How (and why) to retire debt free

How (and why) to retire debt free

It’s almost impossible to open a newspaper these days without reading about your retirement “number.”  That is, the amount of money you need to set aside to fund your retirement years.  While important, the “number” is only one way to skin the proverbial cat.  What if I told you that you could slash 20-40 percent off the amount you need to save without reducing your standard of living in retirement?  Would you be interested?

While it may sound too good to be true, that is exactly what you can do by entering retirement debt free.  To see why, let’s look at an example.  Imagine two couples, the Drakes and the Palmers.  They’ve been friends for years and live next door to each other in a small community in Oregon.  The couples, both in their mid-sixties, plan on retiring next year, so they sit down with their respective advisers and calculate how much they’ll need.

The Drakes outline their retirement budget and determine that, in addition to Social Security, they will need $5,000 per month or $60,000 per year.  Approximately $1,300 of that is for their mortgage and $400 is for a car payment.  Assuming a withdrawal rate of 4 percent, the Drake’s adviser tells them they will need a nest egg of $1.5 million to generate the income they need ($60,000 ÷ .04).

The Palmers expect their retirement expenses to be nearly identical to their friends the Drakes with one big exception: they have no debt.  Ten years ago they set a goal to enter retirement debt free.  They paid extra on their mortgage each month and resisted the urge to buy expensive new cars.  As a result, rather than $5,000 per month they only need $3,300.  Assuming a withdrawal rate of 4 percent, their adviser tells them that their “number” is $990,000.

So even though they are planning nearly identical retirements, the Palmers can generate the cash flow they need with nearly half a million less than the Drakes, simply because they have no debt.

Cash flow during retirement

During retirement, your portfolio takes over the job that the payroll department handled during your working years, namely to send you a paycheck every month.  As we saw in the example above, debt makes that task much more challenging.  It cuts into your cash flow and increases the risk that you will outlive your money.

Even so, more people are following in the footsteps of the Drakes than ever before.  According to the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University, more than 60 percent of people aged 55-64 have mortgage and home-equity debt.  Funding retirement is difficult enough without handicapping yourself with liabilities.  Here are three steps you can take to make sure your debt retires when you do.

1) Commit

Paying off your house and other debts takes time and requires a serious commitment.  It might even mean putting your retirement dreams on hold.  Getting into debt is easy, but getting out of debt means adjusting your lifestyle and choosing to live below your means so that you can allocate the excess to your creditors.  If married, discuss the plan with your spouse so that you can hold each other accountable and work together towards a common goal.

2) Develop a plan

Once you’re committed to the idea of retiring debt free, it’s time to develop a plan.  Make a list of all your debts, including credit cards, car loans, mortgage debt, and school or business loans.  Next look at your budget and see how much you can allocate towards deleveraging each month.  Some say you should start by paying off the loans with the highest interest rates.  Others say you should start with your smallest loans and pay those off first so you can build momentum by seeing quick progress.  Choose whichever you think would work best for you.  As you pay things off, use the money you were allocating toward that loan and apply it to the next loan on your list.

When you get to large loans like your house, contact your lender and ask for a payoff amortization schedule so you can track your progress.  Don’t be tempted by the thought of holding on to your mortgage interest deduction.  Congress is considering eliminating this tax break in order to close the budget gap, but even if they don’t, it may not provide you much benefit in retirement.  You’ll likely be in a lower tax bracket and mortgage interest is front loaded, so the deduction shrinks over time.

These arguments aside, it’s questionable whether paying interest to get a tax deduction is a benefit in the first place.  Let’s say you pay $20,000 in mortgage interest in a given year and you’re in the 25 percent tax bracket.  Deducting $20,000 from your income would save you $5,000 in taxes.  Only in America does it make sense to spend $20,000 in order to save $5,000.  How much better would it be to pay your mortgage off, send Uncle Sam the extra $5,000 in taxes, and pocket the remaining $15,000?

3) Outline your retirement budget

Once you’ve cleaned up your balance sheet and are ready to move into retirement, develop a detailed retirement budget that matches your income with your expenses.  This will help you keep a reign on your spending so you can stay debt free.

As you can see, debt is inherently limiting at a time when most hope for greater independence and opportunity.  Eliminate it and you will gain the freedom, flexibility, and peace of mind that so many see as the hallmarks of a great retirement.

Note: I first published this article at

Annual retirement review checklist

Annual retirement review checklist

Retirement has a lot of moving parts and when you consider that it could last for thirty years or more, it should come as no surprise that it will have several distinct phases.  Sixty-five will look different from seventy-five, which will look different than eighty-five.  The world, your health, your finances, your responsibilities, and your priorities, will be dynamic and ever changing.  Because of that, it’s important to review your planning and circumstances each year and make whatever course corrections are necessary to keep you on track.  Below is a list of questions to ask yourself each year to help determine if any changes or adjustments are in order.

1)    Is my withdrawal rate sustainable? The answer to that question depends on many things, including investment performance, inflation, how long you live, and, not surprisingly, luck.  Running out of money is not a pleasant option, so you should periodically evaluate your distribution strategy to see if it is sustainable.  A good rule of thumb is to keep withdrawals at 4 percent or less of your overall portfolio.  Everyone’s circumstances are different, however, so meet with your adviser to make sure your income lasts.

