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Originally published Saturday, January 4, 2014 at 8:00 PM

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Setting safe withdrawal rates | Scott Burns

How much can you safely take out of your retirement savings each year to ensure you don’t run out of money down the road?

Syndicated columnist

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Q: My wife and I have saved for retirement for nearly 30 years. We have a decent retirement account (with traditional and Roth IRAs, mutual funds, a limited number of individual stocks, 401(k) retirement plan and savings).

The total is more than $700,000. I’m currently drawing full Social Security, and my wife starts at age 62 in four years. I have a retirement income from 30 years in the armed forces. I’m thinking of retirement within the next year or so.

My question: When I start withdrawing from my investments and retirement funds, what is a decent burn rate? Our ages are 67 and 58.

A: It’s good you have saved for 30 years because your “planning horizon” is at least 30 years. While you and your wife, alone, have life expectancies of about 82 or 83, the odds are that one of you will live longer, perhaps substantially longer.

Even if your wife lives to her expectancy of 83 years, that’s 25 years — and she has a 50 percent chance of living longer. Having such a long period to plan for makes all the studies of “portfolio survival” very important.

Using historical data, a portfolio that is 50 to 75 percent equities has a high probability of surviving the full period at a starting withdrawal rate of 4 to 4.5 percent, no higher.

An increasing body of research indicates that a 4 to 4.5 percent withdrawal rate is too rich for our current financial markets, largely due to high stock valuations and low interest rates on fixed-income investments.

Whether starting from current stock and bond yields or from more modest return expectations, the latest portfolio-survival exercises show that withdrawal rates should be lowered to 3 to 3.5 percent.

As a practical matter, a rate that low simply won’t work for most people — even people like you who’ve saved for 30 years.

Fortunately, you have some major offsets that reduce the danger of running out of money:

(1) Because you both have Social Security and a military-retirement income, you’ve got a strong “base” income. This means that much, perhaps most, of your standard of living is probably covered by guaranteed income rather than investment income. This gives you a bit more freedom to risk that the portfolio might not survive. Retirees with Social Security and investment income alone can’t afford such a risk.

(2) It is well-documented that our spending declines as we get older and that our peak spending years are in our mid-50s. While everyone (quite reasonably) worries about rising medical expenses, consumer-spending data shows that our other spending decreases a good deal more.

(3) While one of you may survive for 30 years, the reality is that one of you will be widowed for a significant part of that time. That’s sad, but it also means that the living expenses you plan for now will drop when one of you dies, reducing the need for withdrawals from the remaining principal.


Copyright 2014, Universal Press Syndicate

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