Confidence to Pretire: Know Your Levers

“Will I run out of money?” is the most prominent question people start their pretirement planning with. After pondering it for several years myself, and as a member of a married couple, I think it is a flawed question. A much better and more liberating one is, “What are the many ways we can adapt our lives so that we always have more than enough?”

Having a plan for pretirement is comforting and exciting but it can also feel constraining.  Our Vanguard Personal Advisor Services plan is adaptable but it can also feel like driving on a freeway to reach an appointment in another city with someone important who is expecting you:  Will traffic slow me down?  Do I have enough gas?  Will I take the wrong exit and get lost?

I find that using retirement calculators, though handy, is similarly stressful.  Each one seems to be different and none are able to incorporate all of the many variables in a person or family’s life.  It’s not possible.  Retirement calculators and professional financial plans have their place in the toolkit but should be kept in perspective.  The biggest tool we have is the flexibility to adapt.

What is different about your life from ten years ago, major changes that you didn’t expect to happen?  Are you living in a new city?  Did you have more kids or no kids unexpectedly?  Are you divorced?  Married to someone you didn’t know ten years ago?  Managing an illness you didn’t expect?  In a new career?  Back in graduate school?  The point is, life is not fully predictable, which makes financial plans and retirement calculators of limited utility.

One adapts to change.  “Embracing Change” is one of those workplace cliches but it is a mandatory mind and skill set.  I’ve known people who hunker down and ignore change as a coping strategy but they often end up worse off.  Rather than hunkering down and ignoring change, it is usually more successful to keep one’s antennae in the air, making small adjustments as change is warranted rather than waiting to be forced to make really big changes that have been ignored.

Happily, as in any other sector of life, we can anticipate and embrace change by adapting our pretirement plans.  Those documents and calculators can give the impression that we only have a binary choice:  Work until we don’t have to work at all anymore or quit sooner and watch all the money run out. The problem is plans and calculators cannot encompass the nearly infinite variety of options a person has across the next 30-plus years of pretirement and retirement in a changing world.  

After years of reading enjoyable financial blogs and books, listening to podcasts and playing with partially-helpful calculators, I’ve mentally broken through to viewing pretirement as an adventure, not a calculation. Adaptation is its key rather than a huge portfolio. I am no longer as concerned about running out of money as I was when I started this journey of self-education and preparation.  Rather than the simplistic and limiting “Will I run out of money?” output, the question has evolved for me to “What levers can I pull and when that will give me the income I need to foster maximum self-determination and happiness in my life?”

Levers To Pull in Pretirement

What are some of the tools at our disposal to ensure that we don’t just sit in our chairs until suddenly, in total surprise, the portfolio fails and all the money runs out?  Here is a very partial list:

  1. Part-time work of some kind, either self-employed or working enjoyably for someone else, or maybe both at the same time.
  2. Run our house as a vacation rental.
  1. Rent out our house long-term and live somewhere else.  That would be a break-even proposition right now, given our mortgage, so there’s little value in doing it.  Someday, the economics might make more sense.
  1. Downsize our house.  Lots of people live in smaller and less-expensive condos and apartments than the house we live in.  This 103 year-old house has two sets of stairs and a big yard that we might tire of working on someday.  If we sell and downsize, buying or renting a less-expensive place to maintain, clean and operate, several points are added to the confidence level.
  1. Refinance the house.  This doesn’t make sense now but we might like to leverage our equity in the future.  I don’t love the idea of reverse mortgages but it’s another viable way for older people to finance retirement.
  2. Sell the house and buy a duplex, living in half.  Such a move could help neutralize one’s mortgage.
  3. Co-housing is a mostly-European concept but is also practiced in America.  It’s a way to share expenses and create a community of human relationships, both of which are important for a comfortable and happy life.  I plan to explore this topic more in future posts, just because it sounds interesting.
  4. Move to the country or a smaller town.  We find lots of ways to spend money enjoying our city.  If we had to, we could move to a cheaper area.  Lots of people do, which changes their economic picture.
  5. Move to a different country.  We have friends who live much of the year in Latin America and I had an uncle who hit hard times and moved to Costa Rica, where he could afford to get on with his life.  There are lots of expats living adventurous lives in less expensive countries.
  6. Simply reach age 70 before we take Social Security.  Taking Social Security at age 62, as most people do because they choose to or have to, provides a subsistence level benefit.  Waiting until 70 allows the payment to increase by 8% for each year one holds off.  This additional 8 years of compounding makes waiting until 70 a whole other proposition and can allow an above-average income in retirement all by itself.  For someone who has not saved, simply figuring out ways to literally buy time until age 70 could be the way to go for their retirement.
  7. Buy adequate insurance.  We have lots of it:  car insurance, home insurance, long term care insurance, term life insurance, liability insurance, even smart phone insurance.  Nothing can solve all financial problems and protect us from losing all of our assets in any eventuality but we can dramatically reduce the odds of and damage from such an event.
  8. Avoid debt.  Eliminating all debt beyond a low interest mortgage in pretirement gives a person flexibility to pull many other levers elsewhere.
  9. Allow for financial upsides.  So much of financial planning is anticipating and managing risks that are downsides.  What if good stuff happens, too?  The financial markets might perform better than expected.  None of the experts ever predicted the creation of Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix or Google or, for that matter, any other company in the S&P 500. Other transformational companies will surely appear. Also, is your city growing?  If so, your house might go way up in value.  You might get an inheritance you didn’t expect.  Who knows?  I once worked with a woman who kept some stock in a small company she helped found decades before.  One day, she announced her retirement, completely unplanned, because her former partners had sold the business for big bucks.  We wanted to throw her a retirement party but she said, “Thanks but nah, I’m good. Bye-bye.”  The point is, optimism is no more expensive than pessimism.
  • The “Will I Run Out of Money?” retirement planning mindset is too fear-based and suffocating.  However, once you inventory all of the levers you have to pull that could prevent you from ever running out of money, you might very well find that spending your last dollar actually becomes much less likely to occur than making some of the many moves at your disposal to keep going. Maybe you’ll have less money after full-time work, as will we, perhaps, but having lots of money isn’t what makes us happy. Freedom and more time for greater fulfillment are better rewards.
  • What are some of your own levers?

    Literally no one is going to sit in their chair in pretirement, look at their financial plan and say to themselves, “This says I will run completely out of money in five years.  Gee, I guess I’m doomed to having the lights go off.”  No, you’ll get up out of your chair when you start to feel concerned and will pull some of your levers to adapt.

    The inevitable changes in life and our adaptations to them imply adventure to me.  I see my inventory of levers as forms of power to manage my life.  I also like the thought of employing them to benefit our own lives a lot more than the usual American work-full-time-until-you-can’t model that serves many others’ economic interests.  I figure, perhaps the best thing I can do for others whom I love is to first try to be happy and engaged with maximizing my own one life.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

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    Pretirement Money Management: Why We Use Vanguard Personal Advisor Services

    Vanguard owns a planning subsidiary, called Vanguard Advisors, Inc.  It exists solely  to help Vanguard clients, like my wife and me.  Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services (PAS) program runs the gamut from simply consulting with clients to create investment plans that clients implement themselves to completely managing a person’s portfolio with an assigned Vanguard Personal Advisor.  This is the route we have taken in pretirement, and we are happy we did.  Here are some key reasons why:

    The pretirement or FIRE community seems to be mostly a do-it-yourself culture, regarding personal finance.  I enjoy sharing notes and learning from the avid posters on Early-Retirement.org and the Bogleheads Forum.  Many of those folks are highly knowledgeable and skilled investors who know what they are doing.  These smart people know that, despite the Hollywood trope of the successful stock trader as a hyperactive workaholic, usually the best way to make money in the markets is to do…absolutely nothing.  Multiple studies show that investors do better when they create long-term plans, set an intelligent highly diversified asset allocation, then leave it all alone to compound.

