“When can I retire?” I get that question a lot. If you’re curious about the answer, look no further than your retirement budget. The more money you want to spend during retirement, the more you’ll need to save before you get there and the longer you’ll likely need to work. It stands to reason then, that you can probably retire sooner if you can figure out a way to spend less during your golden years. What are some ways to downsize your expenses without downsizing your dreams for retirement?
It has almost become dogma over the last decade that financial security comes by giving up things like your daily latte. That advice can certainly help you sock away a few extra dollars over the years, but if you’re getting close to retirement and find yourself tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollar short of your goal, drinking Folgers instead of Starbucks isn’t going to solve your problem. It’s just not a big enough line item in your budget. If you want to make a big impact, you need to focus on big expenses.
According to a recently released report by the Social Security Administration, the two biggest expenses for most retirees are housing (35 percent) and transportation (14 percent). Said another way, almost half of your retirement budget will go to pay for the roof over your head and the vehicles in your garage. Let’s look at an imaginary couple to see how cuts in those areas can make a big difference.
John and Linda would like to retire next year. They decide to hire an adviser to look over their plan and, much to their dismay, the adviser tells them that they need to save another $300,000 to adequately fund their retirement. At the rate they are saving that would mean delaying retirement for another 10 years. Instead, they look at their retirement budget for ways to cut back.
With the kids gone, they have more space than they need, so they sell the house for $250,000, move into a $150,000 condo and pocket the extra $100,000. With carpooling and soccer games a thing of the past, they trade in their SUVs on two smaller cars (net gain $20,000) and even kick around the idea of sharing a car once neither of them is working. The smaller house and more fuel-efficient cars also means that they’ll be spending about $500 less each month ($6,000 per year) on taxes, utilities, gas and maintenance. Assuming a 4 percent withdrawal rate, that $6,000 annual savings means that they can get by with $150,000 less in their nest egg.
The total benefit, then, from cutting back in just those two areas was $270,000 (or 67,500 lattes). Not bad. They still have $30,000 to go, but at the rate they’re saving they should be able to set that aside and still retire next year as planned.
[Note: To consider ways to trim your own budget, you can download a free retirement budget worksheet at www.intentionalretirement.com/budget.]
Another way to increase retirement security and perhaps even retire sooner than expected is to eliminate debt. It used to be common for people to enter retirement with little or no debt. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. According to a recent study by the Employee Benefits Research Institute, 65 percent of American families with a head of household age 65-74 had debt. The age group with one of the biggest spikes in debt was 75 and older.
Not surprisingly, debt makes it harder to fund your retirement. It cuts into your cash flow and increases the risk that you will run out of money. Again, let’s assume that you can draw 4 percent per year from your assets during retirement. That means that for every $1,000 in annual income that you want during retirement, you’ll need $25,000 in savings.
Look at your current budget. How much do you spend each year on debt payments (e.g. mortgage, car, credit cards)? Multiply that number by 25. How much is it? $250,000? $500,000? More? That’s how much you’ll need to save in order to service that same amount of debt in retirement. As you can see, retiring will be much easier if you retire your debt first.
So as you plan, don’t think of retirement as a particular age or work status. Think of it as the time in your life when you can afford to pay your bills through means other than your job (e.g. personal savings, pension, Social Security).
When you look at it that way, it becomes clear that you can reach your retirement goals from two different directions. “Save more for retirement” is certainly one way, but “spend less in retirement” can be just as effective.