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: How to make your money last in retirement

Lots of research has been done on the best way to generate retirement income. It’s one of the most popular financial topics. I think this popularity is driven by two things: its obvious importance—and the fact that there’s no one right answer.

By contrast, figuring out how much we need to save for retirement is relatively easy. It isn’t hard to pick a future retirement date, or at least a range of years during which we’ll likely retire, and then figure out how much we ought to be saving. But when it comes to generating retirement income, none of us knows how long we will live, what markets will do or what our healthcare needs will be. There are also subjective questions, like how much do we want to leave to our heirs?

Read: Saving for retirement is easy enough — spending it is more complicated

Last November, Morningstar released a report analyzing a variety of methods to determine a retiree’s safe portfolio withdrawal rate. At 59 pages, it’s quite extensive, but well worth the read. It analyzes several withdrawal strategies, provides pros and cons for each, and ends with a process to develop an individual retirement income plan.

One of the options it considered is the so-called RMD withdrawal strategy. Under this plan, annual withdrawals are based on your portfolio’s previous year-end balance. You withdraw a percentage of your portfolio consistent with the required minimum distribution (RMD) guidelines provided by the IRS life expectancy tables. Under this scheme, your income would rise or fall as your portfolio’s value changes.

The online financial planning magazine ThinkAdvisor recently asked three retirement planning experts for their views of the RMD withdrawal strategy versus the better-known 4% rule. Under the 4% rule, you withdraw 4% of your portfolio in year one, and then increase that amount by inflation in year two and subsequent years. The 4% rule has been criticized for a host of reasons. Some say 4% is too high given today’s low bond yields and high stock valuations. Others say the strategy is too robotic in the face of plunging financial markets.

Michael Finke, a professor at the American College of Financial Services, doesn’t like the possible income shock of the RMD approach. If a retiree is heavily invested in stocks, a serious down year could slash her income the following year.

“A better retirement plan evaluates how much of the budget is flexible and how much is inflexible,” Finke said. “Then build an investment plan that doesn’t expose inflexible spending to either market or longevity risk.” Finke said his experience shows that about two-thirds of retirees’ expenses are fixed. The RMD strategy might work for just the subset of the portfolio devoted to flexible spending, because the strategy tends to deliver fluctuating amounts of income, Finke argued.

By contrast, David Blanchett, former head of retirement research at Morningstar, likes the RMD approach because it ties withdrawals to a retiree’s age. He recommends that retirees get a realistic estimate of their longevity, however, rather than just relying on the IRS tables.

Blanchett gave this example: If you estimate your life expectancy as 20 years, you could start with a 5% withdrawal rate. If you have 25 years left, then a 4% withdrawal rate is more appropriate. What if you’d previously been withdrawing 8%? The RMD strategy delivers a wake-up call that you need to cut back.

Christine Benz, director of personal finance at Morningstar, said the RMD method is efficient at “helping to ensure that a retiree spends most of his or her money.” But she said the method is “not very livable” because it can deliver extreme fluctuations in income to retirees with higher stock allocations.

Another concern Benz raised: The RMD life expectancy tables are based on average life expectancies. Retirees with longer-than-average lifespans run the risk of running out of money. Also, their balance might dwindle when they’re elderly—just when they may face huge expenses for medical or custodial care.

In short, three of the leading voices in retirement planning gave three different assessments of the RMD strategy. I find this same kind of disparity among my friends, family and colleagues. We each look at the retirement income question through our own lens.

For example, some might take modest withdrawals so they have plenty left to meet high medical costs late in life. Others might hope for the best and spend more freely. Yet others choose to live frugally throughout retirement, in hopes of leaving the maximum amount to their kids.

Each of us must answer questions like these for ourselves and plan accordingly. Figuring out what’s most important to you and your spouse is essential. Many people’s views are based on their experiences with their parents and family. This is useful and should be a part of the analysis. But we should also be open to new ideas. Retirement income planning is such a complex subject that we can all benefit from hearing what others think.

This column first appeared on Humble Dollar and was republished with permission.

Richard Connor is a semiretired aerospace engineer with a keen interest in finance. Follow Rick on Twitter @RConnor609 and check out his earlier articles.

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