    If you are a person who knows a lot about investing in stocks and bonds in all of their flavors and yet can set your asset allocation and then not touch it for one or two decades, then hats off to you.  That is not me, however.  The more I learn about the markets, the more I am tempted to fiddle with my asset allocation in an attempt to optimize my portfolio based on the latest book I’ve read or piece of knowledge I think I’ve learned, which is exactly how mistakes are made and sub-par investing results earned.

    I don’t want to make mistakes, which is one of the main reasons we’ve chosen to use a financial advisor to manage our assets.  However, we haven’t chosen just any advisor on the street, because the investing world is full of bad advice.  I’ll probably write multiple posts about my strong belief in The Vanguard Group, which is a coop  owned by its mutual fund shareholders, rather than owned by some rich family or a financial conglomerate that is primarily responsible to Wall Street.  No, Vanguard is responsible to my wife and me.  That makes it unique.  Thanks to its shareholder-focused model, it has also become the largest mutual fund company in the world.  I am in no way paid to say any of these favorable comments about Vanguard but, they are different. If you don’t already know about Vanguard, do yourself a favor and study them.

    Vanguard owns a planning subsidiary, called Vanguard Advisors, Inc.  It exists solely  to help Vanguard clients, like my wife and me.  Vanguard’s Personal Advisor Services (PAS) program runs the gamut from simply consulting with clients to create investment plans that clients implement themselves to completely managing a person’s portfolio with an assigned Vanguard Personal Advisor.  This is the route we have taken in pretirement and we are happy we did.  Here are some key reasons why:

    1. My investor psychology is simply different during this new Spending Phase.  When my wife and I were just working and saving, investing was pretty easy.  We each contributed automatically at our work places in funds that had really high allocations to stocks and then we basically did nothing but watch the balances grow.  My wife and I are now tiptoeing into the Spending Phase and it feels completely different to actually need to consume some of the milk our herd of mutual fund cows produces.  Earlier in this phase, I found myself checking balances constantly instead of annually, worrying more about daily swings in the market and, worst of all, making some modest changes in our portfolio due to my emotional reactions to global events, like elections or my perception of where the economy lies in the business cycle.  That’s certifiably dumb.  Even though I made no huge mistakes, I know I shouldn’t fiddle. I found that I was becoming an active investor, convincing myself that I was smart enough to time the markets here and there.  Turning over our assets to an objective manager, who is in regular consultation with us, made the fiddling stop, which is to say my potential for making mistakes was removed.  Our portfolio is a globally diversified, low cost stew of about 55% stock index funds and 45% bond index funds.
    2. Vanguard is smarter than me.  Vanguard spends millions and millions of dollars to provide its clients the optimal investing experience with regard to asset allocation, tax-efficiency, fees, projecting how much we can spend sustainably from our portfolio, and a myriad of other factors.  I could spend all of my free time becoming expert in those and many other disciplines, as many people on the above-mentioned forums seem to enjoy doing, yet I still wouldn’t be nearly as smart about any aspect of investing as Vanguard’s people and software.  I’m at least smart and humble enough to know that.
    3. Rebalancing is assured.  Rebalancing is not difficult to do.  I could, and did, rebalance our asset allocation before we hired our Vanguard advisor to do it for us.  We have all recently been living through one of the longest bull markets in history, when investing mistakes have actually been difficult to make.  But here’s the thing I have significant self-doubt about:  When our stock funds inevitably tank again when the business cycle changes, and when the economic news is terrible, with people losing their jobs, businesses imploding and our portfolio shrinking, will I be able to do the annual rebalance?  Meanwhile, as stocks are in retreat, our bond funds will likely remain content as a patch of flowers finally enjoying their day in the sun, maybe falling a little at first as panicked investors sell everything and move to cash, but then perhaps growing as the Fed cuts interest rates to stimulate lending to spur the ailing economy.  In that emotional environment, will I have the guts to do what I need to do, which is sell my bonds to buy more stocks?  Maybe.  I’ve invested right through sharp bear markets before and didn’t flinch that much.  However, we now have a lot invested and, as I said, we’re depending on it more.  I know myself well enough to question whether I would do what needs to be done when the tide next turns.  My Vanguard advisor, however, won’t hesitate to aim right for the jugular of those big fat happy bonds and trade them for scary, depressed stocks, right on schedule.  That certainty is worth paying him for.
    4. My wife is more included than ever before.  “I trust you to manage our money” was the blessing and curse of my days taking the lead financially while we built our nest egg.  She has saved up about a third of what we have, so it never felt quite right to me to make our financial decisions all on my own.  Now we have a friendly, patient and neutral third party in our discussions, whom she and I both respond well to, married couple that we are in all of the usual complications. It feels really good to be on the same page with her, finally.
    5. Help if something bad happens.  I also really like knowing that, if I am somehow incapacitated, Vanguard PAS will be calling her at least quarterly, as usual, to make sure the money she depends on is there for her.  Vice versa, too.
    6. We will know, with high confidence, exactly how much we can spend safely.  Vanguard Advisors has spent a lot of money to create its Dynamic Spending Model.  It is very powerful and very cool.  Using Monte Carlo analysis of all of the known investing history of every asset class that we own, our advisor will be able to tell us with some 95% confidence how much we can spend, sustainably, through age 100.  If things happen, as they do in life, we will adjust the plan, aiming to stay above the 85% confidence threshold. Our plan includes every input we want to add, such as how long we think we want to work full and part-time, how much we think we’ll earn, when we think we’ll buy cars next, some home renovations we want to do, when our mortgage gets paid off and when we think we’ll start taking Social Security.  Annually, our advisor will tell us how much we can safely spend for the coming year.  That amount will be indexed to inflation but won’t go up more than 5% or down more than 2.5% in any single year, which is totally manageable.  Doing what Vanguard’s Dynamic Spending Model tells us to do beats the heck out of arguing on the online DIY forums over whether the vaunted  “4% Rule” or some other % is sustainable or not, as seems to be the constant discussion online.  I don’t worry about that stuff anymore, which feels great.  Bonus News:  We get to spend significantly more than 4% with 95% confidence.  We will be able to live well in pretirement while sleeping well at night .
    7. The costs are pretty reasonable.  We pay .30% of the assets Vanguard manages for us, plus the normal super-low expense ratio of the underlying Vanguard mutual funds we own, for a total of approximately .4%.  Those numbers sound tiny but they have real impact over many years.  On the bright side, such management and advice service at most any other firm is going to cost 1 to 2% per year.  If planning wisdom says that an investor should aim to spend no more than 4 or 5% of their portfolio each year to sustain it, 1 – 2% is a huge, stupid bite out of one’s pretirement lifestyle to fork over to an advisor.  Vanguard’s PAS fees aren’t nothing but, in an investing world that is designed to separate you from your money through fees you don’t understand, Vanguard is on the side of the angels.  I’m happy to pay Vanguard’s relatively small fees for all of the service we get.
    8. I have stopped all fretting and fiddling with my portfolio, providing a lot of new time and mental space for other pursuits, like blogging!

    Pretirement Freedom

    As apt and evocative as the FIRE acronym is, the “Early Retirement” half of it is not our mindset.  Like lots of people, we find ourselves somewhere on the middle of the continuum of paid work-to-unpaid activity.  The best alternative word to “retirement” that I’ve encountered that more accurately describes what we’re about is “pretirement”*.  I look forward to learning and sharing in this blog our own and others’ unique journeys of pretirement.  I think the next enjoyable phase of life will feature dialing economic pursuits up, dialing them down and dialing them all around as we choose how we work.

