How to spend in retirement – and make your money last

Surveys show that retirees often leave estates bigger than the superannuation balances they had when they retired. This implies they’ve been living off only the income derived from super – indeed even less than that.

If a bequest is what drives you, that makes sense. But it’s tough to believe that’s what drives most retirees. Surveys in assorted countries reveal there’s a more likely explanation (will I outlive my assets?) and solution (the only way to make sure my capital lasts is never to touch it at all).

Here are two ways to spend both income and capital, and still not outlive your assets.

Let’s start with separating the spending and bequest motives.

A simple way is the way my wife and I did it. It was important for us to give our two kids something we could give with warm hands, as the saying goes, rather than with cold hands after we’re gone. They were thrilled, and have made good and sensible use of it – and we have the gratification of seeing how useful it’s been. Now they know they should expect no more, and they’re fine with that, and anything that’s left is a bonus for them.

The added bonus for us is that the openness has made it okay for them to discuss their finances with us. My wife and I never had that sort of conversation with our parents.

The other way, of course, is to leave it after you’re both gone. And I think of three ways to do that.

If you want to leave whatever remains after you’re gone, you just ignore the legacy in your spending plans.

If you want to leave specific assets, leave those assets out of your own planning (though you might still take the annual income into account).

And if you want to leave a specific amount, buy a second-to-die insurance policy for that amount, and the premium becomes a part of your spending.

Now let’s focus just on spending

It helps to divide your spending desires into needs (the things you absolutely can’t live without) and wants (the things you can give up if compelled to in bad times – though it will hurt). I’m going to call your total assets, both super and other, your ‘pension pot’.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell. There are still two major uncertainties in ensuring sufficient retirement income that lasts a lifetime. One is: how long will I require the income? The other is: the income will be drawn from my pension pot, and I know how big the pot is today, but what will be the future investment return on the pot?

Together, they form a horrendous problem. Nobel Prize winner William Sharpe called this “the nastiest, hardest problem in finance”.

It’s far too difficult for me to solve in any universal optimal sense. But I can identify two approaches that work – one simple and one more complex. (This is called ‘satisficing’ – finding something that works and is good enough, even if imperfect. It’s satisfying, and it suffices.)

The simple approach is first to estimate your life expectancy; that is, the average number of years of future life for a group of people of your age and gender. If you have a life partner, find your ‘joint and last survivor’ life expectancy, that is, the average number of years of future life for the one who survives the other (you’ll have to find a life expectancy table for this).

Suppose the relevant expectancy in your case is 23.2 years, and your total pot is $500,000.

The amount to withdraw, for next year’s spending, is $500,000/23.2 = $21,552. And so on.

What does “and so on” mean?

Well, a year from now, review your life expectancy. It may surprise you that it hasn’t gone down by a full year. Never mind why – it’s just a fact. If you want an explanation, see this blog post. Suppose it’s now 22.3 years. Your pot used to be $500,000 less the $21,552 you withdrew, so it’s now $478,448. Suppose you had a bad investment year, and your assets actually lost 1 per cent in value. They’re now worth $473,664. The withdrawal is then $473,664/22.3 = $21,241. And so on.

You’ll find that your withdrawal varies from year to year (not a surprise, since it deals with changing circumstances), but usually not a lot. And it’s your wants that are typically affected, rather than your needs.

What you do with your investments in this approach is entirely up to you, and it affects the ongoing size and volatility of your pot and your withdrawals. But since (if you’re alive) there’s always some future life expectancy, there’s always something left in your pension pot. In other words, your pot doesn’t run out.

That’s the simple solution.

The more complex solution goes into greater depth in many dimensions.

1. First, lock in your needs for the rest of your life, however long that may be.

Compare the needs with the lifetime income you’re guaranteed to get, such as the Age Pension and guaranteed defined benefits from a super (pension) plan, rare as that may be. If the aggregate guaranteed lifetime income isn’t enough for your needs, consider buying a lifetime annuity for the difference. Now your needs are okay for as long as you live, and you have a balance (or perhaps still your whole pension pot) left to invest and draw down gradually to meet your wants.

2. For this balance, two possibilities.

(2.1) One approach, only recently available in some countries, is to join a longevity pool that guarantees income for life but gives no guarantee about the amount. Your assets will be invested in accordance with the pool’s stated policies.

