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Living in retirement

A guide to retirement withdrawal strategies

Find the optimal retirement withdrawal strategy to maximize spending and savings.
10 minute read
November 13, 2023
Living in retirement
Retirement income
Early retirement

How much can you spend in retirement?

Most people spend years saving for retirement. Then, when the time comes to begin spending their savings, they have no strategy in place.

Many studies—including our own research*—have shown that successful retired investors often don't spend much of their retirement savings, and their money continues to grow. It's not a terrible problem to have, but it could mean these investors are being overly frugal in retirement because they're not sure how much they can "safely" spend.

See other behavioral factors that can affect retirement spending

It's crucial to have a strategy for accumulating retirement assets. Equally important is a strategy to withdraw from your retirement savings. Your withdrawal strategy should accomplish 2 often-competing goals:

  1. Having enough money to support your desired lifestyle.
  2. Ensuring there's enough left for the future, including any money you plan to leave to heirs.

There are several ways to successfully withdraw from your retirement savings. Our advisors can help you determine which approach might work best for you.

Traditional retirement withdrawal strategies

The dollar-plus-inflation strategy calls for you to spend a percentage of your portfolio the first year and adjust that amount in subsequent years based on inflation.

Here are some things to know about this strategy:

  • The "4% rule" is a popular example of the dollar-plus-inflation strategy. Here's how it works.  You withdraw 4% of your portfolio in your first year of retirement. Then, in each subsequent year, the amount you withdraw increases with the rate of inflation. If you don't expect your expenses to change much throughout retirement, this strategy can help ensure you'll be able to cover your yearly costs for as long as the portfolio lasts (goal 1).
  • It ignores market conditions, so you could end up running out of money (in down markets) or spending much less than you can afford (in up markets).
  • It could be best for you if you plan to maintain a steady level of spending from year to year.

The percentage-of-portfolio strategy calls for you to spend a fixed percentage of your portfolio every year. This strategy:

  • Gives you confidence of achieving goal 2—not running out of money.
  • Results in yearly spending amounts that are completely market-driven and could fall short of what you need to live.
  • Could make sense for you if your main concern is ensuring you don't deplete your portfolio and you can adapt your budget to a wide range of spending levels.

As the name implies, a fixed-dollar withdrawal strategy involves taking the same amount of money out of your retirement account every year for a set time then reassessing. It can:

  • Provide a predictable income stream, which can be helpful for budgeting and planning. You'll know exactly how much money you'll be withdrawing each year.
  • Add a level of simplicity. Fixed-dollar withdrawals are relatively easy to manage, and you don't need to constantly adjust your withdrawal amounts.
  • Leave you exposed to the risks of inflation.

With a fixed-percentage withdrawal strategy you withdraw a fixed percentage of your retirement portfolio each year, regardless of market performance. This can be a good way to ensure that you don't outlive your savings.

Here are some of the pros and cons of a fixed-percentage withdrawal strategy:

  • It's easy to understand and implement.
  • This system naturally adjusts your withdrawals to respond to market fluctuations.
  • Your income changes from year to year, so it can be difficult to make financial plans.

Finally, there's the withdrawal "buckets" strategy, which divides your retirement savings into 3 buckets: short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term.

  • The short-term bucket should contain money you'll need to live on for the next 3–5 years. This money should be invested in safe, liquid assets, such as cash, cash equivalents, and short-term bonds.
  • The intermediate bucket should contain money to cover expenses for the next 5–10 years. This money can be invested in longer-term, high-quality bonds and certain stocks, including utilities and REITs.
  • The long-term bucket should hold investments that will continue to grow throughout your retirement. You can invest this money in stocks and long-term bonds.

Want a personalized retirement withdrawal strategy? Our advisors are here for you. Call us at 844-896-5677 Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Eastern time.

How to choose an initial withdrawal amount

No matter which strategy you choose, you'll start by selecting a withdrawal amount for the first year. In the planning phase, many retirement calculators rely on this as a critical component to determine how much you need to save.

Although 4% is a popular guideline, research has established it as "safe" only for specific time frames and allocations. And safe means different things to different people. For you, 4% could be too much—or too little. Here are the factors we consider when choosing a withdrawal rate for a client:

4 levers affecting withdrawal rates

You want a strategy that accomplishes 2 often-competing goals: 1) having enough money to support your desired lifestyle, and 2) ensuring there's enough left for the future. We've got a strategy that can help you with both.

—Vernell Peter-Koyi, CFP®, Senior Financial Advisor

Dynamic withdrawal strategy

Since many people equally prioritize spending levels and portfolio preservation, we created a retirement strategy that achieves both important goals—covering current spending while aiming to preserve enough money for the future.

Dynamic spending is a hybrid of the dollar-plus-inflation and percentage-of-portfolio strategies. It builds on people's natural tendency to spend more when markets are up and less when markets are down—but moderates the wild swings you get when giving market performance free rein over your spending.

In other words, it achieves a happy medium. Your spending is more flexible than with a dollar-plus-inflation approach but also more stable than with the percentage-of-portfolio approach. It's also completely customizable, so in addition to deciding how much to withdraw the first year, you decide how much you're willing (and able) to raise or lower your spending in response to market movements.

To use dynamic spending, you calculate the upcoming year's spending by adjusting the amount of this year's spending based on your portfolio return for the year. But you don't go any higher than the "ceiling" or any lower than the "floor" you set as part of your strategy. 

Spectrum of spending rules

Dynamic spending on FIRE

Careful spending is even more important for early retirees. We looked at sustainable withdrawal rates for the "financial independence retire early" (FIRE) community and found a safe withdrawal rate of 3.3% for someone with a 50-year time frame using the dollar-plus-inflation strategy. But by using dynamic spending instead, the safe rate increased to 4.0%.

Setting your floor and ceiling as well as deciding on the right initial withdrawal rate means you'll need to make several decisions and maintain an additional level of oversight to use dynamic spending. And since all these factors depend on your personal time horizon, allocation, retirement income sources, and priorities, there's no right answer for everyone.

If you're interested in incorporating dynamic spending into your withdrawal strategy, you can learn more in our research paper, or set up a consultation with a Vanguard advisor.

Learn more about dynamic spending (PDF)

Ready to build your withdrawal strategy?

Working with Vanguard gives you access to advisors who are fiduciaries—always acting in your best interests. We'll work with you to build a flexible retirement withdrawal strategy to help you maintain a stable income while also preserving your portfolio.

Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Eastern time

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*Source: Vanguard, Drawdown from Financial Accounts in Retirement (Thomas J. De Luca and Anna Madamba, July 2021).

**This is an example of a possible ceiling/floor combination. When you use dynamic spending, you set your ceiling and floor based on your individual situation. An advisor can help you choose the combination that makes sense for you.

†Source: Vanguard, From Assets to Income: A Goals-Based Approach to Retirement Spending (Colleen M. Jaconetti, CPA, CFP®, et al., April 2020).

‡Source: Vanguard, Fuel for the F.I.R.E.: Updating the 4% Rule for Early Retirees (Paulo Costa, Ph.D., et al., June 2021).

All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest.

This information is intended to be educational and is not tailored to the investment needs of any specific investor.

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