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Converting Savings to Retirement Income

During your working years, you’ve probably set aside funds in retirement accounts such as IRAs, 401(k)s, or other workplace savings plans, as well as in taxable accounts. Your challenge during retirement is to convert those savings into an ongoing income stream that will provide adequate income throughout your retirement years.

Setting The Withdrawal Rate:

The retirement lifestyle you can afford will depend not only on your assets and investment choices, but also on how quickly you draw down your retirement portfolio. The annual percentage that you take out of your portfolio, whether from returns or both returns and principal, is known as your withdrawal rate. Figuring out an appropriate initial withdrawal rate is a key issue in retirement planning and presents many challenges. Why? Take out too much too soon, and you might run out of money in your later years. Take out too little, and you might not enjoy your retirement years as much as you could. Your withdrawal rate is especially important in the early years of your retirement, as it will have a lasting impact on how long your savings last.

One widely used rule of thumb on withdrawal rates for tax-deferred retirement accounts states that withdrawing slightly more than 4% annually from a balanced portfolio of large-cap equities and bonds would provide inflation-adjusted income for at least 30 years. However, some experts contend that a higher withdrawal rate (closer to 5%)may be possible in the early, active retirement years if later withdrawals grow more slowly than inflation. Others contend that portfolios can last longer by adding asset classes and freezing the withdrawal amount during years of poor performance. By doing so, they argue “safe” initial withdrawal rates above 5% might be possible. (Sources: William P. Bengen, “Determining Withdrawal Rates Using Historical Data,” Journal of Financial Planning, October 1994; Jonathan Guyton, “Decision Rules and Portfolio Management for Retirees: Is this ‘Safe’ Initial Withdrawal Rate Too Safe,” Journal of Financial Planning, October 2004.)

Don’t forget that these hypotheses were based on historical data about various types of investments, and past results don’t guarantee future performance. There is no standard rule of thumb that works for everyone — your particular withdrawal rate needs to take into accounting many factors, including, but not limited to, your asset allocation and projected rate of return, annual income targets (accounting for inflation as desired), and investment horizon.

Which assets should you draw from first?

You may have assets in accounts that are taxable (e.g., CDs, mutual finds), tax deferred (e.g., traditional IRAs), and tax free (e.g., Roth IRAs). Given a choice, which type of accounting should you withdraw from first? The answer is — it depends.

For retirees who intend to leave assets to beneficiaries, the analysis is more complicated. You need to coordinate your retirement planning with your estate plan. For example, if you have appreciated or rapidly appreciating assets, it may be more advantageous for you to withdraw from tax-deferred and tax-free accounts first. This is because these accounts will not received a step-up in basis at your death, as many of your other assets will.

However, this many not always be the best strategy. For example, if you intend to leave your entire estate to your spouse; it may make sense to with-draw from taxable accounts first. This is because spouses are given preferential tax treatment with regard to retirement plans. A surviving spouse can roll over IRA or retirement plan funds to his or her own IRA or retirement plan, or in some cases, may continue the deceased spouses’ plan as his or her own. The funds in the plan continue to grow tax deferred, and distributions need not begin until the spouse’s own required beginning date.

The bottom line is that this decision is also a complicated one. A financial professional can help you determine the best course based on your individual circumstances.

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