Can a Bear Take Away Your Financial Independence?

You did it! You worked, you saved, you conquered.

Your investments add up to 25 times your expenses, or 30 times, or whatever your magic number is. You have achieved financial independence, however you have chosen to define it.

What’s that low rumbling sound I hear?

Is that a bear coming out of hibernation?

I won’t pretend to know when it’s coming, but I promise you I haven’t seen my last bear market. It could start next month, next year, or perhaps in the next decade. If you are convinced a bear market is imminent, you may want to read this piece by Larry Swedroe for some perspective on current stock market valuations.

I’m not in the market forecasting game; I’ll leave that to the pundits who claim to know more about the future. What I would like to talk about, however, is what happens to your coveted FI status if the market drops after you’ve attained it.

 

Can a Bear Market Take Away Your Financial Independence?

 

Yes.

 

bear market alaska

i’m coming for your FI!

 

And No.

 

Let’s start with Yes. If you define financial independence, as many of us do, by a strict multiple of your annual spending, a decrease in the value of your holdings can bring your sum total under 25x or whatever magic number you prefer.

A 20% drop in your portfolio turns 25x into 20x. A 30% drop will take your 30x and leave you with 21x. Not many people would define having 20 or 21 years’ worth of spending as a position of financial independence.

Looking solely at your assets as compare to anticipated retirement spending, it seems one could easily lose FI (and gain it and lose it again) based on simple volatility. In fact, it would be unusual for someone who has reached their number not see that particular net worth come and go several times.

Do You Have to Turn in Your FI Card?

 

So… should you start polishing your resume and cancel your plans to travel the world? Not necessarily.

Let’s look at No.


If you approach FI intelligently, your Number is a multiple of your annual expenses in a year of living your ideal life. If you want to truly make work optional, you should base your goal not on a barebones lifestyle, but the amount you’d like to spend in a “normal” year.

When you do so, you have some “fluff” built into the budget. You’ve got the ability to spend less. That’s right; you can still travel the world. But you may spend a little more time in Thailand and a bit less in Iceland while you wait for the markets to recover.

If you can decrease your annual spending by an amount equal to the drop in your portfolio, you will still be able to say you’ve got your 25x or 30x. And as the market rebounds, as it always has in the United States, you can ramp spending up right along with it.

Is your budget fixed without the ability to cut back one iota? I would argue you might have set your FI bar a bit low if that’s the case, but I’ve got good news for you, too.

Safe withdrawal rates are not based on the average scenario. If a 3.33% or 4% SWR only led to success half the time, you’d have to drop the S from SWR. Safe withdrawal rates are essentially based on the worst case historical scenario.

Michael Kitces, who is far more thorough than me, tells us in this post that the average WR in prior 30-year periods is 6.5%, and even a 4.5% initial withdrawal rate (then adjusted upwards with inflation) over 30 years will leave you with more than you started with 96% of the time.

 

What’s the Safest Withdrawal Rate for Recent Retirees?

 

What about more recent retirees? Those who haven’t seen a 30-year timeframe yet? As you may have noticed, there have been some nasty downturns in the last 20 years.

Early Retirement Now explores the situation for the Year 2000 Retiree. A 4% withdrawal rate could have worked OK if a) you’re OK with a 30-year timeframe, b) are OK with an ending value of 0, and c) are willing to have / anticipating lower expenses later in that 30-year retirement. However, a withdrawal rate closer to 3% will have served the poorly timed (in hindsight) retiree from 2000 better than a 4% withdrawal rate.

Reducing spending might make you feel good by maintaining your 25x or 30x ratio of assets to annual spending, but a truly safe withdrawal rate already factors in a poor sequence of returns early on. Cutting back on spending will increase the likelihood of your money growing over the years, but maintaining your anticipated spending is unlikely to ruin you, particularly over a 30-year time span.

Clearly, seeing equities drop by 40% to 50% twice in the first decade of retirement is far from ideal, but even that terrible sequence of returns can be overcome with a low enough withdrawal rate and / or a little flexibility.

The possibility of a similar scenario to the 2000s playing out again might seem unlikely, but it’s one reason I’m aiming for financial freedom, and not comfortable settling for FI at a 4% withdrawal rate as an early retiree. Overshooting the FI target will allow us to reduce spending easily if needed, and allow us to live a little larger if a nearly-worst-case scenario doesn’t play out.

