Danger, money mirage!

First a picture that’s kind of a mirage.

Okeefe canyon

Georgia O’Keefe, Canyon Country, 1963. Phoenix Art Museum.

Fidelity says

Fidelity Investments recently published their second quarter 2018 Retirement Analysis .  Fidelity administers over 30 million retirement accounts, so my suspicion would be that their results should be reflective of the total population of retirement account holders.  For the second quarter of 2018, Fidelity found average account balances $104,000 for 401(k)s, $106,900 for IRAs, and $83,400 for 403(b)s.

For millennials, Fidelity determined an average IRA balance of $15,150.

So far, very positive, but there’s more. Fidelity has 168,000 401(k) millionaires and 156,000 IRA millionaires.

Money mirage

You may look at Fidelity’s figures, and possibly your own 401(k) or IRA, and feel reasonably good about the state of retirement savings. You are in a money mirage and seeing what is not real.

What makes the Fidelity figures (or yours!) a mirage has three parts:

  1. Taxes – in a regular 401(k)/IRA/403(b), you will likely owe taxes on your withdrawals and that makes the money shrink, like water in a mirage as you get closer.
  2. Price changes – if you are in mutual funds, your amount could go up but it could also go down. If the market goes down, that makes the money shrink, like water in a mirage as you get closer.
  3. Longevity – the amount may look big, but it may need to last you for a 20 to 30 year retirement. Taking some out, year over year means the money shrinks, like… you get the idea.


The problem with taxes on regular 401(k)/IRA/403(b)’s (let’s call them retirement savings), is that the more you withdraw, the more tax you will owe.  Not only more tax, but if you withdraw enough from your retirement savings in a year, you may make your Social Security payments subject to tax.  Depending on how much your MAGI is, you may make 50% to 85% of your Social Security taxable.

The $62,000 example

Now let’s say you’re a couple (the Example family!) with close to the average Social Security of $1400/person per month or about $33,700/year.  The Examples’ budget and retirement income plan (see the RIP here) has them grossing $62,000/year so they will need about $28,300 from their 401(k).  Now the mirage hits.  The Examples are well over the standard deduction of $20,000 for a married couple, so there will be tax on the 401(k) distribution, plus they will exceed the Social Security MAGI so part of their Social Security benefits will be taxable.  I eyeballed it (don’t try this at home if you don’t do a LOT of 1040’s) and it looks like the Examples will have approximately a $1,900 Federal tax liability. The mirage was the $28,300 from the 401(k) that turned out to be about $26,400 after Federal taxes.  There may also be state income taxes that shrink the initial amount.

Price changes

If your retirement savings are in a mutual fund (non-money market) and the price goes up, we’re all happy.  If the price goes down (remember 2007-2008?), we have the mirage of shrinking fund balances.  If you are nearing retirement, this mirage can be a real problem unless you have some cash for the early years of retirement, so you don’t have to sell shares at a low price.  Consult your financial planner to have a plan for this.

But I saw it with my own eyes!

We saw Fidelity’s decent average retirement plan balances and the impressive number of retirement plan millionaires, above. But what happens if they live too long?

Your retirement savings balance, like the average balances above, may sound fairly high, but once you start withdrawing funds, your accounts can deplete rapidly.  Remember the Example family, above.  They were planning to use approximately $28,000 from their retirement plans annually.  Unfortunately, if they have an average 401(k) or IRA balance, that will only be possible for about three to four years before they are out of money and living solely on Social Security and any other sources of income.

And here’s a mirage-like Victor Vasarely (Tridim-mc, 1974) from the Phoenix Art Museum:


Actions you can take include:

Develop a retirement income plan and discuss it with your tax advisor and your financial planner.

Know what the tax impact of withdrawals will be to your income.

Manage your retirement budget with your income plan to avoid bad surprises.

And if you have not seen the “Why you should read this blog…WIIFY” post, it’s here 

Questions, comments, or suggestions for retirement surprise areas you want to know more about?
-Leave a comment
-Use ‘Contact’, above, to send an email.

Interesting question – take two

Last post we took a detour to discuss travel.  Travel is the most cited ‘want to do’ activity in retirement.  This week we’ll really spend time on the interesting question.

The interesting question

I was reading a practicing financial advisor’s article in a financial planning magazine and ran across an interesting question; “Is your goal to be the richest person in the graveyard?”

If you’re like me, the first place you went with the question was money, particularly a legacy to heirs of money.  Your legacy is important and financial planning around a monetary legacy is critical if it might be large. However, let me suggest that while money is a consideration, perhaps money should be the lesser part of your legacy.  You have already built a part of your legacy, cash and non-monetary, over the course of your life.  You now have the chance to add to your legacy in your pre-retirement and retirement years.  Let’s consider legacies.

