Social Security Provides Majority of Retirement Income for Most Americans

The Washington Post has a rather depressing article on The New Reality of Old Age in America, which includes the following chart about Social Security:

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For 1/3rd of recipients age 65+, Social Security represents 90% or more of all their income. For 61% of recipients age 65+, Social Security represents at least half of all their income. In other words, Social Security is the cornerstone of retirement for the majority of Americans. Not a company pension. Not IRAs or 401k withdrawals.

Many articles like to explain how waiting until age 70 (the latest possible) to start withdrawals is mathematically the best move, but in reality the most common withdrawal age is 62 (the earliest possible). You only get about 75% of the monthly benefit at age 62 as compared to waiting until “full” retirement age (66 for current new retirees), but you get the money sooner.

Young people like to say things like “I don’t plan on Social Security being around when I retire”. (I probably said something like this too when I was in my 20s.) I have since talked to people whose sole income is Social Security. Nowadays, I don’t see how it could go away.

Health Insurance Premiums: Average Annual Cost $19,000 Family, $6,000 Individual

healthThe Wall Street Journal recently published (paywall?) a chart showing how the average cost of employer-provided health coverage for a family has changed from 1999-2017. The total average annual cost was $18,764 for a family and $6,690 for an individual in 2017. The data source is an annual poll of employers performed by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation along with the Health Research & Educational Trust, a nonprofit affiliated with the American Hospital Association.

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In very rough terms: a single adult is ~$500 per month ($6,000 per year), and a family is about $20,000 a year. These numbers agree overall with the preliminary health insurance quotes that I have gotten for my own family.

In addition to the rising premiums, the average annual deductible is now over $1,200 for a single worker.

The implications for an prospective early retirees are obvious. How are you going to cover this huge expense? Here’s a quick brainstorm of options. Spoiler alert: There is no easy fix.

  1. Use an Affordable Care Act (ACA) plan and get a subsidy if your income is low enough to qualify. Do a lot of reading, then hope it doesn’t change?
  2. Plan ahead with a job that offers health insurance benefits in early retirement (don’t have to be a certain age). You’ll probably have to hunker down with the same employer for a number of years.
  3. Save enough money (or create enough income) to pay for health insurance premiums. Try a managed-care system like Kaiser for a low-cost HMO plan.
  4. Find a part-time job that you both enjoy and offers health benefits.
  5. Run a part-time side business that earns enough profit to cover health insurance costs. Look for potential group discounts or tax breaks that are available as a business instead of a consumer.
  6. Now and later, look for a high-deductible health plan (HDHP) and fund a Health Savings Account (HSA) due to the tax advantages.
  7. Join a direct primary care arrangement or health care sharing ministry that is exempt from ACA.
  8. Extend your current employer coverage for up to 18 months through COBRA (check cost).
  9. Move to a foreign country with reasonable and transparent cash pricing.

Am I missing anything? Right now, we have #4. My family’s future plan is a mix of #1, 3, and 5. However, #5 could push us over the income limits for #1.

Absolute vs. Relative Standard of Living: What is Enough?

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I’m currently reading University of Berkshire Hathaway: 30 Years of Lessons Learned from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger at the Annual Shareholders Meeting by Daniel Pecaut and Corey Wrenn. As opposed to a rehash of the BRK shareholder letters, it contains highlights from listening to Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger live during the shareholder meetings in Omaha, Nebraska from 1986-2015. (The equivalent of a live Beyonce or Springsteen concert for investing geeks.)

I’ve always appreciated that Buffett and Munger are very rational and practical people, and one theme that I picked up from this book was the concept of absolute vs. relative standard of living.

What is enough? You’ve probably heard some variant of the phrase “live like a college student” when talking about how to save money. I certainly used this tactic successfully for many years, and Buffett explains why it makes sense:

Buffett contended that the average college student has the same standard of living as he does. Same food. No important difference in clothes, cars, TVs. After you have enough for daily life, all that matters is your health and those you love. Likewise in work, what really matters is that you enjoy it and the people with which you work. Munger concluded humorously, “What good is health? You can’t buy money with it.”

Ask yourself: Does this make me healthier? Does this let me spend more time with the people I love? Does it give me valuable knowledge? Think about how a large portion of the luxury world exists without actually improving your quality of life: luxury cars, designer clothing, fancy purses, fancy watches.

Stop comparing yourself to others. Buffett reminds us that envy is the worst among the seven deadly sins. You feel miserable with no upside at all. (The rest are gluttony, greed, lust, sloth, wrath, and pride.)

