How much is too much to spend in retirement? More and more Baby Boomers retire each year. One of the questions that trouble them the most is whether they have enough savings to last their lifetime. The answer largely depends on how much they plan to spend each year.

The historical guideline that most financial planners use is a 4 percent drawdown of your retirement savings after taking account of social security and other non-portfolio sources of income, such as rentals or part-time work. That number has been shown to provide most retirees with a comfortable living over the course of a thirty-year retirement.

However, I advise my clients to use the 4 percent rule of thumb as a starting place and adjust along the way. Times change and so do markets, so no single number will be appropriate for every situation. Take inflation, for example.

Every year inflation climbs higher. Over the last five years inflation has been fairly well contained but that doesn't mean it will always be so.

I suggest that above and beyond the yearly 4 percent savings drawdown, enough money should be withdrawn to account for the inflation rate. This year, for example, inflation should come in slighty above 2 percent. In which case, a retiree should plan on withdrawing 6 percent of his funds next year to accommodate for these higher costs.

For the last thirty years or so, conventional financial wisdom has dictated that retirement portfolios should be predominantly invested in bonds.


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Advisors argued that this was the safe, conservative approach for those who can no longer afford to play the volatility of the stock market. As a result, some planners are now arguing that the 4 percent guideline should be lowered given the historical low rates of returns in the fixed income markets. They are extrapolating that since rates are low now they will therefore continue to be low in the years ahead. I think that is nonsense.

First off, as I have written before, bonds are no longer a "safe and conservative" investment. I believe that bond prices in the future will fall considerably as interest rates rise. Why keep the lion's share of your retirement savings in a losing investment that will continue to decline over the next several years? The state of the bond and stock markets will also impact that 4 percent rule. I suggest that you adjust your spending based on how the markets perform. If the stock market is declining, the economy stalling and/or interest rates are rising; you might want to pare back your spending and your withdrawals.

If the opposite occurs, you may consider withdrawing more money, but within reason.

I have one client, a single woman age 82, with health issues, who has about $1.5 million invested fairly conservatively with us. Each year we have managed to generate enough returns to satisfy her 6 percent withdrawal rate and make substantially more above that for her. The problem is that every year we do, she immediately withdraws those additional profits, leaving nothing for those "rainy day" years when the markets are down. I have my hands full convincing her to leave some of those profits alone. The point is that you must remain flexible while still planning for the future.

But not everyone need abide by the 4 percent rule. Actuaries will tell you that if you follow the 4 percent rule you have a 90 percent confidence level that your retirement savings should last your lifetime. But 90 percent is a high rate of probability, maybe too high for your liking. You may opt to spend more and reduce your probabilities to a more reasonable 75 percent that your money outlives you. That lower confidence level might actually be more appropriate for your planning purposes. By now, you may realize that if you have not discussed this with an investor advisor it is never too late to start.

Bill Schmick is registered as an investment advisor representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management.