Category: Finance

4 Bear Market Retirement Income Strategies

The 2022 bear market hits retirees the hardest

As we prepare to close out 2022, retirees and pre-retirees are facing the worst possible scenario, a triple bear market.  US stocks, along with international stocks will likely be down double digits.  US bonds will close in the red 10%+ year to date.   And cash, although yields have risen, are experiencing negative returns net of inflation.  All in all, the traditional 60/40 investment portfolio model for retirees has many questioning whether this strategy is still viable.    

Many of you will need to take a distribution to satisfy your RMD (“Required Minimum Distribution”) for 2022 and 2023, or simply need income to live on during retirement.

But, you have probably heard the old saying, “Buy Low and Sell High.”

Well, how do you implement a retirement income strategy during a bear market, particularly one in which both stocks and bonds are experiencing record losses?

Here are 4 retirement income strategies to consider during times like these.  Let’s not forget that bear markets, on average, happen every 5 years.  So, in a potential 30 year retirement time horizon, you will experience roughly 6 bear markets!  

Let’s dive in.

#1: Asset Dedication

One way to hedge bear market risk involves what is called the “Asset Dedication Strategy.” This strategy incorporates aligning a CD or individual bond ladder with specific cash flows, in this case retirement income. Let’s say your RMD is estimated to be $50,000 in 2023.  A basic example would be to purchase a high quality bond or CD for $50,000 (or a combination), that will mature at the time the cash flow is needed.  This is my personal favorite when working with clients because it eliminates the uncertainty of where interest rates might go in the future.  In general, when interest rates rise (like in today’s market), the value of bonds go down.  If you own an individual bond and hold it to maturity, the par value is redeemed in addition to the interest payments you received.  Therefore, who cares what the price fluctuation was along the way?

The challenge for bond mutual funds or ETFs is they have to deal with redemptions (other investors selling), which will inevitably impact the price of that particular fund, and ultimately its performance. 

Depending on your time horizon and risk tolerance, we would create a bond and/or CD ladder to satisfy 2-10 years of those expected distributions. 

If done properly, you will never have to sell your stocks when markets are down.  As your bonds mature and are paid to you as retirement income, you would then re-balance your portfolio (sell some of the winners) to add the next “rung to your ladder.” 

The frequency of the re-balance will depend on market conditions and how well your other investments are performing.  So, if markets rise rapidly, you might find yourself adding several rungs to the fixed income ladder by taking gains off the table.  That way, when markets are down, you have plenty of wiggle room to wait until things recover.

If the strategy involves a taxable account (non-retirement), you might consider municipal bonds, depending on your tax rate.  These interest payments are exempt from federal income taxes, and could also be exempt from state income taxes depending on the bond you purchase.  If the strategy involves a tax free or tax deferred account, investing in corporate bonds and/or government issuers will work just fine, as taxes are not a concern.

BONUS Strategy

I have to add a bonus strategy as not all bond mutual funds and ETF’s have done poorly in 2022.  In late 2021, with the help of our friends at Wisdom Tree Asset Management, we added the ticker AGZD as a core bond holding for all client accounts.  The more conservative the account, the more exposure to AGZD.  This strategy involves using traditional fixed income securities coupled with derivatives within the treasury market to hedge against interest rate increases.

Sound complicated?  Well, it is somewhat.  But in essence, when interest rates do rise (like in 2022), this strategy helps preserve principal unlike your traditional bond mutual fund or ETF.

Year to date this strategy has returned a positive return of 0.63%!  Compare that to the average bond mutual fund at -12.79%, wow!  This strategy, coupled with individual bonds, has allowed our clients to protect their retirement income during this particular bear market.

#2: “Income Flooring”

creating a retirement income floor

“Income Flooring” with annuities is another strategy that works extremely well during volatile markets. This involves purchasing an annuity to generate an income floor that can be relied upon regardless of market fluctuations.  Social Security might represent a portion of your fixed income needs in retirement, but what makes up the gap?  If you are relying solely on securities that have price fluctuations, what do you do in a market like 2022? 

An income floor will invariably reduce the amount of cash needed from a distribution, and therefore will allow your riskier assets to recover during a downturn. 

The beauty of this strategy in today’s market is that interest rates have risen sharply.  Therefore, insurance companies have been able to increase their payout rates, thus making income flooring much more attractive than it was 3-4 years ago.   