If someone else is getting rich, so what? Someone else will always be doing better. He asserted that the notion that an investor or investment manager should be “required” to beat everyone else is nonsense. The real key is to know what you really want to avoid and give those things a wide berth (such as a bad marriage, an early death, and so on). Do this and life will go much better, he advised.

I think this concept is under-appreciated in the investment world. You manage to lose a little less money than a benchmark and you still “win”? Think about the people who have quietly gotten rich with rental properties. They don’t worry about benchmarks, they just make sure the rent checks come in and the building is maintained. When they can, they buy another property. Over the long run, it works out just fine. You could do something similar by regularly buying a Vanguard Target Retirement Fund, Vanguard Balanced Fund, or even Vanguard Wellington Fund.

Money vs. Quality of Life. Make no doubt about it, Buffett enjoys having a lot of money. I imagine he treats it like a video game with dollars instead of points. However, he separates money and quality of life. That’s what has let him decide to give almost all of it away to charity. He’s donated over $27 billion already, with a total amount that could be over $100 billion (depending on the future value of Berkshire stock):

Buffett added that as far as he’s concerned, he hasn’t given up anything. He hasn’t changed his life. He couldn’t eat any better or sleep any better, so he really hasn’t given up anything. Someone giving up a trip to Disneyland to make a donation is the one making a real sacrifice.

These simple quotes can provide a basic outline for early retirement. First, try your best to stop comparing yourself to others, as that’s a game you’ll never win. Besides, if you act and spend like everyone else, then you’ll be working as long as everyone else. Next, decide what kind of daily lifestyle is “enough”. Does that require spending $30k a year? $50k a year? $80k a year? Now work to save 25 times that amount. $30k a year = $750,000. $50k a year = $1.25 million. (You might want to revisit the “enough” question after doing this multiplication…) That’s a nice rough number. Now work on the income side of the equation while keeping your spending side in check. In the meantime, enjoy your awesome quality of life. Appreciate the good stuff like nourishing food, hot showers, comfortable beds, nature, air conditioning, friends, and family.

Tough Times for Conservative Income Investors

JP Morgan Asset Management recently released the Q3 2017 update to their Guide to the Markets, which is another of those resources worth bookmarking for future updates. Some folks put a lot of time and energy into it, and it contains a lot of interesting charts and graphs. Here’s just one that caught my eye.

I consider myself a relatively conservative income-oriented investor, and this chart shows why it’s been a tough several years to be that type of investor. For much of the last 30+ years, you could have put your hard-earned money in an FDIC-insured certificate of deposit and enjoyed a guaranteed return above inflation. This isn’t even when shopping around for the top rates, just taking the average bank CD rates.

saverincome

Nowadays, you’re just trying to keep the bleeding to a minimum, jumping at the chance to grab a 3% APY long-term CD that might just keep up with inflation.

This also partially explains why the stock market keeps going up and up. Which would you rather have?

  • FDIC-insured cash savings that gives you $1 in annual interest per $100 invested, or a
  • S&P 500 ETF with a 4% earnings yield and 2% dividend yield? In other words, a basket of companies that for every $100 invested earns $4 a year in profit and out of that gives you $2 a year in cash dividends?

I really can’t complain as my overall portfolio of stocks, bonds, and bank CDs has more than doubled in the past several years. Yet, I also share that vague feeling of uneasiness with many other investors.

Solo 401k – Best Retirement Plan for Self-Employed Business Owners

solo401kThe wealth management group Del Monte published a whitepaper on Solo 401k plans, calling it the “financial industry’s best kept secret” and a “powerful and underutilized” retirement plan for self-employed business owners. The 4-page PDF does a good job at summarizing the benefits of a Solo 401k, aka Self-Employed 401k. Perhaps most importantly, the Solo 401k allows the maximum annual tax-sheltered contribution (or ties for the max) for all income levels and ages.

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Here’a a quick benefit comparison against the SEP-IRA and SIMPLE IRA:

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The key difference is the Solo 401k allows an $18,000 salary deferral at any income (i.e. if you make $18k or under, you can put aside all of it) for 2017 and then adds on a profit-sharing component. In addition, Solo 401ks a larger additional “catch-up” contributions at age 50.

I’ve had a Self-Employed 401k through Fidelity for several years, and I have been quite happy with it. The paperwork has been minimal, although you must start filing IRS Form 5500-EZ once your asset exceed $250,000 or face significant penalties. (It’s one page long.) It has been quite flexible – I am able to purchase mutual funds, ETFs, individual stocks, CDs, and individual Treasury and TIPS bonds. There is no annual fee and I’ve only had to pay trade commissions. Fidelity also accepts rollovers from outside IRAs and 401k plans.

