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Dying With Millions

“You can’t take it with you” – a popular refrain.

A refrain meant to help you not die with millions in the bank or your brokerage account.

But a lifetime of savings and spending discipline may be tough to unwind.

The Best Interest takes a look at this phenomenon in this post.


Lawrence recently wrote in:

Dear Jesse,

My wife is 70 and I’m about to turn 70, and we’ve been retired for 8 years, and even with the tough market in 2022, our portfolio is up 40% from when we retired – from ~$3M to $4.2M. But I can’t bring myself to spend more…we spend exactly what we want. But I’m now wondering – what if we die with these millions, instead of putting them to some sort of good use?

Ask any retiree or any financial planner who works with retirees. Most retirees struggle to change from “saver” to “spender.” They’ve built decades of strong saving habits. Years of frugality, budgeting, and “buy and hold” investing. You can’t flip that switch overnight.


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As a real example, check out the chart below. It shows retiree savings going up (surprisingly!) during the 2000s.

Courtesy Michael Kitces
  • My expectation was that 2000-2008 was a terrible time for retiree portfolios, considering it was the “Lost Decade” in the stock market
  • But the reality is that retirees tightened their bootstraps and reduced spending during rough times, ending the 2000s with better portfolios than they started. That’s crazy!
  • (Also worth noting – the bottom two quartiles (or lower 40%) of retirees have zero assets. The 3rd quartile has <$100K in assets. That’s scary and a bit sad! Save early, save often, and stay the course.)

Why is this the case? Why do portfolios tend to grow in retirement? Because most of the time, “standard” retirees and retirement planners vastly over-save.

The 4% rule, for example, was created to avoid retirement failure. Running out of money is bad. But here’s an absolutely crazy stat: the 4% rule is more likely to quintuple (or 5x) your retirement portfolio than it is to deplete it.

The required conservatism to avoid retirement failure is vital in ~5% of test cases. If you saved less, (e.g. a 5% rule, where you retired with 20x your annual spending needs), you’re more likely to fail. For better or worse, retirement planners’ first rule of thumb is the 4% rule.

Outside of the 5% failure cases, however, the 4% rule’s conservatism is overkill. Vast overkill. The kind of overkill that quintuples your money between retirement and death, and makes you realize you should have retired 5-10 years earlier.

Because that’s what we’re talking about here. Lawrence – who has lived off retirement funds for 8 years and seen his nest egg grow from $3 million to $4.2 million – probably could have retired a few years earlier. But it’s too late for that. It’s time he can’t get back.

Now, let’s address Lawrence’s excellent question: What if he dies with these millions, instead of putting them to good use?

  • First and foremost: go work with a fiduciary CFP financial planner and (most likely) an estate attorney. You should discuss your options and preferences for this money while you live and after you pass away. How do you want your assets to positively change the world? Who is most important to you? These are the types of questions to ask and answer. Options might include: inheritances, charitable giving, ongoing endowments or trusts (e.g. “The Best Interest Scholarship”), etc.
  • Don’t let society force you into spending on yourself. But if you derive joy from helping others, I’m sure there are philanthropic uses for your money while you live.
  • If you have children, grandchildren, etc., remember Warren Buffett’s thoughts: leave them “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.”
  • And finally – run The McDonalds Test on your favorite things. Trust me.

One of the principle duties – albeit a “subjective” and hard-to-measure duty – of financial professionals is to imbue confidence in their clients to spend money! It’s called cashflow planning.

You should spend money. You should enjoy the fruit of your labors. Trust the math, trust the portfolio, and enjoy your life.

If you do that and still have lots of money left over, you need to determine – while you’re alive and mentally spry – what you want to do with it. Work with a CFP. Work with an estate attorney.

If you’re going to die with millions, make sure you’re putting them to good use.



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8 thoughts on “Dying With Millions”

  1. Like some of the other commentators, I also recently read Die With Zero. Currently age 59, approaching the net worth I need to safely retire. Still love the work I do, but looking forward to doing less of it in another year or so. The book raises some very good points. I found it very helpful in terms of thinking about when and where to use money to have the maximum value for the benefit of the people who are important to me as well as to enhance my personal enjoyment while supporting causes and initiatives that I find worthwhile.

  2. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  3. This is why I loved Die With Zero and other books on lifetime giving so much. People don’t realize that a well-planned retirement portfolio has actually increased for many retirees during their retirement. That person above doesn’t feel the need to spend more, but do they want to have an impact somewhere?

    As a planner, I’ve worked with clients who have millions and don’t care what their kids do with it. Some don’t even have kids, and haven’t told their families/friends about what they can expect! I can’t imagine how that’s better than helping through their life, using one’s time wisely, and paying it forward to make the planet a better place. Someone planted the trees whose shade we enjoy.

  4. Nice reminder, but not something many should worry about. Live and enjoy your freedom and life and have a good estate plan.

    I intend to spend what I want and need , and leave the rest to my worthy causes. I am investing for future generations anyway. I hope it is so huge by then that it creates shock and awe.

  5. This is an excellent article as are the comments posted by others. but I seem to consntantly ask myself the following questions:
    1. After I die, will I really know that I am worth millions of $$? Is it even relevant?
    2. Does spending money really make one happy? I, for one, live a conservative retired life and happy with it. Spending doesn’t come easy to me but I will also not be a cheapskate when it comes to things like education and health. But in terms of taking fancy vacations or going out to expensive dinners or buying expensive personal items or cars doesn’t really rock my boat! I see it as more of a pain in the butt. My usual dress code is a pair of jersey shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops. If folks look down upon me for my lifestyle, good for them and I have no interest in their friendship. I like to have meaningful conversations about global, national and local events and situations rather than talking about the latest mischief in the entertainment or sports world.
    3. While I will never be a billonaire or even have tens of millions of $$, I continue to look for meaningful avenues to have an impact on members of society.

    While there podcasts and facebook groups that focus on “rocking” retirement, I am more than satisfied just surviving retirement………. just my 2 cents!!

  6. Great post. I was actually just looking into this data the other day. For the financial academic nerds (like me) – here is an interesting (but complex) article.

    Variable spending with reflection on what you want it to do and where you are currently is better than a fixed rule. However, it is harder to model, there is incentive for advisors for you to over-save, and saving habits are hard to change. Withdrawing from tax-deferred accounts and paying taxes adds another layer. We have dealt with it personally and with family. One strategy that we’ve found useful is a forced annual withdrawal. Before year-end, the money must be either spent or donated. Makes for a fun December. This may also be one of the behavioral advantages of regular dividends, pension payments, or annuities – even though mathematically, they come at a price relative to simple diversified low cost DIY investing.

    • I like the way you have fun with your spending/donating plan!

      I’m not yet taking regular withdrawals as I am still in a weird flux area between working and full retirement, but your idea is food for thought for a future spending strategy.

  7. The book Die with Zero is an amazing read. Highly recommended and the earlier you read it (I just read at 44 and I think 35-45 years is perfect timing) the better. – Jon


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