I like to compare this to purchasing an investment property designed to pay a fixed income stream.  The difference is there are no repairs, unexpected maintenance costs, or tenant vacancy gaps. 

On the flip side, it’s not an asset you can “sell back” to anyone to recoup your principal.  Additionally, there is no price appreciation like you would expect from buying real estate.

For the most part, these annuities are not liquid and should not be relied upon for an unexpected expense or emergency fund.  Therefore, I typically would not recommend exchanging a large majority of your investible assets for these contracts given the lack of flexibility. 

However, if structured properly, it can serve as a compliment to Social Security and other guaranteed income streams.

A good rule of thumb is to calculate your non discretionary expenses, and compare that to your projected fixed income payments (Social Security and Pensions).  If there is a shortfall, you might consider backing into how much money would need to be exchanged into an annuity to fill that gap.

If you have yet to claim Social Security, this strategy can be even more powerful so you avoid tapping into longer term investments for current fixed income needs.


These contracts are complex and not all annuities are created equal.  It’s important to consult with a fiduciary financial advisor who can work with you and multiple insurance carriers to select the most appropriate product. has a great article on annuities that you can read here.

#3: Cash Value Life Insurance

Cash Value Life Insurance is one of the highly debated products in the financial services industry.  Insurance companies tend to “sell the sizzle” and often fall short on fully educating the consumer. 

On the other hand, most investment advisors tend to default to the advice of “buy term and invest the difference.”

I started my career at a large insurance company, and now run my own fee only financial advisor firm, so I have sat at both sides of the table. 

I wrote an article titled “5 reasons to own life insurance in retirement” that I would recommend reading to get my insights on the topic.  For this article, I want to focus on using the cash value as an income strategy to hedge a bear market. 

Here are the basics:

  • Cash values within a fixed life insurance policy have a guaranteed interest rate + a non guaranteed interest rate. They are paid to the policy owner in the form of annual dividends that can be used to purchase more life insurance, increase the cash value (or both), and pay premiums. 
  • Cash values can be surrendered, at which point taxes will be due on any gains (if applicable)
  • Cash values can also be borrowed tax free while also keeping the policy in force

Example:  Let’s say you have a policy with $100k in cash value.  You are also retired (or planning to retire) and need $50,000/year from your investment portfolio to supplement other income sources.  In a market like 2022, you might find it difficult to take a distribution from your investment portfolio, unless you implemented strategy #1 or #2 as previously mentioned.  Therefore, instead of selling a stock or bond at a loss, you might consider borrowing $50k from your $100k cash value on a tax free basis.  The loan will be charged interest, but there is still interest credited to you on the loan.  My personal policy with Northwestern Mutual has a net charge of 3%, which isn’t bad in today’s market.  

Let’s say you borrowed from the policy and avoided selling your longer term investments.  Now what?

You have two options. 

One, you can let the loan ride, and simply ensure that the policy doesn’t run into issues down the road.  This involves reviewing your policy on an annual basis using an “In Force Illustration.”

When you pass away, the loan proceeds will be subtracted from the death benefit paid to your beneficiaries.

Or two, pay the loan back once the market recovers. 

I prefer option two if you plan to utilize this strategy again in the future.  At some point, this market will recover, and we will set new market highs.  Who knows if that will be in 2023, 2024, or even 2025.  But at some point, you might experience substantial gains within your stock portfolio that you are comfortable with taking $50k off the table and paying back that policy loan. 

In essence, you are using the cash value as a re-balancing tool in lieu of other fixed income assets.

Here’s the challenge.

You need to have the cash value in the policy to take advantage of the strategy in the first place.  This involves buying life insurance and funding the policy adequately to build up adequate cash value.

Therefore, this strategy is best suited for those of you approaching retirement that have adequate recourses to fund a policy for at least 5 years, and you’re healthy enough to buy it.  If it’s designed properly, this will give the policy time to work properly and set you up for this defensive hedge that you may need 4-5 times throughout an average retirement time horizon.


Much like annuity contracts, life insurance policies are also not created equal.  The design of the policy is key and will impact the viability of policy loans as well as the tax implications of using the cash value. 

Furthermore, this strategy works best if you have a legacy goal of transferring assets to the next generation, and the cash value is more of an ancillary benefit.

Consult with a fiduciary advisor and licensed agent to create an optimal strategy best suited for you!

