The Quest of the Simple Life: Escaping The Work Grind in 1907 vs. 2018

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The Quest of the Simple Life by William J. Dawson was published over 100 years ago; it’s so old that the copyright has expired, making the book public domain (and thus available as a free Kindle download). Yet, other than the old-fashioned writing style that required regular dictionary usage, much of the contents are perfectly applicable today! Here are some excerpts to help prove my point, and at the end I compare 1907 vs. 2018. (Any bolded parts are my doing.)

On the feeling that your family time is lacking:

Let us take the life of the average business man by way of example. Such a man will rise early, sleep late, and eat the bread of carefulness, if he means to succeed. His children scarcely know him; they are asleep when he goes off in the morning, and asleep when he returns at night; he is to them the strange man who sits at the head of the table once a week and carves the Sunday joint. It is well for them if they have a mother who possesses gifts of government, sympathy, and patient comprehension, for it is clear that they have no father. He gets a living, and perhaps in time an ample living; but does he live?

On the true cost of “Keeping up appearances”:

Money may be bought at too dear a rate. The average citizen, if he did but know it, is always buying money too dear. He earns, let us say, four hundred pounds a year; but the larger proportion of this sum goes in what is called ‘keeping up appearances.’ He must live in a house at a certain rental; by the time that his rates and taxes are paid he finds one-eighth of his income at least has gone to provide a shelter for his head. A cottage, at ten pounds a year, would have served him better, and would have been equally commodious. He must needs send his children to some private ‘academy’ for education, getting only bad education and high charges for his pains; a village board-school at twopence a week would have offered undeniable advantages. He must wear the black coat and top-hat sacred to the clerking tribe; a tweed suit and cap are more comfortable, and half the price. At all points he is the slave of convention, and he pays a price for his convention out of all proportion to its value. At a moderate estimate half the daily expenditure of London is a sacrifice to the convention or imposture of respectability.

On the cost of commuting and eating out:

In all but very fine weather I must needs use some means of public conveyance every day; there was a daily lunch to be provided; and when work kept me late at the office there was tea as well. One can lunch comfortably on a shilling or eighteenpence a day; and I knew places where I could have lunched for much less, but they were in parts of the town which I could not reach in the brief time at my disposal. Moreover, one must needs be the slave of etiquette even though he be a clerk, and if all the staff of an office frequent a certain restaurant, one must perforce fall into line with them under penalty of social ostracism. Thus, whether I liked it or not, for five days in the week I had to spend eighteenpence a day for lunch, and fourpence for teas; and if we add those small gratuities which the poorest men take it as a point of honour to observe, here was an annual expenditure of 25 pounds.

Various quotes about those who feel this certain type of “discontent”:

I saw that it was the artificial needs of life that made me a slave; the real needs of life were few. […]

The debate went on for years, and it was ended only when I applied to it one fixed and reasoned principle. That principle was that my first business as a rational creature was not to get a living but to live; and that I was a fool to sacrifice the power of living in securing the means of life. […]

My chief occupation through these years was to keep my discontent alive. Satisfaction is the death of progress, and I knew well that if I once acquiesced entirely in the conditions of my life, my fate was sealed. […]

To the man who detests the nature of his employment as I detested mine, I would say at once, either conquer your detestation or change your work. Work that is not genuinely loved cannot possibly be done well. […]

On looking back having lived his new simpler life successfully for four years:

After four years’ experiment in Quest of the Simple Life I am in a position to state certain conclusions, which are sufficiently authoritative with me to suggest that they may have some weight with my readers. These conclusions I will briefly recapitulate. The chief discovery which I have made is that man may lead a perfectly honourable, sufficing, and even joyous existence upon a very small income. Money plays a part in human existence much less important than we suppose. The best boon that money can bestow upon us is independence. How much money do we need to secure independence? That must depend on the nature of our wants.

