When to Crack Your Nest Egg: Part II

In our January blog post, we explored the question of when to retire—more specifically, the portfolio implications of retiring at what could be the beginning of a bear market. In light of recent volatility in public markets and anticipation of a long overdue downturn, sequencing risk is of particular interest to clients approaching or considering retirement—and understandably so.

For those who cannot or don’t want to wait to retire under more favorable market conditions, there are specific strategies we recommend for mitigating sequencing risk. These contingency plans help us to focus on those things we can control and to feel more confident in our preparation. Before cracking that nest egg, we suggest you consider:

Retirement Buckets

A distribution or “bucket” strategy provides short-term certainty without sacrificing long-term security by divvying up your retirement funds into buckets that differ in asset type, purpose, and time frame. For example, you might create three buckets as follows:

  • Cash (or cash equivalents) to be used for the upcoming year or two of expenses. This provides a regular source of cash without feeling pressured to liquidate other investments at an inopportune time; instead, those assets can stay invested while waiting for the market to rally.
  • Bonds and fixed-income investments, which are less prone than stocks to suffer significant market downturn. A properly structured bond portfolio can serve as a well-defined annual source of investment income to help replenish Bucket 1 if needed.
  • Stocks (or other equity investments) to sustain the nest egg for the long term. When market performance exceeds expectations, the excess appreciation can be used to replenish Buckets 1 and 2 if needed. On the other hand, when performance disappoints, Buckets 1 and 2 carry you through without having to sell stocks at a point of lower (or no) returns, providing critical peace of mind to stay the course and ride out market volatility.

Flexible Budgets

Spending needs change over time, and the same is true during retirement. Perhaps you hope to enjoy lower budgetary needs now that the kids are grown; perhaps your medical costs will unexpectedly rise in the years to come; or perhaps you hope to celebrate your freedom with an extravagant trip abroad.

We strongly encourage all our clients – not just those facing possible sequencing risk – to take a hard look at how they currently spend their money, set honest expectations around how those budgetary needs might change (for better or worse) during retirement, and quantify the cash flow realistically needed to retire. During this exercise, build in flexibility by identifying any items which might be postponed or eliminated should the market turn (for example, that trip abroad can probably wait, while medical expenses probably can’t).

Additionally, withdrawing a percentage of your retirement funds each year – rather than a fixed amount – further mitigates sequencing risk by reducing the impact of your withdrawals on top of the impact of lower returns. However, this strategy requires that you be able to live within a spending range that might fluctuate from one year to the next based on market performance, rather than adhering to a fixed annual budget.

Withdrawal Sequencing

Be thoughtful when prioritizing accounts for withdrawals. While fulfilling your Required Minimum Distribution amounts from your IRA or 401(k) comes first, consider following with more tax efficient non-taxable withdrawals from an HSA or Roth account.  Individual situations may vary, so be sure to work with a tax advisor to optimize the impact on your tax liabilities.

Buffer Asset Inventory

Take stock of any assets you may have that can be used, if necessary, to buffer cashflow shortfalls during a market downturn. Consider the cash surrender value of a life insurance policy, or selling that rarely used lake house. Despite the negative reputation of reverse mortgages, there are situations in which even these can be effective tools for supplementing retirement income.

Of course, you may choose to employ one, two, or all of these mitigating strategies to best prepare yourself for retirement, even if the market’s timeline doesn’t seem to align with yours. When in doubt, always seek the advice of a professional who can help you weigh your options and develop a thoughtful, well-rounded retirement plan that ensures you spend those golden years focused on filling the soul, not the coffers.


Suzanne T. Mestayer


For disclosures, please click here.