#4: Tap into Home Equity

home equity line of credit and reverse mortgage strategy

Leveraging a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) or Reverse Mortgage to access home equity is my fourth and final strategy.

With home values shooting up the last few years, you might find yourself with a large chunk of cash available to tap into via a home equity line of credit or reverse mortgage.  This should be done carefully as it involves leveraging one of your most important assets, your home.  However, if done properly, it could create an infusion of cash while letting your longer term investments recover. 

A reverse mortgage could be tapped into as a form of life income payments, a line of credit, or both.  At death, the loan amount would be offset by the sale of the home.  For a HELOC, the loan would generally need to be repaid within a specified term.  With rates increasing, you might be hard-pressed to find a HELOC for less than 6.5%.  However, some of you might already have a HELOC established at a lower rate and can tap into the funds cost effectively. 

Also, the challenge with reverse mortgages is that a higher interest rate will result in a more expensive loan and thus a lower payment.  However, if you are in a bind, it’s worth consulting with your financial advisor and mortgage specialist to see if it’s a viable option.

In Summary

2022 has brought unique challenges to retirees.  However, a well thought out retirement income plan is critical to weather this storm, and future storms during a 20-30 year retirement time horizon.

If you have questions about your retirement income plan, or are wondering how this bear market has impacted your long term goals, feel free to book a 30 minute initial conversation with me by clicking on the Schedule Now button below.  

Also, make sure to subscribe to our email newsletter below so you don’t miss out on any of our future insights!

Retirement planning = reduce stress and worry less!

Feeling charitable? Consider strategies that also boost your tax savings.

Tax Benefits of Charitable Giving

The Annual Report on Philanthropy from Giving USA estimates that individuals gave $324.10 billion to US charities in 2020.  This was an increase of 2.2% year over year from the 2019 report.  Despite all of the negative news the media likes to focus their attention on,  America is a very generous country.  However, I run into many people that are uncertain about how to maximize the tax impact of their charitable giving.  There are a few key points at play.  

-It’s estimated that older generations will transfer $70 trillion of wealth between 2018 and 2042 as a result of diligent savings and investing throughout their lifetimes.  
-In 2017 the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed, which doubled the standard deduction.  This is the amount individuals and couples can deduct automatically on their tax return.  This led to fewer people itemizing their charitable donations. 
-Finally, the SECURE Act of 2019 has increased the tax liability on qualified retirement plans that pass on to the next generation. 

As a result of all of these factors, many of my clients are interested in giving to charity during their lifetime, but at the same time finding ways it could improve their tax situation during their life as well as for their heirs.  QCD stands for Qualified Charitable Distribution, and DAF stands for Donor Advised Fund.  There are other ways to donate to charity by way of private foundations, establishing special trusts or gifting outright.  However, this article will focus on QCDs and DAFs as they are the most common solutions I see used for my clientele.  I hope you find it helpful!

Let's first talk about Required Minimum Distributions

When you turn 72, of 70 1/2 before 2020, you are required to take a portion of your qualified retirement plans as a distribution by way of the “Required Minimum Distribution,” or RMD.  The amount required is based on a life expectancy table published by the IRS.  Most individuals use the table below, unless their spouse is sole beneficiary and is more than 10 years younger.   The RMD is calculated by dividing your year end account balance as of December 31st, and simply dividing it by the Distribution Period associated with your age.  Example:  Let’s say your IRA account balance at the close of the previous year (December 31st) was $1,000,000, and you are turning 75 this year.  You will take $1,000,000 and divide it by 22.9, which gives you $43,668.12.  That is the amount you will be required to withdrawal before the year is over. 

You will notice that each year, the Distribution Period becomes smaller, and therefore the amount required to be withdrawn goes up.  If you turned 90 with a $1mm IRA, you would be required to withdrawal $87,719.30!  This equates to almost 9% of the account balance.  One exercise I will run through with my clients well before turning 72 is to calculate their projected RMD each year during retirement, and compare that to how much they will actually spend for their retirement lifestyle.  Over time, I often see the RMD increases at a much higher rate than annual spending, therefore creating a surplus in income over time.  

A common complaint I hear:  “The IRS is making me take out all of this income I don’t need!”  If you want to minimize the tax impact on unnecessary withdrawals, thoughtful planning must be introduced years before turning 72.  I often tell my clients that retirement income planning begins at least a decade before they retire in order to optimize their financial plan. 

