[An earlier version of this post appeared at Forbes.com on January 25, 2019.]
The “big picture” retirement finance problem definition is straightforward. How can we work for perhaps 40 years to pay our household’s living expenses and simultaneously save enough that, when combined with Social Security benefits and pensions, we can maintain our desired standard of living for one to perhaps 35 more years?
Straightforward, but daunting, right?
The most important step, often given too little consideration, is defining the goals and challenges for your unique household (see The Retirement Plan I Would Want – Part 7). Identifying and agreeing your retirement financial goals with your spouse and planner is a critical first step before the financial strategy even comes into play.
Sometimes, one spouse wants a total return investment plan and the other just wants a guaranteed monthly check for life. On occasion, I even find a client who has self-conflicting goals of his or her own, like wanting to maximize retirement spending and leave a large bequest (a perfect example of wanting to have your cake and eat it, too, by the way). It’s difficult to solve a problem when no one agrees what the problem is.
Once the goals are resolved, we can attempt to meet them financially. There are many factors we might consider but some are far more important than others.
The most important factor in determining retirement outcomes is how long we will be retired. Nearly anyone can maintain their standard of living throughout a retirement that lasts a year or two but far fewer households could fund one that lasts 40 years.
We can’t predict how long a healthy retiree or retired couple will live, what we call “longevity risk,” so the safest bet is to plan for a long, expensive retirement. But, you may not want the safest strategy. Perhaps you’re willing to take a little more risk hoping to spend more. This should be clearly evident from your agreed goals. If it isn’t, your goals need more work. Regardless, there is one inescapable fact: if you spend more you will have more risk.
The key to retirement planning is getting the big decisions right.
If you’re with me so far, then the most important decision of retirement planning—the first “big decision”— is how to deal with longevity risk and that is largely determined by the funding strategy we choose.
Many funding strategies have been proposed in the research literature so even this first step can seem intimidating. Wade Pfau and Jeremy Cooper identified eight proposed strategies ranging from safety-first (expensive but safe) to probability-based (less expensive but riskier). If you haven’t heard of most of them, there are good reasons. Some are too complicated for retirees and advisors to grasp, some are challenging to implement, and some are not broadly palatable, like using a triple-leveraged risky portfolio for the Floor-leverage rule.
How should we choose from this extensive menu? Actually, I suggest that you don’t.
I’m going to make a claim that may sound a bit outrageous: there is only one grand retirement-funding strategy. That strategy is to allocate some amount of retirement plan resources to generate a floor of safe lifetime income, to invest the remaining assets, if any, in a risky aspirational portfolio, and then to decide how to spend the risky assets throughout retirement. The correct balance will depend on how willing you are to risk losing your standard of living for the chance of having an even higher one.
We can allocate zero dollars to the floor portfolio, in theory at least, and have a purely total return strategy. In reality, nearly all Americans are eligible for Social Security Benefits or a public pension and will, consequently, have some floor whether they want it or not.
This grand strategy may simply sound like the strategy we call “floor-and-upside” (see Unraveling Retirement Strategies: Floor-and-Upside). But, choose to allocate nothing to the safe income floor portfolio and to spend 4% of the initial value of the risky portfolio and we have a “sustainable withdrawal rate” strategy. Change the “4% of initial portfolio value” spending rule to “4% of remaining portfolio value” or RMD-spending, for example, and we have one of Pfau and Cooper’s variable-spending strategies. They’re different takes on the single grand strategy.
Retirees who fund part of their spending needs from a risky portfolio will also need a spending strategy. For them, this will be important decision number 1(b).
By making the important decisions first instead of selecting from a list of strategies, you can simplify the planning process. Decide how much risk you are willing to take with your standard of living in exchange for the possibility of improving it and allocate retirement resources to your floor and risky portfolios accordingly. If you decide to fund a risky portfolio, then also decide on a spending strategy that equally fits your risk tolerance.
These decisions will have a far greater impact on your outcome than say, tweaking your equity allocation 5% or worrying about whether equities get safer the longer you hold them. You may find that this process provides a better high-level understanding of your retirement plan. You may even be able to describe the important parts of your plan in a couple of sentences.
“Honey, what’s our retirement plan?”
“Glad you asked! Here’s the big picture in two sentences. . .”
How sweet would that be?
Identify your goals, get the big decisions right, and your plan will be 80% to 90% of the way home.
 The Yin and Yang of Retirement Income Philosophies, Wade Pfau and Jeremy Cooper.
 The Retirement Plan I Would Want – Part 7, The Retirement Cafe.