Honestly, after finishing the book I was suspicious that it was written as some sort of strange parody, as some of the themes were so similar to what folks face today. But William James Dawson appears legit and wrote several other books during the same period. Here’s a comparison between Dawson in 1907 vs. a hypothetical person in 2018:

1907: The author worked full-time as a clerk in London, but finds himself dissatisfied with that lifestyle. He worked long hours, didn’t enjoy his desk job, and felt his health suffering in the sooty city air. He calculated that much of his expenses went to simply keeping up everyone else: higher rent, high commuting costs (time and money), paying extra to eat out with coworkers at lunch, maintaining a proper work wardrobe, and so on. He dreamed of a simple rural life. He found a small cottage in the countryside with very low rent. He fished, hunted, and farmed much of his food and paid for the rest with his earnings as a freelance writer for a local newspaper.

2018: A young woman works full-time in a large urban metro, but finds herself dissatisfied with that lifestyle. She worked long hours, didn’t enjoy her desk job, and felt her health suffering due to sitting in front of a computer all day. She calculates that much of her expenses went to simply keeping up everyone else: higher rent, high commuting costs (time and money), paying extra to eat out with coworkers at lunch, maintaining a proper work wardrobe, and so on. She dreamed of a simpler life. A small (tiny?) house or RV on a cheap piece of land. She gained income from her investments, including a rental property (Airbnb?) and stock dividends. The rest was covered with freelance work through Upwork or Elance.

Bottom line. In some ways, life hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years. Some folks will become unsatisfied enough with the commonly chosen path and take the risk of making huge changes. A simpler life with lower costs but more time with friends and family. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have the money for full “financial independence” yet, but perhaps a job more aligned with your true values where you aren’t solely maximizing income.

What Happens If You Run Out of Money in Retirement?

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This is not a happy post, but it’s also the reality for a lot of people so I think it is a valid discussion. The Early Retirement forums had a thread recently titled What If You Run Out of Money?:

I’m wondering–what would happen to someone who literally ran out of money before they died? I mean, if someone is in their 80s and penniless, would society really let them just die in their home? […] Does anybody actually know anybody who ran out of money after they retired because they didn’t save enough?

As you can see in the pie chart, an Allianz Insurance survey found that 61% of the Baby Boomer generation feared outliving their money more than they feared their own death (source).

My answer is yes, I know someone who essentially ran out of money in retirement. The person was an older, single female coworker who retired right when I started working. While I don’t know her entire life story, she did not have any sort of savings when her job ended. Without a pension, 401k, or individual savings, her sole source of income was Social Security of about $1,000 a month. (Now that I know the terminology, maybe there was SSI.) She was forced to sell most of her things and relocate to a cheap part of Florida (warmer weather, no state income taxes) and move into a mobile home where the rent was under $500 a month. It had a name like “Sunny Gardens”, and while she wasn’t starving or homeless, it was a very precarious lifestyle. Many of her neighbors were in a similar situation.

This Atlantic article This Is What Life Without Retirement Savings Looks Like tells pretty much the same story.

  • You will work as long as you are physically able to do so.
  • You will rely on Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which is a program for low-income seniors, and/or Social Security Disability Income (SSDI).
  • You may have to find a roommate to sharing housing costs and utilities. Otherwise, you might move into a mobile home, or simply rent a room in a house.
  • You will rely on whatever other local/state governmental assistance is available, for example Section 8 housing vouchers.
  • You may have to ask for assistance from family, friends, church-members, and charities.
  • You may have trouble paying for your medications when not covered by Medicare or Medicaid.
  • It will be difficult to avoid racking up debt and thus making it even harder to get back out of survival mode.

I was going to say “No, society wouldn’t just let them die” but then I read the stat that nearly half of all single homeless adults were aged 50 and older in 2016, as compared to 11 percent in 1990. There is a social safety net as described above, but that net has holes.

In terms of public policy, it remains quite a challenge to design a better social safety net that people think is fair, compassionate, and not open to abuse. I root for the people fighting that fight. Some people have overcome struggles that I can’t even fathom, and I try to avoid making judgments on others without knowing the entire picture. At the same time, I also think it’s important to keep believing that our individual actions matter. All we can do is play our best with the cards we were dealt. (And maybe help others out based on our own abilities.)

