It is a big transition when you leave the workforce to live off your savings, requiring an attitude adjustment in both you and your financial professional. Here are the issues to consider when time, compounding and conventional investment principles no longer work in your favor.
Retirement planning is easy during the accumulation phase. Just stash as much savings as possible into retirement and investment accounts, and maximize total returns. All that really matters is what the client ends up with at retirement. If investment returns vary from year to year, or if returns are made up of interest, dividends or capital gains, none of it much matters. It is all a race to grow the nest egg as large as possible. Success is measured by account values, pure and simple.
Then comes the day when you can finally crack the nest egg and start withdrawing funds. Now the goal is no longer simply to grow the account balance, but rather to provide enough current income to meet your spending needs and to allow the nest egg to diminish, as it naturally must, without letting it disappear. Success is measured by your happiness and the careful monitoring of withdrawal rates and account values to ensure that your money is not in danger of running out.
Dollar-cost averaging works in reverse. As you probably know, investing a fixed dollar amount during volatile markets allows you to buy more shares when prices are down. This is a good thing. But when you are withdrawing fixed dollar amounts from a volatile portfolio, temporary dips can do serious damage because more shares must be liquidated to provide the same amount of cash.
Compounding also works in reverse. In the classic “Why save now?” pitch, you learned that the early build-up of an investment account provides a larger base for future compounding. The rule comes into play a little differently when determining withdrawal rates. Taking out too much too soon will diminish the impact of compounding on the remaining assets.
The sequence of investment returns matters. Under an accumulation strategy, dips in asset values can be made up by a bull market or increased savings. What matters is the average annual total return. During the distribution phase, poor returns in the early years can cripple a portfolio and cause money to run out early.
Time is the enemy. Under an accumulation strategy, the longer the money stays invested, the more it will grow. When funds are withdrawn, the opposite is true.
Mistakes can be fatal. During the accumulation phase, mistakes in planning, saving or investing can always be fixed by adding more money, revising the portfolio, working longer and so on. In retirement, when money is coming out and no new money is going in, there is far less room for error.
Part of transitioning into retirement is learning some fundamental concepts relating to the management of your nest egg. In particular, pay attention to the dangers of volatility, excessive withdrawals in the early years and a longer-than-expected withdrawal period. These potential dangers can undo a lifetime of diligent saving. The worst part is these mistakes may not show up until it is too late to reverse the impact.
Planning for income requires careful number crunching and a strategy for actually getting your hands on cash. Here are some popular retirement-income strategies:
Live off the interest (or dividends). The classic retirement-income strategy is to shift from a growth-oriented portfolio at retirement to investments that generate income. These might include bonds and dividend-paying stocks. Your income consists of the actual payments thrown off by the investments. Any assets not needed for current income generation may be invested in equities for inflation protection and long-term growth.
Set up a withdrawal plan. Another approach is to invest for total return and set up a withdrawal plan starting at, say, 4% of the account balance. Each subsequent withdrawal would be increased by the annual inflation rate. Under the so-called “4% rule,” the assets are invested in a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds.
Draw from a cash bucket. Another strategy is to keep enough cash in a money-market fund to fund two years worth of expenses and invest the bulk of the portfolio for total return. As the cash bucket empties, enough long-term assets are liquidated to fill it back up.
The retirement-income strategies you use for taxable accounts will not necessarily be appropriate for nontaxable accounts. For example, if you want tax-free income from a taxable account, you can buy municipal bonds. If you want tax-free income from an IRA, you will have to convert it to a Roth, which means paying taxes on the account at the time of the conversion.
By the time you reach retirement, you may have lots of different accounts. When arranging for distributions, you will need to look at them as a whole for overall investment planning, and also individually to determine which accounts will generate which distributions.
The liquidation of assets is often an important part of the transition to the distribution phase. If you will be doing a major portfolio overhaul, you will need to consider the tax and investment implications of asset sales.
For taxable accounts, you should know the tax basis of each and every holding. You will also need to know your overall tax situation in any year you propose a sale of assets, including previous loss carry-forwards, AMT status, the receipt of taxable retirement distributions and so on.
If you think a major reorganization of the your investment portfolio is in order to meet your new objectives of income, liquidity and capital preservation, meet with your tax advisor and map out a plan for the orderly liquidation of assets. This could take years. Periodic asset sales will also be necessary during your retirement years, especially if you are using the cash bucket strategy. Each time a liquidation becomes necessary, you will need to balance tax and investment considerations and time these asset sales for optimal benefit.
If part of your income will come from regular IRA withdrawals, you will need to consider the current and future tax impact of these withdrawals. It may not make sense to defer distributions from traditional IRAs until the last possible moment if doing so might create such large required minimum distributions that you end up in a higher tax bracket.
Also, consider the income and estate tax consequences of a large IRA that is allowed to grow out of control. Long-term income projections need to be part of your transition planning so you can set up accounts and plan distributions from the outset.
You may decide that you do not want to retire all at once. You may plan to ease into retirement by working part-time for a while and then seeing how you feel. Distribution planning for this type of retirement involves a series of transitions. You may set up the accounts and the portfolio to generate a relatively small income now with the idea of increasing the income later. This may require another transition or two, with all the same attention given to asset positioning, the timing of liquidations and the tax impact of IRA withdrawals, not to mention seeking the advice of a financial professional.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between accumulation planning and distribution planning is that once you begin drawing income from your investment portfolio, your accounts require much closer attention. Not only must you invest the assets in a prudent manner, you also must watch the amount and timing of distributions to ensure that the nest egg lasts. Investors who are used to investing only for growth may need to go through an important transition themselves to fully understand the nuances of retirement-income planning.
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Elaine Floyd, CFP®, is the Director of Retirement and Life Planning, Horsesmouth, LLC., where she focuses on helping people understand the practical and technical aspects of retirement income planning.
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