FIREd up about Early Retirement

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There is a recent trend among Millennials and younger Gen Xers that is generating a great deal of interest. The concept is defined by the acronym FIRE – financial independence/retire early. A WSJ article from November follows the rigid budget and sacrifices of Sylvia, who wants to retire in 2020 with $2 Million at age 40. The current rage to extreme early-retire by using frugality, intense saving and/or
investment strategies to achieve financial independence is becoming a popular notion. This purportedly comes from the 20 to 40 somethings who have a ‘burning’ desire to not be chained to a job, but rather want to freely choose how they spend their time. The FIRE followers want the freedom of financial independence to allow comfortable “retirement” at an earlier than usual age.

FIRE and the discussion around it has inspired many recent blogs, podcasts, articles, books and even a documentary coming out this year called “Playing with FIRE”. Playing with Fire follows a family as they “test their willingness to reject the standard narrative of adult life, which basically prescribes: go to college, take out tons of student loans, buy a new car, take on a mortgage, buy another car and lots more stuff you don’t need, then work for 40+ years to pay for it all. If you’re lucky, you might be able to retire at 65 and not have to eat cat food.” Now that is cynical!

On the surface, however, retiring early sounds like a reasonable goal… we are all striving for some level of financial independence, after all. At DWM and as financial advisors, we definitely believe that controlling spending and sticking to savings goals are the keys to reaching financial independence. Most of us would consider these good money habits to be a common sense approach to life – live below your means, save more, be less materialistic- but what does it take to actually achieve an extreme early retirement in your early 40s or even 30s and make sure you have enough money for the rest of your life? FIRE followers believe extreme saving and frugality is the path. As the Investment News article describes it “Followers of FIRE amass savings voraciously and live on bare-bones budgets. They aim to stockpile enough money to fund a retirement lasting roughly double that of the average American.” Apparently, the retirement savings number that they strive for is based on a future 3-4% percent withdrawal rate that might have to last 60 years!

FIRE followers advocate aggressive savings goals of 50-75% of earnings and following strict budgets to achieve this. They focus on cutting back or even cutting out all non-essential spending like going out to eat, vacations or bigger houses and newer cars. Or like Sylvia from theWSJ article reportedly does, search for the brown bananas and borrow Netflix passwords. This might be where we should talk about quality of life!

On top of that, the unknowns in this strategy could wreak havoc on the best-laid plans. Some in the FIRE movement live austere lives now and plan to continue the austerity into the future to maximize
their savings. All well and good as long as nothing unexpected happens. How about the often unforeseen or underestimated expenses that come from having kids or running into health problems? We can try to predict the impact on our portfolios from inflation, the economy, the markets, investments, but we really can’t say absolutely what will happen in the future. We know that healthcare costs are increasing and becoming a large spending item in normal retirement, especially before Medicare begins. We know that we can’t predict what will happen to Social Security. We certainly can’t predict our life spans – whether short or long – nor are we ever as ready as we would like for emergencies and crises like natural catastrophes, death of a loved one or chronic illness. We just don’t have a crystal ball!

There is also an underlying degree of cynicism in this mindset that our working life is focused solely on the goal of amassing “more stuff”. What about the satisfaction and connection that comes from building a career and a level of accomplishment and expertise in a field? Many of us have had several varying career paths and, had we jumped off after the first one, what would we have missed? What inventions or discoveries or achievements would humanity miss out on if the productivity and challenges that are gained from a lifelong career were cut short?

Successful financial independence does come from hard work, discipline and a measure of frugality and sacrifice – we can all agree on this. At DWM, our goal is to help guide you toward achieving your goal of financial independence, whether you keep “working” or spend your time in other ways – as you wish. We try to minimize some of the risks by planning for as many of the “What Ifs” as we can and hope that, by charting a course, we can help you breathe easier as you plan for the future. We want you to be “fired up” for your whole life and find satisfaction and quality of life during your saving and accumulating days, as well as your spending and legacy days. We think this is possible by following a balanced, moderate and careful financial plan. We can certainly get fired up about that!

Is the 4% Withdrawal “Rule” Reliable?

DiceRules of thumb can be great, except when they don’t work. Take the 4% withdrawal rate rule, for example.

