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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brown

Creating a Retirement Glidepath: Investment Issues and More

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Are you starting to think about when you might retire? We don’t mean daydreaming about someday when you’ll stop working and have lots of free time. We mean seriously thinking about retiring in the next few years. If so, it’s time to start seriously considering a retirement glidepath to prepare both your investments and your psyche for what will be a significant change in your life.

A Glidepath, Not One Big Leap

It’s stating the obvious, but when you stop earning a paycheck or receiving regular income from work, you will rely on other sources to cover your living expenses. Here’s the good news: assuming you have been putting money into tax-deferred retirement savings and other investment accounts, paying Social Security taxes, or participating in a pension plan for much of your adult life, you’ve been planning for this for a long time. Depending on your circumstances, you may want or need to strategically reallocate the location of some of these assets to make sure they can provide the steady cash you will need when you stop working.

Typically, this means increasing your exposure to bonds and reducing your exposure to stocks. While bonds usually offer lower returns than stocks, the income from bonds can be substantially less volatile and, therefore, more stable. When you rely on your savings to generate regular income for you every month, “stable” becomes more attractive.

Of course, this does not mean moving your entire investment portfolio into short-term high-grade bonds. A mix of 60% stocks and 40% bonds is common for someone approaching retirement. Yet, what’s best for you depends… on your age, health, risk capacity (your mathematical ability to endure market losses), risk tolerance (your emotional response to market losses), risk preference (your desire for risk and associated returns), your aspirations (the timing and amounts of significant expenditures), and more. The question, "What investments give me the best investment returns?" may need to be addressed alongside the question, "Would gradually adjusting my mix of investments to prepare for this next phase of life increase or decrease the probability of achieving the outcomes that are most important to me?”

How long should your “retirement runway” be?

Airplanes stay at a high altitude to optimize speed during most of a flight and begin a gradual descent when they are about 100 miles from the airport. Similarly, you don’t want to start adjusting your investment mix when retirement is just a faint blip on your radar screen. However, you don’t want to start your “descent” too late, either – that could force you to make some less-than-optimal maneuvers. Again, the right timing depends… on your current and projected cash flows, the size of your nest egg, and many other factors. There is no hard-and-fast rule, but starting two or three years before retirement is often sensible.

Why so far in advance? Because it can take equity markets that long to recover after a significant downturn, and we don’t know when a downturn will happen. If you wait until just before you retire to adjust your investment mix, then, even if you decide to hold off and wait for a rebound and refrain from making large purchases, you would still be forced to sell more stocks at low prices to generate the basic income you need to live. That means your nest egg is smaller when the markets inevitably rebound. The key takeaway is that reducing your investment principal early in retirement can have a dramatic negative impact due to the reduction of compounding interest throughout the rest of your lifetime.

How much will your savings have to cover?

Most people expect to use Social Security benefits or a pension to pay some of their living expenses in retirement. To estimate how much you will also need to withdraw from your savings, you need to understand what your total expenses are likely to be when you retire. That’s not the topic of this article (for help with this, download our Lifetime Living Expenditures worksheet), but forecasting your expenses in retirement is fundamental for making future projections to make sound decisions now.

The less cash you will need from your investments, the more investment risk you can afford to take, and the more minor the adjustment you will need to make in your portfolio. You can run a simple calculation by estimating your monthly expenses, then subtracting your “guaranteed” income - often just the amounts you will receive from Social Security or a pension, and the difference is essentially the amount you can expect to draw from your investments. There is an old notion that you should aim to live off the income your investments generate—interest from bonds and some stock dividends (although dividends are less certain than interest). However, we would argue that this approach would constrain your portfolio in a way that may not be good for you. The end goal is to maximize the probability of achieving your goals and aspirations, and targeting a certain investment income is rarely the ideal solution to that equation.

Different Types of Accounts, Different Glide Paths

Here’s an essential aspect of designing an optimal glide path strategy that many overlook: you may want or need a different path for your taxable savings versus your tax-deferred accounts! Why? Because, most likely, you will not start to withdraw money from your various accounts simultaneously.

In many cases (we’ll talk about the exception in a bit), the glide path for your tax-deferred accounts should target the year you must start taking distributions from the account. Beginning in 2023, the age to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) jumped from 72 to 73; starting in 2033, it goes up to 75. You should also consider your strategy for claiming Social Security benefits—if you are in good health, it can make sense to delay taking Social Security to maximize those benefits. So, there are a lot of pieces of this puzzle to consider.

Let’s look at one example:

Joe is 63 and plans to retire at age 67. He is in good health and wants to delay claiming Social Security until he is 70 to obtain the 8% per year social security benefits increase. While he could withdraw money from his 401(k) as soon as he retires (the minimum age for withdrawals is 59½), he will have to pay ordinary income taxes on that money. Putting this all together, Joe should consider using his taxable savings (since only the growth is subject to capital gains taxes) to cover 100% of his expenses for the first three years of his retirement. He should look at how much income his taxable savings have generated each year for the past five years to see how much more he should expect to withdraw to cover his living expenses comfortably.