All retirement plans including 401ks, 403bs, 457bs, other defined benefit plans and traditional IRAs have RMD requirements.  Roth IRAs do not have RMDs while the owner is alive.  Roth 401ks, however, do have RMD requirements. Therefore, many people opt to rolling over their Roth 401ks to their own Roth IRA once they have attained eligibility requirements to avoid the RMD. 

It’s critical to satisfy RMD requirements, otherwise you will be hit with a 50% penalty on the funds you did not withdrawal on time.  Example:  If your RMD amount was $50,000 and you failed to take any money out, you could be responsible to pay a penalty in the amount of $25,000!  

If you turn 72 and are actively employed, RMDs associated with their employer plan could be eligible for deferral.  Any other accounts not affiliated with that active employer will still have an RMD.  Once you separate from service from that employer, you will then begin taking RMDs based on your attained age for that year.  For your first RMD, you have the option to defer the distribution until April of the following year.  This is helpful if you expect your tax rate to go down the following year.  Just note that you will have to take two RMDs that following calendar year, one by April 1st, and the other by December 31st. 

I have some clients who wait until December to pull their RMD if they don’t have a need for the cash flow.  This way they can maximize their tax deferral and keep their funds invested as long as possible before taking the RMD.  On the other hand, if you have a need for the income to meet your expenses, you might opt to take an equal monthly installment to reduce the risk of selling out at the wrong time.  It also helps create a steady cash flow stream for budgeting purposes in retirement.  

Qualified Charitable Distribution


A Qualified Charitable Distribution, also known as QCD, allows for you to donate up to $100,000 of your IRA directly to a qualified 501c3 charitable organization.  The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 has made the QCD a permanent part of the IRS code and allows you to count that distribution towards your RMD that year, but exclude it from your adjusted gross income!  The QCD must come from an IRA (traditional IRA, inherited IRA, or an inactive SEP or inactive SIMPLE IRA), it cannot come from another qualified plan like a 401k or 403b plan.  Of course, the account must also be in the RMD phase.

Example.  If your RMD is $100,000, normally you would be required to withdrawal $100,000 from the balance of your IRA and include the distribution in your gross income.  However, you could instead elect to donate up to $100,000 to a charity, or multiple charities, directly from your IRA and reduce your taxable income by up to $100,000.  Of course, the charity also receives that donation tax free as well.  This results in a significant amount of tax savings for the IRA owner and provides a larger donation to the charity of your choosing.  Also note that the $100,000 limit is annually per person.  If you are married, you would each have that $100,000 limit if you both qualify for a QCD. 

This has become increasingly more beneficial with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law in 2017 (TCJA).  The TCJA doubled the standard deduction which for 2021 is $12,550 for single tax payers and $25,100 for married couples filing jointly.  The new law significantly reduced the number of tax payers who itemize their deductions.  Charitable donations are an itemized deduction, so if a tax payer is not itemizing their deductions, the charitable donation has zero tax impact to the tax payer.  Therefore, the QCD allows for the tax payer to essentially get a tax benefit for donating to charity without needing to itemize their deductions.   Excluding the donation from your adjusted gross income could have other tax advantages as it might reduce your Medicare premiums as well as your overall tax bracket. 

It’s important to note that the charity has to be a qualified 501c3 organization.   You cannot donate to a private foundation or a Donor Advised Fund.  However, there is no limit on the number of organizations you donate your QCD to.  Most financial institutions allow you to create a list of the organizations that you want to benefit from your donation, and they will send the checks for you directly from the IRA.

Planning Ahead


Many clients I serve run into what I call the tax trap of traditional IRAs and 401ks.  I wrote an article about this and you can read more about it here.  The gist is they are the victim of their own success.  They saved and invested wisely, and accumulated a bulk of their assets in tax deferred vehicles, among other assets.  At RMD age, they are forced to take distributions they may not need, thus creating a negative tax effect (higher tax brackets, higher Medicare premiums, increased social security taxes etc.).  QCDs can certainly help alleviate that tax burden for those that are charitably minded.  However, you still want to do some planning well before turning 72 to optimize your tax situation.  If you plan to donate to charity during retirement, make sure you leave some room in your tax deferred plans to make those QCDs.  On the other hand, make sure your RMD’s wont push you into higher than anticipated tax brackets or bump your Medicare premiums up substantially.   You may want to consider doing some Roth conversions, or leveraging a Roth 401k option in lieu of a Traditional 401k.  The point is, don’t be blindsided by RMD’s, but be intentional well before you begin taking those distributions so you don’t run into the tax trap!