Vanguard, Schwab, and TD Ameritrade also offer cheap in-house Solo 401k plans that work well for low-cost DIY investors. There are now several independent providers with “custom” 401k plans which can offer features like 401k loans the ability to invest in alternative asset classes (precious metals, tax liens, real estate, private equity, etc.) at additional cost. Vanguard and TD Ameritrade offer a Roth option; Fidelity and Schwab are only available with “traditional” pre-tax contributions.

Another option to consider is the Solo Defined-Benefit Plan, or “Solo Pension”. The annual maintenance fees are higher and the IRA requirements are significantly more complex, but you can make much larger amounts of tax-deferred contributions (dependent on age and income). The most affordable option appears to be the Schwab Defined-Benefit Plan. If anyone has any experience with this plan, I’d like to hear about it and would be open to a guest post.

Pretirement App: Interactive Countdown Clock to Financial Freedom

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What would you do if you knew that skipping that morning $4 coffee/muffin combo every day would get you 8 months closer to financial freedom? What if I told you that buying that $40k car instead of the $25k one would only extend your working years by 3 months? That’s the entire purpose of the Pretirement app (Apple iOS/Android):

A financial independence app that instantly converts spending or savings decisions into days, weeks, or years of your life.

After you supply some initial numbers and assumptions, it will provide a countdown timer to your financial freedom date. You can then input a specific change to your current saving/spending routine, and it will show you the impact to that date. Found via Reuters.

pretire2

There are no fancy Monte Carlo simulations, but the underlying math appears correct and the overall design is pleasing in a minimalist way.

What the app shows you is that long-term habits matter more than temporary changes. If you make permanent saving change like dropping the morning $4 breakfast stop, you can put more money towards your nest egg and your required nest egg is smaller. If you just do a one-time saving of $100 or even $1,000, it really doesn’t make much of a dent. You need to be able to repeat the savings over and over. It’s similar to weight loss: Diets don’t work.

Hopefully, people can use this information as activation energy to change their habits for the better. (Ironically, activation energy is explained using coffee…) The developer Danny Murphy himself has started cooking more and eating out less after going through this exercise. It took us lot of initial effort to learn how to cook efficiently, but after developing a set of “go-to meals” and a pre-plan method it has become much easier.

If you are truly serious about early retirement, my advice would be to look for things that you can change permanently and/or automate so you can repeat it without requiring constant willpower. This usually means a larger, upfront effort. Up your 401(k) contribution by 1% every year. Relocate to a cheaper city. Move to cheaper housing. Search for a better job. Once you set yourself up on the right path, go ahead and enjoy your prioritized expenses – be it high-quality coffee or fun cars.

Portfolio Visualizer: Asset Allocation Backtesting and Monte Carlo Simulation Tool

portpie_blank200Here’s another neat (and free!) portfolio analysis tool – PortfolioVisualizer.com. You can upload a custom asset allocation and get all sorts of backtest data and Monte Carlo simulation results from it. If you register for an account, it will remember your model portfolios for future use.

I created a custom portfolio “MMB Default” similar to my current portfolio asset allocation and below are selected charts that were produced. Here’s the summary:

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Historical portfolio growth and annual returns. (Note that the time period shown was limited because the available data for Emerging Markets only went from 1995-2017. Apparently there are some ongoing issues with data licensing.)

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Historical drawdowns during the same period. This provides a good feel of how “painful” it was to hold this portfolio. 2009 was certainly a stressful year when both our portfolio and future job prospects were being questioned.

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Monte Carlo simulation of 4% withdrawal rate over a 30-year retirement period. I used my custom portfolio and had it simulate a withdrawal rate of $40,000 from a $1,000,000 portfolio (4%), adjusted annually for inflation, for a 30-year period. You can alter nearly all of these variables (withdrawal rate, inflation adjustments, period length, etc). Monte Carlo basically looks at many possible trajectories based on historical asset return characteristics. If things turn out well, you end up with a “runaway” portfolio, but if they don’t you can hit zero pretty fast.

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The success rate looks at the percentage of simulated scenarios that end up with a positive value at the end of the period. At a 4% withdrawal rate for 30 years, it was 95%. At a 5% withdrawal rate for 30 years, it was only 84%. At a 5% withdrawal rate for 50 years, it was only 69%.

