Retirement Bucket Strategies: Cheap Gimmick or the Solution to Sequence Risk? – SWR Series Part 48

September 14, 2021

Last week, I had a bit of a mishap. I had a post scheduled for publication on September 9 but I got distracted and never completed it. So, on September 9, WordPress pushed out a mostly empty article, including the email notification to thousands of subscribers and Twitter notification. Oops! Sorry about that! Some blogs in the FIRE sphere now have multiple employees running the “show” day-to-day. But with a one-man operation like mine, essentially a part-time passion project and hobby of a sometimes busy early retiree, inevitably, there will be some screwups like that. I’m glad my readers have a sense of humor, though. One Twitter follower surmised “Sequence Risk destroyed the article !!!”

In any case, I finally gathered my notes and created all my necessary tables and charts: Part 48 of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series, dealing with Bucket Strategies. This is one approach that’s often considered a viable solution to the dreaded Sequence Risk Problem. Simply keep buckets of assets with different risk characteristics designated to cover expenses during different time windows of your retirement. Specifically, keep one or more buckets with low-risk assets to hedge the first few years of retirement. And – poof – Sequence Risk evaporates, just like that! Sounds too good to be true, right? And it likely is. Long story short, while there are certain parts of the bucket strategy that can indeed partially alleviate the risk of retirement bust, bucket strategies are by no means a solution to Sequence Risk. Let’s take a look at the details…

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When to Worry, When to Wing It: Withdrawal Rate Case Studies – SWR Series Part 47

August 18, 2021

In my post two weeks ago I outlined my approach to retirement planning: In light of significant uncertainty in retirement, I like to do a more careful, robust, and scientific analysis. Not because I could ever undo any of the existing uncertainties but because I don’t want to add even more uncertainties through “winging it” in retirement.

But how much detail is really required? I can already hear objections like “you can never know your future spending month-by-month, so why go through all this careful analysis with a monthly withdrawal frequency?” To which I like to answer: Well, maybe that’s the part where you can indeed use the “wing it” approach! So, today I want to go through a few case studies and learn how much of a difference it would make in my safe withdrawal strategy simulations if we a) carefully model the whole shebang in great detail, or b) just wing it and use a rough average estimate for the spending path. For example…

  • Does the intra-year distribution of withdrawals matter? In other words, how much of a difference does the withdrawal frequency make: monthly vs. quarterly vs. annual?
  • What if there are fluctuations in my annual withdrawals around the baseline average budget, due to home repairs, health expenses, etc.?
  • What if those fluctuations have an upward bias?
  • What if there is a slow (upward) creep in withdrawals?
  • What about nursing home expenses later in retirement?

Where can I safely wing it? And which are the ones I should worry about? Let’s take a look…

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The Need for Precision in an Uncertain World – SWR Series Part 46

August 5, 2021

Welcome back to another post in the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. For a quick intro and a summary of the series, please refer to the new landing page.

Before I get started, though, you probably noticed that I have been offline for a while. Important business to take care of! The ERN family summer vacation. We spent 3 weeks in the Colorado Rockies and the Black Hills in South Dakota (with short stints in Nebraska and Wyoming) for hiking and sightseeing. Then another almost 2 weeks in Gainesville, GA by Lake Lanier with the in-laws. We flew back in early August and after a short “vacation from the vacation”, I’m now back in business again.

So, back to today’s post. People in the FIRE and personal finance blogging community – readers and fellow bloggers alike – often tell me that while they enjoy my writings here, they wonder if I haven’t gone a little too far into the rabbit hole of quantitative analysis. Why measure safe withdrawal rates down to multiple significant digits? Why do all of this careful analysis if there’s so much uncertainty? Market uncertainty, policy uncertainty, personal uncertainty, model uncertainty! Why not just wing it? I always try to give a short reply to defend my quantitative approach and out of the many different mental and written notes I’ve taken over the years I created this post for your enjoyment and for my convenience to refer to if I get this question again next week.

