How Can You Be Sure You Have Enough to Retire?

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Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further

If you’ve been contributing to a 401k and socking away money for retirement, you probably think you have enough. But you’d better brace yourself for the shocking truth. Unless you’ve taken into account how old you were when you started on your retirement plan, you most likely don’t.

The bottom line is that most people don’t really know how much they’ll need for retirement and without knowing that how can you be sure you’re on the right track to get there? Consider that the average American works hard and plays hard, but reaches age 65 with a median 401k balance of $110,000. Is this enough?

That depends. You’re going to need a bigger nest egg than you probably think – 10/10/4 is a handy principle you should learn.

What is 10/10/4 and how can it help?

In short you need to save at least 10% of your income for retirement. You need to have a nest egg lump sum which is 10 times your annual earnings upon retirement. Finally, you should withdraw up to 4% of your next egg in retirement to avoid outliving your money.

Put simply, 10/10/4 is a strategy that takes into account which leg of the journey toward retirement you are on and provides appropriate recommendations along the way. It’s easy to remember and can be put into practice at any time.

Rule #1

If you are in your 20’s now is the best time to start contributing to your eventual retirement. The first “10” in 10/10/4 refers to the idea of contributing 10% per year to your 401k or IRA.

At age 25, only saving 10% of your income per year into a 401k or IRA, is required to replace 70% of your pre-retirement income, and at age 20 it’s only 8%. Note this includes any company matching, so if your employer matches 2% for example, you would only need to save 8% per year. At age 20 or 25, time is on your side.

If you did start saving at age 20 or 25, go out and celebrate, you are on the right path already. You can enjoy 90% of your income today and save 10% for tomorrow – this will take some sacrifice, but it’s doable.

However, most of us did not do that early enough.

Missing this “window” is all too common. After many years go by, you will eventually wake up and look around, and see time is the real problem. The closer you get to retirement, the harder it gets to save for it.

For example, if you start saving for retirement at age 35, you would have to save 17% of your income to achieve the same goal, a daunting task. At age 45, the percentage of your income you would have to save is 31%, which, for most of us is essentially impossible.

All of these questions assume you start at a set age and continue to save at a set rate. But in reality, life is much more complicated.

For example, what if you start saving at age 25, then move to another job; stop saving for a few years and then start again? In other words, what if your savings are not linear?

There is no calculator we have ever found that will model this real world possibility of skipping years, or playing catch-up very fast without making the estimation process extremely cumbersome.

This is where the second “10” comes in. This means that if you missed rule #1, and your life got complicated, then you must save enough to reach rule #2, which is often much harder than starting early.

Rule #2

Rule #2 says that, by the time you are 65, you will need 10x your income immediately prior to retirement to retire at the level you want. Therefore, say you plan a lifestyle of living in the south, on a beach, but with health care coverage, some travel and a few hobbies. You’ve calculated that will require $100,000 in yearly income.

Therefore, you will need 10x that income, or $1,000,000 at age 65. The second “10” gives you the proper perspective.

Even if you get your target income down to $80,000 before taxes, you will still need $800,000 at age 65, significantly more than $110,000.

Rule #3

Okay, now you are ready for the third and final level of 10/10/4, so what is the “4”? The “4” means 4% is all you can take out – especially in the early years of retirement and still have confidence that your money will last throughout retirement. If you plan to take out more in the early years, you could have a big problem in volatile market times such as those we are experiencing now.

The issue is the fluctuations in the stock and bond markets are a natural occurrence. Therefore if you retire at age 65, and have 60% in equity and 40% in bonds (a moderate investment allocation), you might still have 30 more years to live and no job because there are not a lot of jobs of jobs available for a 65 year old. Yes, the problem is that we live too long after age 65 – health care advances have been too successful.

The related problem is the wide range of normal volatility in these stock and bond markets and the fact that you may end up retiring in some very difficult times for returns, such as 2000, 2001, 2007, or 2008. If the markets are in decline right at the time you retire, it is going to be much more difficult than anticipated to make ends meet.

The experts look at all the probable outcomes and the models show that a 4% withdrawal rate in the early years is the maximum rate that will preserve capital with normal volatility, until you have been retired for 5-10 years. That means that if times are really rough in the first few years that you retire, and your target was $1,000,000, you might really have to live on 4%, or $40,000 per year until you get through the bad years. That is the realty for many people who have retired recently.

Think of 10/10/4 as 3 windows into your life plan. If you are fortunate enough to have succeeded in hitting the first “10” (saving 10% of our income and you started in your 20’s) and the second “10” (on track to hit 10 times your income goal at age 65), then to be sure of a secure retirement work on this third and final goal, “4”.

There are practical ways to live for a few years on 4% of your retirement balance if times are tough in the early years of your retirement. You may want to work part time if needed by obtaining a skill that does have a market at age 65. Perhaps you can turn a hobby such as photography or playing a musical instrument to your financial advantage? Or build an extra cushion in your balance for these contingent years if you retire and then experience some bad stock and bond market performance in your first few years.

10/10/4 is a tool you can use at any age and it will serve you well. If you are in your 20’s sign up for 10% in your 401k or IRA and think of the 90% you get to enjoy today. Live 90% today and 10% tomorrow. You will have to make a few sacrifices but you can do it.

If you are in your 30’s or 40’s you are starting to see the problem. If you do not see progress toward the 10x goal, usually because you started too late, or skipped some years, then you will have to save much more now to catch up.

That’s why it’s so important to make sure you aren’t leaving money on the table. If you’re in your first job, make sure you are enrolled in your employer’s 401k plan. If you’ve just changed jobs, don’t leave money sitting in your previous employer’s 401k account. Instead, move it into an IRA rollover account where you have more control over fees and more investment choices.

Start today because your future depends on it.

Save more, spend smarter, and make your money go further