Fortunately, working one more year can make a substantial impact when you earn a salary in the multiple six-figures.

 

The Bottom Line

 

If we are fixated on a finite number to establish ourselves as financially independent, then clearly, a market downturn can take that number away.

However, a more nuanced look at what it means to be FI, and how a very safe withdrawal rate (VSWR?) of perhaps less than 3.5% (based on ERN’s SWR series) can be expected to carry you through some very tough times without dangerously depleting your portfolio. When FI is considered with this understanding, and your number allows for a spending reduction in tough times, I think FI can be thought of as permanent once obtained.

 


You’re still not using Personal Capital? Track all your accounts in one place like I do.


 

While a 4% withdrawal rate will likely work in most cases, to be fully bulletproof, I would recommend some combination of the following:

  • An initial withdrawal rate < 4%, particularly for early retirees
  • A planned budget that has plenty of discretionary expenses that could be reduced
  • A willingness and ability to earn income in some way, even after “retirement.” Remember, retirement is squishy.
  • A concrete bunker at least 100 feet underground, stocked with canned foods, guns, ammo, and liquor. For the scenario worst than the worst-case-scenario.

It quite likely you won’t need any of these, and I threw the last one in to get a smile out of you, but it’s probably a good idea to be able to check at least one or two of those first three bullet points. The fourth will get you extra credit in certain circles.

 

What’s your opinion? Do you lose your FI card when your assets dip below your pre-determined FI number? Or is it “Once FI, always FI.” Let me know your thought below!

 

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61 comments

  • hatton1

    When I use these multiples or calculators to determine my FI status I always double my spending. I think provides me with the squishy room you are talking about. There are lots of unknowns out there. The only way to truly be safe (other than guns, ammo, and liquor) is to to oversave prior to retirement.

    • The lower the withdrawal rate, the safer your portfolio will be.

      When I first started this site, I was aiming for 40x to 50x, or a 2% to 2.5% withdrawal rate. That was based more on where I expected to be in 5 years (the earliest I could imagine retiring at the time), but I’ve since backed off to be willing to accept a lower number.

      Nevertheless, we’re on track for at least 33x. Unless, of course, a bear comes around.

      Best,
      -PoF

  • Very nice article. You absolutely can go into and out of FI as the stock market goes up and down. The same rules apply for early retirees as “regular” retirees in this respect. Many doctors put off retirement for years after the 2007-2009 recession. As the stock market has recovered, these same physicians now have their retirement accounts flush with cash and they are leaving the workforce.

    Now, once you pull the trigger on retirement (early or not), you can imagine your “failure” rate rise and fall with the movements of the stock market. It starts at around 4% with a 50/50 portfolio and a 4% withdrawal rate according to the Trinity University study. If the stock market rises in the first few years of retirement (e.g. retired in 2011), that failure rate will drop to 1% or less. However, if you retired in 2000, the failure rate may have increased to 50% in 2002. It is at that point when you need to assess whether you can cut spending, make some income, or just stay the course. After all, the stock market recovers most of the time and you may be ok without any change in spending. However, if you chose to cut spending or make some income in 2002, you can “manually” cut your failure rate from 50% to something like 10% or less depending on the changes you make.

    If you keep this running failure rate calculator in your mind during retirement, then you’ll be able to make smarter withdrawal decisions and weather any bear market that comes during your retirement.

    -WSP

    • Flexibility is key in adapting to down markets. Fortunately, we should have the ability to adjust offense (income), defense (spending), or both.

      If the first 5 to 10 years go well, you’ll find yourself in excellent shape. If not, look at ways to optimize.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • OMMD

    I saw a lot of doctors “retire” in 2001 and 2007 only to be back at work within a year. One of the reasons I keep playing the just one more year game.

  • I don’t know that I’ll ever reach full FIRE. Sure, it will be nice if I can invest enough to get to the point where I’m no longer confined to my lovely desk at the office, but I imagine I’ll always being work in some capacity and bringing in some income. So, if that regard, the stock market drop doesn’t scare me.

    • Stocks on sale!

      I scooped up some great bargains in the first few years of my career (I finished residency in the summer of 2006).

      Cheers!
      -PoF

      • TJ

        Stocks will be on sale again soon. That’s the nature of the beast. The most important factor is after tax income versus expenditures. I think most readers here understand that. I’m 6 years post residency and have just achieved $1 million in investable assets, excluding home equity and 529s. That can, and probably will drop by 30%-40% in the next year or two if history repeats. Which it will. I think the SWR you can expect depends on recent stock valuations and the current Schiller PE.

