europe with a quick visit in Morocco for a week! In early August, while traveling I almost fell out of my chair (or was it my bed?) when I read that my little blog is nominated for not one but two (!) Plutus Awards this year. “Best Financial Independence/Early Retirement Blog” and my work on the Safe Withdrawal Rate research was nominated in the “Best Series: Blog, Podcast, or Video” category, how awesome is that? So, please accept my deep gratitude: thanks to everyone who took the time to submit a ballot and nominate my blog! I’m very humbled and honored. Whether it’s a Plutus Award nomination or just a friendly comment or email, thanks for supporting my work here! It always makes my day! 🙂

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Talking about the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, I often get feedback like this one, let me paraphrase:

“The entire series is obviously very helpful but also a bit intimidating. As a first-time reader, where should you even start?”

I hear you! I totally hear you! So, I wrote a new “landing page” for the Series that has a summary of all 31 posts, grouped by major topic and also a few suggestions for readers what to read depending on preferences and where you are with your early retirement planning. There are two ways to get to this new summary page:

1: Click this new link:

https://earlyretirementnow.com/safe-withdrawal-rate-series

2: Even easier, when you’re anywhere on the ERN blog webpage, simply go to the top of the page and click the new menu option “Safe Withdrawal Rate Series” – see below!

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So, if you get a chance, please check out that new landing page and let me know what you think! And please continue sharing the SWR Series everywhere people discuss safe withdrawal rates, ideally using that new landing page link! Many thanks in advance!

Continue reading “The Safe Withdrawal Rate Series: A Guide for First-Time Readers”

Can a Rising Equity Glidepath Save the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate Over a 60 Year Retirement? (Guest Post by Dr. David Graham)

Welcome back to another guest post. Dr. David Graham, over at FIPhysician has been on a roll. His spike in productivity has been the perfect “hedge” against my drop in productivity while traveling this summer, so when he offered me to write a follow-up on his very well-received guest post a few weeks ago, I was all for it. This current post is about adding a “glidepath” to your retirement portfolio and how and why this would change the success prospects over a 60-year retirement horizon. Over to you, Dr. Graham…

In my last post, I show a 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR) is actually NOT safe over 60-years (assumptions, assumptions). A more conservative 3.25% SWR does ok. On the other hand, if the asset allocation is increased from 60/40 to 90/10 stock to bond ratio, a 4% SWR thrives again. ERN advises, however, that a 90/10 portfolio sets you up for even more Sequence of Return Risk (SORR). SORR describes the long-term detrimental effects initial negative market returns have on overall portfolio success. Even if the stock market eventually recovers, selling part of your equity portfolio at rock-bottom prices can lead to premature failure of the withdrawal strategy.

What protects from SORR yet permits a higher SWR? A rising equity glidepath is one possibility. Let’s look at the details…

Continue reading “Can a Rising Equity Glidepath Save the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate Over a 60 Year Retirement? (Guest Post by Dr. David Graham)”