ON THE JOURNEY to retirement, should you focus on setting a retirement spending budget or on making sure you have adequate retirement income?
I think the answer is obvious: There’s no point deciding on a budget until you know how much money you’ll have available to spend. And yet I hear about people who devote endless hours to detailing precisely how much they’ll spend in retirement on everything from housing to travel to health care to dining out.
I WAS 24 YEARS OLD when I started working fulltime. My salary at that first job wasn’t great—I was making about $16,000 a year—but the retirement benefits were stellar. As a government employee, I was entitled to enroll in the state’s pension plan. Every month, the government contributed an amount equal to some 17% of my salary. The money was guaranteed to never earn less than 8% interest a year. Most years, the rate of return was much higher.
MANY FOLKS ARE do-it-yourselfers when it comes to home improvement projects. On that score, I have no skills, so I end up paying others. In fact, in high school, I was so anxious to avoid metal shop and woodshop that I opted for typing and four semesters of bookkeeping.
It’s a different story when it comes to my finances. Yes, I use an accountant to file my taxes. But helped by both a degree in finance and the Chartered Financial Analyst designation,
WANT TO RUFFLE some feathers? All you have to do is utter “FIRE movement” on social media or in a crowded room of financial advisors. FIRE—short for financial independence/retire early—has grown ever more controversial as rising stock prices have fattened the portfolios of super-savers and brought their early retirement dreams closer to reality.
I fit the mold of the super-saver. I’ve saved 90% or more of my after-tax income over the past few years.
MY FIRST JOB AFTER college was at a global engineering firm. A roommate also worked there. It was a tedious office job, but my bosses thought I had potential and encouraged me to study engineering, which I didn’t.
Instead, I quit and went to graduate school to study linguistics, a field where I observed the most professors having the most fun. My last paycheck at the engineering firm included an extra sum. It was a refund for a retirement account that had failed to vest because I hadn’t stayed long enough.
THE PANDEMIC HAS given many folks a taste of what retirement could be like. An abrupt end to work. A loss of social connection. Trying to make ends meet on a much lower income. Many haven’t been happy with the experience.
Worried that your retirement could be similar? Here are eight lessons we can learn from the pandemic, all drawn from my new book, Retirement Heaven or Hell:
1. Retirement can be a shock.
I WROTE MY FIRST column for HumbleDollar four years ago. In that article, I described how a midlife divorce had forced me to learn as much as I could about investing and personal finance. As part of that education process, I spent hours creating spreadsheets designed to predict my financial health over the next decade.
Planning didn’t seem difficult back then because my life was quite simple. I shared a one-bedroom apartment with my elderly dog.
AS SOON AS THE BALL dropped, ushering in the new year, I got my ball rolling, making contributions to three tax-favored accounts. Why did I do this in January? I like my investments to have all year to grow.
I go through the same routine every year, and it’s always a chore. I invariably forget what to do and, in any case, the steps involved often change.
The first account I contributed to was my Roth IRA.
THERE ARE TWO GREAT debates in retirement planning: whether the famous 4% rule is valid—and how much income folks need, relative to their final salary, to retire in comfort.
I find both subjects frustrating, in part because there’s so little consensus. I also find much of the advice way too complicated for the average American.
I participate in NewRetirement’s Facebook group and occasionally give my views on both topics. I recently expressed the opinion that the goal in retirement should be to replace 100% of the base income you earned immediately before retirement.
HOW DO WE GET from here to retirement? Amid the financial markets’ daily turmoil, it might seem like one big crapshoot.
But in truth, navigating this journey is pretty straightforward, because there are just five key variables—our time horizon, current nest egg, savings rate, target nest egg and investment return. With a few tweaks to these “dials,” we may discover it’s far easier to reach our retirement goal. Which dials are most effective? Much depends on how close we are to retirement age.
AS MY WIFE AND I approached our June 2014 retirement, I set out to consolidate and simplify our investments.
The first account I dealt with was my 403(b). Fidelity Investments was handling the 403(b) plan for the University of North Carolina System, which is where I worked. But while Fidelity was the administrator, the plan included several Vanguard Group funds, to which I’d been contributing. This was where I had the majority of my retirement money.
I’D LIKE TO DESCRIBE—and recommend to you—what I’ll call the John Cleese approach to financial planning. It is, in my view, the simplest and most effective way to think about saving for retirement or any other goal.
John Cleese, the English actor and comedian, is largely retired. But in an interview, he described his approach to getting work done. When he had a weekly TV show, Cleese said, he didn’t worry about being unproductive some days.
IF A SALESPERSON had tried to get me to sink my hard-earned money into an investment that’s illiquid or issued by an insurance company, I would have shut down in a New York minute—until now.
My spouse and I recently became owners of a deferred income annuity (DIA), with plans to put perhaps 15% of our savings into these products. Also known as longevity insurance, a DIA involves plunking down money today in return for regular monthly income starting at a future date.
I GREW UP IN INDIA, where I worked for a few years before venturing overseas and finally emigrating to the U.S. In our culture, most parents feel responsible for their children until their offspring are fully settled in their career and their life, which is often well into adulthood. In turn, the children feel dutybound to support their parents in old age, financially and otherwise.
This cultural tradition is mutually beneficial when both parents and children can fulfill their respective responsibilities.
IN SUMMER 2012, my boss of 17 years announced he planned to retire the following year. I had enjoyed working for him and considered him both a mentor and a friend, and I had some trepidation about working for a new manager at this late stage in my career. While I enjoyed my job and was good at it, and I liked most of the people I worked with, it was a stressful, demanding position,