Everyone Worries About Money, Even The Wealthy

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Here’s a refreshingly blunt quote from Scott Galloway’s article Yay Capitalism via It Is Always About The Money via Abnormal Returns:

Wealthy people claim they don’t think much about money. That’s bullshit; they are obsessed with money. The notion that rich people don’t think about money is an attempt to dampen resentment (e.g., revolution) from the 3.5B people who have fewer assets than the wealthiest 12 individuals. What, like, rich people got there because they are just so benign and talented, it just happened (oops, I’m rich)? People who tell you to follow your passion are already rich. They have doggedly pursued a path and have been obsessed with success for a long time. They want to sound inspirational and give you a sound bite, because the truth that success requires 60–80-hr weeks for several decades doesn’t get applause in graduation speeches.

Every wealthy person I’ve known measures their net worth in frightening detail, and often. You have to stay nimble, or you stand to lose a lot. We live in a capitalist society, and the amount of money you have is a forward-looking indicator of the effectiveness your healthcare, the comfort of your home, the harmony of your marriage, and the quality of your children’s education.

Regarding that last sentence, I might agree up to a certain level of wealth, but after that I don’t think better healthcare or a more comfortable home is the reason that the wealthy still keep worrying about money.

I think it’s just another weird artifact of human psychology. If we can keep making money, it’s really hard to stop. Most wealthy people still work. They may say that they just like work (“passion” again), and that may be true, but another major reason is they want to keep making money. Earning money provides a measure of self-worth. Earning money provides a sense of security. Certain jobs may come with respect and power. (They might say they would it for free, but they wouldn’t for long. Every job has annoying parts that you accept because of the money.) If the hardest part of retirement is building up the pile, the second hardest might be saying no to adding more to the pile.

Vanguard 10-Year Expected Asset Class Returns (2018)

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I was surprised to read the NY Times article Vanguard Warns of Worsening Odds for the Economy and Markets. Everything is written very carefully using odds so that there is no “prediction” that could be called “wrong” later on, but at the same time if there is a future recession, they will appear to have been “right”. I didn’t know that Vanguard did these sort of economic predictions or that they were deemed so noteworthy.

As the chart below reminds us, all bull markets must eventually come to an end:


The question is, what is the point? What is actionable about this? You could view this article as encouraging market timing (sell stocks now!), or it could be a prudent reminder to rebalance and assess your risk exposure (sell a little stock now? maybe?). The latter is always a good idea, so let’s be generous and call it that. I wonder what Jack Bogle thinks. I mean, the title of his upcoming book about the history of Vanguard is Stay the Course.

For posterity, I wanted to record their expected 10-year (annualized) returns for the following asset classes (as of mid-2018):

  • US Stocks 3.9%
  • International Stocks 6.5%
  • US Total Bond (Corporate + Government) 3.3%
  • International Bonds 2.9%
  • Commodities 5.9%
  • US Treasury Bonds 3%
  • Cash 2.9%

These are nominal numbers. In another economic outlook article, Vanguard projects inflation to run slightly under 2% annualized.

Zero to $1 Million in 14 Years: Maxing Out 401k and IRAs from 2004-2017

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Like many others, I had a vague goal of $1 million net worth in my 20s. It’s easy to find a theoretical path a million. For example, $750 per month earning 8% returns for 30 years with get you there. Doing the actual earning, saving and investing is the hard part. It gets even harder during a bear market when your money feels like it is burning up in flames.

On the list of “Things I Would Tell My Younger Self”, I would include “Be patient and keep saving. You’ll get there.” Or by changing up the phrase “Always Be Closing” popularized in Glengarry Glen Ross – “Always Be Contributing” (ABC). One of the major benefits of writing this blog was keeping my focus on this path.

This is how a real couple could have gone from zero to $1 million from 2004 to 2017. My spouse and I both had our first full year of full-time jobs in 2004. From 2004 to 2017, we contributed the maximum allowable limit to both of our 401k and IRAs each year. The contribution limits rose gradually over the years. (Company match is not included here.) We invested our money in low-cost index Vanguard funds – mostly stocks with a little bonds – which can be closely approximated by the Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 fund (ticker VTIVX). This fund had its share of ups and downs with the market. It crashed a lot in 2008 and 2009. It went back up a lot afterward. We just kept contributing and buying each year.

