Retirement is supposed to be the time of life when you put away your cares and worries, kick back and enjoy the wealth you’ve worked so hard to accumulate over the years. Well, maybe.
In fact, retirement for many of us is going to be an exercise in calculating odds and balancing one probability against another. Should we treat ourselves to that grand tour of Europe? Or deny ourselves because we may need the money years from now to pay for a nursing home? Should we invest aggressively to increase our chances of growing our nest egg? Or play it safe and take as few chances as possible?
These are anxiety-inducing questions and, ironically, you can blame that anxiety on the long, healthy lives we’re now living. Back in the 1920s, a newborn Canadian could expect to live for less than 65 years. Today, a baby born in Canada can expect to live to 80. So while our grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about retirement—and with good reason!—we now have to budget and plan for 20 years or more of not working.
A lot can go wrong over a couple of decades. And even if you set things up perfectly for a nice 20-year retirement, fate has an odd sense of humor. After years of planning, you may die young—or live long, long past what you thought would be your expiry date.
One of the most common mistakes that people make in retirement planning is basing everything on the notion that they will live to what they believe to be the average life expectancy. You should remember that the average life expectancy is just the midpoint in a huge range of possibilities.
Among other things, bear in mind that the life expectancy figure you read in the newspaper is usually expressed in terms of what a newborn child can expect. The figure assumes there will be a steady number of deaths at every age along the way—a few people will die in childhood, a few others in adolescence, and so on. Those early deaths drag down the overall figure. So if you’ve dodged disease and accidents and made it all the way to 65, your life expectancy is considerably greater than the average for a newborn would suggest. Someone who is 65 today has a better than even chance of living to 85.
Remember, too, that the average life expectancy figures are just that: averages. Some people enjoy far fewer years; some enjoy many more. The average life expectancy for seniors may be 85, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore anything past 85. About half of seniors will live beyond that point— sometimes well beyond. The 30-year retirement is not uncommon and you have to be prepared for the possibility that you’ll be blowing out the candles on your 100th birthday.
The problem, from a financial perspective, is that there are no guarantees. Moshe Milevsky, associate professor of finance at York University in Toronto, points out that a 65-year-old man who retires today faces an 8% chance of dying before he turns 70. He also faces a nearly identical 8% chance of living past 95.
Think about the practical implications of those figures. Our 65-year-old man may expect to die relatively young. He may burn through his cash and treat himself to lots of expensive indulgences—only to find that, gosh, he’s a Methuselah who has to live the last quarter century of his life trying to make ends meet on a meager budget.
On the other hand, he could play it safe and pinch pennies to ensure he will have enough to last until he’s a centenarian. But, if so, he faces a real possibility of finding himself in a hospital bed at 68 or 69, listening to a doctor deliver a grim diagnosis, and cursing himself for not enjoying life more when he had the chance. The odds of disappointment are identical no matter which option our hypothetical 65-year-old chooses, so how does he—or you—make a choice? The following plan can help you make the most of the retirement odds.
Calculate your must-haves
You often hear retirement planning boiled down a single figure: “you need $1 million to retire well.” A smarter approach is to think of your retirement plans as consisting of two separate figures: one for things you must have, the other for things it would be nice to have.
The first and most important part of retirement planning is taking care of things you must have. You want to ensure you have enough to live on without feeling deprived of anything vital.
You can estimate your target figure by toting up how much you spend in all areas, then deducting the expenses that will disappear in retirement, i.e. no more mortgage payments (because the house will be paid off), no more child care or tuition payments (because the kids will be adults), no more retirement savings (because you will be retired). You should also deduct any luxuries you could live without in retirement, such as a second car. You can also subtract the cost of commuting to the office, work clothes, and so on.
The amount that’s left represents what it would cost you to maintain the essentials of your current lifestyle in retirement, and that figure is probably a lot lower than you think. Most middle-class couples arrive at a must-have figure of $30,000 to $40,000 in after-tax income.
Calculate your nice-to-haves
We all have dreams and you should budget for those, too. Maybe you want to take that African safari, golf every day, or winter down south. You should size up what it would take to pay for whatever bliss you desire and regard that figure as the second part of your retirement planning.
Just one tip: when assessing your nice-to-have list, remember that age takes its toll. Right now you may dream of traveling the globe. Once you’re past your early seventies, however, you’re likely to discover that your wanderlust is diminished. Similarly, you may find that golfing every day is no longer a pleasure once you’ve hit 75. So by all means budget for luxuries, but keep things within reason. You’re not likely to be globe-trotting for 30 years nor whacking iron shots to the green on your 95th birthday.
Count on government
Despite what the fear mongers would have you believe, Canada Pension Plan (which is funded by contributions from you and me) is in fine shape. Old Age Security (which is funded out of general government revenues) looks to be on solid ground, as well.
If you’ve worked in Canada all your life, you can expect to receive $11,000 to $16,000 a year from those two sources, depending upon what you made during your working years and how early you start collecting your pension cheques. A husband and wife who have both worked until retirement at 65 can expect $22,000 a year or more between the two of them. That money will keep pouring in as long as you live, with no particular planning required on your part.
You should compare what government will provide you with what you figure your minimum retirement needs will be. If you and your spouse figure you can maintain the must-have parts of your current life on, say, $33,000 a year, the good news is that retirement becomes a very affordable proposition. You may have to add only $11,000 a year in after-tax income from corporate pensions or savings to ensure the key components of your retirement plan.
Factor in pensions and RRSPs This brings us to the thorny issue of pensions. You may be fortunate enough, if you’re a public servant or work in the right industry, to be the recipient of a pension that guarantees you a “defined benefit” in retirement. If so, you can simply contact your employer’s human resources department to find out the size of the monthly retirement cheque you can expect.
