Withdrawal Strategies in Retirement

Withdrawal Strategies in Retirement

How Do I Manage My Retirement Withdrawals 

What is your withdrawal strategy during retirement? You have your portfolio, sure—your stocks and your bonds. But what else can provide the income you need in retirement? What is your retirement strategy for withdrawals? And how does that help mitigate the known risks in retirement?

Which asset should you access (and when) to reduce taxes and improve overall retirement security?

This is important, as we all have different sources of retirement income and different products to consider. Most of us have social security, pre-tax retirement plans and home equity, while fewer of us have pensions or annuities. 

Let’s look at withdrawal strategies in retirement designed to minimize taxes and maximize income, and then discuss some features of various assets that affect how you manage your retirement withdrawals. 

Withdrawal Plan in Retirement

First, let’s look at a common theoretical retirement strategy for withdrawal: the 4% Safe Withdrawal Rate. This so-called 4% rule involves taking out 4% of your nest egg the first year and increasing that amount yearly by inflation. Well, I have news for you… the 4% rule is not a true retirement strategy! Let me demonstrate.

Withdrawal Sequence Retirement strategy

Figure 1 (Withdrawal Plan in Retirement)

Above, in figure 1, you can see the withdrawal plan for a fictional couple who retire at age 63. You can see the amount of income they need increases over time due to inflation.

Where is the 4% withdrawal on the savings?

Look at the savings withdrawal (in gold). Initially, it is quite large, then it decreases as you access social security at age 70. Social security is an important source of income in retirement and is represented above by the purple bars that start at age 70.

But note even before that, there are other sources of retirement withdrawals. On the bottom in dark blue, a pension. Above that, the small green bar is a small immediate income annuity (such as a SPIA). In light blue on top of that: “other income.” In this case, this could be a 457 plan with a 10-year distribution, or a note from the sale of a business or real estate. 

In tis example the other income runs out at age 73 and the withdrawals on the portfolio increases. 

At age 80, a deferred income annuity—or longevity annuity (such as a DIA or QLAC)—begins paying and the withdrawal on savings decreases again.

Please note that there is no 4% withdrawal that begins at retirement and is increases over time at the rate of inflation. That is not how withdrawal strategies in retirement works!

Retirement income is lumpy! You have different assets you access at different times with various distribution schedules. In addition, of course, spending is lumpy! Expenses differ over the years. You may be able to choose when you want to make a major purchase such as a new car, but roofs blow off and need replaced at a more random interval. As a retirement strategy, the 4% rule is fiction.

So, what does the withdrawal percentage actually look like in a more realistic plan?

Order of Withdrawals in Retirement 

order of withdrawals in Retirement

Figure 2 (Withdrawal Percentage in Retirement)

Above, you can see the withdrawal rate from this retirement withdrawal strategy. You actually start out close to 6% and increase until social security starts at age 70.

Then it drops off with social security and, again, gradually increases over time.

At age 80, the final source of retirement income (in this case a QLAC) kicks in.

Instead of being 4% and increasing with inflation, the withdrawal percentage varies depending on when your assets hit.

A strategic retirement withdrawal plan takes into account different sources of income. You have, after all, different assets in your retirement quiver.

And these assets are in different types of accounts. There are brokerage accounts, pre-tax retirement accounts, and after-tax Roth accounts.

So, where do you take your income from?

Withdrawal Sequencing: Account Selection

In general, the retirement strategy for withdrawal sequencing follows a staged approach. Most commonly, you spend first from a brokerage account, and then tax-deferred money. Finally, utilize tax-free (Roth) assets.

This sequence is an optimal retirement strategy as it allows tax-sheltered accounts to grow while spending down the taxable accounts. Spending taxable money first decreases taxes (via less tax drag), because as you spend it down, there is less to tax!

However, and importantly, you must pull out enough tax-deferred money to fill up your standard deduction and lower tax brackets in order to smooth out the total taxes you pay over your retirement.

This is a must know retirement strategy: fill standard deductions and low tax brackets with pre-tax money!