Using Morningstar tools, I found the final amount today if the limit was invested on January 1st of each year. For example, if both of us invested $16,000 in Vanguard Target Retirement 2045 at the beginning of 2004 ($13k + $3k), that investment would now be worth $104,144 as of June 30, 2018. And so on for each subsequent year. As you can see, if you add all the years up, you would reach over $500,000 for an individual and over $1,000,000 for a couple:

These numbers won’t be the same across other time periods, but they do represent a real-world experience. I’ve done a variation of this before in What If You Invested $10,000 Every Year For the Last 10 Years? 2008-2017 Edition.

According to Vanguard, 13% of their plan participants maxed out their 401k plans in 2017. 58% of participants had their entire account balance invested in a single target-date fund or similar managed allocation.

Bottom line. A real couple that started saving as 26-year-olds in 2004 and maxing out both their 401k and IRA plans each year could have reached $1 million by age 40 in 2018. All with a simple Vanguard Target Retirement index fund. This requires a lot of steady saving, but the important part is that it required no special investment skill. You didn’t need to recognize bubbles. You didn’t need to time bottoms. You didn’t need a fancy asset allocation, estimate future cashflows, understand price/book ratios, or even rebalance. Always be contributing.

My Money Blog Portfolio Asset Allocation, July 2018

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Here’s my quarterly portfolio update for Q2 2018. These are my real-world holdings and includes 401k/403b/IRAs and taxable brokerage accounts but excludes our house, cash reserves, and a few side investments. The goal of this portfolio is to create enough income to cover our regular household expenses. As of 2018, we are “semi-retired” and spending some of the dividends and interest from this portfolio.

Actual Asset Allocation and Holdings

I use both Personal Capital and a custom Google Spreadsheet to track my investment holdings. The Personal Capital financial tracking app (free, my review) automatically logs into my accounts, tracks my balances, calculates my performance, and gives me a rough asset allocation. I still use my custom Rebalancing Spreadsheet (free, instructions) because it tells me where and how much I need to direct new money to rebalance back towards my target asset allocation.

Here is my portfolio performance for the year and rough asset allocation (real estate is under alternatives), according to Personal Capital:

Here is my more specific asset allocation, according to my custom spreadsheet:

Stock Holdings
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSMX, VTSAX)
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VGTSX, VTIAX)
WisdomTree SmallCap Dividend ETF (DES)
Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSIX, VGSLX)

Bond Holdings
Vanguard Limited-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VMLTX, VMLUX)
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWITX, VWIUX)
Vanguard High-Yield Tax-Exempt Fund (VWAHX, VWALX)
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VIPSX, VAIPX)
iShares Barclays TIPS Bond ETF (TIP)
Individual TIPS securities
U.S. Savings Bonds (Series I)

Target Asset Allocation. Our overall goal is to include asset classes that will provide long-term returns above inflation, distribute income via dividends and interest, and finally offer some historical tendencies to balance each other out. I personally believe that US Small Value and Emerging Markets will have higher future long-term returns (along with some higher volatility) than US Large/Total and International Large/Total, although I could be wrong. I don’t hold commodities, gold, or bitcoin as they don’t provide any income and I don’t believe they’ll outpace inflation significantly.

I think it’s important to imagine an asset class doing poorly for a long time, with bad news constantly surround it, and only hold the ones where you still think you can maintain faith.

Stocks Breakdown

  • 38% US Total Market
  • 7% US Small-Cap Value
  • 38% International Total Market
  • 7% Emerging Markets
  • 10% US Real Estate (REIT)

Bonds Breakdown

  • 50% High-quality, Intermediate-Term Bonds
  • 50% US Treasury Inflation-Protected Bonds

I have settled into a long-term target ratio of 67% stocks and 33% bonds (2:1 ratio) within our investment strategy of buy, hold, and occasionally rebalance. With a self-managed, simple portfolio of low-cost funds, we minimize management fees, commissions, and taxes.

Real-world asset allocation details. No major changes from the last quarterly update. For both simplicity and cost reasons, I am no longer buying DES/DGS and will be phasing them out whenever there are tax-loss harvesting opportunities. New money is going into the more “vanilla” Vanguard versions: Vanguard Small Value ETF (VBR) and Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO).

My taxable muni bonds are split roughly evenly between the three Vanguard muni funds with an average duration of 4.5 years. I am still pondering going back to US Treasuries due to changes in relative interest rates and our marginal income tax rate. Issues with high-quality muni bonds are unlikely, but still a bit more likely than US Treasuries.