Qualified charities do not pay taxes on distributions.  I mentioned the SECURE Act briefly and also wrote about it in more detail in the article I referenced earlier (link here).   The important thing to note is that it eliminated the inherited IRA for most non spousal beneficiaries.  Therefore, when you leave those 401ks or IRAs to your children, they will be forced to liquidate all of the funds within 10 years, accelerating taxes on those plans relative to the previous law.  This is a further validation for not only QCDs for charitable giving during lifetime, but also for naming those charities as a beneficiary for these tax deferred accounts.  Instead of leaving those assets to your children for your legacy goals, you may consider leaving other assets such as life insurance, Roth accounts, or taxable brokerage accounts that are more tax advantageous for those beneficiaries.   Again, thoughtful planning is critical to provide these opportunities before it’s too late to make any meaningful changes.

Donor Advised Funds

A Donor Advised Fund, or DAF, is an opportunity for individuals to donate cash or securities to these specified accounts, potentially recognize a tax deduction, and allow the funds to grow tax free to be used in the future for charitable giving.  Unlike donating to a specific charity outright, the DAF can benefit as many charities as the donor chooses.  Additionally, I’ve seen clients name their children as successor Donor Advisors in order to teach the next generation how to be a good steward of their dollars.  A big advantage of a DAF is the ability to front load donations.  As I mentioned earlier, many tax payers are taking the standard deduction given they don’t have itemized deductions that exceed the standard deduction amounts.  However, if you plan to donate each year for the next several years to certain charities, you might consider front loading a contribution to a DAF in order to qualify for an itemized deduction, and then spread out the actual donations over several years.  Let’s look at an example.

Brenda is married and normally donates $5k/year to a local animal rescue.  The $5k donation, along with other deductions, does not exceed $25,100 (standard deduction for married filing jointly).  Therefore, that $5k donation is meaningless from a tax standpoint.  However, Brenda will continue to donate $5k for at least the next 10 years.  She has cash savings in excess of $100,000, so she decides to donate $50k to a DAF ($5k x 10 years), which puts her over the standard deduction limit and gives her the ability to deduct that $50k donation!  Going forward, she will make a distribution from the DAF in the amount of $5k/year over the next 10 years to benefit the charity!  Additionally, she can choose to invest the dollars in the Donor Advised Fund, so she has the possibility of growing her account balance even more for her charitable goals.

The DAF also allows for contributions from appreciated assets, like stocks, bonds or mutual funds.  Let’s say you owned a stock that appreciated $100k over the original value.  This is obviously great news, but if you sold the stock, you would include that $100k in your adjusted gross income and would owe taxes.  However, if there is no need for that particular security for your retirement or other financial goals, you could donate that security to the DAF without any tax consequences.   Additionally, the DAF could sell the security and reinvest it into a more diversified portfolio without incurring any taxes either.  This is a powerful tool to utilize for those appreciated securities that don’t have a specific purpose for your own income needs. 

It’s very important to note that a DAF contribution is irrevocable.  Donors cannot access those funds except when used for donations to a qualified charity.  However, there is no time limit on when the funds need to be distributed.  Just like any charitable contribution, make sure it aligns with your financial goals and is coordinated with the rest of your financial picture.  


If you plan to make financial gifts to charitable organizations, make sure you consult with your tax advisor, estate attorney and of course your financial planner.  Make sure your charitable giving is coordinated with your overall plan, and also make sure you take advantage of tax benefits where possible.  There are certainly more ways than a QCD and DAF to satisfy charitable goals, so please be sure that you choose the right solution based on your unique circumstances.  If you would like to discuss your charitable giving strategy, or other financial goals, you can always start by scheduling a no obligation “Mutual Fit” meeting below to learn how to work with us.  We look forward to speaking with you!

What is a safe withdrawal rate for retirement?

What factors go into retirement withdrawal strategies?

The primary concern for just about everyone I meet with is how to retire with the same lifestyle they currently enjoy.  “Retiring” has a different meaning now than it did 20-30 years ago.  Nowadays, people retire TO something.  Whether it be to travel the world, spend time with family, volunteer, start a hobby, or work a dream job without compensation concerns.  Naturally, income replacement is the primary topic for those that are approaching retirement.  With pensions becoming less common, Social Security and income from investments have become the primary drivers to support the retirement lifestyle.  My most recent article (link here) was about Social Security and how to maximize the benefits for retirement.  Studies have shown Social Security represents approximately 40% of retiree’s income.  Therefore, I get a lot of questions on how much clients should withdraw from their portfolios to subsidize the income gap.

