For many Americans, the decision to retire can be an exciting, but also stressful process. Retirement triggers a significant change in your daily life and introduces a level of uncertainty that comes along with forgoing an earned income. How can you transform that feeling of uncertainty into one of excitement, and what can you do to feel as prepared as possible? As you near retirement age, how do you know when it is the right time to retire? This is a highly personal decision, but here are some things to consider.
Evaluate Both Financial and Emotional Components
First, it is important to recognize that the decision to retire is not purely financial. The emotional component should not be overlooked. If you are unsure you are emotionally ready to retire, it doesn’t hurt to work a little longer as you take the time to decide. You can even consider working part time and easing into retirement. Just because you are financially ready does not mean it is the right time for you to retire.
As financial advisors, two of the most common questions we receive are: “Am I on the right track to retire at [age]?” and “Do I have enough money to retire?”
The answer is different for everybody. “Rules-of-thumb” and “one-size-fits-all” approaches often overlook many personal factors. Each individual must calculate the retirement-readiness equation as it applies to them. There is generally not a binary “Yes” or “No” answer. In fact, it usually ranges between the two with varying degrees of certainty.
Solving the Retirement Readiness Equation
From a purely financial standpoint, the equation to solve is: What is the probability that your expected retirement income along with your portfolio (and its growth) will support the spending needs and desires of you and any dependents? To solve most equations, you need to understand and apply the variables correctly, and this equation is no different.
In this case, the variables are your timing (when are you hoping to retire?), expected future income (outside of your portfolio), spending desire (required cash flow), and your portfolio characteristics (asset location, allocation, and risk tolerance). Not only do these variables form the pillars of your retirement plan, but they are also interdependent upon each other. To further complicate the equation, it is vital to understand the legal and regulatory hurdles that exist along the way.
Ultimately, the decision of when to retire is woven into everything from your risk tolerance to tax and regulatory considerations. Your life-expectancy and family history will play important roles as well. Somebody who does not expect to live quite as long may want to retire a little bit earlier, where-as somebody with a longer life expectancy will potentially need to consider the longer time horizon and potentially work a few years longer than “full retirement age”. It is also a highly emotional decision.
Any of these topics could easily be their own standalone articles, but for now, we are going to address retirement timing quite broadly. Keep in mind these are general guidelines, and that you should consult your financial advisor for your specific situation. It is important to have a plan outlining your savings and distribution strategy. Not only will creating and following a plan give you a better chance of reaching your goals in retirement, but it will also help you understand your progress towards achieving those goals.
Understand the Variables
Expected Future Income
The variables that most often fall into this category can be split between recurring or scheduled payments and one-time income events. Recurring events may include social security benefits, pension plans, annuities and rental income among others. One-time income events may include proceeds from the sale of a property or a downsize, an inheritance payment, a one-time distribution from a pension, or an annuity or cash value from an unneeded insurance policy.
Making the correct decisions from a distribution standpoint will have a material effect on the probability that you successfully reach your retirement income goals. For instance, you’ll need to consider when you will have access to these streams of income, when you should start to access them, and how much you can expect to keep after taxes. Many public pension and retirement plans will also affect how much social security you are entitled to. Additionally, at a certain point, Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) will begin to occur when you turn 70.5. It is important to plan around these as they not only can provide a source of income but may affect your tax situation as well.
Spending Needs and Desires
Once you’ve determined what level of income you can reasonably count on, it is important to understand what your spending will look like in retirement. Your current budget may provide a good estimate, but it should not be the final figure. Taking some time to consider what costs may change in retirement and how is a valuable exercise. You can start with any non-discretionary recurring costs that will persist indefinitely. Common examples include property tax and homeowner’s insurance or rent, utilities, food and groceries, basic maintenance, etc. You should also consider your mortgage and any other debt; if it hasn’t yet matured, you may have a significant cost for a portion of your retirement. An additional cost that many employed individuals don’t always consider is healthcare and the rules and regulations surrounding it. You’ll need to consider if you’ll be eligible for Medicare health insurance when you retire, or if you might need to shop the private market until you become eligible. Some people approaching retirement may also want to consider the future cost of long-term care if you need assistance in your later years.
Beyond those non-discretionary costs, many people also have other financial priorities in retirement. Many of our clients expect education costs for dependents or for themselves, for example. Oftentimes, we find that our clients may even spend more on things like food, vacation, or entertainment with the extra free time that comes with retirement. Furthermore, make sure to consider unexpected expenses like home repairs, car repairs, new cars, unexpected medical expenses or health care costs, etc. While these costs likely won’t occur every year, it is important to plan for them.
After you’ve estimated your expected income and spending in retirement, you’ll have a better understanding of the probable discrepancy between your income and spending expectations. This gap represents the annual cash flow that your portfolio needs to generate. This cash flow, considered alongside your current portfolio, your planned future contributions, time horizon, and inflation will dictate your “required rate of return”. The required rate of return can be generated not only with traditional sources of income like bond coupons and dividends, but also with the growth of principle, also known as capital gains. If your required rate of return is likely not attainable at a level of risk you are comfortable with, you will need to adjust your retirement plan. You may need to save more, work a few years longer, or adjust your standard of living expectations before and/or during retirement.
Finally, it is important to consider the structure and location of the assets in your portfolio. This is especially important from a regulatory and tax standpoint. Not only are the sources of income generally taxed at different rates, but so too are the different retirement savings accounts that you use to invest. Roth IRAs and Traditional IRAs are both tax-advantaged, but qualified distributions from a Traditional IRA are generally taxed at your ordinary income rate. Roth IRAs are generally tax-free. From a regulatory standpoint, you will need to be aware of the potential penalties associated with accessing your assets. For example, if you decide to retire at age 50 and the majority of your assets are in tax-advantaged retirement accounts, you may have to pay taxes and a penalty to access those funds. Such penalties can potentially cut into your portfolio’s ability to meet your goals.
The Short Answer to the Question
If your required rate of return is attainable at a risk level you’re comfortable with and you feel emotionally prepared, you are probably ready for retirement. To make this decision and determine whether your required rate of return is realistic for you, you will need to carefully examine your time horizon, expected income, desired spending, portfolio characteristics, and regulatory and tax considerations.
Your decision to retire should not be spontaneous. There are many pieces of the puzzle to consider, and it may be challenging or overwhelming to navigate on your own. We believe your approach to your financial health should be like your approach to your physical health. You should develop a plan with a qualified professional and monitor that plan on a regular basis, occasionally employing the use of a specialist when it makes sense.
Schedule time with a Financial Advisor to create and monitor a personal plan using tools like the updated Retirement Planner. Your advisor can also walk you through our newly introduced addition to Retirement Planner, Retirement Paycheck. Retirement Paycheck is a feature designed to help navigate the challenges of creating a tax-efficient distribution of income plan.
Disclaimer: This guide and all data are for informational purposes. You should not rely on this information as the primary basis of your investment, financial, or tax planning decisions. You should consult your legal or financial professional regarding your specific situation.
Matthew Vibert, CFA
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