A common question in the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) community involves how much money you need to retire. Before I became a card-carrying member of the community I would hear the question maybe a dozen times per year. This blog means I hear the question a lot more these days. And people still don’t believe my answer.
There is a great misperception over how much money is needed to cash a check and walk your own path. I’ve consulted with 70 year old men worried they don’t have enough to retire. In the FIRE community younger people are more interested in the same question with a different set of rules.
Social Security changes all the rules. The 4% rule is wildly off the mark because they forget two simple facts; facts we will cover right now.
How Much is Enough
I will use one example to outline how much you need to retire. It is easy to adjust to fit your personal circumstances.
This exercise began when I started to wonder how much Social Security I’ll receive monthly at 70. We will not use my actual numbers. Instead, we’ll use a hypothetical married man my age. (I don’t use my actual numbers since they are atypical.)
Later this month I’ll tip the age scale at 54. Yeah, I know. Never thought I’d live that long either. It also brings up a few interesting facts. First, I qualify for early retirement (qualify for early discounted Social Security) in eight years. (Where the heck did the time go?) Full retirement for Social Security is 13 years away and I can get a bump in my benefits every year I wait until 70, or 16 years. Regardless, Medicare is for the taking at 65, or 11 years for your favorite accountant.
So how much do you think I need to call it a career? A million? More?
It all depends on my spending habits really. Depending on the circumstances, most years I spend about $20,000. Some years I spend as much as $30,000 in the event the car dies (every twenty or so years) or some other personal adventure arises. Summertime is low spending season. An average summer month sets me back $600-$800. Rare is the non-winter month that sees a four-figure reversal on my spending fortunes. Winter is another matter. December is property tax month. January (February, too) is cold in backwoods Wisconsin. The utility bill gnaws at me the entire time. By the time the frost clears I’ve lost $20,000 of weight for the year from my money belt.
The 4% rule (bandied about in the FIRE community a lot) says you need a cool $625,000 to be safe with a $25,000 annual withdrawal rate. This is just plain stupid! You don’t need $625,000 to retire with a $25,000 annual budget!
Here are the two mistakes most people make. First, it assumes you’ll never earn another penny after you retire. Oh, for God’s sake people! You will earn money after you retire, if only by accident. Heck, you can sell tradelines if you’re allergic to work and need a thousand or so each month to supplement your wants.
Time for Math Class, Accountants
Let me ask you this. If you have $625,000 at age 54 and withdraw 4% ($25,000) annually, how much do you have at age 70? Answer: More than Zero! The 4% rule is considered a safe withdrawal rate to never run out of money in retirement.
But this assumes you want to leave a legacy at least as big as your net worth pile right now! If 4% is a safe withdrawal rate then in all but the rarest of circumstances the account balance will continue growing!
The second mistake people make when deciding how much they need to retire is using the 4% rule rather than amortizing the liquid net worth balance over the maximum years needed before another form of income (pension, Social Security) kicks in.
There are plenty of amortization calculators around the web. I’m using the program inside my tax software. I asked my amortization program a simple question. How much will I need today to withdraw $25,000 annually for 16 years (remember I’m 54 and want to wait until 70 before drawing Social Security) at a 4% return? Since many people consider the 4% rule safe (as do I) it is acceptable to amortize the liquid net worth balance at a 4% investment return rate.
My tax software says I need $291,307 (I rounded) to make this work. I’ll have exhausted my liquid cash at the same time Social Security kicks in. (Assumptions: withdrawals for the year are in one payment in advance with the money market holding the funds prior to use earning 0% with the first payment drawn the first day to account for an immediate retirement and the next full year withdrawal of the first day of each fiscal year.)
This is a far cry from $625,000! The amortization solution doesn’t take into account several factors. You are likely to earn at least a small amount of income in the next 16 years, but inflation is not factored in so buying power slowly erodes. It also assumes the stock market (I assume we’re using broad-based index funds) only performs at half its historical average. That is a serious assumption! Odds are the market will do better and you will still not use up your nest egg by the time Social Security kicks in. If fact, it’ll probably be bigger than when you started.
The Crazy FIRE People
The crazy FIRE community needs even less than my calculations indicate. When a 35 year old walks into my office and wants to know how much more he needs to retire when he has $200,000 stashed away already and no debt I tell her she can retire today. After they break the dead stare they think I’m joking. I’m not!
Once again we are assuming the $200,000 will only throw off $8,000 per year under the 4% rule. Not so. Once you give up on the rat race you can join a race you really enjoy! If you’re 35 you need something to fill your time. First, you are likely to move to a lower cost area if you don’t already live in one. (My low living expenses are partly a product of geography. New Your City or most of the West Coast would force me to talk out the other side of my mouth.)
Second, you’re 35 years old!!! There is only so much travel or golf a guy can handle. It gets old fast, becoming the new rat race you want out of. Then reality sets in and your interests bubble to the top. A side hustle you always wanted to try is now a viable option. It doesn’t have to pay tremendous amounts of money. Your cost of living will decline unless you engage stupid spending habits. If you have said habits it is unlikely you’ve read this far. (For the rest of you, this way.)