It depends.  There are two primary questions that we begin with to come up with the right answer.  First, what are the main spending objectives in retirement?  And second, what level of risk is acceptable?  These factors work in tandem and create many hypothetical “right answers” depending on each unique client.  This is why starting with a strategical financial plan with meaningful spending goals and meaningful stress tests is critical.  All future financial planning decisions will be influenced by these goals, which I find evolve over time.   As I continue to work with my clients, naturally new goals are added, and former goals are either accomplished or removed.  What I find is that as folks are approaching retirement, we typically focus on the “needs.”  Once they start to experience retirement and feel the plan is working, they can begin to relax and think more about their wish-list goals.

I want to clarify two housekeeping items first that are very important.  First, there are a number of “what-if” scenarios that can impact anyone’s retirement. We could have a beautifully designed income plan that is completely wiped away from a significant healthcare or long-term care expense.  I wrote about four of the stress-tests I run for my clients as they plan for retirement here.  This article, however, will be focused solely on navigating a safe withdrawal rate, all else being equal.  Second, I want to change the method of thinking from a safe withdrawal percentage to a safe withdrawal dollar figure.  Using a safe withdrawal dollar figure ensures that the client’s spending goals can be achieved throughout their life (adjusted for inflation), regardless of short term swings in the market.  I have found this method of withdrawals, known as a flexible withdrawal strategy, resonates with clients as they sleep better at night knowing they have a set income each month.  In order to accomplish this, or any prudent income plan for that matter, we must have a defined distribution process to avoid a big mistake.  I once met a client that had a dozen or so securities in his portfolio, and was selling his investments pro rata to meet his income needs.  This is often a default method for big brokerage firms, but not a prudent distribution process.  The reason being it will just about guarantee you are selling certain securities at the wrong time each distribution you make.  Having a prudent distribution process is a critical assumption when we begin the stress tests, as a big mistake can completely negate years or even decades of growth.  With that being said, I will reference withdrawal rates as an average percentage over the life expectancy of a plan, but understand they will fluctuate each year in practice.

Most people I meet with have one of the following primary income goals for retirement:

  1. Replace income to maintain their current lifestyle, but without depleting the principal of their investments.
  2. Replace income, but with the goal to maximize the legacy transfer to the next generations, or to charity.
  3. Maximize spending and die penniless.

Replace income without depleting principal

I find most people strive for this in retirement, mainly because of the psychological benefits it provides.  If you are burning through your principal in your early years, you might naturally have concerns about running out of money.  I had a client I worked with years ago that was consistently needing about 8%-10% of the portfolio each year to supplement his Social Security.  Each time we had market volatility, it was pretty much guaranteed I would get a call from him in a panic.  Over the years, his portfolio was consistently declining in value.  I kept reminding him that his burn rate was too high, but instead of looking at his own expenses, he blamed performance despite wanting to have a relatively safe portfolio.  Conversely, my clients that are in a sweet spot for distributions don’t panic when we go through bouts of volatility.  They are out enjoying retirement knowing we have a solid process and plan in place, which is my goal when I take on a new client. 

In order to accomplish principal preservation while drawing income, we must first understand the objectives for income and the risk capacity for each individual.  I started working with a client a few years ago that had a solid nest egg built up for retirement and wanted to see how to maintain her principal while replacing her pre-retirement income.  However, she was in the mindset (like many folks approaching retirement) of making the portfolio ultra conservative before this transition period.  After running some hypothetical scenarios, I showed her the results of our models.  Looking at the illustration below, the results on the left show a moderate risk portfolio, which as you can see falls in the green zone, or the Confidence Zone.  On the right, we modeled the impact of moving to a conservative risk.  As you can see, becoming more conservative causes this plan to fall below the green zone, or Confidence Zone, which is not ideal.   In some situations, clients that have saved more than enough for retirement can afford to reduce risk without jeopardizing the longevity of their plan.  However, in other situations like the one below, one might need to maintain some risk in the portfolio in order to achieve their income goals and maintain principal over time.  It’s critical to find that sweet spot of portfolio risk when implementing your distribution plan.