Here’s where I warn you that Monte Carlo simulations are not the end-all of portfolio safety. You can’t predict the next 50 years when you can barely look back 50 years. Living off a portfolio for decades involves not just a reasonable rate of withdrawal but planning as to how you could cut expenses or create additional income if conditions go sour for an extended time period. I’d rather have 90% theoretical safety and a flexible backup plan over 99% theoretical safety and no backup plan.

Portfolio Visualizer has several additional features that I may never use, but even the above is enough to make it a very interesting tool for the DIY investor. I hope they get their data source issues sorted out eventually. You can find all of my posts about portfolio tools in the Tools & Calculators category.

Jack Bogle Full Interviews with CNN and Business Insider

boglecnn2If you haven’t gotten a dose of Jack Bogle wisdom recently, check out this full Business Insider interview transcript and this 16-minute CNN video interview. There is a lot of ground covered between them. Here are my selected notes:

S&P 500 dividend income reliability. Bogle seems to support the idea of relying on S&P 500 stock dividends to supplement Social Security:

The basic idea of retirement income is, to me, to get a check, two checks every month, one from your fixed income and one from equity account. And you want them to grow over time. Social Security is a cost-of-living hedge, and in the equity account dividends grow over time.

The record of the S&P 500 dividends is almost a complete up trend with only two big declines going back into the ’20s. One would be in 1930s — ’33 or ’34 — and the other is when the banks stocks eliminated their dividends, back in 2009. Those are really the only significant declines in the dividends.

Investors make a big mistake by thinking too much of the value of the account and not enough about the monthly income they want to get. We could have a significant decline in the market with dividends unchanged.

Here’s a chart of the S&P 500 dividend history via Multpl.com:

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Helping investors improve their behavior. For example, 401(k) plans were not designed to be your primary retirement vehicle, and thus have a lot of flexibility built into them. However, this flexibility means a lot of people take money out of their 401(k) when they switch jobs or for loans that never get paid back. A similar thing when people chase performance:

With actively managed funds, people have big behavior problems. With funds that have done well, they put their money in, and when it has done bad, they want to take it out. The index fund always gives you the market return. It may be bad sometimes — it will be bad sometimes — but there’s just no evidence that active managers can win [long term].

Why you don’t see performance-based incentive fees for fund managers. I didn’t know about the SEC symmetrical rule:

The active managers have their work cut out for them. One thing they could do is put in an incentive fee. Get 10 basis points or five [0.10% or 0.05%], unless they beat the market. We’re paying people to beat the market when they aren’t doing it, and when you think about it, that doesn’t make sense.

They can put their expense ratio at 5 [basis points, 0.05%] and get another 1% if they beat the market by X. But they have to, under the SEC rules, be symmetrical. So if they lost to the market by 1%, they would be out of pocket. Managers, at least in this context, are not stupid. They know perfectly well they are going to lose that bet.

What happens if index funds continue to grow in popularity:

Right now I believe indexing to be about 22% to 25% of the marketplace. It’s not disturbing anything. Could it go to 50% and not disturb anything? I believe it could. All you’re doing is immobilizing X percentage of the shares in the market. The remaining 50% can trade away to their hearts’ content.

Could it handle 90%? I think it could, but we’re so far away from that, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. The reality here, however, is that even if the market would reach a level of inefficiency, which everyone says then the active managers can win because then they can find underpriced stocks. [Laughs] It’s such a ridiculous argument it hardly bears refuting. The fact is, if the market is more inefficient, it would be easier for half of the managers to win and by definition easier for half of the managers to lose. Because every purchase is a sale and every sale is a purchase.

This is not a problem that I worry about very much. Markets stay relatively efficient because there continues to be big rewards for those that can figure out any small inefficiency, even for a short period of time. Those rewards aren’t going aways, so markets will stay efficient, and low costs will continue to matter.

Research Affiliates Custom Portfolio Expected Returns Tool

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Investment advisory firm Research Affiliates has updated their interactive Asset Allocation tool, which now provides estimates of expected returns for more than 130 asset classes and model portfolios. There are two expected return models, “valuation-dependent” and “yield-plus-growth”. In addition, you can input your own custom asset allocation.

My initial reaction is that while the tool got new bells and whistles, it also became more confusing to navigate and harder on the eyes. Here’s a screenshot of their scatter plot showing the expected risk and return for several asset classes under their valuation-dependent model.

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I created a custom portfolio “CustomMMB” using my current portfolio asset allocation and it is charted below on their risk/return map. In a separate window (not shown) you can see how each individual asset class contributes to the total expected return.