Using the assumptions above, the $200,000 amortized over 32 years will throw off a bit more than $11,000. Still not enough to retire.
But if you spot a 35 year old $11,000 per year and she only needs $25,000 per year to live you have a helluva start!
If you can swing $1,200 per month with a side hustle you can retire at 35! Yes, Social Security might be pretty small, but your side hustle will add to your account when calculating benefits. At full retirement a husband/wife team should realize around $2,000 a month even with the low earnings assumed here! Retiring at 35 with $200k is doable if you have any interest at all in any activity with potential to throw off an income stream.
Crybabies this Way
The information above has the tendency to bring out the crybabies. “I can’t do that! Waaaa!” “It’s impossible! Waaaa!” “I want my mommy! Waaaa!”
Your mommy isn’t here so pull up your shorts and listen. $200,000 is a bit light to retire on at 35, but not bad for someone a certain accountant’s age. Amortized over a shorter period means you will have enough until pensions and Social Security kick in.
At 35 you will be required to still earn some coin. Notice I didn’t say work. Please don’t break out in a rash.
A seasonal or part-time job can provide enough money to enjoy a very joyful and full life. The first ingredient is cutting out all the stupid spending! The more you spend annually, the more you will need at the start to make it to the finish line!
If you live in a high-cost area it many require a move. If you stay put you need to adjust my numbers. Younger people need to calculate on their age, not mine! If you have a higher lifestyle than mine you’ll need more to start unless you plan on spending more time on your side hustle.
Until your health gives out or you die, you will bring in more income than you realize. Just doing the stuff you enjoy doing has a tendency to become an income source. Even small income sources do wonders to your investment account. Using your favorite accountant as an example, the lower spending habits of summer means money is left to earn more before it is spent. Every nickel earned on the side is one nickel less needed from the nest egg to appreciate the awesome retired life you desire.
You probably worry as much as my clients about how much you need to retire. Financial advisors always scare you with big numbers. It’s good for them when they get more of your money. The truth is you don’t need as much as you think to have a comfortable retirement with spare change for some travel and entertainment.
And for God’s sake, please don’t be that guy who has $200,000 in cash, a $25,000 annual spending budget and is 65 with Social Security checks for him and his wife totaling over $3,000. Just don’t be that guy. You’re never going to run out. Now go and enjoy your life.
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Friday 13th of January 2023
Really well written but you could leave out God's wrath. I'm a believer and don't like to see His name desecrated.
Monday 4th of July 2022
This has to be one of the most eye-opening articles I have ever read. I retired one year ago at 61 and was a little worried if we could make it comfortably to age 70 (5k/mo Social security combined) until SS kicked in, maybe having to start at 67. I (now) have a little over one million in my 403b, and 100k in Roths, and fairly low annual expenses (~$65k) including paying 14k/yr retiree health insurance ($0 deductible on almost everything) from my workplace. After reading this and redoing my calculations, I will make it by a comfortable margin. A game-changer for me. I will likely not spend much more after knowing this, but what I learned in this article has greatly relieved me. I probably could have retired a few years earlier with this knowledge. After being retired a year, and not being big on travel, l can see the benefit of a little bit of side work, and I don't mean so much financially. Thank You
Keith Taxguy, EA
Monday 4th of July 2022
Karl, I'm glad the post helped.
Like you, many people are worried about running short. When you start looking more broadly at your finances things are rarely as bad as anticipated, even in the current bear market.
Thank for visiting.
Monday 8th of July 2019
When I did the numbers for my now husband (wasn't when he retired). If he delayed taking his SS rather than starting at 62 and instead started pulling from his 401k, he'd run out of money a year sooner due to missed earnings. For me I'm a couple years behind you, playing with a full deck of cards and waiting on my severance check. I'm tired of working and have NO plans to pick up any side hustle. I can't imagine doing anything else than what I currently do, and nothing else pays nearly as well. Oh and I don't need to call for my momma, she's calling for me all day long as I've become her primary care giver...oh about that side hustle :(
Friday 29th of March 2019
My parents (76 & 79) resemble the “frugal” concept and it is something I didn’t find attractive.
I’m 58 and retired two days before my 57th birthday. On my retirement date, I had 800k in various investments. In the last 16 months my net worth has decreased by 5k (and that includes buying a new car and paying 2 years of health premiums to my wife’s employer.). At age 60, I will receive $1,350 a month from the State of NC + 100% health care paid under the States retirement plan.
Three simple steps brought me to this point :
1. Paid off house as quickly as possible 2. Started making monthly 401k contributions at age 30 3. I had the foresight to relocate to NC and get a state job which would pay full health care benefits. At age 44 I needed to work only 5 years to obtain 100% paid healthcare upon reaching age 60.
Retirement is Great!
Sunday 10th of February 2019
Great article! I was laughing out loud. I'm 51 and currently "on sabbatical" and enjoying myself tremendously (and candidly I'm shocked at how LITTLE I'm spending). I will return to work eventually (there's a lot I get from work in addition to money) but definitely enjoying the time freedom for now. Thanks for the reality check that you DON'T need $5M or $10M in order to retire (like that crazy Suze Orman INSISTS)!