2)    Is my income still sufficient and keeping pace with inflation? Inflation is constantly eroding the purchasing power of your money.  That means you will likely need to pay yourself more and more with each passing year simply to buy the very same goods and services.  Consider a day in the hospital.  In 1980 it cost $340.  That same day in 2010 cost $5,310.  To offset the impacts of inflation, most people need to continue to grow their portfolio, even after retiring.  That means you can’t shun risk altogether.  You’ll likely need a well-diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds in order to keep pace.  That leads us to number three.

3)    Is my asset allocation appropriate? Simply put, asset allocation is the process of spreading your investments among stocks, bonds, cash, real estate, commodities, and foreign securities.  Research shows that asset allocation is extremely important.  Not only does it help to minimize risk, but studies show that it is responsible for nearly 90 percent of your overall return.  As markets fluctuate you will likely need to rebalance your portfolio to get your allocation back to your intended target.  In the same way, if your goals and objectives change, you should adjust your allocation to match.

4)    Is the amount of risk I’m taking still appropriate? Too often people discover their tolerance for risk only after they have exceeded it.  This can be a painful lesson any time, but it is devastating to someone in retirement.  This is easy to see when you consider the arithmetic of loss.  Any investment loss you experience requires a considerably larger gain just to get back to even.  For example, if your portfolio loses 50 percent, you would need a 100 percent return just to get back to where you started.  Most people in retirement don’t have the luxury of waiting around for 100 percent returns.  Better to avoid the loss in the first place.

5)    Has the value of my assets changed significantly? Once you retire, you need to turn your assets into an income stream.  The bigger the asset, the bigger the potential income stream.  Big swings in net worth, like a large inheritance or a significant market loss, affect the amount of income your portfolio can generate.  You don’t want to run out of money by taking too much or live miserly by taking too little.  Any time the value of your assets changes significantly, reevaluate your withdrawal rate and your asset allocation to make sure they are still appropriate.

6)    Are my beneficiary designations up to date? You might not realize that your beneficiary designations (like those on your IRA, 401(k), and life insurance policies) override your will.  If your will leaves your life insurance to your kids, but you never updated the beneficiary designation on the insurance policy after your divorce, your ex is getting the money.  As you can see, it’s important to periodically check your beneficiary designations to make sure that they reflect your current intentions.

7)    Have any of my sources of income been impacted? Personal savings is only one source of income during retirement.  You will likely also receive Social Security and possibly a pension.  If your spouse dies, that might cause the pension to go away or be reduced. Worse, if the company you worked for goes bankrupt, your pension might get taken over by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation and be significantly reduced.  Social Security is on an unsustainable path and your benefits there might be altered as well.  Any changes to these other sources of income will put more of the burden on your personal savings, so monitor them closely.

8)    Has mine or my spouse’s health changed significantly? At some point, the desire to live close to the beach might give way to the desire to live close to a good medical facility.  As you age, investigate assisted living areas and medical facilities in your area.  You might eventually need to sell your home to move into a facility or even move to another state if you want to be closer to friends or family that will be involved in your care.  Do as much of this planning as possible while you are still healthy so you can easily transition into the next phase.

9)    Is my estate plan up to date? Your estate plan should not be a static document.  As your life changes, your planning must change with it.  Getting married or divorced would likely significantly change how you want to distribute your property.  Likewise if there is a death in the family.  Each year you should review your documents, including your will, trust, and powers of attorney to make sure that they still reflect your wishes and still have the correct people taking charge if you were to die or become incapacitated.  Also, if you move to another state when you retire, meet with your attorney to make sure that your documents will be valid in your new state of residence.  Make revisions as necessary.

10) Have my insurance needs changed? Not surprisingly, your insurance needs will change over time.  It’s a good idea to periodically review your policies and make changes as necessary.   Is Medicare adequate or do you need additional coverage to fill certain health care gaps?  Do you anticipate that you or your spouse will need assistance with basic daily activities?  If so, you might want to consider a long-term care policy.  Does your pension go away when you die?  Will your death burden your heirs with a large estate tax bill?  If so, changes to your life insurance may be in order.

For a handy PDF of this document, visit the Resources page.


When do you plan on retiring?

When do you plan on retiring?

Chances are you’ve been asked that question before.  Maybe by your spouse or a co-worker.  Maybe by your kids.  When someone asks you that question, is the answer you give a date or a dollar amount?  For most people it’s a date.  Something like “March of next year.” or “When I’m sixty-five.  Two years to go!”

When you think about it, though, your age has very little to do with it.  Sure, you can start taking Social Security at 62, but the average Social Security payment couldn’t lift you above the poverty line.  If you’re like most, your nest egg will be doing the really heavy lifting during retirement.  It will take over the job that the payroll department handled while you were working.  So instead of basing retirement on your birthday, consider basing it on your bank account instead.  Figure out the amount of money you need in order to generate the annaul income you require to fund the retirement you want.  Get that amount saved and you’re retired, regardless of how old you are or whether or not you are still working.