The Four Backstops to the Four Percent Rule

The four percent rule sure seems to get a lot of scrutiny. Is it too conservative? It is too generous?

And of course, scrutiny from all sides is a good thing. We need to stress test the factors going into decisions we make with long-lasting implications.

The best theories and rules survive this scrutiny.

But should we consider some external factors as well when applying a straight withdrawal rate rule to our retirement plans?

The FI Tax Guy thinks so, and explains more about his thinking in this post.

 

 

Worried about an early retirement based on the Four Percent Rule? Might the 4% Rule work because of the natural backstops most early retirees enjoy?

 

The 4% Rule

 

The 4% Rule is a rule of thumb developed by the FI community. For example, JL Collins writes extensively about the 4% Rule in Chapter 29 of his classic book The Simple Path to Wealth.

Boiled down, the rule of thumb states that an investor can retire when he or she (or a couple) has 25 times their annual expenses invested in financial assets (equities and bonds). They would then spend 4% of their wealth annually in retirement. The first year’s withdrawal forms a baseline and is increased annually for inflation.

The idea behind the 4% Rule is that the retiree would have a very strong chance of funding retirement expenses and thus would likely never run out of money in retirement. As a result, some refer to 4% as a safe withdrawal rate.

Here’s how it could look:

Maury is 50. He has $1M saved in financial assets. He can spend $40,000 in the first year of retirement. If inflation is 3% at the end of his first year of retirement, he increases his withdrawal by 3% ($1,200) to $41,200 for the second year of retirement.

The 4% Rule has a nice elegance to it. Most investors aim for a greater than 4% return. In theory, with a 5% return every year, the 4% Rule would never fail a retiree. If you spend approximately 4% annually and earn approximately 5% annually, you have, in theory, created a perpetual money-making machine and guaranteed success in retirement.

The theory is great. But in practice, we know that investors are subject to ups and downs, gains and losses. What happens if there is a large dip in equity and/or bond prices during the first year or two of retirement? What if there are several down years in a row during retirement?

As a result of these risks, and stock market highs in late 2021, some are worried that the 4% Rule is too generous for many retirees. Christine Benz discussed her concerns on a recent episode of the Earn and Invest podcast.

This post adds a wrinkle to the discussion: the four backstops to the 4% Rule for early retirees. What if worries about the adequacy of the 4% Rule for early retirees can be addressed by factors outside of it? And what if those factors quite naturally occur for early retirees?

Resources for the Four Percent Rule

These are links to articles addressing the 4% Rule and safe withdrawal rates

Cooley, Hubbard, and Waltz (Trinity University) 2011

Bengen 1994

Below I discuss what I believe to be the four natural backstops to the 4% Rule.

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Spending

 

A 4 percent spending rate in retirement is not preordained from on high. Spending in retirement can be adjusted. Those adjustments can take on two flavors.

The first flavor is defensive spending reductions.  As Michael Kitces observed on an episode of The Bigger Pockets Money podcast, retirees will not blindly spend 4 percent annually without making adjustments in down stock markets.

See that the stock market is down 10 percent this month? Okay, take a domestic vacation for 6 days instead of an international vacation for 9 days. Buy a used car instead of a new car. Scale down and/or delay the kitchen remodel.

There are levers early retirees can pull that can help compensate for declines in financial assets while not too radically altering the quality of life.

The second flavor is, from a financial perspective, even better. As early retirees age, there will be natural reductions in spending. How many 80-year-olds decide to take a 12-hour flight to the tropics for the first time? There is a natural reduction in energy and interest in certain kinds of spending as one ages. It is likely that many retirees will experience very natural declines in expenses as they age.

 

Social Security

 

For the early retiree under 62 years old, the 4% Rule must disregard Social Security. Why? Because Social Security does not pay until age 62, many in the financial independence community delay Social Security payments beyond age 62, perhaps all the way to age 70 (to increase the annual payment).

Here is an example of how that works.

Melinda is 55. She has accumulated $1.5M in financial assets and can live on $60,000 per year. If she retires at age 55 and lives off $60,000 a year increased annually for inflation, the only financial resources she has are her financial assets (what I refer to as her 4% assets). She cannot live off Social Security payments until age 62 and may choose to defer receiving Social Security up to age 70.

If Melinda defers Social Security until age 70 and receives $2,500 per month at age 70 from Social Security, her 4% assets now do not need to generate the full 4% once she turns 70, since Social Security will pay her $30,000 a year at age 70.

In theory, under the 4% Rule, Melinda’s Social Security is play money. Melinda funds her lifestyle with withdrawals from her financial assets, and now she’s getting additional Social Security payments. But, if her portfolio is struggling to produce the amount Melinda needs to live off of, Social Security payments provide a backstop and can help make up the difference.

You might think, “but wait a minute, didn’t Melinda significantly lower her Social Security benefits by retiring early by conventional standards?” The answer is likely no, as I described in more detail in my post on early retirement and Social Security. First, only the 35 highest years of earnings count for Social Security benefits. At age 55 is it possible Melinda has 35 years of work completed?

