We’re 54, have $4.5 million in savings but don’t know how to withdraw it in retirement. What should we do?

We’re 54, have .5 million in savings but don’t know how to withdraw it in retirement. What should we do?


By Alessandra Malito

Have a question about your own retirement savings? Email us at [email protected]

Dear MarketWatch,

My wife and I are both 54 years old and have accumulated a taxable account totaling $2.3 million, and retirement assets totaling $2.2 million. We hope to retire at 55, and we are wondering about the best way to take our distributions. Clearly we will not touch the qualified money until we reach 59 1/2 .

I understand the 4% rule, but when it comes to taking the money, is it better to have a set monthly, quarterly, or annual withdrawal, or is it better to take a lump sum? I can see myself going crazy trying to time market tops in order to take distributions. I was planning to take money off the table after the peak in 2021. I purposely held out until 2022 for tax purposes and that backfired.

Is the best course of action to set it and forget on a monthly, quarterly, or annual basis?

See:I’m 54 and the primary earner but ‘professionally, I am exhausted’ — we have $2.18 million but what about healthcare?

Dear reader,

You touch on a really common issue retirees have: the distribution phase.

For decades, Americans are told to save, save, save for retirement, but then they get to the point where they need to start using the money…and that can be a complicated process. Retirees need to have an idea of how much to withdraw, what that distribution’s impact will be on the rest of their nest egg, what to expect come tax time and how not to use that money too quickly.

Like so much in personal finance, the answer to your question is highly dependent on individual circumstances. I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, a note about the 4% rule. This rule is meant to be a guideline. For some people, 4% is too much, while for others, it isn’t enough. Experts have argued its applicability, too — Morningstar, for example, said retirees could use a rate of 3.3% and would have a 90% probability of not running out of money in retirement.

Want more actionable tips for your retirement savings journey? Read MarketWatch’s “Retirement Hacks” column

Before you commit to the 4% rule (which, of course, you can always adjust as the years go on), do a few quick calculations on how much you expect to spend in retirement — with a buffer included — and see what the percentage of your total retirement savings actually is. You may be able to retain more in your retirement assets than you expected.

If you’re still not sure on how much to take out, perhaps start a bit more conservatively in an effort to preserve your investments. The less money you take out, the more in your accounts that can continue to grow.

Also, be aware of something called the “sequence of returns” risk, which is when your portfolio value drops too quickly at the beginning of your distribution journey. The result could be less than ideal for your account.

Read:The Decumulation Drawdown: How spending became the big dilemma in retirement

Pay attention to the tax implications of your decision, and consider consulting a qualified financial planner and/or an accountant to help you run the numbers. There are plenty of factors you have not included in your letter, such as if any of that money is in Roth accounts, and even then, a qualified financial planner can get into the granular details to help you make the most of your retirement spending and savings. You might find making Roth conversions to be beneficial as your taxable income drops — it’s also a way to avoid required minimum distributions down the road.

Also, you’re right not to touch your retirement assets until you’re 59 1/2 years old (and for readers who are unaware, that’s when most retirement account assets become available without incurring a penalty). There are exceptions, such as the “55 rule,” which is when you are allowed to withdraw from your retirement account after separation from service if you are 55 or older. The account you can withdraw from must be linked to the job from which you’re separating, and there may be other stipulations attached. Check with your employer about what you are and aren’t allowed to do with your retirement plan.

Now, how often to distribute. This will depend on your comfort level, but some advisers suggest pulling six to 12 months’ of monthly expenses in a money-market account and then creating a paycheck effect. “Setting up monthly or biweekly distributions will create the feel of still working and help you stay within your budget,” said Brian Schmehil, a certified financial planner and managing director of wealth management for The Mather Group.

Also see: At 55 years old, I will have worked for 30 years — what are the pros and cons of retiring at that age?

Make sure the accounts you’re drawing from have shorter investment horizons and are in less risky investments, which will help you “continue to spend what you want to spend and accomplish your goals without having to be overly mindful of market volatility,” Schmehil said. This is in line with the bucket approach, which is when your assets are divided into various investment horizons. The least risky is in your shorter-term “bucket,” whereas the investments with the most risk are earmarked for the long term.

Having a monthly distribution schedule might help keep you in check. “I like to use monthly for most people,” said David Haas, a certified financial planner and owner of Cereus Financial Advisors. “It keeps them thinking about a monthly budget if they have a propensity to spend too much.”

Keep in mind how many variables can change over the course of your retirement. For example, if you switch up where your retirement money comes from — your taxable account, your retirement accounts, Social Security, etc. — your tax liabilities could change. Also, inflation might have an impact on your spending, or how quickly you draw down your distribution. Your risk tolerance may also transform, especially as you get older and you see your nest egg dwindle or you face market volatility. The frequency in which you take your money might change too, and if it does, that’s OK.

Readers: Do you have suggestions for this reader? Add them in the comments below.

Have a question about your own retirement savings? Email us at [email protected]

-Alessandra Malito

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06-26-23 1059ET

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