Early Retirement and Safe Withdrawal Rate
Early retirement requires a lower Safe Withdrawal Rate.
Not only is the future uncertain, there is a longer future when you retire early!
Also, it is more difficult to study the Safe Withdrawal Rate over a long retirement as there are less historical 60-year periods to review than 30-year periods.
Let’s look at a 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate in early retirement and see what modifications we might consider making.
60/40 Portfolio with a 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate
In figure 1, you retire at age 30 with a $1M portfolio. You withdraw 4% a year and run out of money after 50 years!
This portfolio is invested in a typical three fund portfolio with half of the money in tax-deferred accounts and good asset location.
Of course, the assumptions are everything when dealing with historical modeling. The Trinity Study and Bengen’s 4% rule use historical data. Above, I use conservative estimates of future returns based upon recent Vanguard projections.
Class Assumed Returns
International Equities 8.5%
US Equities 5%
US Bonds 3.5%
What about if we use the same 60/40 portfolio with a 3.25% Safe Withdrawal Rate?
60/40 Portfolio with 3.25% Safe Withdrawal Rate
Here, you can see the lower Safe Withdrawal Rate during early retirement makes it to the end! There is a bump around the age of 50 when the brokerage account expires and you have to take withdrawals just from the pre-tax accounts.
Let’s compare these two different scenarios and see what is left at the end.
Now you can see the remaining portfolio after early retirement. In blue, the 3.25% Safe Withdrawal Rate grows slowly over time where the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate is decimated.
What if you used a more aggressive asset allocation in early retirement?
Aggressive Asset Allocation and the Safe Withdrawal Rate
Early retirement means your money has to last a long time! What if you used a more aggressive asset allocation than 60/40?
That’s more like it! with a more aggressive 90/10 portfolio, the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate makes it to the end! Compare figure 4 with figure 2. Here, it takes more than 50 years of inflation to affect the withdrawal percentage. Note it slowly creeps up over time and will expire soon after 60 years of early retirement.
How much is left at the end?
Above, you can see in green the 4% just makes it to retirement with the more aggressive 90/10 portfolio. With the lower 3.25% Safe Withdrawal Rate in blue, the remaining portfolio increases over time!
What is the Safe Withdrawal Rate in early retirement?
What is the Safe Withdrawal Rate in Early Retirement?
So, given lower assumed future returns than historical averages, the Safe Withdrawal Rate depends on your initial asset allocation. You can see from the above examples that a 3.25% is ok regardless of the asset allocation. Compare that to a 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate that just barely squeaks by if you go aggressive—90/10 asset allocation.
What is the downside of going aggressive with your asset allocation? Hello, Sequence of Return Risk.
Sequence of Return Risk and Early Retirement
Sequence of Return Risk is perhaps the largest risk faced by early retirement folks today. Stock valuations are high and bond returns are low.
If there is a bad sequence of market returns when you are withdrawing funds from your equities, you are at a higher risk of running out of money! This is especially true when you have a higher percentage of equities to bonds in your portfolio. Bonds serve as a buffer to draw from when equities are down.
Above, you can see what Sequence of Return Risk does to an aggressive portfolio.
Here, the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate in green is decimated by Sequence Risk. It expires after 25 years. Even the “safe” 3.25% Safe Withdrawal Rate in blue doesn’t survive Sequence of Return Risk if the portfolio is aggressive!
In this situation, simulate Sequence of Return Risk by the actual market returns from 2000-2010. So, if Sequence of Return Risk is a problem for those thinking about early retirement, and history is any guide, what is one to do?
What about Rising Equity Glidepaths?
Can a Rising Equity Glidepath (REG) Save a 3.25% Safe Withdrawal Rate in Early Retirement?
Let’s look at a REG and see if it can save you in early retirement.
It starts out conservative to prevent Sequence of Return Risk. Then, gradually increase the equity portion of your asset allocation over time. As an example, let’s start at 60/40 and increase to 90/10 over 10 years.
Above, you can see the effect of Sequence of Return Risk even with a REG. In green, the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate does not survive Sequence of Return Risk even with a REG. In blue, the 3.25% Safe Withdrawal Rate has a very different slope now that we have added a RSG. Look at the blue in figure 6 with a 90/10 portfolio and in figure 7 with a 60/40 portfolio and a REG that takes the asset allocation to 90/10 over 10 years.
Summary of Safe Withdrawal Rate in a Prolonged Retirement
What did we learn? A prolonged retirement means you really have to be careful with your Safe Withdrawal Rate! A 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate does not make it in early retirement unless you have an aggressive asset allocation.
If you have an aggressive asset allocation in early retirement, you are subject to Sequence of Returns Risk!
Even a Rising Equity Glidepath, where you are conservative early on and become more aggressive after Sequence Risk has passed, doesn’t rescue a 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate in Early Retirement.
So, what is the Safe Withdrawal Rate in a prolonged retirement? It is not 4%. Longevity is a risk we must all consider prior to retirement.