(2.2) For a do-it-yourself approach, you need to examine both life expectancy and an investment approach. Here’s what I do for my wife and me.

a. I plan for a lifetime that’s longer than our life expectancy. I looked up longevityillustrator.org and found the length of time that only 25 per cent of couples like us would outlive, and that’s our planning horizon. You could use the 10 per cent horizon if you’re more cautious, though obviously it will result in a lower annual sustainable spending amount.

b. I hold five years of sustainable spending in cash-like securities (my ‘self-insurance bucket’) and the rest in a global equity index fund (my ‘growth-seeking bucket’). There are reasons for making that five years, but way too long for this kind of chat. (I’ve written it up for the London Financial Times money supplement and it’s on my website.

Essentially, the five-year period is designed to give a high probability that, if the growth bucket suffers a decline in any year, it will recover within those five years, and we won’t have to touch it in the interim. Meanwhile, we’ll spend from the self-insurance bucket.

If the growth bucket grows (a not unreasonable hope, though not a guarantee, of course), we can take the following year’s spending from it and preserve the size of the self-insurance bucket.

c. Of course, a problem is to calculate what amount of annual spending is sustainable from this combination of pots. Again, it’s a complex formula, but that same article provides a table for a range of planning horizons and self-insurance periods. (The table assumes that you want your spending to allow for inflationary increases each year.) You can interpolate to find the sustainable spending that fits your circumstance and choices. That also tells you how much to hold in your self-insurance bucket and how much in your growth-seeking bucket.

This is the point at which you can compare the amounts of sustainable spending resulting from the 25 per cent and the 10 per cent planning horizons. If the 10 per cent horizon number works for you, that’s great because your risk is greatly reduced. Otherwise use the 25 per cent number, which still has a built-in margin relative to your life expectancy.

d. Each year, redo this exercise. In fact, discipline is an important requirement for this do-it-yourself approach. You’ll find, as with the first approach, that the new sustainable withdrawal varies from year to year, but typically not by much. And you’ll have to re-balance your two buckets.

e. Perhaps every five years, re-examine your life expectancy. If you and your partner are still both going strong, you may have to extend your planning horizon slightly and recalculate your sustainable spending.

f. When one of you passes away, re-examine the life expectancy of the survivor. This will almost certainly result in a noticeably shorter planning horizon, and a higher amount of sustainable spending.

In addition to the life expectancy margin, which you will gradually adjust (as per step 2.2e) as you both survive, there are other margins built into these approaches. They arise from the fact that your spending is assumed to stay constant over your retirement years.

In fact, studies show that spending tends to fall gradually through retirement years, as we move from early ‘go-go’ spending, when we do all those things we’d been hoping to do once we had the time and the money, to a ‘slow-go’ pace, when we downsize our lives a little.

So the gradual decline in our desires creates a margin. And, after the first passing of life partners, again there tends to be a reduction in spending, so the margin from what’s available goes up again. 

Whichever of these approaches you use, it is bound to mean that your spending is noticeably higher than if all you spend is the investment income generated by your pension pot. That’s because these approaches enable you to spend not only the income but the capital as well – gradually, but at a pace that ensures it doesn’t run out in your lifetime.

And enabling you to do that with confidence is the purpose of this article. I have found in practice that intelligent but non-financial people get the idea right away, and it gives them double peace of mind – one, because they know the money won’t run out, and two because they won’t worry too much when the stock market falls.

* Once upon a time Don Ezra was co-chair of Global Consulting at Russell Investments. Before that, he was an actuary. Today, he is happily retired, writing blog posts on his website https://donezra.com/ and the book Life Two: how to get to and enjoy what used to be called retirement.

Disclaimer: All content in the Retirement Affordability Index™ is of a general nature and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. It has been prepared with due care but no guarantees are provided for the ongoing accuracy or relevance. Before making a decision based on this information, you should consider its appropriateness in regard to your own circumstances. You should seek professional advice from a financial planner, lawyer or tax agent in relation to any aspects that affect your financial and legal circumstances.

Are you or will you be a confident retiree? Do you have plan? Will you consult an adviser or your super fund? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

If you enjoy our content, don’t keep it to yourself. Share our free eNews with your friends and encourage them to sign up.

Written by Don Ezra

LOADING MORE ARTICLE...