What’s in your legacy?

In my case, my family members left me the values of honesty, hard work, perseverance, adaptability, and continuous learning.  I hope and believe that we passed these on to our children and that they will pass them on to the grandchildren. I have some friends that are retired teachers.  They are childless, but I hear stories of how even today former students will stop them in stores and remind them of the values and lessons they learned in their classes.  The legacies of some of my coworkers (many still living) to me included exemplary work ethics, technical excellence, generosity, sharing, caring about, and humor.


You have already left a value legacy.  You can build on it by making it explicit; consider writing an autobiography and pointing out the values you were trying to pass on.  One of my most treasured possessions is a copy of a typed transcription of my great-great-grandfather’s diary from several months in the 1860’s.  Your autobiography could connect multiple generations with your values legacy.  Don’t worry about the grammar and spelling, they will treasure your history and memories.


A number of our friends continue to create their legacy in pre-retirement and retirement by contributing to the community.  Some are committed to environmental causes; one keeps an entire mile of street free of litter as part of an adopt-a-highway program.  Another group helps with youth development by volunteering for Scouting.  Some friends do genealogy to document their family lineage. Still another set helps with anti-poverty and disaster relief through religious institutions and non-profits. Others help maintain our democracy by volunteering with their political parties.

I have attended a number of funerals where “the dash” was read.  Think about your ‘dash’ and consider how you might engage in the community.  Here’s a link to Volunteer Match which can help you find opportunities to meet your interest and abilities.

Back to the money

“Is your goal to be the richest person in the graveyard?”  The financial advisor indicated that he strongly encourages clients to definitely not be the richest person in the graveyard.  A different way of saying this is, ‘die broke’.

Why not be the richest person in the graveyard? A few reasons come to mind:

-quality of life

-estate tax

-smaller gifts instead of a large inheritance.

Hopefully your RIP is set up to provide you with a lifetime retirement income, regardless of how long you live.  If you spend too frugally, you could end up with a lower quality of life than you could afford, leaving a larger estate that was necessary.  Consider the balance in your retirement spending between quality of life and monetary legacy.

Even though the Federal estate tax limit has been raised, that does not mean your state’s estate tax has followed.  Dying with a large estate and no estate tax plan can cost a literal fortune.  I know of one middle-class family that wrote a $40,000 estate tax check because of poor planning.  With minor planning and gifting they would have had no estate tax due – ouch.  Charitable donations and gifting are a couple of techniques for avoiding any estate taxes.  If you will have retirement income outside of Social Security and/or a defined benefit pension, a checkup with an attorney specializing in estate planning will likely be well worth your time.

If you are fortunate enough to have some financial assets that you think might pass on to your heirs, consider multiple smaller gifts while you are living.  One advantage here is that you will get to see the next generation enjoying the gift, which may have been used for a home, car, or vacation.  One key rationale for smaller gifts is that they are less likely than a large inheritance to enable sloth or other moral hazards of wealth without work.

Consider what legacy strategies fit best for you, including dying broke.

Actions you can take include:

-Consider how you might answer the question, “Is your goal to be the richest person in the graveyard?”

-Consult an estate planning attorney to see what, if any, estate plan you might need.

And if you have not seen the “Why you should read this blog…WIIFY” post, it’s here

Questions, comments, or suggestions for retirement surprise areas you want to know more about?
-Leave a comment
-Use ‘Contact’, above, to send an email.

Expectation v. Reality

I get a fair amount of opportunities to discuss retirement with people.  The opportunities arise because retirement is a topic that interests me and because a lot of my friends and acquaintances are close to retirement or retired.  When we discuss retirement ages, the younger (late-40’s to early-50’s) group tends to think they will retire relatively early (say in the 54-57 range).  The older group tends to be aiming a little later, even up to age 70 to maximize savings and Social Security before hanging up the spurs (or in reality, the PC and Excel…).  My opinion is that the younger group is over-optimistic, primarily because of what health care would cost them for a decade prior to Medicare.  I was not as sure on the older group.

Survey says

As it turns out, the older group may be overestimating their staying power. smartasset® , in their analysis of data from the US Census Bureau found that 63 is the average retirement age across the US, with state variations (find your state using the link).

working paper from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College suggests that 41% of retirees retire earlier than they had planned, with health (fact, we’re getting older and nobody gets out of here alive) and involuntary job loss as the leading factors.

bike lunch

Since at least one of my readers likes pictures, here’s a picture of one of the lunches we enjoyed as part of a Netherlands bike and barge back in 2013.  The cardboard box in the lower right is chocolate sprinkles, which are popular to the point of being a staple in the Netherlands.