Specifically, I want to propose at least three reasons for being diligent and precise not despite, but precisely because of retirement uncertainties. And, by the way, I will keep today’s post relatively lean in terms of simulations and calculations, and rather try to make this more of a philosophical exercise. So, if you’re one of the quant-skeptics I hope you keep reading because I can promise you that we don’t have to get too deep into the (quant) weeds. So, let’s take a look at my top three reasons to get the math right…

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Our Three-Year FIRE Anniversary

July 1, 2021

Time flies! I can’t believe I already had my 3-year FIRE anniversary last month! Time to reflect and think back on the first three years of early retirement: travel, moving, “market timing”, dealing with the shutdown, and some other exciting news in the ERN retirement life. Let’s take a look…

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Stealth Frugality

June 16, 2021

We all heard about stealth wealth, i.e., being wealthy without being flashy! Live below your means! There are blog posts about it (Physician on FIRE, Retirement Manifesto, and many more). A large part of The Millionaire Next Door book is about Stealth Wealth. We certainly have been practicing that principle while accumulating wealth, and especially now that we live our comfortable life in early retirement.

But we never overdid the stealth wealth either. In other words, when I announced my retirement in 2018, not a single relative, friend, or colleague blurted out “Yeah, you’re such a cheapskate, no wonder you accumulated seven figures!” Quite the opposite, people wondered how we were able to save and accumulate so much without looking cheap to the outside world. Very simple, we were frugal, but we were able to hide that frugality very well. In other words, we were practicing…

Stealth Frugality = frugality without looking and acting like a miser!

And Stealth Frugality doesn’t rule out Stealth Wealth. It’s more of an extension, a less extreme form of stealth wealth. Being a math wonk, let me make the point with the diagram below. If we plot on the x-axis the perception of wealth and on the y-axis the reality, then really everything above the 45-degree line, i.e., reality > perception, is stealth wealth of sorts. But the trick is to move out of that top-left corner (act poor, big bank account) and a little bit more to the right. Without dropping too close to the x-axis and certainly not all the way to the lower right corner (=Keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, drowning in debt). In other words, Stealth Frugality involves spending wisely without breaking the bank, i.e., try to find some spending categories to splurge on that follow a flatter path than the Minus-45-degree line!

So, why and how did we practice Stealth Frugality? Let’s take a look…

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The Emergency Fund: It’s Still Useless!

May 26, 2021

One of my earliest blog posts back in 2016 detailed my thought process for skipping the emergency fund. Back then, while we were still accumulating and saving for early retirement, our entire seven-figure equity index fund portfolio served as our emergency fund. We never kept more than $1,000, maybe $2,000 in a checking account. We’d simply used the credit card float and/or the Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC) if any larger expenses came up that exceeded my monthly cash flow, e.g., car and home repairs, medical bills, etc.

So, again, the idea is that if you are a practitioner of the FIRE movement and you save and invest aggressively just put all your money in an equity index fund and be done. It’s not crazy at all to simply invest your emergency fund in stocks! And I repeat it again in case people misunderstand (intentionally or unintentionally) my point here, I most definitely advocate stashing a large pile of money. I simply advocate for moving all that money into an investment with high expected returns, ideally equities, instead of letting the money languish in a money market account at 0.03% interest. Please refrain from quoting the strawman sob stories about people who couldn’t afford their roof or car repair because they live paycheck to paycheck. 

But a lot has happened since. We’ve had the 2020 recession and bear market and massive equity market volatility. Many financial experts, bloggers, and podcasters started spreading the “you need x months worth of expenses stashed away in a savings/money market account” mantra again. Have I changed my opinion? Heck no! Quite the opposite! The 2020 recession is a perfect example of the lunacy of the emergency fund invested in a money market account. Let me explain why…

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Passive income through option writing: Part 7 – Careful when shorting long-dated options!

May 3, 2021

Welcome back to a new installment of the options series! In the discussion following the previous post (Part 6), a reader suggested the following: In recent history, the index has never lost more than 50% over the span of one year. Then why not simply write (=short) a put option, about one year out with a strike 50+% below today’s index level? Make it extra-safe and use a strike 60% below today’s index!

12-month rolling S&P 500 index returns (price index only, not total returns!).