        • You’re doing amazing well, TJ.

          I agree that a bear market will present itself, but whether or not that happens in the next year or two, I have no idea. Regarding a 30% to 40% drop, we’ve seen two instances of a >30% drop in the last 20 years, but only twice in the 50 years prior to that (1968 -1970 & 1973-1974). I’m not saying the next dip won’t be as deep, but three in twenty years would be something of an anomaly.

          In general, the higher the valuations are, the lower the really safe withdrawal rate will be. The best time to retire to best avoid sequence of returns risk would be just after a recovery from a bear market. But I don’t plan on waiting for the bear who never gives us an ETA.

          Cheers!
          -PoF

          • TJ

            Yeah, all my money is tied up in VTI, REITs cash, and the like. If I knew the market would collapse at the solar eclipse, I could triple my money in a day. I’m just saying you gotta make hay while the sun is shining, and a mil isn’t all that much.

          • TJ

            Also a big nasty bear would do amazing for us still working, no plans on retirement stiffs.

          • Yes, indeed! I saw one early in my career, and frankly, it did wonders for my portfolio. I finished residency in 2006 and invested on the way down and back up.

            Cheers!
            -PoF

  • This is also why we like the real estate portion of our investments, more stable through downturns and net return hoovers around the 3-5% mark (corrected for inflation by yearly rental increases and taxes). The cash-flow in this case will be more stable and carry you through rough times.
    That being said, there is always the risk of a bad tenant and/or massive damage and/or maintenance works. So a cash buffer is critical here too.

  • Interesting write-up and an important topic for sure.

    If your target is 25x, I don’t think dropping below that is a MAJOR concern. At least not right away. The scenarios take into account bear markets, so many short-term drops will be fine. The problem will happen if we get into an extended bear market where perhaps stocks drop 50% and then stay there for 3+ years.

    That said… I’m 100% stocks right now and already early-retired. Playing with Monte Carlo simulations lately show that the chances of my money lasting 50+ actually INCREASE if I were to add some bonds to my portfolio. I guess because of this very topic. It’s something I’m continuing to research and analyze to fully understand – then decide if I want to make any portfolio changes or not.

  • Mrs. PIE and I were discussing a related topic recently. Specifically, what market correction between now and July next year would make us consider a change of plan. E.g the dreaded OMY syndrome. We landed at 30% which I think most would agree is a crash. That would play havoc with our primary home sale also as potential home buyers would flee to protection mode of their assets.

    On the FI multiple, I rarely think about it other than the fact we are building in a cushion of “over-save” to mitigate the inevitable corrections that will come. I still struggle to understand the mindset of the 25x multiple and am happy to see more discussion on podcasts and blogs arguing that 30-33x is perhaps a more prudent approach. We are shooting for 38-40x.

    Having lived and invested through two major financial events of dot-com and 2007/2008, I think I can handle what may or may not come. The 2007 crisis being more of a BlackSwan event. But it is unlikely to get any easier. Those who have not experienced the trauma of a million dollar portfolio cutting in half might have some rough times ahead in the event of another major event. Only experiencing a crash Iike that can reveal your true stomach for risk and how you adapt, IMHO.

  • Good points, all (I made a note to start on my bunker). Radical Personal Finance just had a good podcast on exactly this topic.

    Build a buffer. Be smart. Once you walk, it’s hard to go back. In our case, We’ll have a buffer. I don’t want to ever HAVE to work again. Great post.

    • I’ll have to give that podcast a listen. I wan’t aware of it, but I supposed it’s on a lot of people’s minds lately.

      One thing to consider is that earning income doesn’t have to look anything like WORK did before retirement. Even a blog can earn income.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

    • What was the title of the RPF podcast? I listen to Joshua, but I don’t think I heard that one?

  • We are still quite a ways from FI, but I would hope that once in FI, always in FI… in some way. I think if we were in an economic downturn post-FI, we would try to be creative to either cut our expenses or generate a supplementary income (side hustle, passion/fun job, etc). Ideally, we would still be free to avoid full time work and find a way to remain “FI in some way”.

  • I’m planning for 3.25%, but I think that even when I get there, I won’t feel comfortable retiring immediately. I would want some extra cushion.

