Schwab Intelligent Income vs. an Annuity: Which Is Better?

True, Charles Schwab’s program offers flexible income options for retirees, but when you run the numbers, a good old-fashioned immediate annuity produces more guaranteed lifetime income. Here’s a head-to-head comparison.

A small piggy bank stands nose-to-nose with a larger one.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Most people worry about running out of money in retirement. In response, Charles Schwab launched Schwab Intelligent Income™ in 2020. The program promises monthly income from a regularly rebalanced portfolio of diversified ETFs plus a cash account. Participants pay no commissions or advisory fees. This is the newest strategy to generate retirement income.

In contrast, the income annuity is a strategy that has been around a long time. It provides a guaranteed income for a lifetime or a fixed term. An income annuity can offer deferred or immediate payments.

A single-premium immediate annuity, or SPIA, is a popular choice that starts paying income right away. How does it stack up against Schwab Intelligent Income? Each has its pros and cons, but I believe that the annuity comes out ahead overall. Since I make my living selling annuities (opens in new tab) via a long-established website, it’s not surprising I’d believe that, but as you’lI see, I have good reasons.

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Comparing pros and cons

After running the numbers, the No. 1 advantage of an immediate annuity is that it will provide more income and is guaranteed to continue unchanged for your lifetime, no matter how long you live. The Schwab plan provides less income, and you have a significant risk of running out of money if you live to a very old age. I’ll get into the specifics of how much income each type of plan can be expected to generate with three examples below, but let’s examine some general pros and cons first.

The Schwab program does have some advantages. With the Schwab program, you retain control over your money and portfolio, unless you eventually exhaust your funds. With an immediate annuity, you turn over your money to an insurance company in exchange for a stream of guaranteed income. This type of annuity typically has no cash withdrawal value.

Schwab also provides more flexibility. You can choose your asset allocation anywhere from conservative, with very little in equities, to aggressive, with a larger percentage in equities. You may also start, stop or change the withdrawal amount.

Additionally, if markets do better than expected, you have the potential for long-term portfolio gains. There also might be some tax benefits via tax-loss harvesting and long-term capital gains. These potential benefits are difficult to quantify, however.

The Schwab program also has significant cons. Along with the potential for long-term gains, there’s the risk of short- and long-term downturns in the stock and bonds markets. Related to this is market-timing risk: investing your money just before a market downturn and then exacerbating the problem by continuing to take monthly withdrawals from a depleted portfolio. That could make it difficult to recoup losses and could result in eventually depleting your funds.

There are some cons to an immediate annuity, too. You’re relying on the long-term financial solvency of the issuing insurance company, so it’s wise to choose carefully. State guaranty associations insure consumers up to certain limits in the unlikely event that the insurance company fails.

An immediate annuity is less flexible than the Schwab program. You can’t start, stop or change the payment amount or term.

Why an annuity comes out ahead

But these cons, I believe, are more than offset by the fact that an annuity pays more income than the Schwab plan, and that income is guaranteed to last a lifetime.

The insurance aspect of the annuity provides this unique advantage. Even after the insurer has repaid your entire principal, your income will continue at the same level, even if you live to 95 or 105. Yes, you give up the opportunity for potential market gains, but you are completely protected from market declines.

Additionally, an annuity is simple. You set it and forget it. It’s also tax-advantaged because each payment includes both non-taxable return of principal and taxable interest until the principal has been repaid. This assumes you’re using nonqualified funds — not an annuity in an IRA or other tax-deferred retirement plan.

An immediate annuity offers options. It can cover a single person or a married couple. With the latter, if it’s a lifetime annuity, which most people choose, the payments will continue as long as either spouse is living.

Three examples of annuity income

Each of the following scenarios is a joint annuity for a married couple, both age 65, purchased with $500,000 of nonqualified funds (as of October 2021).

  • Joint lifetime only income option annuity guarantees $2,058.59 of monthly income, of which just $391.13 is taxable for the first 25 years of the contract. After 25 years, the entire amount is taxable. With this option, there’s no payment to heirs should both spouses die before the principal is repaid.
  • Joint lifetime annuity with installment refund annuity guarantees $2,020.82 monthly payments, with $462.77 taxable for the first 26.75 years. With an installment refund annuity, the insurance company guarantees that the total payout will not be less than the amount paid to purchase the annuity. If both spouses die before receiving payments that equal the purchase price, the difference is paid to their named beneficiaries in continued income installments.
  • Joint lifetime annuity with 30 years certain guarantees $1,886.54 monthly payments with $552.76 taxable for the first 31.25 years. The 30-years certain means that if both spouses die before 30 years are up, their beneficiaries will continue to receive the monthly income payments until a total of 360 payments have been made.

Three Schwab scenarios

Let’s compare these choices with Schwab Intelligent Income, using figures generated by the calculator on its web page in late December.

  • More Conservative Portfolio (15% equity) produces a $1,380 monthly withdrawal amount with a 20% chance that money will not last for 30 years.
  • Moderate Portfolio (40% equity) offers a $1,490 monthly withdrawal amount; 20% chance that money will not last for 30 years.
  • More Aggressive Portfolio (55% equity) offers a $1,570 monthly withdrawal amount; 20% chance that money will not last for 30 years.

What are the chances that at least one spouse — a married couple, male and female, each age 65 — will live to age 95 or older? The Actuaries Longevity Illustrator (opens in new tab) gives us answers. When both spouses are nonsmokers in average health, there is a 33% probability that at least one will live beyond the 30-year mark. When both are nonsmokers in excellent health, there’s a 45% probability that at least one spouse will. So, there’s a real possibility the Schwab plan will fail and run out of money eventually.

This article compared the Schwab program with an immediate annuity. But if you don’t need immediate cash flow, a deferred income annuity that starts payments in the future may be a better choice because it takes advantage of tax deferral longer.

Of course, it’s not an all-or-nothing choice. You can split up your funds among an immediate and/or a deferred income annuity and the Schwab plan or something like it.

If you’d like to see what type of guaranteed lifetime income is available for your specific needs, AnnuityAdvantage offers a free immediate income annuity (opens in new tab) and deferred income annuity (opens in new tab) quote comparison services showing the highest payouts available.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Ken Nuss
CEO / Founder, AnnuityAdvantage

Retirement-income expert Ken Nuss is the founder and CEO of AnnuityAdvantage, a leading online provider of fixed-rate, fixed-indexed and immediate-income annuities. Interest rates from dozens of insurers are constantly updated on its website. He launched the AnnuityAdvantage website in 1999 to help people looking for their best options in principal-protected annuities. More information is available from the Medford, Oregon, based company at (opens in new tab) or (800) 239-0356.