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 »

Advertisements

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…
Read More »

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…

Read More »

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…

Read More »

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…

Read More »

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!

SWR-Part22-Chart05
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 »

Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mr. Corporate Refugee”

Welcome! It’s time for another Safe Withdrawal Rate case study! Please click here for the other seven installments. Today’s volunteer is “Mr. Corporate Refugee,” not his real name, obviously. But as the name suggests he is ready to pull the plug on the corporate grind. He and his wife did everything right to prepare for early retirement. Pay off the mortgage on their house (as recommended by yours truly) and accumulate a nice nest egg close to seven figures. The only problem: they reside in a high-cost-of-living area in California and more than half of their net worth is tied up in their primary residence. Even a portfolio as large as $1 million will likely not be sufficient to cover expenses in your current location. What to do now? I’ll propose two routes to early retirement. Move to a cheaper location, a “secret” low-income-tax paradise – more on that below, and be able to retire now. Or work for only four more years and retire in the current location. Let’s go through the math…

Read More »

Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Ms. Almost FI”

Welcome to a new installment of our “Ask Big Ern” series with case studies on safe withdrawal calculations. This is already the seventh part, see here for the other parts of the series! Today’s volunteer is Ms. Almost FI and that’s not her real name, of course. She’s planning to retire early in 2019 and this causes a lot of anxiety: Does she have enough money? When should she take her pensions? What about long-term care insurance? All very valid questions, all impossible to answer without a careful customized analysis!Read More »

Ask Big Ern: A Safe Withdrawal Rate Case Study for “Mr. Corporate”

Welcome to the sixth installment of our “Ask Big Ern” series where I perform case studies in safe withdrawal calculations. See here for the other parts of the series.

Let’s make this Geographic Arbitrage Week because after Monday’s guest post on “Geographic Arbitrage,” I will now feature a case study with the same theme! Meet Mr. Corporate (not his real name) who reached out a while ago for advice on whether he’s ready to leave the corporate life. Just looking at his numbers I knew immediately that there is no way he and his wife can retire in their current location. But Mr. C found that moving to another country with lower living expenses will cut years off the time it takes to reach FIRE. And we’re talking about a country in Europe (he wouldn’t mention which one), with a high quality of life, nice climate, and a good healthcare system! Can he retire now? Let’s look at Mr. C.’s numbers…

Read More »

The Ultimate Guide to Safe Withdrawal Rates – Part 21: Why we will not have a mortgage in early retirement

Welcome back to the newest installment in our Safe Withdrawal Rate Series! If you are new to our site please go back to Part 1 to start from the beginning. And there are quite a few new visitors these days. That’s because our small blog is one of the finalists in the “Blog of the Year” category at the upcoming 2017 Plutus Awards. How awesome is that? Thank you to all of our faithful readers and followers for supporting and nominating Early Retirement Now!

But back to the topic at hand. It’s been on my mind for a long time. It’s relevant to our own situation and it’s come up in discussions on other blogs, in our case study series and in numerous questions and comments here on the ERN blog:

Should we have a mortgage in Early Retirement?

The case for having a mortgage is pretty simple: You can get a 30-year mortgage for about 4% right now. Probably even slightly below 4% when you shop around. Equities will certainly beat that nominal rate of return over the next 30 years. Open and shut case! End of the discussion, right? Well, not so fast! As we have seen in our posts on Sequence of Return Risk (Part 14 and Part 15), the average return is less relevant than the sequence of returns. Having a mortgage in retirement will exacerbate your sequence of return risk because you are frontloading your withdrawals early on during retirement to pay for the mortgage; not just interest but also principal payments. In other words, if we are unlucky and experience low returns early during our retirement (the definition of sequence risk) we’d withdraw more shares when equity prices are down. The definition of sequence risk!

How badly will a mortgage mess with sequence risk and safe withdrawal rates? That’s the topic for today’s post…Read More »