Why does reducing risk impact the probability of success negatively for this client?  The reason is somewhat simple.  Given the prolonged low interest rate environment we are still in, the more conservative investments are not yielding much in the way of annual returns.  Therefore, the expected returns annually from a more conservative portfolio are going to be lower than a portfolio taking on a reasonable amount of risk.  This resulted in a conversation of her wanting to maintain some risk in the portfolio so she didn’t have to worry about going through her nest egg too quickly.  After all, she does have longevity in her family and we could be planning for a 30+ year retirement!

I have found that in general, if someone is more conservative, the average withdrawal rate needed to preserve principal will be in the range of 3%-4%/year.  If a client is comfortable with some risk, 4%-5.5%/year can achieve the goal of income and principal preservation.  Finally, someone who is comfortable with a significant amount of risk may even be able to get away with 6%/year or perhaps higher in average withdrawals.  Inherently, the more risk one takes, the less probable the outcome is.  I typically find folks that want to take on more risk will fall into the next category of replacing income but also maximizing legacy. 

Replace Income but maximize legacy

For those who are looking to maximize legacy, of course we need to first make sure their income goals are taken care of.  Once we have tested all possible outcomes and have a solid baseline average of withdrawals, we can then determine how this will impact their legacy objectives.   Naturally, the lower the withdrawal rate the better.  Sometimes, clients may only need 2%-3%/year from the portfolio.  If they are generating an average of 5%/year in returns, this will allow them to grow their net worth over time and potentially keep pace with inflation.  However, in other situations folks still need a reasonable amount of withdrawals to meet their spending goals.  In any event, I will outline three strategies below to help with maximizing returns while drawing down retirement income. 

  1. Asset location strategy
  2. Spending strategy
  3. Tax efficiency

Asset Location is a buzz term used in our industry, but many clients I speak with don’t fully grasp what this means as they are more familiar with the term asset allocation.  Asset allocation is the method in which you determine what percentage of your net worth is dedicated to a variety of asset classes to create the properly diversified investment strategy.  Asset location is more specific on what asset classes you would own based on the different types of accounts you have.  I’ll give you an example.  I am working with a client who has one  Traditional IRA  (which is tax deferred) and another account that is a  non-qualified brokerage account (which is taxable each year).  We strategically own the tax efficient investments in the taxable account, and the tax inefficient investments in the IRA.  This makes sense because the more tax efficient an investment is, the less in taxes you would pay on that particular investment.  It’s like the old saying, “it’s not what you earn, it’s what you keep.”  In this case, it’s not what her before tax rate of return is, it’s her after tax rate of return.  Having an efficient asset location strategy can help with maximizing retirement income simply by taking a holistic view on what investments you should own in each type of account you have.

Having a spending strategy may feel like a given, but rarely do I hear people talk about this the right way.  Many folks focus solely on what percentage of the account they can reasonably draw down.  However, in order to maximize long term performance while drawing retirement income, you have to be strategic based on the timing of withdrawals.  Let me explain.  I have another couple I work with that has three buckets of accounts.   One is a non-qualified brokerage account, the next are Traditional IRA’s, and finally they each have a ROTH IRA.  Sequentially, most experts would agree that you should tap your brokerage account first, your IRA second and your ROTH IRA last.  The reason is to maximize your after tax income as you’ve already paid taxes on the cost basis for that non-qualified brokerage account.  Once you turn age 72, you will then be forced to make withdrawals on your Traditional IRA or 401ks.  For your ROTH IRA, you won’t ever have mandatory withdrawals and they will be tax free if/when you do take money out (as long as they are considered qualified withdrawals).  Therefore, we are taking the most risk in their ROTH IRAs, and the least amount of risk in their non-qualified brokerage account.  By using this approach, we will experience less volatility on the account they are likely to withdrawal in the short term (brokerage account), and will be able to maximize the growth potential on the accounts they won’t be tapping into until longer term, if ever (ROTH IRA’s).  I have found this approach works more effectively than incorporating a singular investment strategy across all accounts.