    • That’s a pretty conservative number, and will likely to be similar to ours, although we’re planning ours based more on the date than the sum total of our investments at this point. A nasty Bear on the Trail to FI could change our minds, though.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • I’ve been told that I’m too conservative several times, but it’s because I keep hearing a grumbling bear waking from hibernation in the background. I’d like to have at least a bit more than the safe calculations to feel free.

    You joke about that last bullet point but that’s on my bucket list too 😉

  • I like the idea of hitting financial independence and maybe putting in 1 to 2 more years of part time work. That way, there is a nice cushion in case there is a bear market around the corner.

    Plus, you are absolutely correct, reducing spending makes the FI number much less. So if you and your family are willing to cut out the fat, then FI can be maintained in a bear market. I think Mr. Money Mustache did just that during the Great Recession.

    • I’m not sure MMM ever had much fat to cut, but it’s true that they have emerged unscathed after riding the markets down and back up. Of course, he has done well with another bullet point — earning additional income in retirement.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • I FIREd in 2012 and I’m thrilled with my sequence of returns so far. I never thought I’d be this lucky for this long.

    But I know it can’t last because the big, old, ugly bear will awaken someday. I’m waiting to see if I freak out when it happens. I don’t think you’ve been battle-tested until you experience your first bear market after you retire.

    Our current withdrawal rate is 3.1% and there is some discretionary Mrs. FF and I could cut if we had to. We should be OK in theory.

  • I’ve been waiting for the bear for a couple of years. No, I haven’t been sitting on the sidelines, but I’ve been preparing mentally for it. Fortunately, my ideal retirement includes some part-time work, so if and when the bear comes, I should have some dry powder ready to jump on good opportunities.

    • Lining up those passive income streams is a great way to protect yourself from The Bear. Of course, those will likely be smaller streams in the case of a recession, but some flow is better than none at all.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • The bear market topic is coming up quite a bit on various PF blogs and podcasts. On the most recent Choose FI podcast, Jim Collins discussed the possibility for a bear market to occur sometime in the near future. But he also reminded us that since 1975 the stock market has returned a little under 12%. During that time span, there was Black Monday (1987), the tech crash (1999), and the housing market collapse (2008). The key is to understand a bear market can happen and not to change your investment strategy – stay invested in stocks. If you can’t handle these swings, don’t invest in the stock market!

  • John

    Nice piece. If you are seriously considering early retirement soon, I would only suggest that you take a long hard look at your asset allocation. If it has a high equity allocation, you may consider dialing it down. Assuming that you are not relying on robust growth in your portfolio to fund your early retirement, you have already “won the game”. Why take unnecessary sequence of return risk by being heavily tilted towards equities?

    On a related note, we all tend to overestimate our risk tolerance in long bull markets such as the one we are currently enjoying. I would suggest that many people who are ardent “buy and hold” investors today will be a little less enthusiastic about stocks in the next bear market.

    • Thanks for the comment, John.

      My game may have 60 years left before I lose my last life, so an equity heavy portfolio makes sense to me given my mentality and perceived risk tolerance.

      I didn’t have nearly as much invested either time, but I did own stock mutual funds in both 2000 and 2008 and I weathered those storms without doing anything stupid.

      I like the idea of a set number of years in bonds (probably 5) and the rest in stocks for the long haul.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • AMMD

    If stock market drops 50 % I will be very rich, for people who does not know about finance they will panic and sell, but I will be buying. Remember Buffet, be greedy when people are fearful … AMMD

    • Completely agree. As someone who is still in the acquisition phase, and like Bill Bernstein reminds us, I get on my knees and pray for a Bear now – it will provide the returns that have boosted so many into FI since 2008.

    • If something like this is going to happen, I wish it would hurry up and happen before I retire!

      But… the odds of a third such instance happening within 20 years would be unprecedented. There will be numerous bear markets over my lifetime, but I would be surprised if the next drop turns out to be as severe as the last couple.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • I think of this topic more with each passing month of this long bull market. Your tips are good, withdraw less than 4% (or a corollary – work an extra full year or so and save it all) , have discretionary to cut and be able to earn some extra during FI. For a physician to earn 10-20K is 2-4 weeks of locums. That 10-20K can make the difference between early retirement or not with a bear market. That’s my backup plan if the bear affects my number too much.

