Why is Retirement Harder than Saving for Retirement? (SWR Series Part 27)

Welcome back! It’s time to add another piece to the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series (see here for Part 1). After churning out over 20 parts in this series so far I wanted to sit back and reflect on some of the things I’ve learned from my research. And something occurred to me: Withdrawal strategies in retirement aren’t easy! Contrast that with Mr. Money Mustache’s Shockingly Simple Math of Early Retirement post and Jim Collins’ Equity Series that was rewritten into a book The Simple Path to Wealth. Very influential posts and they are among my favorites, too!  So, naturally, I agree 100% that saving for retirement is relatively simple!

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Saving for Early/traditional retirement: three simple ingredients!

Disclaimer: Saving for retirement with a savings rate of 50% or more as is common in the FIRE crowd requires a great deal of discipline. Especially over a 10+ year time span. It’s not easy! Only the math behind it is simple! It’s a bit like dieting; conceptually very simple – healthy diet plus exercise – but it’s not that easy to implement and stick to the plan!

Then, shouldn’t retirement be just as simple? Why am I making everything so complicated? I’m approaching 30 parts in this series, many of them with heavy-duty math and simulations and still a few topics on my to-do list! Am I making everything more complicated than necessary? Am I just trying to show off my math skills? Of course not! Just because saving for retirement is relatively simple it doesn’t mean we can just extrapolate that simplicity to the withdrawals during retirement. And that’s what today’s post is about: I like to go through some of the fundamental factors that make withdrawing money more complicated than saving for retirement. Think of this as an introduction to the SWR Series that I would have written back then if I had known what I know now! 🙂 Ironically, some of the issues that make saving for retirement so simple are the very reason that withdrawing during retirement is more challenging! So, let’s take a closer look…

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Ten things the “Makers” of the 4% Rule don’t want you to know (SWR Series Part 26)

Welcome back! It took me two weeks again to put together a full blog post. That’s what early retirement does to you! Especially while we travel – pretty much permanently between now and December – I figure I will scale down the blog frequency to every 2 maybe 3 weeks. I hope people don’t mind. If two weeks is what it takes to come up with quality content then so be it!

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Safe Withdrawal What? I’m on vacation here! I will finish the post next Wednesday!

For today’s post, I thought it was time to add another installment to the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series. 25 posts already! What have I learned after so many posts? Well, I started out as a skeptic about the so-called “4% Rule” and I thought it might the time to poke a little bit of fun at the “makers of the 4% Rule.” Just to be clear, this post and the title are a bit tongue-in-cheek. Obviously, the “makers” of the 4% Rule, the academics, financial planners and bloggers that have popularized the rule aren’t part of any conspiracy to keep us in the dark. Sometimes I have the feeling they are still in the dark themselves! So here are my top ten things the Makers of the 4% Rule don’t want you to know…Read More »

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 25: More Flexibility Myths

Welcome to the newest installment of the Safe Withdrawal Series! Part 25 already, who would have thought that we make it this far?! But there’s just so much to write on this topic! Last time, in Part 24, I ran out of space and had to defer a few more flexibility myths to today’s post. And I promised to look into a few reader suggestions. So let’s do that today pick up where we left off last time…
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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 24: Flexibility Myths vs. Reality

It’s been three months since the last post in the Withdrawal Rate Series! Nothing to worry about; this topic is still very much on my mind. Especially now that we’ll be out of a job within a few short weeks. I just confirmed that June 4 will be my last day at the office! Today’s topic is not entirely new: Flexibility! Many consider it the secret weapon against all the things that I’m worried about right now: sequence risk and running out of money in retirement. But you can call me a skeptic and I like to bust some of the myths surrounding the flexibility mantra today. So, here are my “favorite” flexibility myths…Read More »

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 23: Flexibility and its Limitations