So, let’s take a look at the following scenario where we short a put option on the S&P 500 index slightly more than a year out and with a strike about 60% below the current index level:

  • Trading date: 4/30/2021
  • Index level at inception: 4,181.17
  • Expiration: 6/16/2022
  • Strike: 1,700 (=59.2% below the index)
  • Option premium: $11.50
  • Multiplier: 100x  (so, we receive $1,150 per short contract, minus about $1.50 in commission)
  • Initial Margin: $4,400, maintenance margin: $4,000

In other words, as a percentage of the initial margin, we can generate about 26% return over about 13.5 months. Annualized that’s still slightly above 23%! Even if we put down $15,000 instead of the bare minimum initial margin, we’re still looking at about 6.8% annualized return. If that’s a truly bulletproof and 100% safe return that’s nothing to sneeze at. A 6.8% safe return certainly beats the 0.1% safe return in a money market, right? Does that mean we have solved that pesky Sequence Risk problem?

Here are a few reasons to be skeptical about this strategy…

Continue reading “Passive income through option writing: Part 7 – Careful when shorting long-dated options!”

A Retirement Tax-Planning Case Study (and Excel Toolkit!) – SWR Series Part 45

April 28, 2021

Welcome back to another installment of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. In the previous installment, Part 44, I went through a number of general tax planning ideas, and I promised another post to introduce an Excel Sheet, I created to help me with my tax planning. There were numerous reader requests a long time ago when I ran the withdrawal strategy case studies (2017-2018) to publish not just the Safe Withdrawal Rate calculations but also the tax planning Excel Sheet. Well, I never published those Excel sheets because a) they were custom-tailored to those particular case studies, b) they potentially included personal information of the case study volunteers and c) they were created “for my eyes only” so I couldn’t really publish them without a massive effort to explain and document what exactly I’m doing there.

But now (with a three-year delay!) I’ve finally come around to creating something from scratch I feel comfortable publishing for a broader audience. It’s not a Google Sheet, but an MS Excel Sheet, more on that later. It’s probably still not a universally applicable tool.  And most importantly, it’s a tool that still requires a lot of Excel Spreadsheet mastery. It will not spit out “the” optimal tax strategy, it will only help me (and maybe you) find that optimal tax strategy. A lot of handiwork is still necessary! Much more handiwork than with Safe Withdrawal Sheet (and even that is already a handful!).

So, I like to go through a simple case study to show how this sheet works and showcase how you can “hack” your withdrawal tax optimization strategy in that one specific case. Even aside from tax optimization, the sheet helps me gauge what’s the average effective tax rate throughout retirement, to help me figure out how much of a gross-up I have to apply to translate a net-of-tax retirement budget into a pre-tax withdrawal percentage.

I can’t foresee what exact tax challenges you might face, but with my tool, I would have been able to handle what came across my desk so far, both in my personal finances and the case studies I’ve done so far.

So, let’s take a look…

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Passive income through option writing: Part 6 – A 2018-2021 backtest with different contract sizes: Guest Post by “Spintwig”

All parts of this series:

* * *

April 21, 2021

Welcome to a new installment about trading options. Alongside my work on Safe Withdrawal Rates, this is my other passion. In fact, on a day-to-day basis, I probably think about shorting S&P 500 put option much more than about Safe Withdrawal Rates. In any case, one of the most frequent questions I’ve been getting related to my options trading strategy is, how do you even get started with this strategy when you have a smaller-size account? Trading CBOE SPX options, with a multiplier of 100x on the underlying S&P index, even one single contract will have a notional exposure of roughly $400,000. I don’t recommend trading that without at least about $100,000 or better $125,000 or more in margin cushion.

How would one implement this without committing such a large chunk of money? 

My options trading buddy Mr. Spintwig who already published another guest post in this series offered to shed some light on this question. He ran some simulations for my strategy using some of the other “option options” (pardon the pun), i.e., implementing my strategy not with the SPX index options but with different vehicles with a smaller multiple than the currently pretty massive 100x SPX contract. For example, the options on S&P 500 E-mini futures are certainly a slightly smaller alternative with a multiplier of only 50. And there are some even smaller-size contract alternatives, but my concern has always been that the transaction costs will likely eat up a good chunk of the strategy’s returns. 

In any case, I’ll stop babbling. Mr. Spintwig has the numbers, so please take over…

Continue reading “Passive income through option writing: Part 6 – A 2018-2021 backtest with different contract sizes: Guest Post by “Spintwig””

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 naïve 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…

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