When to Crack Your Nest Egg

Retirement: it’s a phase of life many look forward to, but it’s also one of the hardest to plan.  Sure, there’s the question of how much, often referred to as your “number”—the amount of savings you’d need to be able to comfortably retire. Conventional wisdom has long relied on the “4% Rule” to help hopeful retirees calculate this number: the annual income you want or need throughout retirement (not including Social Security income) should represent 4% of your total savings upon retirement. So, if you’re targeting $150,000 in annual retirement income, you’ll need $3.75 million saved the day you retire.

While this rule of thumb may be helpful in its simplicity, that simplicity can leave many ill-prepared for the financial realities of retirement.

While the 4% Rule asks how much, it doesn’t ask how long. The 4% Rule assumes a 30-year retirement. If you don’t expect to live that long, perhaps you don’t need the full $3.75 million. Then again, if you midjudge your longevity, you could deplete your savings years too soon.

The 4% also doesn’t ask how you expect to live during retirement. In our experience, clients often underestimate how much their current lifestyle really costs, while they overestimate their ability to remain healthy and independent as they age.

Perhaps most importantly in our current market, the 4% Rule fails to ask when.

And when it comes to retirement, it’s not just a question of how big your nest egg is. It’s also a question of when you crack it.

Let’s suppose for a moment that you’ve worked to accurately quantify your retirement needs. You’ve even built in some you wiggle-room for unexpected expenditures. You feel confident in your $3.75 million nest egg number, and you plan to withdraw $150,000 a year. So long as the market is able to return 5% on your investments, your calculations tell you you’re headed for a long, financially secure retirement.

However, in your second year of retirement, the market takes a significant downturn. Suddenly, instead of the 5% return on your investment you’d planned for, your portfolio is now yielding a -12% return rate, as you continue to make withdrawals. After several years, the market rallies, and over the course of your entire retirement, your portfolio still manages to average 5% returns over time. However, averages can be deceiving.

Thanks to that drop in the market early in your retirement, you ate into your nest egg at a faster rate than anticipated, meaning any future market gains were made on a smaller egg. The earlier in your retirement you face a bear market – or worse, a recession – the more magnified is its negative impact and the harder it is for your savings to rebound. This is known as sequencing risk, and it’s of particular concern to those looking to retire just as the market prepares for a downturn.

The fourth quarter of 2018 was certainly such a downturn, and there continue to be predictions of a deeper bear market and possibly a recession.  And while it’s unclear if or when these predictions will come true, those approaching retirement must consider if, when, and how to do so in the face of such uncertainty. Some may decide to continue working to provide extra cushion for their nest egg.   For those who cannot or don’t want to wait, there are specific strategies we recommend for mitigating sequencing risk, including asset allocation strategies, distribution or “bucket” strategies, and flexible spending strategies. These contingency plans will be explored in subsequent blog posts; please stay tuned.


Suzanne T. Mestayer


For disclosures, please click here.