I talked a lot about tax efficiency in a previous article called the Tax Trap of Traditional 401ks and IRAs here.  This goes hand and hand with a smart spending strategy.  If you want to live a nice lifestyle but also maximize your legacy goals, consider what accounts are more or less tax efficient for that wealth transfer goal.  With the new rules around the elimination of the stretch IRA, leaving your Traditional IRA or 401k to your children is not as tax friendly as it was before The SECURE Act was passed.  Therefore, spend those during retirement and consider leaving the ROTH IRAs (if you have one) or even non-qualified brokerage accounts as your legacy assets.  Currently, non-qualified accounts have the benefit of a step up in cost basis upon the owner’s passing, although this is currently in the cross hairs in Washington to potentially eliminate.  However, under the current rules, a non-qualified account is a great tool to use for those wealth transfer goals.  Therefore, you may want to try to preserve these assets more during retirement and increase spending on those traditional 401ks or IRAs.  Another tool you could add to your arsenal, if you don’t have it already, is a permanent life insurance policy.  This works beautifully with several clients I work with where legacy is an important objective.  It allows for them to leverage the death benefit, which is passed on tax free, while only paying a relatively nominal premium while they are living.  One theme I hear from these folks is there is a psychological benefit in knowing you have something that is guaranteed to pass along to the next generation regardless of what the stock market brings.  It also gives them freedom to spend their retirement accounts without guilt knowing this legacy goal is taken care of by the insurance. 

With all of this in mind, these strategies should apply to all three types of clients who are preparing for retirement.  Those who want to spend income and preserve principal, those who want to generate retirement income and maximize inheritance, and those who want to spend it all while they are living.  All prudent retirement plans should employ these three tactics.  By not following a disciplined plan, the margin for error increases dramatically and the more prone the plan is to risk of failure.

Max spending with no inheritance

For the client who wants to maximize spending without leaving any inheritance, it can sometimes be unnerving as a financial advisor.  However, we start with the same process of unpacking the goals and stress testing those goals based on the income sources and risk tolerance.  The challenge is to figure out a scenario where the withdrawal rate in their last year of life is nearly 100%.  Obviously, I say this tongue-in-cheek as that would involve knowing exactly how long the client will live.  However, we will use our best guess based on longevity in their family history and our life expectancy calculators.  Once we see how much cash can be raised from the portfolio, I will show the client the withdrawal rates over time, assuming an average expected return.  Let’s take a look at this client below.  She doesn’t have children and wants to spend it all while she’s alive.  There are some charities she could leave it to, but she will probably give them money during her retirement years, especially when Required Minimum Distributions kick in.  So, we went towards the path of max spending and dying without any assets left. 

For this client, you can see the withdrawal rates start around 6%-10%/year the first 4 years.  At age 70 she will begin taking Social Security and the withdrawal rate goes down a bit.  However, looking into her late 80s and 90s, you can see how the withdrawal rates ramp up and at the last year of life expectancy, she is taking out nearly 100% of the portfolio balance.  Obviously, you can see the reason this is unnerving.  What if she lives longer than 94? What if there is a long-term care need or major healthcare expense?  What if we have lower than expected average returns?  What about inflation?  All of these stress tests failed miserably in this type of scenario.  Therefore, after sharing these results and discussing the potential risks, we backed down the rate of withdrawal slightly to create a buffer for those unexpected events.  The good news is, I will continue to revisit this with her and track our progress as time goes on.  If we run into some challenging conditions, we can have that discussion about trimming the withdrawal rate.  Conversely, if we are going through periods of significant growth, we can potentially spend more or gift more in those years.  I find this is a nice balance between maximizing spending, but also not doing something that will impact her ability to be financially independent.  Nobody wants to be a burden on others!

In summary, withdrawal rates are not static in our world.  We need to be dynamic to adjust to the cash needs of our clients.  Additionally, the withdrawal rates will be driven by the primary goals of the client, the income sources available to achieve those goals, and the capacity for risk.  This formula will bring to light what a reasonable amount of income that can be taken from the portfolio would be, adjusted for inflation over time.  There is not one right answer, and it’s important to take all of your financial planning considerations, tax considerations and investment considerations before making any decisions.

My firm specializes in this type of planning and we are happy to help you prepare for retirement. You can schedule a no obligation initial consultation here, or by giving us a call at 904-323-2069.

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The “Tax Trap” of Traditional 401ks and IRAs

They say it’s not what you earn, it’s what you keep. I agree with this wholeheartedly as it relates to not spending more than you make (obviously). However, in my line of work, being sensitive to the TAX efficiency of a retirement plan is critical. If I can save my clients $10,000 or even $20,000/year in taxes during retirement, that’s huge!