If that amount is enough to bridge the gap between government stipends and your retirement needs, then congratulations! Your retirement planning is largely done. You may still want to contribute to an RRSP to finance luxuries, to provide you with a buffer against inflation, and to guard against the possibility that your employer will go bust and renege on its pension promises, but, in all probability, those RRSP contributions will simply increase your security, not determine your retirement lifestyle.
Most of us, though, aren’t in that position. Maybe you don’t have a pension plan. Or perhaps your employer’s pension plan is a “defined contribution plan” that only promises how much your employer will contribute each year you work, but leaves the actual investing up to you. Or maybe your employer’s defined benefit payouts aren’t enough to bridge the gap between government pensions and what you need. In any of those cases, you’re going to have to deal with uncertainty.
So get a handle on risk
This is where playing the odds becomes vital. Some retirees insist on playing it safe and keeping all their money in bonds and GICs. Others go for the gusto by betting on high-yield real estate investment trusts, penny stocks and small growth firms in hopes these high-risk, high-reward bets will provide them with the income they want.
Both approaches are flawed. Stashing everything in bonds and GICs raises the risk that inflation will whittle away the real value of your savings. On the other hand, betting on high-risk stocks or trusts raises the odds that you’ll make a big mistake and wipe out a chunk of your savings.
The best solution for nearly everyone is a well-diversified portfolio that has 30% to 50% of its assets in various fixed-income investments, such as bonds and GICs, and the remainder in a wide variety of stocks from Canada and other countries. One good approach to building such a portfolio is outlined in our article about couch potato investing.
No portfolio, though, can guarantee a given return. What makes retirement planning so difficult is that you’re drawing down your portfolio for living expenses at the same time as the markets are bobbing up and down. The first few years of your retirement are particularly crucial. If you have the bad luck to retire at just the moment that the markets head into a bear market plunge, your withdrawals combined with stock market losses could put a hole in your portfolio from which it will never recover. On the other hand, if you retire at the same moment the markets decide to go on a tear, the surging market returns may more than cover your early withdrawals. You may actually increase your net worth in retirement.
If you want to make your money last for 30 years, count on withdrawing no more than 4% of its initial value each year, adjusted for inflation. You should begin your retirement by withdrawing $4,000 a year for each $100,000 you start with. If inflation is running at 2% a year, you would withdraw $4,080 the next year, $4,162 the following year, and so on.
The 4% figure comes as a shock to many people, who assume that they can count on their portfolio for 10% or more in the way of annual payouts. To read more about the reasoning behind the smaller figure, refer to The 4% Solution below.
Balance the present and the future
Here’s where individual preferences become important. While a 4% withdrawal rate gives a well-balanced portfolio an excellent chance of surviving 30 years, it’s very much a pessimist’s strategy. Chances are that things will turn out better than the worst case. If they do, you stand a good chance of leaving behind a tidy fortune. Your heirs will no doubt like this arrangement and if you want to leave them a big bequest, that’s fine—but it’s probably not the optimal deal for you. In fact, if you apply the 4% withdrawal figure to your entire portfolio, you’re probably erring on the side of caution and living on less than you could in retirement.
A better idea is to treat the must-have and nice-to-have portions of your portfolio in different ways. When it comes to your must-have portion, play it safe and count on a 4% annual withdrawal rate. If you calculate, for instance, that you’re going to need to generate $16,000 a year on top of CPP and OAS to provide you with the necessities of your life, you should accumulate at least $400,000 in RRSP savings or the equivalent in corporate pension plans. That $400,000 should be able to fund an inflation-adjusted withdrawal rate of $16,000 for as long as you live.
If you don’t want to worry about the ups and downs of a portfolio, you can use some of your must-have savings to purchase an annuity that will provide you with a guaranteed payout for the rest of your life. Be sure to compare annuities from different companies to get the best possible deal. Look at all the different options available. Some annuities pay your heirs a lump sum if you die early; some are inflation-protected; some cover both you and your spouse. Seek the advice of a good fee-only financial planner before buying. Put particular emphasis on making sure that the insurance company that offers the annuity is as financially sound as possible. (Look for at least an AA rating from a rating firm such as A.M. Best. To learn more about these ratings, go to Ambest.com.) You may even want to split the annuity portion of your musthave money between two or more companies to ensure no single disaster can swallow up your savings.
Once you’ve built a fortress around the must-have component of your portfolio, you can treat the nice-to-have portion with more freedom. You can and should plan to run through a chunk of your nice-to-have budget in the early years of retirement, when you’re going to be most active. By the time you turn 75, your appetite for travel and other luxuries is likely to diminish and by the time you hit 85, many of your discretionary expenses will have dropped away completely. If your nice-to-have money is running low at that point, so be it. You will have extracted maximum value from your nice-to-have money when you were still healthy enough to enjoy it, while protecting your future by ensuring that your must-have needs are well covered. That’s the retirement we all want and it’s well within your reach.
The 4% Solution: More on making your money last
William Bengen, a financial planner in California, is the author of a long, but easy-to-understand explanation of how different withdrawal rates can affect your retirement. Originally published in the Journal of Financial Planning, “Determining withdrawal rates using historical data” is a classic in its field. His key finding? A 4% withdrawal rate is the most a truly long-term investor should consider. If you’re looking for a shorter take on the same subject, go to Scottburns.com and check out the “The Spender’s Portfolio and Portfolio Survival” section. The examples used are from the U.S., but the same math applies to Canada.