Can I retire on $1 million if we withdraw 4% per year?

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Breadcrumb Trail Links Personal Finance The short answer is yes, but word of caution on…

The short answer is yes, but word of caution on rules, you may come to regret them

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By Julie Cazzin with Allan Norman

Q: My wife Sherry and I are both 54 years old and we have a daughter in her third year of university. Sherry earns $80,000 per year and will retire next year with an annual, indexed pension of $30,000 per year. She plans to continue working part time at $35,000 per year until she’s 60. I’ll hopefully stop working at age 58. Our assets include a $900,000 mortgage-free home, $395,000 in Sherry’s registered retirement savings plan (RRSP), $580,000 in my RRSP, $245,000 in my locked-in retirement account (LIRA) and $85,000 in our combined tax-free savings accounts (TFSAs). At age 29, I discovered an internet calculator suggesting we needed to save $750 per month at seven per cent to eight per cent returns annually to have $1 million by age 52 and we could then retire at age 55. We hit $1 million at age 50, but with COVID-19 and inflation, I may delay retirement until I’m 58. I estimate we will need an annual taxable retirement income of $75,000 per year and I really like the four per cent rule for annual withdrawals. Will our money last through our retirement? — Murray

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FP Answers: Murray, congratulations to both of you for exceeding your investment goal by accumulating $1 million by the age of 50. That’s fantastic. It’s amazing what can be accomplished just by following a few simple financial planning rules. There is a risk, however, that comes with following the rules and that risk is called regret — regret that you didn’t do things when you could have or when they had more meaning to you.

I know you like the four per cent safe withdrawal rule (SWR) and why not? Simply put, the safe withdrawal method calculates how much a retiree can annually withdraw from their retirement assets without running out of money prior to death. It helps control your spending and provides the sense of security and confidence needed to spend without guilt.

If only life were as linear as the four per cent rule. This rule has regret written all over it, and I want you to think about a different withdrawal approach, but, first, let’s review the four per cent SWR.

In 1994, retirement financial planner Bill Bengen argued that you could safely withdraw four per cent, indexed, from your initial investment portfolio over a 30-year period without running out of money. For example, with a $1-million portfolio, you would draw four per cent — or $40,000 — in year one. In year two, you would still draw four per cent of $1 million, no matter the portfolio’s actual value, plus the rate of inflation.

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Bengen based the four per cent on some of the worst 30-year market return periods in the past 100 years or so. Future studies went on to show that if you follow the four per cent SWR, you will end up with more money than what you started with after 30 years about 80 per cent of the time. This has the makings of a life of regrets.

Murray, let’s look at the big picture and then talk about a different withdrawal plan. I’ll work with your suggested pre-tax indexed income goal of $75,000 per year and assume three per cent inflation and six per cent investment returns, with your retirement age being 58.

Looking at your projected cash flow from age 58 to 72, I can see that the money coming in is enough to cover all your expenses. Then, at age 72, when you are required to withdraw from your registered retirement income funds (RRIFs), you will have an additional taxable income of $60,000 per year in today’s dollars. Does that make sense? If you then save that additional, unneeded income, your final estate value, including your home, will be $3.5 million in today’s dollars.

If you are not careful, you may end up on the path of many retirees who have gone before you. That is, you start off by being careful about your spending, not wanting to deplete your investments. Year by year goes by, and then, at age 70 or 75, the scales suddenly tip and you realize you have more than enough money. You look back and realize, “Wow, I could have …”

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Retirement is a step into the unknown and should be managed rather than led by rules. Murray, now that you have seen the big picture, take some time to think about what you want to do with your money. I know that is going to be a tough question for you to answer. Think in terms of both lifespan and healthspan.

Even if you can identify what you want to do and experience over the remainder of your lifetime, I doubt you will do the things you are envisioning. Ten years from now, or maybe even next week, you may not want the things you want today, and that is OK.

What I am suggesting is to prepare your net-worth and cash-flow projections to get a rough idea of what you can spend. Then get out there and start doing them, live the retirement you want that day, month or year. Don’t dwell on the future because it will take care of itself if you are tracking things properly.

Instead of using the four per cent SWR, track your net worth (assets minus liabilities) against your projected net worth on a quarterly or annual basis. Do it as frequently as necessary to build the confidence that you know you have enough money and are able to spend it without feeling guilty. As your net worth changes in relation to the original net-worth projection, make small adjustments along the way.

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If you want to maximize your life experiences and those of the people close to you, embrace the unknown that retirement brings. Learn to manage and adapt to change and build your spending confidence by tracking your net worth. Doesn’t that sound better than restricting yourself to the four per cent SWR diet?

Allan Norman provides fee-only certified financial planning services through Atlantis Financial Inc. and provides investment advisory services through Aligned Capital Partners Inc., which is regulated by the Canadian Investment Regulatory Organization. Allan can be reached at [email protected].

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