This rule, developed twenty years ago, is used to forecast how much people can spend annually in retirement without running out of money. Let’s say a couple has $1,000,000 and has just retired. The rule says if they spend $40,000 (4%) from the portfolio and increase this annual withdrawal by the inflation rate, their $1 million nest egg should last for the rest of their lives.

Historically, an average annual return on a balanced allocation strategy portfolio was roughly 7% from 1970 until 2014, while annual inflation was 4%. Hence, a real return of 3%. The conditions during those four decades are different from today. The decades of the ’80s and ’90s produced average equity returns close to 20% per year. The bond bull market produced returns of almost 9% per year for the last three decades. During this time, the “rule” could have worked fairly well for some people. Today, however, there are a number of problems with this rule.

First, inflation forecasted returns and longevity have changed greatly. Inflation has been negative over the last twelve months and has averaged less than 1% per year over the last three years. Forecasted returns, of course, vary widely and no one can predict the future. A conservative estimate might be a 2% real return (3% nominal less 1% inflation, or 5% nominal less 3% inflation). Longevity is increasing. Hence, for many people, their calculations should be based on an eventual age of 100.

In an article from this past Sunday’s NYT, Professor Wade Pfau at the American College of Financial Services put it this way: “Because interest rates are so low now, while stock markets are also very highly valued, we are in unchartered waters in terms of the conditions at the start of retirement and knowing whether the 4 percent rule can work in those cases.”

Second, the 4% rule never took into account non-linear spending patterns of retirees, other goals, other retirement resources, asset allocation, taxes and stress testing the plan.

There’s a much better way to do this, though it takes more thought and time and a disciplined process. For those who value their financial future, it’s worth the effort. Here are some of the elements that you need consider:

Start with your goals. At what age do you want to achieve financial independence (freedom to retire)? What will be your likely spending patterns during retirement? What will your housing be? What will be your likely health care costs? Are there any other needs, wants or wishes you have for the future?

Retirement resources. The calculation needs to include not only the investment portfolio, but also other income sources, such as social security, pension, rental income or part-time work. The calculation also needs to review all assets, not simply the investment portfolio, and determine the amount, if any, of proceeds from the sale of those assets that could be used in the future to fund goals.

Asset allocation. Varying allocations will likely produce varying results of returns and volatility. The plan should be calculated using the appropriate allocation strategy. Returns should be calculated in two ways- historical and forecasted.

Taxes. Income taxes can have a huge impact on a plan. Allocation of investments into appropriate (taxable, qualified, Roth) accounts can make a real difference. Tax-efficiency throughout the plan is imperative.

Stress Testing. The calculations need to be done using a “stochastic” process such as Monte Carlo simulation rather than a linear one. A Monte Carlo simulation is a tool for estimating probability distributions of potential results by allowing for random variations over time. The world does not operate in a straight line and linear projections can be greatly upset (and therefore of little value) when outliers come into play. In addition, stress testing involves looking at the potential impact of negative factors in the future, including living longer, social security cuts, lower than expected investment returns, and/or large health care costs.

In short, the old 4% withdrawal rule is not a good way to predict whether or not you will fulfill the goals you have for you and your family. However, there is a process that can provide reasonable assurance and one you should expect from your wealth manager, like DWM, as part of their package of services for you. It can be a little complicated but should be customized for your particular situation. It will take some time and effort. It requires discipline and monitoring. However, if you value your financial future, it’s well worth the effort.

Plan For Financial Independence, Not Retirement

drseussWhen the Social Security program was started in 1935, the average life expectancy was 61 years old. Today, life expectancy is around 80, with more and more people living into their 90s and beyond. Yet, much of society continues to expect people to stop working in their early to mid 60s and retire, because giving up work is “simply what most people do.”

Yet, times are changing. People are working longer. And it’s not about economic distress. The WSJ recently reported that this trend is being driven by many highly educated workers in professional-services jobs who are sticking around by choice, doing something they love to do. Dr. Jan Abushakrah, 69, typically works 60 hour weeks as chairwoman of the gerontology department at Portland (OR) Community College. Retirement isn’t on her agenda. She says “As long as I am healthy and happy every morning when I wake up and have something exciting on my plate to look forward to, it is easy to say I could keep doing this forever.” Personally, I feel the same way. Helping people is a great way to spend your time.

