You Have Enough to Retire, but How Do You Create an Income?

An article came across our desk from MarketWatch about a couple in their 50s who want to retire early. They have $4.5 million in savings and don’t know what to do to withdraw the money in retirement

Breaking down the couple’s assets, they have:

  • $2.3 million in taxable accounts
  • $2.2 million in retirement assets

The couple has the assets to retire, but this article resonates strongly with us at Peace of Mind Wealth Management. How do you build a plan that will last 20 – 30 years and take care of your family?

The article’s response was pretty standard: seek professional advice instead of trying to do it yourself because everyone and their circumstances are different.

With that setup, let’s dive into the meat of the topic and explain how we recommend you create an income stream.

What the Couple Lets Us Know About Their Situation and Ideas

First, the couple wants to retire at 55 – one year from now. They want to know the best way to take their distributions. The couple plans not to touch the qualified money until they hit age 59.5.

They go on to say that they understand the 4% rule, but they don’t know whether to take money monthly, quarterly, or annually. The couple planned to take money off the table after the 2021 peak, but waited until 2022 for tax purposes, and that backfired.

They also want to know how often they should withdraw money from their accounts.

From our perspective, we love the idea of a retirement focused financial plan. As you grow up you are told to save. Save as much as you can, and dump the money into 401(k), IRA, life insurance, brokerage accounts, emergency funds, and so much more.

Suddenly, you’ll exit the accumulation phase of life and need to enter the distribution phase.

The money you’ve built up needs to last the rest of your lifetime. This is where the anxiety phase seems to kick in:

  • Did I save enough?
  • Did I plan enough?
  • Do I have enough money to last the rest of my life?

We see clients that have less than $4.5 million for retirement and some with substantially more.

How Do You Start Withdrawing?

Based on the article, we know that the individual who wrote into MarketWatch understands the 4% rule. This rule is simple: if you withdraw 4% of your assets annually, you should maintain your assets throughout retirement.

Let’s say that you have $1 million in an account and take $40,000 out of the account annually. In a “predictable” market, this means you’ll replenish the money you take out each year.

We saw in 2022 that the market fell 20% – 30%, depending on the index. In 2020, the market fell over 30% in just a few weeks.

Markets are not predictable. Every few years, we do see volatility and corrections.

While the 4% rule is slightly off and is more like 3.3%, meaning for every $1 million you have in retirement accounts, you can confidently take out $33,000. Rates of returns have gone down, and inflation has gone up.

The times when 7% – 10% gains were almost certain in the markets are, in our opinion, not in our future. You’ll have years of gains in this range or higher, but on average, the market fluctuates too much for it to be predictable.

Based on this information, you should speak to a financial professional and look at all the pieces of retirement and how they fit together.

The person who responded to the question mentioned something else that was important: sequence of returns risk.

What is Sequence of Returns Risk?

If you start your retirement in a down scenario, your return risk goes up. For example, if you wanted to retire in January 2022 and wanted to withdraw $5,000 a month for retirement, it was a bad time.

The markets went on a steady 12-month decline with no recovery phases in the middle.

A person may have had $1 million at the start of the year, but when the year experiences a downturn like 2022, the $5,000 you take out is turning into a higher percentage of your portfolio.

The portfolio stress becomes higher when you withdraw on a down asset.

If the first early years were down 10% or 20%, you could get into a very tricky situation where you might receive 7% returns a year now. However, those initial down years really hurt your chances of the account lasting through retirement.

For us, it makes more sense to consider where you’re withdrawing the money and think about withdrawing money from accounts with less risk.

You may even need to adjust the number of withdrawals you have during down years.

Gap Between the 55 and 59.5 and Funding Retirement

Since the person is retiring before 59.5, they do risk being penalized if they touch their retirement accounts before the age of 59.5. The person writing in understood this fact, but they will need to fund retirement for 4.5 years in some other way.

You can tap into your non-retirement accounts, and there are strategies to tap into a 401(k) at age 55.

The other thing to identify if you’re retiring early is:

  • How much do you need to spend every month? These are “needs”, including food, utilities, mortgage and so on.
  • How much do you want to spend every month? “Wants” include things like vacations, visiting grandkids and so on.

We also need to think about pensions and any income that may be coming in that is not tied to your retirement account. Since the person is 55, we’re not considering Social Security. Early retirement age means thinking about heightened health insurance costs of around 10 years until the person reaches age 65.

When retiring at 55, the person also has opportunities to understand where to withdraw money from to make their money last.

Between the age of 55 and 75, when the person needs to take required minimum distributions, they have 20 years where they can do some pretty cool stuff. For example, they can:

  • Convert pretax to tax-free accounts
  • Reduce taxes through conversions

If the person has all their money in a traditional 401(k), they can start converting these assets through Roth conversions over these years. The ability to grow assets tax-free is a beautiful concept.

We recommend the person spend time understanding where money is coming in, where money is going out, and when various milestones in retirement will be hit.

A person can begin taking Social Security early, at retirement age or at age 70. The additional income may help pad their income needs later in retirement.

Medicare also needs to be considered and is a massive topic because of IRMAA, or surcharges for making too much money in retirement. You may take out more money from one account, but you’ll be penalized in some way:

  • Tax bracket change
  • Taxable Social Security
  • Medicare surcharges

When it comes to a withdrawal strategy, we follow a bucket approach that follows a “why” scenario for spending by breaking your money into:

  • Cash
  • Safety
  • Growth

Bank money and emergency funds are cash. This money is easy to access and will not impact retirement. Safety buckets speak to the idea of the safety of return risks. If we have a safety bucket with low risk and make a return, it brings predictability to our plan.

Finally, the growth bucket is the long-term bucket that is in the stock market and will go through ups and downs. If we can avoid tapping into this bucket, it will be allowed to grow long-term and can circumvent volatility because you don’t need to take money out of the account during down periods.

You can tap into the growth bucket when you need it for things like a vacation. It is a liquid bucket but allowing it to grow over time makes sense for our clients.

We aim to create a withdrawal strategy that minimizes risks and allows you to live comfortably through retirement. Everyone’s retirement plays out differently because your needs are unique and will change over time.

Working with someone who lives and breathes retirement strategies can help you create a withdrawal plan that minimizes risks and tax burdens, and considers volatility in ways that “general” rules, like the 4% rule, do not.

Do you have questions about retirement and want to speak to a professional?

Click here to schedule a 15-minute call with us today to discuss your retirement concerns.