    Have you noticed how the word “retirement” isn’t very useful?

    There’s nothing wrong with being retired, spending one’s days however one wishes.  My grandparents had an idyllic retirement in many ways.  They lived in the Georgia countryside, had a giant garden, drove huge American cars, went fishing whenever they wanted, and cooked fresh food nearly every day.  Their retired friends visited them, often unannounced and bearing gifts of produce, leading to spontaneous pea shelling or corn shucking sessions under the car port, where the most entertaining homespun story-telling imaginable occurred.  Best of all, they lavished time and attention on my brother and me as kids, taking us on summer road trips for weeks at a time.  When we were with them, the only time our grandparents weren’t spoiling us with their love and attention was when their soap operas came on, at which time we were hustled outside to play.

    The paradox is, they were “retired” but they were also busy.  Today, too, when people finally unchain themselves from paid work many of them soon say, “Wow, I thought I retired but I’ve never been so busy!”  They are volunteering, running errands, traveling, doing house projects, and visiting friends.

    Sounds pretty good, right?  So, what’s my problem with the word “retirement”?  In our work-oriented culture, it implies that one’s paid career is over and now the retiree is dedicated to full time leisure.  It’s binary:  You work until you don’t have to any more.  Earning is either happening full time or it’s never happening again.  On/Off.

    The problem is, On/Off is not what I observe in very many post-career people.  To be sure, some former workers are dedicated to unpaid leisure.  Bully for them, if they can afford it and if it’s what they choose.  Other people encounter health challenges or care-taking situations that require their focus.  Still, I observe a lot of post-career people doing a variety of activities, which is a mixture of leisure, service and paid.  A lucky few can’t tell the difference.

    People no longer working full time might still be at their traditional employer but on reduced hours, or consulting a bit, or driving for Lyft, or running an Airbnb.  I am secretly envious of the clerks down at the hardware store working a few hours per week and seeming to enjoy cheerfully welcoming customers and helping them find what they need.  When I visit REI I seek out the staff my age and ask if it’s fun to work there (yes, apparently, though it’s tempting to buy too many gadgets and clothes).

    Even my retired grandparents were economically active their whole lives, considering that they owned some commercial property in town and regularly sold timber from their land to the local paper mill.  My own parents are in their late 70s and are still engaged with part time work.  My dad experimented with full blown retirement at age 75 but soon discovered he liked being an engineer too much, so his former company gladly rehired him to continue designing machines 3 days per week.

    “Retirement” also doesn’t seem to fit the new generation of “FIRE” enthusiasts.  If you haven’t yet encountered the burgeoning FIRE community online, it consists of thousands of avid savers and investors aiming to decouple themselves from job-dependence just as soon as possible by becoming Financially-Independent/Early-Retired.

    People pursuing FIRE are committed to their goals and to living their lives intentionally to a degree that really impresses me.  The simple idea of FIRE is to leverage one’s job to create permanent financial security.  They limit debt and moderate consumption, using the resulting large marginal income to build an investment portfolio as quickly as possible that is sufficient to support their required spending forever.  Portfolios usually consist of simple, low-cost and entirely passive stock and bond index funds, though a few are building up rental real estate holdings or other businesses.

    Someone who can achieve financial independence in their 30s, 40s or 50s thanks to visionary goal setting and uncommon financial discipline is probably not the type of person who will gladly pivot easily to the hammock of full-time traditionally-conceived “retirement,” umbrella drink in hand.  No, these people are so productive that they probably can’t help but continue attracting earned money, only now these “FIREd” folks work creatively on their terms.  That’s what I want to do.

    I have been consuming the abundant and inspiring FIRE-related blogs, podcasts, books and other media for years now, so I count myself a fan and avid participant in this friendly, positive and supportive community.

