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Updated on Friday, June 16, 2017
There isn’t a shortage of material on how to build up your retirement nest egg. But once you get it, and you’re ready to retire, how do you actually spend it? Withdrawing from your retirement account (also referred to as “taking a distribution”) isn’t as simple as withdrawing from an ATM. In fact, there is an entire strategy as to which account you should take from first, when you should file for Social Security, and how much to withdraw each year.
The main objective of retirement is to have your money outlive you; and making your money last throughout retirement is harder now than it used to be. This can be attributed to three big factors: people are living longer, the number of pension plans are declining, and the costs of living and health care are rising. If your retirement savings isn’t large enough, you could be forced to go back to work, assuming you’re physically capable to do so, or rely on family.
Also, taking from the wrong account could result in losing some of your money to taxes; withdrawing too much can shorten your money’s overall lifespan. Here are some key points you’ll want to know.
Key Rules to Follow
Generally speaking, you cannot start withdrawing from pre-tax retirement accounts like a 401(k), 403(b), or traditional IRA until age 59½ without a penalty. This does not apply to Roth accounts, however. You are allowed to withdraw any principal funds from your Roth accounts without penalty because you paid taxes up front on those funds — you just can’t withdraw any of the gains you’ve earned over the years. To keep everything simple, we’ll assume that you’re already over 59½ and all of your retirement savings are in tax advantaged accounts like a 401(k).
Don’t cash out everything at once
Let’s go back to our original assumption that you’re over 59½ and ready to retire. One of the biggest mistakes would be to liquidate all of your account into a lump sum. This causes two problems.
First of all, taxes. Taking large lump-sum distributions could leave you with a very large tax bill because whatever you withdraw will be treated as additional income. The second problem is that once you liquidate your investments, that means they are no longer growing. It may be a mistake to become too conservative with your investments in retirement, because many of us will live well into our 80s. With potentially 20 years ahead of you, you’ll want your money to keep growing, keep beating inflation, and give you the best shot at not outliving your funds.
The solution: periodic distributions
It’s recommended that retirees take periodic distributions, usually on a monthly basis. This allows you to take a portion of your money out to spend while letting the remainder stay in the market to grow. Figuring out how much you’ll need can be tricky. Many retirees stick to the 4% rule, which seeks to provide steady income while preserving the principal. If you had $1 million saved, you could withdraw $40,000 each year. A person with a $1.25 million retirement savings withdrawing 4% could receive $50,000 per year.
It is considered a best practice to withdraw your investments proportionately, also known as pro rata. To understand what that means, say you have a retirement account with four investments: Stock A, Stock B, Stock C, and Stock D, and each of them makes up 25% of your portfolio, or $250,000 each, for a total of $1 million.
If you follow the 4% rule, you need to withdraw $40,000. It could be a mistake to take the full $40,000 from one single stock as this would throw off the allocation. Pro rata means that you would take $10,000 from each stock, which keeps your portfolio balanced.
Depending on how many investments you hold, calculating a pro rata distribution can become difficult. Your best bet is to consult a financial planner in your area or call your investment firm’s customer service line.
Don’t forget to factor in taxes
Remember, if you’re withdrawing from a pre-tax account, the amount you take out and the amount you actually receive will be different. These funds will be taxed as regular income in your top tax bracket. For example: If you need $2,000 per month to meet your needs, you may need to take out an amount closer to $2,500 to leave room to pay taxes.
Tap into non-retirement savings first
It’s common to have more than one retirement account. To avoid taking a tax hit, many financial experts recommend tapping into non-retirement savings first. “Very generally, and depending on your tax bracket, you should typically take money out of your non-retirement accounts first to keep your taxable income lower,” says Neal Frankle, CFP and blogger at Wealth Pilgrim.
This way, you can give your retirement funds an even longer time to grow before you’re ready (or forced by the required minimum distribution) to start making withdrawals.
Of course, this is an oversimplified strategy and won’t fit every case. Again, it’s wise to seek professional help, at least in the last few years before you retire, to map out a game plan. “This takes a little time and may cost a bit, but it is by far the best investment a pre-retiree can make in my experience,” says Frankle.
Delay Social Security withdrawals as long as possible
We’ve saved the best (worst?) for last. If trying to decide whether to dip into your savings account or 401(k) first was complicated, it doesn’t get much trickier than figuring out the right time to start tapping your Social Security.