When Joe turns 70, he will start receiving Social Security and can reduce the amount he withdraws from his taxable account. He will need to take RMDs from his tax-deferred retirement investments at the new, higher age when he reaches 75. That will further reduce the amount he will need from his taxable account, and he may even shift some of that money back into stocks.

What about leaving an inheritance?

Joe also wants to maximize what he can leave to his adult children when he is gone (that should not, in our view, take priority over Joe’s actively enjoying his retirement, but that is a personal choice). There are a few considerations when planning on passing money to heirs.

First, your heirs will have to withdraw all of the money from tax-deferred accounts within ten years of the date the account is inherited and will pay ordinary income taxes on that money. If your adult children earn a good living and you leave them a lot of money in your tax-deferred accounts, that additional money could push them into a higher tax bracket.

For example, if Joe has four children and leaves $1 million in tax-deferred accounts to be divided equally, each one will have to withdraw and pay taxes on ~$25,000 per year for ten years. That’s a tidy sum, but it may not affect their tax brackets. The impact is very different if Joe has just one heir who will have to withdraw ~$100,000 annually, especially if they are already in a high tax bracket.

In contrast, for tax purposes, the investments in your taxable accounts “step up” to their market value the day you die or the alternative valuation date six months later. Your heirs are not required to take any distributions from an inherited taxable account. Of course, when the investments are in their names, they will owe taxes on any income and capital gains the account generates.

This gets to the “exception” mentioned above. If you have a large amount of money in your tax-deferred accounts and someone other than a spouse is the beneficiary, you may want to “glide” toward withdrawing from your tax-deferred accounts sooner than your RMD age to preserve more in the taxable accounts where heirs are not required to take distributions.

We use the term “waterfall” to describe the order in which retirees should tap into various accounts – taxable versus tax-deferred – to fund their living expenses. If you have substantial assets, the best order for your retirement waterfall will depend partly on how many heirs you have, their income levels, and the impact it could have on their tax brackets. This strategy can be a complicated optimization problem where an expert with specialized knowledge and software can add tremendous value. Believe it or not, mitigating taxes like this is more important than optimizing your investment returns! Give your withdrawal sourcing strategy the energy and attention it deserves.

Getting Ready To Retire Involves More Than Money

In our view, a retirement glidepath is about more than adjusting your investment mix – it’s also about preparing yourself socially and emotionally for this change. Americans who are healthy at age 50 can expect to live at least to their early 80s. So, if you are in good health and retire at age 65, you can expect to live (on average) about 20 years in retirement. Our “base” plans typically have women living until 93 and men living until 90. From there, we can model longevity risk. What will happen if you live till 99 or 100?

The Harvard Business Review reports on a Health and Retirement Study whose authors analyze data showing that people who retired at 66 rather than 65 lived longer. But, they caution it’s not as simple as “retire early, die earlier; retire late, die later.” The authors emphasize the many social benefits of working: being active and engaged, talking with peers, and so on.

If you enjoy your work, you might reduce your hours instead of stopping entirely or switching to a consulting arrangement. That would not only generate income, but it would also maintain some of the social structure that work provides. If you want to stop working entirely, consider how you can stay active and engaged (hobbies, taking a class, volunteering, etc.) because losing that when you retire can harm your health.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently reported that social isolation is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily, even more significant than the impact associated with obesity and physical inactivity.

Retirement can be a delightful and rewarding time, especially if you are financially and emotionally ready when the time comes. If you need help preparing, we recommend reading So You Think You Are Ready to Retire? by Barry LaValley. Barry shared some insights at a Gold Medal Waters presentation a few years back.

We strongly encourage people to consider a glidepath toward a financially and emotionally healthy retirement. Contact us to learn more about how Gold Medal Waters can help to design the glidepath that is right for you.


Advisory Services are offered through Gold Medal Waters, a Registered Investment Advisor. This post is for informational purposes only and its contents should not be construed as a recommendation. The information presented should not be used in making investment decisions. Investors should carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses associated with any investment. Information shared from third-party sources is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute investment advice and is not intended as an endorsement of any investment or recommendation. While Gold Medal Waters believes information derived from third-party sources to be accurate and reliable, we do not claim or have responsibility for its completeness, accuracy, or reliability. Statements of future expectations, estimates, projections, and other forward-looking statements are based on available information at the time of these statements. Accordingly, such statements are inherently speculative as they are based on assumptions that may involve known and unknown risks and certainties. Actual results, performance or events may differ materially from those expressed or implied in such statements.


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