So, instead of the withdrawal sequence brokerage first, then pre-tax, then tax free, often times withdrawing from pre-tax accounts before you are forced to do so makes sense. This saves your brokerage account from being decimated, and importantly, decrease the sum of total taxes you pay over your  lifetime. 

Let’s look at this now.

Optimal Withdrawal Strategy: Using Pre-Tax Accounts to Fill in Lower Tax Brackets

retirement accounts fill in low tax brackets

Figure 3 (Scenarios representing taxes paid with and without accessing your pre-tax accounts)

Above you can see two different scenarios.

In green, you don’t access your pre-tax account during your Tax Planning Window. This leads to a large pre-tax account and higher taxes down the line. Once you are out of funds in your brokerage account, you are forced to liquidate your pre-tax account and pay more in taxes. Also, you are not filling up your lower tax brackets, leading to higher taxes down the line.

In blue, conversely, you take withdrawals from your pre-tax accounts during your tax planning window. This lowers your overall taxes paid during your lifetime.

Taking your pre-tax money during your tax planning window allows you to utilize your lower tax brackets and save on taxes in the long run.

Tax Brackets and Withdrawal Strategies 

Tax brackets and withdrawal strategies

Figure 4 (Tax brackets and withdrawal strategies)

Above, you can see that we are taking out pre-tax money during out tax planning window to fill up the lower tax brackets.

Specifically, we have filled in the income using the 10 and 12/15% tax brackets (in addition to the standard deduction). This keeps our overall total tax bill lower, as future required Minimum Distributions are smaller and don’t force distributions into higher tax brackets.

Unfortunately, in this situation, there is still enough income to force part of it above the 12/15% tax bracket. Every withdrawal plan will be different depending on the types of assets you have, and the order in which you sequence them.

Before we move on, let me make it clear that the above fictional situation is for folks who need their pre-tax account for retirement. Their plan does not call for partial Roth conversions.

Not everyone has the same withdrawal strategies in retirement.

Not everyone has the same product allocation in retirement either.

Products as Withdrawal Strategies and to Mitigate Retirement Risks

Product Allocation and withdrawal strategy

Figure 5 (Pie Graph of Product Allocation in Retirement)

I have written about “product allocation” in retirement. To briefly review, above we see a retiree who has social security (which starts at 62-70 year of age), a pension (which may or may not be able to be deferred after retirement), a SPIA and a DIA (or QLAC). I will talk about annuities below. Do not fear them, as they can add significant security to your retirement withdrawal strategy.

Of course, there are stocks and bonds (listed as equities) and human capital (ability to do work for income) as well.

Not listed above are many other sources of retirement income, such as real estate, businesses and more which will also be discussed below.

The point here; everyone has different sources of income in retirement. Withdrawal sequencing leads to a variable withdrawal rate on your portfolio rather than the good ol’ 4% Rule of safe withdrawal. It is fine to take 6 or 8 or 10% on your portfolio early on, as long as you have a plan for the back end.

What are some of the sources of income in retirement that we need to consider?

Sources of Income in Retirement: Assets to Consider

What are the sources of income in retirement?

Retirement accounts

IRAs and 401k plans represent the largest bucket of savings for most retirees. This money is a ticking tax bomb and must be addressed early in the planning process. Taking this money in the most tax efficient form is often the most important part in tax minimization

Atypical Retirement Accounts

Think about 457 plans here. There are two very different flavors of plans. This represents accounts that have forced distributions. Inherited IRAs now fall in this category as the SECURE Act now forces a 10 year distribution.

Social Security

This will not be a major source of income for high net worth folks, but planning is important none the less. If you are married, you must defer social security for the highest earner to get the maximal COLA adjusted life-long guaranteed longevity insurance check for the surviving spouse.

Brokerage Accounts

Think about tax-efficient asset location when planning your asset location.

Pensions

These are usually fully taxable, which has significant implications.

Rent or Royalty

Or other sources of “passive income.”

Inheritance

Don’t plan on inheritance in your retirement strategy. Sure, death is the only real guarantee in life. But perhaps only insurance companies and mortuaries should depend on death as a business model.