In an ideal world, you would ignore your Social Security until at least age 70. That’s when you can capture your maximum benefit. The longer you wait to take Social Security, the more you will receive. Sure, you can start withdrawing funds at age 62, but you’ll only get 75% of your potential earnings.
To get 100% of your potential benefit (for those born between 1943 and 1954), you’ll have to wait till age 66.
But the deal gets even sweeter if you can hold off till 70, when you’ll get your full benefit plus another 32%.
Of course, that’s an ideal world.
In reality, most people start tapping their Social Security funds at age 62.
To visualize the benefit of delaying Social Security for as long as possible, check out this chart from Merrill Edge:
Planning Your Social Security Strategy
There are a lot of complexities attached to Social Security and when to start taking benefits; some of which include your tax bracket, life expectancy, marital status, and how much you’ve saved. The easiest way to help sort this out is to decide the amount of money you could live on each year. For some, this amount is 75%-80% of their pre-retirement income. Someone living on $60,000 might be comfortable with having about $48,000 per year in retirement. It is up to you and your financial planner to decide what combination of options can get you to that number.
But here are some things to consider:
If you’re married
The bulk of the complexities around Social Security are with married couples. When you tally up the options, married couples have dozens of strategies to choose from compared to a handful for singles.
The two main concepts you’ll want to be familiar with are the spousal benefit and the survivorship benefit.
The spousal benefit can allow a spouse to collect up to 50% of their spouse’s benefit based on the spouse’s full retirement age. This could allow for the higher earning spouse to wait to file later to receive the maximum benefit. You can look up your full retirement age here.
For example, Jack and Jill are married, and both are 66 years old. Jill earns significantly more than Jack, and her full retirement age for Social Security is 66. Jack could file Social Security on his own age and earnings history or for the spousal benefit. Since 50% of Jill’s benefit is higher than what he would have gotten on his own, he can file for the spousal benefit now, and Jill can file at age 70. This could help them maximize their total benefit as a couple.
The survivorship benefit is much more straightforward; it allows the surviving spouse to collect a portion of a deceased spouse’s benefits. You can learn more here.
If you’re single
Figuring out Social Security if you’re single can be a lot simpler. You could begin taking Social Security at 62 for a reduced benefit or wait until age 70 to get the highest possible payout. Those who are single due to death or divorce may have a few more options.
In the case of divorce, if you were married for at least 10 years and you have not remarried, you may be eligible to claim a spousal benefit. This is also the case for an ex-spouse who is deceased.
How much do you have saved?
This is perhaps the biggest component: the longer you wait to file for Social Security, the more you could earn. If your nest egg can cover the majority of your retirement lifestyle and your health is good, you may be better off waiting until later to start Social Security.
What’s a Required Minimum Distribution?
There’s also the pesky required minimum distribution (RMD) to consider. When it comes to any retirement funds that were set aside, tax deferred during your working years, the RMD rule makes sure that workers eventually withdraw those funds. Why? Because the IRS isn’t going to leave billions of tax dollars on the table forever.
In a nutshell, the RMD is the amount of money you have to begin withdrawing from your tax-deferred retirement accounts by age 70½. There’s a whole complex way to figure out what your RMD is exactly, but the truth is that you probably won’t have to worry about it.
In fact, most retirees who are living off of their retirement funds meet the RMD by default. Someone with $100,000 in a traditional IRA on December 31 of last year would have to withdraw about $3,780 if they turn 71 this year. If you’re close to 70½ and want to estimate your RMD, you can use this link.
Not taking your RMD, or less than what is required, from a traditional IRA or 401(k) will cost you. The IRS will levy a 50% penalty on the difference between the amount you withdrew and the amount you should have withdrawn.
What if you’ve got more than one retirement account?
If you have multiple traditional IRAs, your RMD will be calculated using the combined value of each account. This allows you to choose which IRA to withdraw from, or to divide the RMD between the accounts.
What if you’re still working in your 70s?
If you are still working beyond 70½, you do not have to take an RMD from your 401(k) until the year you retire. You would still have to take it from your traditional IRA whether you’re working or not. If you are not working and you still have old 401(k)s at different employers, you would be forced to calculate and withdraw the RMD amount from each account separately.
What about Roth retirement accounts?
The RMD rule does not apply to Roth accounts. “Your money grows tax-free in the account and will pass to heirs without any tax obligations,” says Joseph Hogue, a Chartered Financial Analyst. Roth accounts can be a great tool when you’re withdrawing because you have much more control of what you pay in income taxes while in retirement.