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As you can see, my portfolio did not offer the maximum expected return for its risk level. The RA efficient model portfolio that did includes an exotic mix of asset classes, including Emerging Markets bonds (non-local currency), Bank Loans, US Private Equity, European Private Equity, and direct investments into US Commercial Real Estate (not through REITs). Unfortunately, I’m not even sure how to access many of those asset classes.

I appreciate that they freely share their research methodology and results, specifically covering the valuation perspective. US Equities have historically high valuations, but interest rates are also at historically lows. The next 10 years should be interesting…

Another portfolio analysis tool that lets you input your specific asset allocation is PortfolioCharts.com Safe Withdrawal Rate calculator. This Research Affiliates tool says my expected 10-year real return is only 2.4% (equates to a nominal expected return of 4.6%). The PortfolioCharts.com tool says the same personal asset allocation has a historical perpetual withdrawal rate of over 4% over a 40-year timeframe.

PortfolioCharts.com Safe Withdrawal Rate Tool (Updated)

eggosI just noticed that PortfolioCharts.com has updated their Withdrawal Rate Calculator. It has improved visualizations and as a personal finance geek I even found it fun. You can enter your specific asset allocation slices down to 1% and see customized results.

The Withdrawal Rates calculator shows the safe withdrawal rate for any asset allocation over a variety of retirement durations based on real-life sequence of returns. Those looking to retire early or leave money to heirs can also see the perpetual withdrawal rate that protected the original inflation-adjusted principal.

You can read about the specifics behind these improvements here. You should also read all the assumptions here. For example:

The withdrawal rate is the percentage of the original portfolio value used for one year of retirement expenses. Each year, expenses are adjusted for inflation (not for portfolio size) to maintain constant purchasing power.

Briefly, a “safe” withdrawal rate (orange) allowed a portfolio to go as low as $1 but never hit zero at the end of the timeframe. In other words, the ride could have still gotten quite hairy for a while. A “perpetual” withdrawal rate (green) never ended up less than the initial principal, even adjusted for inflation. The author Tyler recommends the perpetual WR for early retirees or for people who desire to leave an inheritance for heirs.

Here is the specific chart for my current portfolio asset allocation:

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I would be quite happy with being able to confidently withdraw over 4% (+ inflation adjustments) of my portfolio for the next 40 years. The short-term drawdown paths can still be scary though. The usual caveats with using backtested data also apply.

Playing around, I noticed that the simplest way to change things up was by adding a healthy chunk (~20%) of gold instead of stocks. This seemed to significantly improve the perpetual withdrawal rates in the short-term (0 to 15 years). It’s too bad I still don’t have a firm fundamental understanding of gold. If you can’t maintain faith in it when things are scary, then you shouldn’t own it in your portfolio.

A Semi-Retirement Update, Father’s Day 2017

okaydadI’ve been told that my blog isn’t personal enough. Father’s Day seemed like an appropriate time to share how our efforts towards financial freedom have altered our day-to-day lives.

Guiding principle. When I first started chasing the idea of “early retirement”, it was mostly about escaping the chains of a 9-5 corporate job for the next 40 years. These days, I am driven primarily to avoid the most common deathbed regret:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This is beautifully phrased, as it will mean something different to everyone. You have to push away the expectations and noise coming from society, your co-workers, even your friends and family. Some people call it mindfulness or meditation, I just call it that quiet voice inside you. Another good take on this from Anthony Bourdain:

It’s a quality-of-life issue with me. Am I having fun? Am I surrounded by people I like? Are we proud of what we’re doing? Do we have anything to regret when we look in the mirror tomorrow? Those things are huge to me.

Choosing semi-retirement over daycare. Up until 2012, my wife and I were dual, full-time earners with a healthy savings rate used to steadily accumulate assets. We spent our free time eating at new restaurants, traveling, hiking, skiing, and playing with our two dogs.

When our first child arrived, we weren’t quite ready to live off our investments but we still wanted to spend a lot of time raising our kids. We decided that we would both work roughly 20 hours a week (“half-time”) and share the stay-at-home parenting duties between us. Technically, we both semi-retired at age 33. At the same time, it was nothing to brag about because many families have a single income parent and a stay-at-home parent. We just happen to split it up. Today, we continue as 50/50 parents and somehow accumulated three kids: a 6-month old, a 2-year-old, and a 4-year-old.