The stock/bond split is currently at 70% stocks/30% bonds. Once a quarter, I reinvest any accumulated dividends and interest that were not spent. I don’t use automatic dividend reinvestment. Looks like we need to buy more bonds and emerging markets stocks.

Performance and commentary. According to Personal Capital, my portfolio has basically broken even so far in 2018 (+1.5% YTD). I see that during the same period the S&P 500 has gained 6.5% (excludes dividends) and the US Aggregate bond index lost 1.7%. My portfolio is relatively heavy in international stocks which have done worse than US stocks so far this year.

An alternative benchmark for my portfolio is 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Growth Fund (VASGX) and 50% Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX), one is 60/40 and one is 80/20 so it also works out to 70% stocks and 30% bonds. That benchmark would have a total return of +2.8% YTD (as of 7/25/18).

As usual, I’ll share about more about the income aspect in a separate post.

Vanguard How America Saves 2018: How Does Your 401k Compare?

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Vanguard recently released How America Saves 2018 report [PDF], which looks at the nearly 5 million 401k, 403b, and other defined-contribution retirement plans that they service. If you are curious about how your 401k stats compare with others, there is a great deal of information in this report. Here are a few quick stats based on 2017 data:

  • Average aggregate contribution rate amongst participants was 10.3% (employer and employee total).
  • Average maximum “employer match” contribution was 7% of income. Nearly 2/3rds of participants received the maximum employer match.
  • Average employee contribution was 6.8% of income.
  • Maxing out. 13% of participants saved the maximum annual amount of $18,000 ($24,000 age 50+) for 2017.
  • Average account balance was $103,866; the median balance was $26,331. A small number of plans with very high balances skews this often-quoted average upward.
  • Target-date funds. 58% of participants had their entire account balance invested in a single target-date fund or similar managed allocation. In other words, 58% let someone else pick their portfolio.
  • Automatic enrollment. Plans with automatic enrollment have a 92% participation rate.
  • Withdrawals and rollovers. About 1/3rd of participants could have cashed out their balance (with taxes and penalties) because they switched jobs. 84% of those folks kept their money in retirement plans. In terms of assets, 98% of all plan assets available for distribution were preserved and only 2% were taken in cash.
  • Loans. 15% of participants had a loan outstanding at year-end 2017.

These numbers don’t tell the entire story, as the average includes workers across different age groups, income levels, job tenures, and so on.

Retirement: Start Saving Regularly, Even If You Start Small

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T. Rowe Price has a brochure The Benefit of Saving Regularly For Retirement [pdf] which has the common advice that you target saving at least 15% of your gross income each year to prepare for retirement. Of course, the earlier you start, the better. The added wrinkle here is that they offer an alternative route if you find 15% a stretch when you are young.

In their simulation, if you start saving at age 25 at a 6% rate and increase it 1% each year until you reach 15% (and then stay at 15%), you’ll actually come out ahead of someone who starts saving at age 30 at a 15% rate. You’ll even do okay if you start at age 30 at a 6% savings rate and increase it 2% a year until your reach 15% (and then stay at 15%). The two big takeaways are (1} start, even if small and (2) bump up your savings even if just a little by banking some of your raises each year.

The assumptions made seemed largely reasonable:

Examples beginning at age 25 assume a beginning salary of $40,000 escalated 5% a year to age 45 then 3% a year to age 65. Examples beginning at age 30 assume a beginning salary of $50,000 escalated 5% a year to age 45 then 3% a year to age 65. Example beginning at age 40 assumes a beginning salary of $80,000 escalated 5% a year to age 45 then 3% a year to age 65. Annual rate of return is 7%. All savings are assumed tax-deferred. Multiple of ending salary saved divides final ending portfolio balance by ending salary at age 65.

Bottom line. Start saving regularly, no matter the amount. Even if you feel like you can’t save 10% or 20% or whatever you read somewhere, just should start as soon as possible with a smaller number. After a year, try to increase your savings rate by 1% or 2%. Repeat each year. This can help minimize how much you “feel” the savings, while still ending up with a healthy nest egg. Build the habit.