Second, and more importantly, Social Security benefits are progressive based on “bend points.” The first approximately $12,000 of average annual earnings are replaced by Social Security at a 90 percent rate. The next approximately $62,000 of average annual earnings are replaced by Social Security at a 32 percent rate, and the remaining annual earnings are replaced at a 15 percent rate. This is a fancy way of saying that reducing later earnings, for many workers, will sacrifice Social Security benefits at a 15 percent, or maybe a 32 percent, replacement rate. Even early retirees are likely to have secured all of their 90 percent replacement bend point and a significant amount of their 32 percent replacement bend point.

I previously wrote the following example:

Chuck is 55 years old and has 32 years of earnings recorded with Social Security. Those earnings, adjusted for inflation by Social Security, total $2,800,000. Divided by 35, they average $80,000. This means Chuck has filled the 90 percent replacement bend point (up to $12,288) and filled the 32 percent replacement bend point (from $12,288 to $74,064) of average annual earnings. If Chuck continues to work, his wages will be replaced at a 15 percent replacement rate by Social Security.

An additional year of work for Chuck at a $130,000 salary netted Chuck only $557 more in annual Social Security benefits at full retirement age!

 

Real Estate

 

Most early retirees own their own primary residence, usually with either significant equity or no mortgage. That primary residence can be a backstop to the 4% Rule.

For example, a retiree might live in a 2,000-square-foot, $500,000 home with no mortgage. During their retirement, they might decide they don’t want to maintain such a large home, so they sell the 2,000-square-foot home and move into a 1,000-square-foot condominium at the cost of $350,000. The $150,000 difference in sale prices can become a financial asset to backstop 4% Rule assets and help the retiree succeed financially.

Alternatively, the early retiree could sell the $500,000 home and move into a smaller apartment with a $2,000 per month rent. While the retiree has increased their expenses, they also have created $500,000 worth of financial wealth to help pay that rent and fund their other expenses.

A third option is a reverse mortgage where the retiree stays in their primary residence but gets equity out of the home from a bank.

Real estate can serve as a natural backstop to help ensure retirees have financial security and success.

 

Death

 

It’s wet blanket time. You may be considering a 30-, 40-, or 50-year retirement. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that you will not live that long. Sadly, not all early retirees have a long retirement.

As demonstrated in these tables, there is a real chance that an early retiree will not live for 25 or 30 years. That factors into whether or not the 4% Rule will work for an early retiree.

Let’s consider a 55-year-old thinking about early retirement using the 4% Rule. He believes that he will live 30 more years and there is a 95% chance that his assets will last 30 years. He believes that the 4% Rule has a 5% chance of failing him. Further, assume that he believes there is a 30% chance that he will die prior to age 85.

His own potential death reduces the chance that the 4% Rule will fail. Remember, failure requires that he has to both run out of assets and live long enough to run out of assets. By his estimation, the odds that both events will occur are just 3.5 percent. To figure this estimated probability, multiply the probability that he will run out of assets (5%) by the probability that he will live long enough to run out of assets (70%).

A not insignificant number of early retirees will have an early retirement that lasts (sadly) only 10 years, 15 years, or 20 years. That (again, sadly) backstops the 4% Rule.

 

Early Retirees vs. Conventional Retirees

 

I’ve contended that early retirees have four natural backstops to the 4% Rule. What about more conventional retirees? I’ll define a “conventional retiree” as one who collects Social Security soon after retiring.

I believe conventional retirees enjoy three of the four backstops. Sadly, they “enjoy” the mortality backstop to a greater degree than early retirees.

Conventional retirees retiring on Social Security do not enjoy Social Security as a backstop to the 4% Rule in most cases. Here’s an example:

Robert is age 65 and is planning to retire on financial assets and Social Security. He will collect $36,000 a year in Social Security and will spend a total of $76,000 a year. To facilitate this, he will initially withdraw $40,000 from his $1M portfolio.

In Robert’s case, Social Security is not a backstop to the 4% Rule. Rather, the 4% Rule is simply one of two necessary but not sufficient sources of funds for his retirement. Social Security would not backstop a failure of the 4% Rule in Robert’s case.

 

Conclusion

 

While there are no guarantees when it comes to safe withdrawal rates in retirement and the 4% Rule, it is possible that many early retirees will succeed with the 4% Rule, for two reasons. First, the 4% Rule may, by itself, be successful for many early retirees. The second reason is that even if the 4% Rule fails, there are four natural backstops in place for many early retirees that can step in and help retirees obtain financial success even if the 4% Rule fails on its own.

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This post is for entertainment and educational purposes only. It does not constitute accounting, financial, legal, or tax advice. Please consult with your advisor(s) regarding your personal accounting, financial, legal, and tax matters. Please also refer to the Disclaimer & Warning section found here.

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