For a many couples, it is simply financially efficient to keep working full-time and pay for daycare. For others, both individuals want to maintain their career trajectory. Both are a valid options and we don’t pass judgment. For us, giving up essentially one full income was also a big decision. We were concerned that we would be giving up current income now and likely stall our future career growth.

Ever since growing up as kid with a dad working long hours, I made a promise to be different when I had children of my own. I never want to utter the words “I wish I spent more time with my kids”. As a direct result of our aggressive savings rate in our 20s and early 30s, we felt comfortable taking an unconventional path. We are thankful every day that we don’t have to drop off our baby at 7am, work all day, come home, and only see them for an hour before bedtime.

Snapshot of our daily lives. We are not the most frugal family, but again we try to live aligned to our values. Our home is not overly big – two girls already share a bedroom and eventually all three will share one bathroom. We cook dinner at home more often than not. We rarely eat out. Our frequent flyer points are mostly idle nowadays, but we did take our 1-year-old and 3-year-old to visit the UK and France last summer. One of the highlights was feeding free-ranging reindeer in Scotland.

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Is semi-retirement all sunshine and rainbows? Yes, we’ve never had to deal with daycare or hire a nanny. Either my wife or I have been there for every single bathtime and bedtime. One of us has been present for all the first laughs, first words, first crawls, and first steps. But we also feel physically exhausted at the end of every day. I’m definitely more worn out now than our time as DINKs (dual income, no kids).

You really start to appreciate working with adults again after wrestling with three little tyrants children under the age of 5. Yesterday, my oldest child decided to stick her finger down the youngest’s throat. Guess who got to clean up projectile vomit off a shockingly-high blast radius? I’m pretty sure the comic Fowl Language installed a hidden camera inside my house (check out the book as well):

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There is a huge difference between doing something difficult and aligned with your personal values, and doing something difficult and not aligned with your personal values. Sure, we could spend our free time doing a million other easier things. But perhaps happiness is being able to choose your hard thing and then spend your time working on it. For now, parenting young children is my hard thing. I’m not terribly good at it, but I try… This is a precious time and I want to savor it before it ends.

You may think I’m crazy. That’s okay. Remember, the point is to live a life true to yourself and ignore what other people think. Now excuse me while I clean the vomit stain off my shorts.

Early Retirement Portfolio Income, 2017 Q1 Update

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While I understand the arguments for a “total return” approach, I also appreciate the behavioral reasons why living off income while keeping your ownership stake is desirable. The analogy I fall back on is owning an investment property that produces rental income. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and let the market value fluctuate. The problem is that buy only things with the highest yields only increases the chance that those yields will drop. Therefore, I am trying to reach some sort of balance between the two approaches.

A quick and dirty way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar (linked below). Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).

Below is a close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. I have changed my asset allocation slightly to 65% stocks and 35% bonds because I believe that will be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.

Asset Class / Fund % of Portfolio Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 4/19/17) Yield Contribution
US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
25% 1.88% 0.47%
US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
5% 1.83% 0.09%
International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
25% 2.75% 0.69%
Emerging Markets
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
5% 2.31% 0.12%
US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
6% 4.42% 0.27%
Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
17% 2.87% 0.49%
Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
17% 2.20% 0.37%
Totals 100% 2.50%

 

The total weighted 12-month yield on this portfolio has historically varied between 2% and 2.5%. This time, it was on the higher end of 2.50% mostly because inflation has picked up and thus the TIPS fund started to yield more. If I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, a 2.5% yield means that it would have generated $25,000 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. (The muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.)

For comparison, the Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) is a low-cost, passive 60/40 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.12%. The Vanguard Wellington Fund is a low-cost active 65/35 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.55%. Numbers taken 4/19/2017.

These income yield numbers are significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often quoted for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is even lower than the 3% withdrawal rate that I usually use as a rough benchmark. If I use 3%, my theoretical income would cover my projected annual expenses. If I used the actual numbers above, I am close but still short. Most people won’t want to use this number because it is a very small number. However, I like it for the following reasons:

  • Tracking dividends and interest income is less stressful than tracking market price movements.
  • Dividend yields adjust roughly for stock market valuations (if prices are high, dividend yield is probably down).
  • Bond yields adjust roughly for interest rates (low interest rates now, probably low bond returns in future).
  • With 2/3rds of my portfolio in stocks, I have confidence that over time the income will increase with inflation.

I will admit that planning on spending only 2% is most likely too conservative. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years. But as an aspiring early retiree with hopefully 40+ years ahead of me, I like having safe numbers given the volatility of stock returns and the associated sequence of returns risk.