Money isn’t the main factor that people keep working in later years. 67% do it because they want to stay active and involved. 51% enjoy working. 50% want to keep health insurance and other benefits. 47% need money to make ends meet. 38% want money to buy extras. 15% try a new career.

We have our clients target their “financial independence” date rather than their retirement date for planning. This is the date at which you have enough assets for the rest of your life without needing to work for money. The beauty is that once you reach this point, you keep working only if you want to. For those that have a vocation- a higher calling, rather than a job, and are making an impact, continuing to work is a likely possibility.

As someone approaches financial independence and can afford to stop working, they need to ask themselves a series of hard questions starting with “What would I do if I didn’t have to go to work today?” Certainly, there are physical activities, grandchildren, travel, education, charities and lots of other options. What combination produces a “series of successful days” that becomes a successful life? With financial independence, there are thousands of choices. You can make your own “cocktail” of choices every day.

Of course, it is important for spouses to work on these planning issues together. As financial independence approaches, both spouses should create an individual vision of what each wants to achieve in the next phase of life and then compare notes. Sometimes you have a situation where one person in the couple loves their job and the other only likes theirs. That’s a big difference. Communication, compromise and negotiation is key.

At the same time, older Americans are exercising more, which keeps them young. A recent study showed that how we age physically is, to a large degree, up to us. A recent study of recreational cyclists aged 55-79 by King’s College in London showed that on almost all measures, their physical functioning remained fairly stable across decades and was much closer to that of young adults than of people their own age. As a group, even the oldest cyclists had younger people’s levels of balance, reflexes, metabolic health and memory ability. However, the study showed that endurance and strength does decrease to some extent over time. All in all, though, aging is simply different for active people. On a personal note, for those of you who know I annually run the 10k Cooper River Bridge run here in Charleston, I am happy to report that due to some extra training and use of a coach, I was able to run my best time in 7 years last month. Not sure if I can turn back the hands of time, but maybe at least slow them down a little.

With Americans living longer, we suggest you focus on financial independence rather than retirement. At that point, you’re in control. You can determine what every day’s activities will be- hopefully, all things you want to do. You hold the keys to your future. As Dr. Seuss would say: “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”

Needs, Wants and Wishes: Impact on Leisure Time and Financial Independence

wants-vs-needs-25216765 (1)We hope everyone had a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. What a great time to remember the men and women who have served us in the armed forces. And, a perfect time to get together with friends and family for a barbeque or other event. It’s also the weekend of the Indy 500 and a time when most of us “start our engines” thinking about summer and leisure time activities.

Yes, we Americans have a hard time relaxing. When did you last hear someone complain about not having enough to do? Brigid Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time” believes part of it is social status. “The busier you are the more important you seem.” Thus people compete to be harried. Apparently, for some young families, competing with the Joneses now means trying to out-schedule them.

More and more women in the workforce certainly has reduced leisure time. In fact, in dual income households, one-third of women earn more than their husbands. And, while dads help more with family responsibilities these days, they still, according to Ms. Schulte, spend half the time their wife does with the house and kids. Furthermore, for many middle class families, wages have been stagnant for decades which means everyone is working harder and longer to make ends meet.

The noted economist, John Maynard predicted just the opposite for Americans and Europeans almost a century ago. In a 1928 essay entitled “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” he imaged a world in which the standard living would be so improved that no one would “need to worry about making money.”  People would be working 3 hour days and have all that they needed. Well, he was correct about the standard of living increasing. Real per capita income has in fact grown 6 times since then. But, he was wrong about the making money part.

It seems Keynes figured that people would stop working once they had enough to meet their needs. But, human nature didn’t stop Americans at that point. Their wants and wishes became needs and so, instead of quitting early, they would work longer to buy the new “needs.” Of course, many of these discretionary items, including larger houses, second houses, fine dining, worldwide travel, etc. weren’t as readily available in Keynes’s time.

University of Chicago Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, who recently passed away, was one of the first economists to study the aspects of human behavior. He summed it up this way “Most types of material consumption are strongly habit-forming. After an initial period of excitement, the average consumer grows accustomed to what he has purchased and… rapidly aspires to own the next product in line. Human beings evolved so that they have reference points that adjust upwards as their circumstances improve.”