Reminder: Don’t Put Too Much Employer Stock Into Your 401(k)

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Every time a large corporation stumbles, you will see something along these lines: Having Too Much Employer Stock in Your 401(k) Is Dangerous. That doesn’t prevent it from being solid advice. The best advice bears repeating.

Why? If your retirement savings are heavily concentrated in your employer stock, you human capital and your investment capital are directly linked. If your company falters, then you can lose both your job and your retirement security. Past examples include Enron, MCI Worldcom, and Tyco. Remember that any individual stock can go to zero.

In a large, multinational corporation, even a mid-level executive simply won’t affect the bottom line that much. You could be doing a great job, but what if the top brass commits fraud, takes on too much debt, or otherwise mismanages the company.

This time around, it is General Electric (GE). Per Morningstar data, $100,000 invested in GE stock on January 1st, 2017 would be about $47,000 today. Over the same period, $100,000 invested in a S&P 500 index fund would be about $124,000. That’s a gap of over $75,000 on a starting balance of $100,000. GE may recover eventually, but even that won’t help a retiree who needs the money now.

The Fortune article provides a list of other large company 401(k) plans that have heavy allocations to their own stock. Some of these are highly-respected companies, but then again so was GE.

  • Sherwin Williams (62%)
  • Colgate Palmolive (56%)
  • Exxon Mobil (54%)
  • Lowe’s Home Improvement (50%)
  • PACCAR (50%)
  • Dillard’s Department Stores (48%)
  • Chevron (44%)
  • McDonalds (39%)
  • Costco (38%)
  • Cerner (37%)

In my opinion, things are different if you are a majority owner of a small, private business. Yes, you also have a lot of eggs in one basket, but you directly control that basket! In addition, your upside could be much, much greater.

Consider that Vanguard charges money for financial advice through their Vanguard Managed Account Program (VMAP). When they analyzed the before-and-after results from actual participants, they found that their biggest impact was simply helping people reduce their exposure to company stock. They found that 12% of participants initially had a concentrated position of 20% or more in employer stock.

If you’re reading this, you can implement this advice for free! Do not invest more than 10% of your 401(k) plan in company stock. Consider reallocating funds into a low-cost, diversified index fund or other similar alternative. (Companies themselves are not allowed to exceed 10% in company stock for pension plans.)

Social Security Trust Fund: Income vs. Expenses

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You may have read recently that the Social Security Trust Fund is starting to shrink, and that it is projected to run out of money in 16 years. (Medicare’s trust fund is projected to run out in 8.) This is not the same thing as Social Security itself running out of money, as most Social Security payments to retirees come from the payroll taxes paid by current workers. As the NY Times points out:

…tax collections would be sufficient to pay about three-fourths of promised Social Security benefits for 75 years.

Of course, a 25% cut is still going to be extremely painful for a lot of people. However, I don’t expect any changes soon. As the WSJ Daily Shot points out, Social Security has had a cash deficit each year since 2009. (More was being paid out in benefits than was taken in by payroll taxes.) The deficit was simply masked by interest earned on the fund until recently:

“Fixing” this problem is going to hurt somebody in the pocketbook – either younger workers or retirees, probably both. That means no politician is going to do anything about it unless there is no other option. The following chart of income vs. expenses suggests that about 2030, the trust fund will be nearly depleted and the rate of depletion will be quite fast.

So that’s my prediction. All talk and no action until 2030.

Retirement Nest Egg Calculators: Running Out of Money vs. Running Out of Time

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If you have researched retirement at all (early or otherwise), you’ve probably ran across various retirement calculators online. You input how much money you have (or plan to have), your asset allocation, and it spits out some numbers. This Vanguard Retirement Nest Egg Calculator is a good example of a simple version.

Let’s try an example. If I am 40 years old and thus assume I have up to 50 years left in retirement, and I want to maintain a 4% withdrawal rate ($40,000 a year from a $1,000,000 portfolio that is 65% stocks/30% bonds/5% cash), the tool uses Monte Carlo simulations to calculate that I have an 80% chance of lasting 50 years.

There is effectively one output: the odds of not running out of money. Either you still have at least a dollar, or you don’t. In my example, I have an 80% chance of having $1 or more at age 90.

