Determining how much of your retirement nest egg to withdraw each year can be stressful. You want to take out enough to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, yet the idea of running out of money is frightening. The 4% rule can help.
How it works
The 4% rule is derived from a 1994 study of stock and bond returns from the 1920s through the 1970s. The author of the study concluded that, regardless of the market’s ups and downs, there was no historical scenario under which annual 4% inflation-adjusted withdrawals would exhaust a retirement portfolio in less than 33 years.
To apply the rule, begin by withdrawing 4% of your portfolio in the first year of retirement. For example, if you’ve saved $2 million, you would withdraw $80,000 in the first year. To maintain your purchasing power, you would increase your withdrawals each year to keep pace with inflation. For example, if the inflation rate is 2.5%, you would withdraw $82,000 in year two and $84,050 in year three.
Exclusive use discouraged
Although the 4% rule can be a useful tool, relying on it exclusively may be dangerous. As with all investing rules, the fact that it worked in the past is no guarantee it will work the same way in the future. Today’s low bond interest rates may not even support a 4% withdrawal rate. Interest rates were substantially higher when the rule was established, and some experts believe that a 3% rule may be more realistic.
Also, if your portfolio contains more high-risk investments than the typical portfolio, the rule may not protect you in the event of a significant market downturn. What’s more, people are living longer and retirement periods well over 30 years aren’t uncommon. Planning for a 30-year retirement could leave you short of funds.
Then there’s the risk that a 4% annual withdrawal is less than you can afford and will lead you to miss out on some of the pleasures of retirement. The rule provides some protection against running out of money, but a large percentage of retirees who follow it end up maintaining or even increasing the size of their nest eggs by the end of the 30-year time horizon.
So think of the 4% rule as a guideline. You might withdraw 4% the first year and then re-evaluate the lasting power of your savings annually. Talk to your financial advisor about a withdrawal strategy that takes into account your unique circumstances.