Annuities

See below

Part-time Work

Human capital is an important part of retirement. Many folks enjoy the social interaction you get with part-time work. Even a small amount of income early on can mitigate known retirement risks, let alone have a positive effect on retirement satisfaction. 

Home Equity

Reverse Mortgages are for the wealthy, too. Home equity is important to consider, and can be an important buffer asset in a pinch. 

Product to Consider in Retirement Withdrawal Strategies 

What products might you consider as part of your strategic retirement income plan?

Remember, products have many different uses. Some generate income now, some later. Others have tax-free distributions or loans. Some mitigate common risks in retirement.

You need to understand the gap you are trying to fill, the need for a product, before you consider what product you need. You also need to understand fees and contracts.

Products transfer risk. This is what is important to know. Do you want to handle all the known retirement risks yourself or do some risk pooling?

With Income and Longevity Annuities, you get mortality credits. Those who (unfortunately) die early allow these annuities to pay out more than income you would get from bonds alone. 

However, some products “hope” you die early (like annuities) and some “hope” you die late (like life insurance). An insurance company can hedge their bets by owning a variety of products!

Let’s take a closer look at some of these products as sources of income in retirement.

Products to Consider as Withdrawal Strategies 

Annuities

Annuities are not a bad word. They are useful products, sometimes. They are complicated, though, so take some time to understand your options before you buy. See How Annuities Might Work in Your Retirement Withdrawal Strategy.

SPIA

Single premium immediate annuities are the most useful annuities for income. They provide income after a lump sum payment. They are relatively inexpensive and you can comparison shop on line. There are few inflation-adjusted products available, so these are not for longevity insurance. SPIAs are for income. Although SPIAs may not be great in this low interest rate environment, a consider a SPIA ladder (where you set aside safe money for the purchase of a SPIA in the future) for future income needs and longevity planning.

DIA

Deferred income annuities are also useful but not well known. They can be funded over time or with a lump sum payment, and the income is deferred and turned on later. These are also straight forward with low commissions and, aside from social security, provide the best longevity insurance currently on the market. Understand that mortality credits are why SPIAs and DIAs are able to pay more than bonds or CDs.

QLAC

Qualified longevity annuity contracts are DIAs in your retirement accounts. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every wealthy person with a large IRA should consider a QLAC for longevity insurance. That is, if you plan on living a long life. You can turn these on as late as 85. Although you can only put $130,000 in a QLAC, if your deferral period is long enough this will be real protection against both inflation and longevity.

VA

Variable Annuities should be avoided by most folks. Don’t shoot the messenger, but they are complicated and expensive. If you are sophisticated or have a lot of time to waste with an annuity salesperson, you can talk about the benefits of withdrawal or income riders. For DIY, there are investment only variable annuities IOVA which can be considered.

FIA

Fixed Indexed Annuities are also to be avoided unless you know what you are doing. These products can benefit in the upside of an index but suffer no losses if the market goes down. They are sold without fees to you, but you lose in the upside of the market with participation rates and caps. If you want to take market risk off the table and use part of your bond allocation (not your equity allocation!) in FIAs with withdrawal riders, have at it. These are for the sophisticated DIY who desires to have a salesman work with them.

MYGA

Multi-year guaranteed annuities pay a guaranteed rate every year for say 3-10 years. These can be used instead of CDs or Bonds when making a ladder. They can be purchased on-line and can easily be compared to interest rates on CDs or Bonds. If you are going to set aside money for a future use, the DIY investor might find some use in a MYGA or two as part of their income ladder, or as a Buffer Asset.

Life Insurance

  • Term life insurance can be considered in product allocation for its death benefit. It is obviously more expensive to get term insurance the older you get
  • Permanent life insurance for the death benefit. There are indications for a permanent death benefit that are considered appropriate uses of these complex and expensive products.
  • Permanent life insurance for the cash value. These are less useful products, but often you have cash value as part of your permanent life insurance which can be an important Buffer Asset.

