Insights categories - Retirement

PART 10: Retiring? The five most important decisions to ensure your income lasts

Planning is essential to ensure your retirement money lasts as long as you do.

Before you retire, it is crucial to have a frank look at your finances to assess what your needs will be during this phase of your life, and plan accordingly. There are two key financial risks you face in retirement: You could outlive your capital or inflation could erode your money’s buying power.

Think carefully when you make these five important decisions to ensure that your retirement income lasts.

Decision #1: Guaranteed or living annuity?

Investors often feel that they need to choose between a guaranteed life annuity and a living annuity, but a combination of both may also work in some circumstances.

A guaranteed life annuity will pay you a pre-determined income for as long as you live, effectively insuring you against the risk of living too long. The income you receive is influenced by your age and the current interest rate. The older you are and the shorter your life expectancy, the higher the income you’re likely to receive. A guaranteed life annuity does not usually allow you to leave an inheritance, and once you have purchased a guaranteed life annuity you cannot transfer to a living annuity. 

Guaranteed life annuities remove the risk of selecting inappropriate investment choices and protect you from drawing too much of your capital in the early years, as well as insure you against living too long. Once you’ve bought your annuity, your terms are set for life, and there is no flexibility.

Living annuities, on the other hand, give investors flexibility. They allow you to choose your underlying investments and to determine your income rate (within the legal limits). They allow you to take less income now, so that your capital can grow for later in life, and leave capital behind for others. However, with flexibility comes market and longevity risk.

If you go the living annuity route you need to make sure there is no disconnect between your expectations, the way you construct your portfolios and the amount of income you draw.

Decision #2: What is an appropriate drawdown rate?

If you are invested in a living annuity, the most important decision you will make is to decide what level of income you can live on, also known as a drawdown rate, within the confines of the legal limits (between 2.5% and 17.5%).

US financial adviser William Bengen’s research suggests that 4% is an appropriate drawdown rate, and this has become a rule of thumb.

Bengen suggests:

However, many of our living annuitants report that 4% of their investment is not enough to fund their lifestyles. Our research suggests that many retirees take a conservative approach to spending, which means that they simply have not saved enough.

Personal circumstances and needs are unique, so if you are uncertain about what your withdrawal rate should be, the best is to seek help from a good, independent financial adviser.

Decision #3: Choose your asset allocation

Careful asset allocation is particularly important in a living annuity, because the decisions you make will influence how much your investment will grow and last and what standard of living you will be able to afford. 

Bengen’s theory suggests that investors should maintain at least a 50% allocation to equities.

Many retirees make the mistake of investing too conservatively. People are living for longer, which means you need at least some of your investment to be positioned for growth.

Decision #4: Account for inflation

You need to protect the buying power of your capital. Assuming inflation is 5% and you draw an income of 4% per year, the required rate of return on your investment has to be at least 9% to protect the buying power of your capital. Anything less than that and your capital will diminish.

The reality is that a significant portion of the total return of an investment compensates for inflation first before any real return is earned.

Don’t underestimate the negative effect of inflation on your capital, particularly when interest rates are low and inflation is high. Inflation erodes the seemingly secure fixed interest return received on bonds and cash.

Decision #5: Should you increase your withdrawal rate each year?

Don’t be tempted to increase the percentage of your annual retirement income without understanding the risks.

Bengen’s research concludes that, if you follow his theory by maintaining a 50% allocation to equities, draw down 4% and only adjust your figure by inflation each year, you will enjoy an income for at least 30 years in nearly all circumstances.

While 4% proved sustainable in almost all scenarios, 5% would have run out before 30 years a third of the time. Increasing annual withdrawals by inflation alone and rebalancing annually is essential for the 4% rule to hold.

This article forms part of a series that you can access here.

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