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Expert Insights for Smart Financial Planning

3 Most Important Factors To Making Your Money Last in Retirement

It may seem complicated, but there are formulas to help you match your annual spending with growth in your portfolio.


Probably the biggest single concern of retirees is running out of money. It doesn't seem to matter how much money they have; the thought of not generating any outside income and living for many years off of an existing pool of assets and Social Security strikes fear in the hearts of many mortals.

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That's where a financial adviser can help. It's one of our primary jobs. We spend many hours studying and learning about how best to accomplish this goal. I personally find the topic very interesting since many tools and techniques have been developed over the years to better understand this issue.

Some of these tools are nothing but sales pitches in disguise. Others are so complicated that many planners don't even understand them fully (i.e. "Monte Carlo simulations").

Effective retirement planning is not a "set-it-and-forget-it" discipline either. A financial plan for someone who is in the distribution phase of their lives is one that calls for continuous monitoring and adjustment, as well as attention to the markets, economy and political environment.


Still, all good plans rely on a few key variables:

1. Getting the spending part right.

In a nutshell, how much will you be shelling out each year, both for normal and recurring items and for extraordinary or one-time expenses? Perhaps your plan calls for an annual expense of $15,000 for travel, as you like to visit your children a few times every year and also take one or two personal trips. Then, maybe every three to five years, you plan on a larger expenditure of $25,000 to spend three weeks in Europe.

Annual car expenses, including funds for an unexpected emergency, also must be factored in. You may have a normal expenditure of $5,000 in fuel and maintenance costs and a periodic expense of $30,000 every 10 years to replace a car, for example.

When calculating the lifespan of your portfolio, we look at the net or after-tax withdrawals from your accounts after other sources of income, such as Social Security and pensions, are used.


2. Understanding the total value of your liquid assets.

Liquid just means you can quickly cash in an asset, such as cash, certificates of deposit, money market accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, etc.

3. Correctly estimating the expected growth rate of your investments.

This is after taxes, inflation and investment management expenses. Two of these three variables are within your control—taxes and investment management costs. Tax management can take on a large role in retirement, as asset sales can be timed and gains and losses can be netted against one another, distributions can be timed from taxable versus non-taxable accounts, etc.

Investment management fees should be evaluated and minimized where possible. This includes fees at the mutual fund level and at the adviser level.

As an example, consider a balanced portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% fixed income and cash. The blended return on this portfolio will probably be in the 7% range. Inflation today stands at around 1.1% (but with health care costs being a large factor for retirees, we're going to use 3%). A typical investor will pay somewhere in the range of 1.5% for investment management, so our net growth rate is around 2.5%.


Taxes may bring that down closer to 2%. I am giving you this detail to impress upon you the impact of the various factors on your portfolio, and to emphasize that it truly can be the small things that make a difference.

Ok, so now what? We know the portfolio value, the spending plan and the expected growth rate. How do we find out how long the portfolio will last?

Moshe Milevsky, Associate Professor of Finance at York University in Toronto developed the following simple formula (simple if you have a financial calculator or use a spreadsheet program):

Source: Moshe Milevsky, Financial Analyst Journal, March/April 2016

What this says is that the EL, or expected longevity of your portfolio is equal to 1 divided by the expected growth rate times the natural logarithm of the formula in parenthesis. "w" is your withdrawal amount in dollars, "M" your initial portfolio value and "g" is your expected growth rate.


It looks complicated, but it isn't. I built a simple spreadsheet in Excel using this formula, and I'd be happy to send it to you if you would like a copy.

To get an idea of what the output looks like for a $1,000,000 portfolio, Mr. Milevsky provides the following excerpt:

Source: Moshe Milevsky, Financial Analyst Journal, March/April 2016

You can quickly see the relationship between net growth rate and withdrawal rate. To go back to my earlier example, let's say you have a $1,000,000 portfolio and expect a 7% growth rate, which after inflation, fees, taxes, etc. is a net 2.5% rate of return. You could take as much as $60,000 a year out if you are a 65-year-old male and be reasonably certain that it will last for your lifetime (estimated mortality for a 65-year-old male is about 18 years, and 20 years for a female of the same age). There are more factors that should be considered, of course, such as the age of your beneficiaries (spouse, children, etc.), life insurance owned, etc., and that's why a complete financial plan is invaluable to make sure no stone is unturned when making such important decisions.

The bottom line is that this simple tool can at least get you started thinking, and maybe give you a little guidance in conversations with your financial adviser. And remember, sometimes small adjustments can have a big impact. Kind of like tools in the world of financial planning—sometimes the simpler tools and concepts are the most effective.

See Also: How to Make Your Nest Egg Last Forever

Doug Kinsey is a partner in Artifex Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning and investment management firm based in Dayton, Ohio.

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