Home value

  • A home equity line of credit can be important in the transition period between salary and full retirement.
  • HECM (home equity conversion mortgage), or a reverse mortgage, is an underutilized product. Despite the stigma, there is a significant and important role these can play in retirement income planning.
  • Don’t forget the value of cash flowing rental real estate in the retirement plan. This can be an important bond-like part of your income stream in retirement.

Traditional Pensions

  • Important to decide on lump sum or income stream (annuitization) depending on the internal rate of return offered. This is relatively straight forward math but important! If you have a pension, consider it important as the “third leg” of the retirement stool (Social Security, Pension, and Stock/Bonds)
  • Single life or with survivor benefits are an important consideration.
  • Traditional pensions are becoming more rare as employers switch from Direct Benefit plans to Direct Contribution plans where the employee takes on the investment risk. If you have a pension, consider it gold.

Social Security

  • Widow’s tax penalty is an important consideration. Almost always the higher income earner should delay taking social security for a long as possible, up until 70. This is to establish as many delayed claiming credits as possible and provide the larger of the two checks for the Widow/Widower
  • Longevity insurance as the payments never stop.
  • Inflation protection through COLA adjustments. These are not inflated at true expenses for retirees but important nonetheless.

Long Term Care Insurance

This is not an exhaustive list of products, but it is a pretty good start. What is on the other side of product allocation? The stock and bond market

The Other Side of the Product Allocation Discussion: Asset Allocation

We have discussed some products as retirement strategies. What is the other side of products? Your asset allocation.

Stocks and bonds are hopefully most familiar to you. Likely, you have your asset allocation nailed down. What risk do you need to take to reach your goals? There are two sides to the risk discussion in the accumulation phase, how much risk are you willing to take (risk tolerance) and how much risk you need to take (risk capacity).

Turning your asset allocation into income is an important retirement strategy to understand.

Let’s move on to Risks

The Retirement Risks that Withdrawal Strategies Address 

So what are the risks we are addressing with our strategic withdrawal strategy?

Longevity

Longevity risk is the great equalizer. Without longevity, ie if you die early, retirement planning is easy! However, as we don’t know what time fate will knock on our door, planning a long life makes sense. Time segmented plans can make sense here, as can flooring. Or do both!

Inflation

If you live a long life, inflation is going to make your nest egg worth less. Also known as purchasing power risk, inflation concerns rank highest once you address longevity and sequence of return risk

Sequence of Return Risk

Also known as timing risk, if you retire at the wrong time, you are in a world of hurt. Sequence risk starts before you retire (called the portfolio size effect or fragile risk zone), but this is difficult to model, as I point out in my piece on pre-retirement glidepaths

Retirement Strategy: Withdrawal Strategies in Retirement

So, what have we learned?

Retirement Withdrawal Strategy is about taking your assets and turning them into income while mitigating known risks. You get income from your portfolio, and you control risk with your product allocation.

The 4% rule is a good place to start when you are considering what size nest egg in the future you will need to accomplish your retirement goals. Real life, as you see, is not the 4% rule!

Use your various products and other assets in a cohesive retirement withdrawal strategy to accomplish retirement security.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. At age 60 I’m turning my medical practice into a hobby and have now reduced my weekly work hours to 24. I am now financially independent however I am still accumulating so that I will have a richer retirement when I plan to fully retire at age 70 or maybe later. It’s great to see an article about actual retirement instead of accumulation of Assets in the FI community. Thanks for all your excellent articles. I’ve especially enjoyed the covid-19 articles. I would love to hear your thoughts but managing the sequence of returns risk. In the fall of 2019 as I approached my accumulation retirement number for full retirement I decided to move about 80% of my money into Cash. I now suffer the Dilemma of reinvesting that money. The current timing of reinvesting Greater proportion into the stock market is Complicated by covid-19 and the upcoming presidential election. I anticipate a market correction of 40 to 50% within the next 12 months. However I know that timing the market is foolish.

  2. Glad you’re back to financial discussions. I’m from New York and definitely a mandate masks person so the Covid-19 articles have been a pass gor me.

    • Me too! Regarding masking, remember the epidemic is regional and local and I’ve never once said anything about what folks in NY should do, only what we are experiencing here locally!

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