Talk to anyone in the FIRE community and ask how folks will deal with market volatility (especially downside volatility) during the withdrawal phase and everyone will mention “flexibility.” Of course, we’re all going to be flexible. Nobody will see their million dollar portfolio drop to $700k, $600k, $500k, $400k and so on and then keep withdrawing $40k every year no matter what. Rational and reasonable retirees would adjust their behavior along the way and nobody will really run out of money in retirement in the real world, as I noted in my ChooseFI podcast appearance. In other words, we’ll all be flexible. But is flexibility some magic wand we can swing to make all the worries about running out of money go away? Or is it BS? It’s a bit of both, of course. For example, I would put the following into the BS category:

  • I’ll do “something” with my asset allocation and recover the losses.   Good luck with that!
  • I will skip the Starbucks Lattes for two months until the market recovers! Ohhhh-Kaaayyy….?!
  • I will sit out one or two years of inflation adjustments.    Qualitatively, a good idea, but it won’t work quantitatively.
  • I will rely on Social Security.    That may work for middle-aged early retirees but not for 30-year-old early retirees!

But flexibility will work through significantly reducing spending. And again, let’s be realistic, foregoing a 2% inflation adjustment for a year is not enough. Flexibility would involve being prepared to cut spending by probably around 20-25%, maybe more. A different route and maybe a better solution might be the side hustle. Specifically, one reader, Jacob, emailed me with this proposal:

Your series is quickly covering a lot of financial acrobatics to discover and maximize safe withdrawal rates while working to reduce the risk of running out of money. However, so far the most tried-and-true solution to the “not enough money” problem has not been considered: Get-A-Job. I acknowledge that for most job-hating FIRE-aspiring people this is the nuclear option, but it’s still an option.

Great idea! Get a side hustle and solve the safe withdrawal rate worries and (hopefully) salvage the 4% Rule! But there are two very important limitations:

  1. The side hustle might last for longer than a few months or years. Withdrawals plus the market drop equals Sequence of Return Risk and might imply that the side hustle will last much longer than the S&P 500 equity index drawdown. How long? Try a decade or two, so if you want to go that route better make sure you pick a side hustle that’s fun!
  2. For some historical cohorts where the 4% Rule would have worked even without a side hustle, flexibility would have backfired; you would have gone back to work for years, maybe even a whole decade and afterward it turned out it wasn’t even necessary!

But enough talking, let’s do some simulations!Read More »

How much of a Random Walk is the Stock Market?

A controversial topic for today. Or maybe not controversial at all – we’ll see. This topic has been on my mind for a long time and I’ve mentioned this in passing in some of my posts over the last few months: The stock market isn’t really precisely a random walk! And just for the record: I am not saying that I am in possession of any kind of formula to perfectly predict tomorrow’s equity performance. My guess is just as good as anyone else’s. On a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 is a Random Walk and 0 is perfectly deterministic and forecastable, I’d still call the stock market a 9.9. But there are few peculiar features in the last 140+ years of equity returns that are clearly at odds with the Random Walk Hypothesis. So, let’s look at some of the small quirks I found and what they mean for us in the Personal Finance community…
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Ten Lessons From Ten Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Studies

Last week, we published the Tenth Safe Withdrawal Rate Study! Amazing how time flies! I did about one case study every three weeks for the last 6 months! And I could even include another one if I were to count the one I did for the ChooseFI podcast back in 2017. In fact, the ChooseFI appearance (Episode 23R and Episode 26R) started the idea because our first volunteer reached out to me after he heard me on the podcast. Since then I’ve published 10 posts, worth almost 30,000 words that generated tons of clicks, feedback and encouragement:

  • “John Smith”: Seven-figure net worth, but not quite ready for FIRE yet. Big ERN would recommend a few more years in the workforce!
  • “Captain Ron”: Early retirement on a sailboat. How much can they withdraw from their $3m portfolio to stay afloat (pun intended) in retirement?
  • “Rene”: No need to worry about the recent layoff: You are more than ready for early retirement!
  • “Mrs. Greece”: More than ready to retire due to large portfolio size and moderate living expenses, especially if the husband keeps working!
  • “Mrs. Wish I Could Surf”: Alternative investments (real estate hard money loans). Keep the mortgage or pay it off? Either way, more than ready to retire!
  • “Mr. Corporate”: Geographic Arbitrage by moving to a low-cost European country. Roth Conversions and zero tax liability!
  • “Ms. Almost FI”: Your name is a misnomer. You are ready to retire now even when self-funding substantial long-term care expenses in the future!
  • “Mr. Corporate Refugee”: How to deal with a large portion of the net worth tied up in a house in a high-cost-of-living area?
  • “Mrs. Wanderlust”: Substantial supplemental cash flows due to buying an RV and then selling it later.
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Shirts”: Ready to retire this year, but should Mr. Shirts work for another nine months for some additional big payday?