I’m not planning to retire at 63

But I was planning to retire at 54!  My original plan, at a large firm covered by a defined benefit plan and retiree healthcare had me retiring at 54.  That plan disappeared in 1999 when I changed jobs.

Now, I’m not planning to retire at 63, but the averages say I might. How do you deal with that uncertainty in your retirement income plan (RIP)?  My RIP has multiple tabs with plans starting immediately and at ages 63, 64, and 65.  Those plans all show how our retirement income would fare at the various ages. Starting earlier leads to lower incomes at higher ages, but sometimes you don’t get a choice.

RIP is serious business

The RIP is serious business, because as you age your ability to improve the nest egg or re-do Social Security will be extremely limited.  Once you retire, you are your own payroll department, unless your only income is Social Security. Since most people will be taking a look at their finances at this time of year because it’s tax season, this would be a good time to review (or create) your RIP, with at least one tab for age 63.

Here’s a link to the RIP template.

Actions you can take include:
-Update or create your personal RIP.  Own it!
-Check yourself – What’s your retirement goal?  How are you tracking toward that?  What is your plan if you have to retire early?
And if you have not seen the “Why you should read this blog…WIIFY” post, it’s here.

Questions, comments, or suggestions for retirement surprise areas you want to know more about?
-Leave a comment
-Use ‘Contact’, above, to send an email.

My daughter said…

My daughter told me that I should add some personal things into No Surprises Retirement to make me more human to my readers. I’m an IT guy who has expertise in insurance, annuities, mutual funds, tax reporting, and tax preparation. What could be more warm and personal than that?

Ok, so to try and warm you up to me some, we did vacation recently in a world capital with excellent public transportation, friendly people, great museums, and interesting food ranging from Korean fried chicken to handmade (in a window so we could watch!) Chinese noodles. Which capital? Not Ottawa or London, it was Washington DC. We went in November because we find ‘shoulder season’ travel to be uncrowded, generally OK weather (and almost never too hot), and the rates are usually much lower.

Since going to Bonchon for the Korean fried chicken in DC, I have seen a couple of articles on Korean fried chicken and am waiting for it to arrive here in the heartland. (p.s. – the spicy was SPICY.)

RIP – Retirement Income Plan

Failing to plan is planning to fail (old saying). You should have a retirement income plan (RIP) well prior to retirement and you should maintain it in retirement, because changes happen that can affect your plan. I drafted my initial plan when I was 59, even though I was (and still am) a few years out from retirement.

In my opinion, a ‘good’ RIP covers all the sources of retirement income you (and spouse, if any) will receive, shows them year by year, lets you know if they adjust for inflation, and compares them to a desired budget amount to let you know if you need adjustments. A ‘perfect’ RIP would also make inflation adjustments.

This episode of the blog will cover the RIP. A future episode will cover the other half of the equation, budgeting. Note – another name for the RIP might be retirement income cashflow because it shows you the flow of income cash over the years.

Sample RIP spreadsheet(s) – free!

I put a simplified version of my RIP spreadsheet out on Google Drive for you to download and modify to personalize as needed. I included Excel and Google Sheets versions (the Excel is a little nicer but Google Sheets software is free). Copy and paste this link:
into your browser (I primarily use Chrome) and you should be able to see them and download. Let me know at nosurprisesretirement@gmail.com if you have a problem.

TANSTAAFL* – The RIP will require work on your part!

The work:
-go to SSA.gov and get an updated ‘Your Social Security Statement’ for your Social Security income inputs.
-use an RMD calculator to calculate the RMD’s you’ll have to start taking at 70.5, but subtract out any funds from RMD’able accounts that you will take out prior to 70.5 Here’s a pretty good one from Schwab. You can also search ‘rmd calculator’.
-if you have a pension and/or annuity, figure out when you’ll be taking it and what the amount will be.

Use those numbers to complete the ‘Income Components’ tab of the RIP spreadsheet and enter the first year prorated amounts in the initial year.

Some of you may not be as familiar with Excel or Google sheets and may want your start year to be other than 2020. Two solutions; find a friend who can help or find an Excel or Sheets class at your local library or online. If you’re not a DIY’er on these things, a trusted financial professional most likely has retirement income planning software to use for your personal situation.

Actions you can take include:

-Develop and/or update your retirement income plan

-Don’t forget about your retirement activity plan – reach out to a friend and re-connect, especially now in the holiday season

And if you have not seen the “Why you should read this blog…WIIFY” post, it’s here https://nosurprisesretirement.com/2017/07/09/first-blog-post/

Questions, comments, or suggestions for retirement surprise areas you want to know more about?

-Leave a comment
-Use ‘Contact’, above, to send an email.
* – TANSTAAFL – There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.