    At age 52, I’m also getting very focused on acting on what I’ve learned.  Long before the FIRE acronym was coined and its online community emerged, my wife and I lived beneath our means, saving and investing 30-50% or more of our income starting in our 20s, even as we worked in the non-profit sector our whole careers.  We’ve never felt that we have sacrificed anything important to us.

    I lead us on this path, though my wife certainly does her part.  I was compelled to take advantage of the tax reductions and employer matches in our 403b plans (the 401k equivalent of the non-profit sector), which together amounted to a half-price sale on dollars.  There was nothing we really wanted to consume that made us want to dial back savings and turn away from the opportunity to save with the helpful tailwind from the government and our employers.  Rather, we always found little ways to increase our savings rate every year, little by little, until we maxed out all of our tax-advantaged savings vehicles, so we then started saving and investing after tax dollars.

    We simply directed our savings and employer matches automatically into stock index funds until our late 40s, when we started gradually adding a total bond index fund into the mix for some ballast to the stocks’ inherent volatility.

    We also bought and renovated a few old houses, one at a time as we lived in them, making some profit along the way.  We aren’t aggressive “fixers and flippers” but we discovered that we enjoy learning new skills to beautify our living space as a satisfying creative outlet.  In hindsight, renting places to live would have probably been the better choice from a purely-financial perspective but, then, we obviously do not live our lives in order to obtain maximum money.  After all, we’ve had non-profit careers and, as Jerry Seinfeld once said, “‘Non-profit’.  That does not sound like a good business model!”

    I enjoy my full-time job raising money for a wonderful organization that a lot of people rely on.  I still feel a strong sense of mission about my work in philanthropy. Still, like most everyone I know at my age, my wife and I are sort of looking to do something different.  The marginal returns of habitually expanding our careers feel to us to be diminishing a bit.  We’ve accomplished a lot of our career goals.  We’re not as willing to prioritize work over the rest of our lives.

    Some people I know, however, have identified things they want to do and are not waiting to do them.  One work friend, a model for our field and at the peak of his earning potential, now that his kids are out of college is dialing down his career in his late 50s to become a clown.  Literally.  He’s reduced his work hours and will attend clown school with a plan to entertain people in nursing homes.  He’ll be the best clown ever, too.

    I am not driven to be a clown but I celebrate his intention and want to model it.  Fortunately, I am inspired by the possibilities of freedom in the state of FIRE and its many avid practitioners.  I am making plans to leverage the reasonably strong financial position we’ve built over several decades, using the portfolio as a kind of 3rd salary to support some exploration and discovery that might be different than what I’ve been doing for years now.  I’ll look forward to chronicling the journey in future posts.  I want to learn how other people, like my clown friend, are making the leap, too, and to feature their unique experimentation here.

    My wife is taking a needed break this year from her career, which gets me back to the title of this blog:  Through our own longstanding FIRE habits, we realize we can work and live, pretty much as we choose to.  We can dial it up or we can dial it down.  Right now, I’m dialing work up and she’s dialing it down for a while, because we choose to.  If we choose something different later, we’re in a position to act.  For example, we plan to both dial it down in a few years for a gap year or so to travel internationally.  That goal is another adventure I want to chronicle here so we can learn about others’ rich experiences while traveling.

    As apt and evocative as the FIRE acronym is, the “Early Retirement” half of it is not our mindset.  Like lots of people, we find ourselves somewhere on the middle of the continuum of paid work-to-unpaid activity.  The best alternative word to “retirement” that I’ve encountered that more accurately describes what we’re about is “pretirement”*.  I look forward to learning and sharing in this blog our own and others’ unique journeys of pretirement.  I think the next enjoyable phase of life will feature dialing economic pursuits up, dialing them down and dialing them all around as we choose how we work.

    *The Wikipedia page for Pretirement describes “the emergence of a new working state, positioned between the traditional states of employment and retirement.”