How Much Can You Withdraw From Your Portfolio in Retirement?

The Case for a 3% Drawdown

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Many people wonder exactly how much to withdraw from their portfolio in retirement to keep from running out of money. Once you can figure out a safe number based on your situation, the knowledge will go a long way toward helping you know how much more to save, and how you need to budget once you've retired.

Until recently, the commonly accepted rule of thumb said to withdraw 4% each year. However, now experts are stating that 3% might be better.

Why Is the 4% Rule so Popular?

A 1994 study by financial adviser Bill Bengen showed that the principal investment of retirees who withdrew 4% from their portfolios each year stayed mostly intact. By holding a conservative portfolio that produced enough yearly returns, they were able to keep pace with inflation.

Your investment account's principal will dwindle over time. However, with the 4% rule and a decent return on your investment portfolio, it should happen at a very slow pace. This means that you, as a retiree, are statistically likely to maintain the bulk of your portfolio's value throughout your life.

For decades, 4% has been the standard protocol in determining how much you need to save for retirement. For example, a $1 million retirement portfolio will provide you with you a retirement income of $40,000 per year ($1 million times 0.04 equals $40,000). A $700,000 portfolio will land you a retirement income of $28,000 per year ($700,000 times 0.04 equals $28,000).

Why 3% May Be a Safer Figure

However, some investors question the 4% rule, worrying it is too aggressive of a withdrawal rate. These experts say lower bond yields, like those seen in the 2000s and 2010s, make it much more likely for a portfolio to run out of money with that rate of withdrawal. Also, they warn that even if bond rates do rise again to historical rates, projected portfolio failure rates may still be higher than what most retirees would be willing to accept. As a result, many now recommend a 3% withdrawal rate.

The two important reasons behind this recommendation are inflation and lower portfolio values.

How Inflation Affects the Benchmark

When Bengen performed his benchmark study in 1994, the average return you could get from conservative investments such as bonds, CDs, and Treasury bills was 5.1%. In 2019, however, Treasury yields were 1.52% and inflation was just over 2%. 

As inflation rises, there's a greater chance the returns on safe or conservative investments won't keep pace. Therefore, withdrawing from your portfolio 4% might be too aggressive a rate, because the growth on your investments can't keep up.

Lower Portfolio Values

The value of your portfolio is volatile. It depends on how well the market is doing. If you adhere to the 4% rule, you'll need to adjust your lifestyle based on market volatility.

For example, during a bull market, your portfolio may be worth $1 million. A withdrawal rate of 4% means you'll have $40,000 to live on each year. During a market tumble, however, your portfolio may sink to $850,000. If you adhere to the 4% rule, you'll have to get by on only $34,000 that year.

If you're locked into certain fixed expenses and can't live on less money, this is where things get tough. If you need $40,000 to pay your bills, you'll end up selling more of your portfolio when the market is down.

A market downturn is the worst time to sell because you'll get less money for your securities. Also, you'll be reducing the amount of principal you can use to generate future interest income.

That's partly why today's financial advisors are telling people to plan for a 3% withdrawal rate. This advice follows the idea of "hope for the best, plan for the worst." Plan your necessary expenses at 3%. If stocks tumble and you're forced to withdraw 4% to cover your bills, you'll still be safe. This means that the same $1 million portfolio will generate you an income of $30,000 per year rather than $40,000.

The Bottom Line

Don't panic if you're nearing retirement and your portfolio isn't close to $1 million or more. This example is for planning purposes only. Other factors such as your pension, Social Security, royalties, and income from rental properties will change your calculations.

Your expenses in retirement might also be lower than you think. Once your mortgage is paid and your children have grown, your bills will be much smaller. Your tax rate during retirement might also decrease.

The bottom line is that it's important to prioritize saving for retirement. Save aggressively through 401(k) plans, Roth IRAs, and other long-term investments such as rental properties. You'll thank yourself when you're older, as you'll be able to enjoy retirement with more peace of mind.

Article Sources

  1. Journal of Financial Planning. "Determining Withdrawal Rates Using Historical Data." Accessed Feb. 7, 2020.

  2. Journal of Financial Planning. "The 4 Percent Rule Is Not Safe in a Low-Yield World." Accessed Feb. 7, 2020.

  3. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. “December 19, 2018: FOMC Projections Materials, Accessible Version." Accessed Feb. 7, 2020.

  4. Schwab. "2020 Market Outlook: Fixed Income." Accessed Feb. 7, 2020.