But, alas, all good things have to come to an end! I have decided to take a break from the case studies, at least for now. I might revive the series again later but for next few weeks and months, I will pursue other topics! Thanks to all volunteers who submitted their data. And thanks to all other folks who didn’t get their case studies published. I’m not even sure I properly responded to everyone whose request was denied. I think I may have some inquiries from October last year that I haven’t responded to. If you submitted a request for a case study and haven’t heard from me back, sorry, I’m just a bit disorganized!

Sooooo, ten case studies: what have I learned from them? Plenty, because that’s the topic for today’s post…

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Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mr. and Mrs. Shirts”

Welcome to the 10th episode of our Case Study Series! Today’s case study is for Mr. and Mrs. Shirts. They run their own blog Stop Ironing Shirts and I encourage everyone to head over and check out their outstanding work. Mr. Shirts and his wife face a dilemma; they have already amassed a pretty impressive nest egg, probably large enough to retire later this year. But the temptation to work a little longer to cash in that next financial milestone around the corner (bonus, vesting date, etc.) is a pretty strong incentive to stay onboard for just a little bit longer. Otherwise known as the One More Year Syndrome. In fact, in the Shirt’s case, it’s only nine months (June 2018 vs. March 2019). So, what are the tradeoffs, what are the pros and cons of retiring in 2018 vs 2019? Let’s look at the details…

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Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mrs. Wanderlust”

It’s time for another Safe Withdrawal Rate case study today! Believe it or not, but this is already the ninth installment of the series! Check out the other case studies here. Today’s volunteer is Mrs. Wanderlust (not her real name), a frequent reader of the ERN blog. She and her husband plan to retire in 2018 (more or less voluntarily) and asked me to run their numbers. One challenge in pinning down a safe withdrawal rate: large additional cash flows because they plan to purchase of an RV and then sell it a few years later. They will also have different budgets during different phases in retirement. And not to forget, a four-legged family member that’s factored into their planning. So without further ado, let’s start calculating…

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The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 22: Can the “Simple Math” make retirement more difficult?

This post has been on my mind from day one and it’s also been a topic that was requested by readers in response to previous installments in the Safe Withdrawal Rate Series (click here for Part 1):

Is the FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) community setting itself up for failure by making retirement conditional on having reached a certain savings target?

If we specify a certain savings target, say 25x annual expenditures, as in Mr. Money Mustache’s legendary “Simple Math” post, we are more likely to retire after an extended equity bull run. And potentially right before the next bear market. Very few savers would have reached that goal at the bottom of a bear market! Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some of the calculations from my post from a few weeks ago: The Shockingly Simple/Complicated/Random Math Behind Saving For Early Retirement. Specifically, let’s assume that every month, starting in 1871, we had sent off a new hypothetical generation on their path to FIRE. They start with zero savings, then save 50% of their income (adjusted for CPI-inflation), invest in a 100% equity portfolio and retire when they reach 25-times annual spending. Even though the starting dates are perfectly spread out, one each month, the retirement dates are not. They follow the big bull markets with extended gaps in between, see the chart below. The endogenous retirement dates are in red. Using the Mr. Money Mustache Simple Math method, you’ll mostly retire during a bull market, and often during the last part of the bull market, right before the peak and the next bear market!

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Retirement dates when using a 50% savings rate, 100% equity portfolio, 25x savings target. Simulated retirement dates in red. Using the Mr. Money Mustache Method, you’ll only retire during a bull market!

How much of an impact will this have on Safe Withdrawal Rates? That’s the topic of today’s post…Read More »