But what if you also considered the odds of running out of time? Yes, that’s a euphemism for dying. (Ever notice how many of those we have?) In another neat tool from, Will Your Money Last If You Retire Early? adds some helpful nuance to this analysis. You input the same types of information, but now in any given year you are provided the overall odds of each of these things happening:

  • Red – You are alive, but ran out of money.
  • Light green – You are alive, with less money than you started with. (Kinda nervous?)
  • Green – You are alive, with between 100% and 200% of what you started with. (Nice and comfy.)
  • Dark green – You are alive, with over 200% of what you started with. (In hindsight, I didn’t need to save so much…)
  • Grey – You are pushing up daisies. (In hindsight, maybe should’ve retired earlier…)

Here are sample results for the early retirement scenario above at 4% withdrawal rate (age 40, retirement horizon 50 years, $40k from a $1m 65/35/5 portfolio). I picked the female mortality table – if you have a male/female couple, it’s safer to pick the person likely to live longer.

There’s an angry streak of red where I’m broke. Of course, there’s a bigger streak of grey where I’m not breathing.

Here’s the same scenario, except with a lower 3% withdrawal rate ($30,000 a year from a $1,000,000 initial portfolio):

That change got rid of the red, but there is a lot of dark green. (1% makes a big difference.)

Here are sample results for a more traditional retirement scenario: (age 65, retirement horizon 25 years, $40k from a $1m 65/35/5 portfolio)

As a financially conservative person, these charts help illustrate why I prefer working with a 3% safe withdrawal rate for early retirement (50 and under) and 4% safe withdrawal rate for traditional retirement (closer to 65).

My favorite part of this tool is that it makes you take into account your mortality. It’s not all about staying above $1 in the bank, but also about maximizing your years of freedom. If you’re 40, you have a 10% chance of dying before even reaching 65. (This is why most people know someone who died shortly after retirement.) Is it better to have zero chance of broke and be 70, or 5% chance of broke and 60 with 10 more years of retirement (and 10 fewer years of work)? It is better to live a little more luxuriously for shorter time, or a little more frugally for a longer time? Playing around with all the different input variables might help you weigh the options.

Free Social Security Tool for Optimal Benefit Claiming Strategy

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socialsecuritycardWhen to start claiming Social Security to maximize your potential benefit can be a complicated question, especially for couples. Two reputable services in the space, Social Security Solutions (aka SS Analyzer) and Maximize My Social Security cost between $20 and $250 a pop, depending on included features.

Mike Piper of Oblivious Investor has created a free, open-source calculator called Open Social Security. To use the calculator, you will need to your Primary Insurance Amount (PIA). This amount depends on your future income, so I would first consult this other free Social Security benefit estimator tool to more easily estimate your PIA. I believe the value you see at assumes that you will keep working at your historical average income until your claiming age (which won’t be the case for us).

Here are our results as a couple, assuming we were the same age (we are close) and with my expected benefit being slightly higher than hers:

The strategy that maximizes the total dollars you can be expected to spend over your lifetimes is as follows:

You file for your retirement benefit to begin 12/2047, at age 70 and 0 months.
Your spouse files for his/her retirement benefit to begin 4/2040, at age 62 and 4 months.

The present value of this proposed solution would be $657,749.

Basically, the tool says that my wife should apply as soon as possible, while I should claim as late as possible. I believe this is because this scenario allows us claim at least some income starting from 62, and if I die first after that, my wife would still be able to “upgrade” to my higher benefit.

The tool might take some time to run the calculations, depending on your browser. You can learn more and provide feedback at Bogleheads and Github.

I am not a Social Security expert, and I have not examined the source code or verified the accuracy of the results. I am inclined to trust the results as Mr. Piper does seem to be an expert on the subject. If I were close to 62, I would probably also use the paid services for a second and third opinion. Why? Spending $100 now could save you many thousands in the future. You may learn about concepts like “file-and-suspend” and “restricted applications”.

The best thing about this free tool is that it can introduce a lot of people to ideas that they would have not otherwise considered. Even if it lacks every bell or whistle, being free means it can help more people. Many spouses wouldn’t think of having one claim as early as possible (age 62), and then have the other claim as late as possible (age 70). It’s not common sense unless you understand the inner workings of Social Security.