A bunch of rulers that say "The 4% rule"

Understanding the 4% rule

Hello to all my financially savvy readers out there! If you’ve been following my journey for a while, you know that I’m all about helping you find those creative pathways to an early and enjoyable retirement. Today, I’m thrilled to delve deep into a topic that has been making waves in the early retirement community: The 4% rule.

Understanding the 4% Rule

First thing first: What is this rule?

Originating from the Trinity Study in the 1990s, the 4% rule is a guideline for retirement withdrawals. It suggests that if you withdraw 4% of your retirement savings in the first year and adjust that amount for inflation each subsequent year, your savings should last 30 years, given a mix of stocks and bonds in your portfolio.

Example: According to the rule, if you’ve amassed a retirement nest of $1 million, you’d start by withdrawing $40,000 in the first year. You’d increase that amount slightly each year after to account for inflation.

Why It’s Loved (And Loathed)

The Pros:

  1. Simplicity: The 4% rule gives retirees a straightforward benchmark.
  2. Historical Backing: Past market performance data largely supports its feasibility.

The Caveats:

  1. Fixed Time Horizon: It assumes a 30-year retirement. But what if you retire at 40 and live to 100?
  2. Variable Market Conditions: No one can predict the future. Market downturns or prolonged recessions can affect the sustainability of this rule.

Diving Deeper: How Did We Land on the Magic Number “4%”?

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

While widely discussed, the allure of the 4% rule often leaves many wondering: Why 4%? Why not 5% or 3%? To truly appreciate this number, we must journey back in time and dive into the intricacies of market returns and financial research.

Historical Market Returns

Before we dissect the 4% rule, let’s glance at the broader picture of the stock market. Historically, the U.S. stock market, represented by indices like the S&P 500, has enjoyed an average annual return of around 7% after accounting for inflation. This might seem promising, but it’s essential to remember that this figure is an average. In reality, the stock market’s performance sees highs and lows, with some years seeing tremendous growth and others marked by significant losses.

The Birth of the 4% Rule: The Trinity Study

Photo by Simon Berger on Unsplash

The 4% rule was birthed from a landmark research piece known as the Trinity Study conducted in 1998 by three professors from Trinity University. They sought to determine a “safe” withdrawal rate for retirees that wouldn’t deplete their savings prematurely.

The study examined various withdrawal rates and portfolio compositions (mix of stocks and bonds) across rolling periods of 15 to 30 years, using historical stock and bond returns from 1925 to 1995.

The findings? For a diversified portfolio (consisting of both stocks and bonds), a withdrawal rate of 4% maintained a high success rate of not running out of money within 30 years.

The Underlying Assumptions of the 4% rule

  1. Inflation Adjustment: One cornerstone of the 4% rule is its consideration for inflation. Each year, the withdrawal amount is adjusted to account for inflation, ensuring that the retiree maintains consistent purchasing power throughout their retirement.
  2. Portfolio Composition: The 4% rule’s “safety” heavily depends on the portfolio’s allocation. The Trinity Study found that portfolios with at least 50% invested in stocks tended to fare better. This is because stocks, despite their volatility, offer the potential for higher returns compared to bonds.
  3. 30-Year Retirement Window: The rule assumes a 30-year retirement period. This timeline was chosen as it comfortably exceeds the average retirement span for someone retiring at 65. But, it’s worth noting that a longer retirement period might warrant a more conservative withdrawal rate for early retirees or those with longevity in their genes.

But Why Not 5% or 3%?

While 4% emerged as a “safe” number, it wasn’t the absolute maximum. Higher rates, like 5% or even 6%, also had reasonable success rates but with a higher probability of depleting one’s savings prematurely. On the other hand, a rate lower than 4%, say 3%, would almost certainly ensure that a retiree wouldn’t run out of money but might be overly conservative, potentially leaving a significant unused nest egg.