  • Great article. We are planning on a 2-2.5% withdrawal rate for at least the first decade of FIRE. We will supplement that rate with a pension. I too was planning on having 40-50 years of expenses in savings. You have convinced me that having 30-33 years of expenses in savings is enough.

  • Great stuff. Very happy to have found your blog (thanks to the ChooseFI podcast).

    I agree that strictly using the 4% rule is somewhat risky, especially as I see so many really lean into frugality right at the end of their traditional working careers. It’s great to reduce spending but then using that as the baseline seems problematic.

    As you said, we should lean into the squishyness of retirement — the more squishy/flexible, the better.

  • This is exactly why cash flow is so important. The statistics don’t lie – the 4% rule has a historical basis. Nevertheless we humans get antsy when a bear market and recession unfolds.
    Hopefully social security is still around decades from now to offer a little bit of flow, but look into other passive investments that can also offer up a consistent source of cash: rentals, or less passive but worthwhile side jobs.

    • I’m confident Social Security will be there, but it’s best to plan on either a later age to collect or a lower amount than anticipated. But that is another contingency to help bridge any potential gaps.

      The lower your expenses, the greater a percentage SS should cover. Another reason focusing on expenses for FI can be advantageous.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • Excellent article, its so necessary to be prepared! There’s no historical way this abnormally good time can last much longer… All the more reason to plan for the worst and hope for the best. Sad to say my FI timeline is probably extended by 3-5 years vs barebones but hey… better to have and not need than run out and realize you’re 70 with -40 years of job experience! Good for you sticking to it a little longer in order to sleep better at night. Plus I’m sure your patients and colleagues appreciate it 🙂

  • Nice surprise! Thanks for the shout-out to my Safe Withdrawal posts! The occasional bear market is definitely an occupational hazard for us in the FIRE community. Nobody can forecast the advent of the next bear market, as you point out, so it’s best to have a plan that’s robust to at least a garden-variety bear market. Hedging against a 2000-2009 episode might even be overdoing it, of course. Even cranky old Uncle ERN will admit that!
    So, going from 4% to 3.5% might be all we need. The 3.5% SWR implies a 28.57x multiple, so it’s not that much higher than the 25x implied by the 4% Rule. Definitely worth the peace of mind.
    Cheers!

    • Thanks for weighing in, Big ERN. Your SWR series is one I refer people to as much or more than any other blog post. Great stuff.

      28.57x. I like round numbers. 30x seems like a good target with just a little more cushion.

      Cheers!
      -PoF

  • Being early in my career and (hopefully) having lots of working years to invest, I’m kind of hoping for a bear market so that I can get some good deals!

  • YoungMD

    I thought I was the last of the big spenders, until I found financial religion with Dave Ramsey. That was my stepping stone to this blog and the Physician on FIRE. Now, I could work at Costco and pay my monthly bills!! Great advice, thank you!!
    On the DR subject, I never could figure out where to get those 14% returns.
    🤔🤔🤔

  • To prepare for a possible bear market immediately after early retirement, I am pursuing the 3-3 plan: A 3% withdrawal rate along with 3 years in cash reserves to ride out a relatively long bear market and avoid withdrawing from a depleted portfolio. That should do the trick.

  • I like 30x better for early retirement. That sound give some cushion when the bear market hits. Even better is to put off withdrawal a bit by working part time and having other passive income like rentals.

  • I would think if you were able to get yourself to a true FI state you wouldn’t lose your card in a dip because you were probably smart enough to choose an FI number ahead of time that took the dips into consideration. Or at least I hope that’s the case.

    Thanks for sharing, PoF!

  • Good post, POF. Like ERN, I did my own SWR calculation by coercing a good calculator to consider today’s extraordinary low bond yields, forced deliberately high equity allocation (near 100%) to maximize volatility to see where the failure edge is, also by demanding a 100% probability of success. I got 3.27% (details here), which I think is ultra-conservative given the assumptions behind it. I agree with ERN that 3.5% WR is fine even for conservative simulation nerds like us, and the floor isn’t much below that, okay 3.27% if you want to get precise. 🙂 Staying at 3.5% or thereabouts will ensure you remain FI even if a grizzly bear visits soon. Can’t do much about other risks though, which reminds me – Do you have a place in your bunker and how much will you charge for a berth?

  • I’m also going for about a 30x. In the meantime, I’m trying to decide what we can do to build up some alternative cash flow strategies once my active income slows down.

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