Retirement may be the best time to “eat your principal”

Jeff Bernier |
By Jeff Bernier

It’s an investing rule of thumb you probably learned from your grandfather: “Don’t eat your principal!” And Grandpa was no fool. Living off your dividends and assets alone means you aren’t spending down the engine that drives your retirement income. As a result, your principal can continue to work for you for the rest of your life. But while the theory makes sense in some cases, times have changed quite a bit since your grandparents were planning for retirement. And those changes just might mean Grandpa’s guidance is far from the best advice for today.

Consider this scenario: Your retirement is six months away. To prepare, you meet with your financial advisor armed with clear instructions to reallocate your portfolio to tilt towards high-yield, dividend paying, and fixed-income assets. After all, you need to generate income now that your earning years are in the rear-view mirror, so it’s the obvious choice. But is it the best choice for you? Here’s why your grandfather’s trusted rule of thumb may be the very last approach you want to take in 2017:

  1. Your life expectancy is wonderfully long!  If, like mine, your grandfather retired at age 65 in 1964, his life expectancy was just 67 years old. Your grandmother fared a bit better, with a life expectancy of almost 74. Compare that to today when, according to the Social Security Administration, a man reaching 65 can expect to live, on average, until age 84, while a woman of the same age can expect to celebrate her 86th birthday. That longer life is wonderful, but adding 15-20 years on to the average retirement duration means one thing: you need a different retirement income plan than your grandparents. (And keep in mind that the averages aren’t the best guide regardless: my grandfather died at age 99 in 1998!)
  2. The current bull market has a lot of gray hair.  The equities market just celebrated its own big milestone: 100 months. And while that may not sound so old, remember that, historically, the average bull market lasts about 55 months. Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily headed toward a correction or even a major downturn, but a bear market will come our way at some point, and your strategy should reflect that reality.
  3. Everyone is reaching for the same fruit.  Interest rates have been so low for so long that almost everyone is faced with the challenge of desperately seeking yield. The result: high-yield products are expensive! Demand is high and supply is limited, so investors end up overpaying for high-yield assets. Shifting into high-quality bonds and other low-risk, high-yield options in retirement may have provided sustainable outcomes in the past, but today they offer little hope of generating the level of income you need to fund decades of retirement.

Bonds may no longer be the wisest option in retirement, but it’s also clear that while equities offer the greatest opportunity for long-term returns, they also present a level of short-term volatility that can introduce greater uncertainty in retirement. So while volatility can be your friend when you are still adding to your nest egg, the game changes when it’s time for retirement and money is coming out of your portfolio at a steady drip. So what’s the solution?

Take two full years of distributions out of your portfolio on Day #1 of your retirement.

Put these funds in a Short Term Portfolio and begin taking monthly distributions immediately. That’s right. Kick off your retirement right by doing the unthinkable and eating a small piece of your principal! Grandpa may not have approved, but strategically spending down your Short Term Portfolio right away has major advantages in today’s modern-day retirement environment.

The most important advantage of this strategy is that having a two-year “bucket” of assets provides an important safety net, giving your portfolio the ability to withstand any immediate market volatility. Because you won’t be forced to take money out of the Long Term Portfolio for the next 24 months, your portfolio is protected from near-term “sequence of returns risk”—a significant risk to your portfolio that can be posed by even minor negative returns in the first decade of retirement. It can also give you the tremendous psychological benefit of knowing that you’ll have guaranteed income every month for the next two years. And if you’re able to draw those funds from a taxable account, because you’re withdrawing principal, that income is tax-free.

Hypothetically, let’s suppose you know you need  $8K each month to fund your retirement, and you’re slated to receive $2K a month from Social Security and $1K a month from your company pension. To provide the remaining $5K each month, you need to take a distribution of $60K each year from your portfolio. Instead of dangerously repositioning your Long Term Portfolio for higher yield and taking all the income, you transfer  $120K on Day #1 into a Short Term Portfolio, divided equally between money market funds and (depending on market conditions) short-term bonds. (Note that this Short Term Portfolio is in addition to your Emergency Reserve Account of fully liquid assets to cover 3-6 months of expenses.) From your Short Term Portfolio, you set up automatic monthly distributions of $5K per month.

With your first two years of income covered, you now have the freedom to maintain a more strategic Long Term Portfolio that includes the remainder of your assets. The icing on the cake is that your Long Term Portfolio can be positioned to take advantage of market opportunities—and you can use the annual income from that portfolio to replenish your Short Term Portfolio (a move that may make Grandpa a little more at ease with your approach after all).

Of course, everyone’s needs are different, so discuss this option with your advisor to be sure this strategy makes sense for you. If it is a good fit, you can gain the advantage of 100% guaranteed income for the first two years of retirement—right when the risk to your portfolio is the greatest in the event of a market downturn. What a relief! And because your portfolio hasn’t been relegated to a traditional low-return “retirement” portfolio concentrated in bonds, your portfolio can be positioned for a much higher total return. To top it off, you’ll be saving on taxes, and you’ll have the tactical freedom to adjust your strategy based on the market—not your immediate income needs in retirement.

Heading into retirement at the tail end of a bull market can be scary, especially when you think about the many years ahead. No one can control the market, but by focusing on what you can control, you may be able to truly have your cake and “eat your principal” too. Grandpa would be proud!

Want to learn more? Click here for 10 tips for Pursuing a Better Investment Experience.


TandemGrowth Financial Advisors

Do you need a clear financial path? Start the conversation.

No matter where you are in your journey, our goal is for you to be better able to navigate and have clarity and confidence in the future.

Talk to an Advisor. Start here.