The 4% rule is grounded in rigorous historical analysis but is not a one-size-fits-all decree. It emerged as a balance between ensuring retirees could enjoy their savings and minimizing the risk of outliving their assets. As with all financial strategies, the beauty of the 4% rule lies in its adaptability. Depending on individual circumstances, risk tolerance, and market conditions, retirees can and should adjust their approach to best suit their unique journey.

Venturing Beyond

While this makes for a fantastic starting point, early retirees, in particular, might want to consider these alternatives:

1. The Variable Percentage Withdrawal (VPW): Instead of a fixed 4%, the VPW adjusts based on your portfolio’s performance and your age. In good years, you treat yourself a bit more; in lean years, you tighten the belt.

2. The ‘Bucket’ Strategy involves having multiple ‘buckets’ of money. One might be for short-term expenses (cash), another for medium-term (bonds), and a third for long-term growth (stocks). You draw from them in that order, letting the long-term investments grow.

3. Flexible Spending Models: Instead of rigidly sticking to a percentage, adjust your spending based on life and market realities. Maybe you’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights. Save a bit one year, and splurge the next!

The Emergency Fund: Your Safety Net Beyond the 4% Rule

When discussing the 4% rule and early retirement strategies, it’s imperative to address another cornerstone of financial wisdom: the emergency fund. This fund is your financial parachute, there to catch you during unexpected turbulence.

Why an Emergency Fund?

The principle behind the 4% rule is a calculated drawdown of your retirement nest egg over time. But life, as we know, is full of surprises. Medical emergencies, unexpected home repairs, sudden travel necessities, or global economic downturns can strike without warning. When these unforeseen expenses arise, the last thing you’d want is to pull more from your retirement savings and risk derailing its long-term sustainability.

Enter the emergency fund.

How Much Should You Keep?

The typical advice for an emergency fund, especially for those in the workforce, is to have 3-6 months of living expenses set aside. Given the longer retirement horizon and the potential for more significant unplanned costs, early retirees might be wise to aim for a buffer covering 6-12 months of expenses.

This ensures that you won’t need to touch your main retirement fund during most unforeseen situations, keeping your 4% strategy (or any withdrawal rate you’ve settled on) intact and on track.

Where Should You Store It?

Your emergency fund needs to be:

  1. Liquid: You should be able to access it quickly without any substantial penalties.
  2. Safe: This is not money to be gambled with or put at risk.

Given these criteria, high-yield savings accounts, money market accounts, or short-term CDs (certificates of deposit) are typically the go-to choices. While the interest on these might not be as flashy as stock market returns, their primary purpose is safety and accessibility, not growth.

Replenishing the Fund

Once you dip into your emergency fund, make a plan to replenish it. This might mean adjusting your expenses for a short while or allocating a small portion of your annual 4% withdrawal toward the fund until it’s back to its target level.

While the 4% rule provides a roadmap for navigating the financial journey of retirement, an emergency fund is like the spare tire in your car — you hope you never need it, but when you do, you’ll be grateful it’s there. Keeping these funds separate fortifies your financial strategy, ensuring that unexpected bumps don’t derail your retirement dreams. It’s not just about being prepared; it’s about peace of mind. Knowing you have a backup can make your retirement journey all the more enjoyable and stress-free.

Tools to Guide You

  1. Online Calculators: Websites like FireCalc can simulate how long your savings might last with different withdrawal rates.
  2. Financial Planners: A good advisor can help tailor strategies to your unique situation.

Reading Recommendations

For those of you hungry to dive deeper:

  1. “The Simple Path to Wealth” by J.L. Collins – A guide to achieving financial independence and retiring early.
  2. “Your Money or Your Life” by Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez – A transformative outlook on money, helping you connect your finances with your values.

In Conclusion

Remember, while the 4% rule is a solid foundation, the path to early retirement is deeply personal. Whether you’re a die-hard 4% supporter or eager to explore new strategies, the goal remains: Achieving a retirement that lets you live on your terms.

Stay savvy, dream big, and keep crunching those numbers!

Happy retiring,
Jon Kuperman






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