In short, Americans are different from the rest of the developed world. We consume more and work harder. The average employed American now works 140 more hours per year than the Brits and 300 hours more than the average Frenchman. Furthermore, Europeans have become more skilled in taking time off, while Americans, having become masterful consumers, will continue to work more hours to buy more stuff. Keynes presumed that leisure was preferable to labor. Yet, for many Americans, hard work is the only way. In addition, for many, a career provides most, if not all, of their self-realization. We didn’t and we don’t fit Keynes’s model.

As time marches on and one achieves increasing success (and the “reference points adjust upward”), wishes and wants are often perceived as additional needs. This is the American way. It’s a fundamental reason why the United States is the #1 country in the world.

At the same time, for some, ever expanding consumption impacts their leisure time and their financial future. Working longer hours to pay for all their stuff reduces leisure time. Purchasing additional “needs” reduces their ability to save sufficient funds to provide future financial independence.

It’s a good idea to regularly review your financial and personal goals, including financial independence and leisure time. Before you decide to convert some wants and wishes into “needs”, it’s important to understand the choices you are making may impact your leisure time and ultimate financial independence. As a result, we discuss financial and personal goals with our clients regularly. For us, it’s a key part of DWM’s Total Wealth Management services.

Charleston Mercury: Six Keys to Financial Independence

From the Charleston Mercury July 26, 2012

Ever worry about running out of money during your lifetime? Many people do these days. The primary concerns seem to be the likelihood of living longer, reduced investment returns and future inflation.  Here are six rules of thumb, which followed, can help immensely:

1) If you are retired, limit annual withdrawals from your investment pot to 4%. This assumes an annual investment return of 5.5%, inflation of 3%, and the individual(s) withdrawing money for up to 30 years or more. A 65 year old couple, newly retired, with an investment portfolio of $1 million should be able to safely withdraw $40,000 in year one and 3% more each year thereafter. Note: a withdrawal rate of 6% will dissipate this investment pot in roughly twenty years.

2) If you are still working, target an investment pot equal to 25 times your expected annual withdrawals during retirement. A couple expecting to need $60,000 of annual withdrawals from their investments upon retiring at age 65, for example, will need to save and accumulate $1.5 million. Please note that annual withdrawals are calculated by adding all expenses, including taxes and then subtracting income such as social security, pensions, part-time employment, etc. Inflation must be included in the calculation.

3) Your annual investment returns need to exceed inflation by at least 2-3% per year. If not, your investment pot will vanish quickly. Currently, inflation has been running at roughly 2.5%. If inflation increases, then investment returns need to as well.

4) Focus on your housing decisions. The total cost of housing includes taxes, mortgages, maintenance, insurance and opportunity costs for the non-invested equity in the house. These costs can be 8-10% of the value of the house per year. In addition, your house may have substantial equity which may need to be “unlocked” in the future.

5) Control your expenses. Expenses are the most controllable factor in determining whether or not you will accumulate a sufficient nest egg and/or run out money. We all have the opportunity and responsibility to determine how we spend, save and invest our money. These decisions result in spending levels which directly impact the amount of our nest eggs and whether we outlive our money.

6) Don’t forget insurance and risk management. Negative financial surprises can destroy an otherwise solid financial plan for the future.

So, now it’s time for self-evaluation. If you’re in retirement, is your withdrawal rate sustainable? If you’re working, are you on track to meet your investment nest egg goals? What’s the return on your investments over the last 1, 3 and 5 year periods? Are you beating inflation? Can you afford your house? Will you need to tap into its equity at some point? Are your expenses under control? Do you monitor and review your expenses regularly? When was the last time you had an independent review of your insurance and risk management? Do you have the right coverages and are you paying the right amounts?

Finally, if your self-evaluation has added more worry than peace of mind concerning your financial future, do find the best financial counsel available.

Lester Detterbeck is one of a small number of investment professionals in the country who has attained CPA, CFP® and CFA designations.  His firm, DWM Financial Group, Inc., a fee-only Registered Investment Adviser, has offices in Charleston/Mt.Pleasant and Chicago.  Les may be contacted at 843-577-2463 or les@dwmgmt.com.