As adults, we know the importance of saving for retirement. It’s really easy. Just set up an automatic withdrawal from each month’s paycheck and direct it into a retirement account. What becomes trickier is the amount we should be saving and how it should be invested.

But what happens as we enter retirement? We’ve been saving money our entire lives. In theory, we know what’s needed–simply rely on savings, Social Security, and if we have one, a pension.

But over the years, I’ve had many clients and friends reach out to me as they recognize that the seemingly simple concept of relying on savings really isn’t so simple.

We are in a transition period that moves us away from retirement planning to retirement income planning.

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Two key aspects

A survey a couple of years ago by the American Institute of CPAs   revealed that two prime retirement income planning concerns are (1) running out of money and (2) how to more efficiently and effectively tap into assets.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. “How much money do I have to live on each month?” is a common question and, “Which accounts and in what amounts should I pull funds from?” comes up often.

Let’s start with the first question. Sources of income during retirement may include Social Security , assets, earnings from part-time work, and a pension.

Social Security and pensions are reasonably stable. For most folks, however, it’s not enough to live on, and a lifetime of savings plays a key role in filling the gap.

Some of you may be in a position to live off interest and dividends, only withdrawing principal for special needs. Many, however, must rely on carefully meting out and using much of their lifetime savings to supplement their spending.

One approach is to employ what’s called a “sustainable withdrawal rate.” One common method is called the 4% rule, which some of you may have heard of.

Simply stated:  Withdraw 4% each year from your savings, an amount you may decide to keep constant or increase to keep pace with inflation. This was once a helpful rule of thumb, but low interest rates have made it less than ideal for today’s retirees.

Let’s look at another scenario. We can always increase the annual withdrawal rate to 5% or more; however, if we raise it too high, there is the risk of running low or running out of savings.

Instead, you should consider a withdrawal rate based on your time horizon, asset allocation, and confidence level.

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Questions we can consider include:

  1. How many years do you want to plan for?
  2. What asset mix between stocks and bonds are you comfortable with?
  3. What level of confidence do you want to have that your money will last?

A lower withdrawal rate will increase the odds the portfolio will last through your retirement years– that’s intuitive. But it also means less discretionary income.

This dilemma also illustrates the need to keep an eye on capital appreciation, especially in today’s low-rate environment. It’s why I’m likely to recommend that your portfolio includes a mix of stocks.

Of course, flexibility and ongoing monitoring are critical. This isn’t a “set and forget” portfolio. Adjustments can be made based on your personal situation. So, it’s important we monitor and modify as necessary.

Let’s move to the next question–withdrawal order. Which accounts should you tap first if your goal is to maximize spending during your lifetime?

  1. Let’s start with the required minimum distribution from tax-deferred accounts such as IRAs. At 70 ½ years old, the IRS requires that you take a minimum distribution each year. Miss it and you’ll pay a big penalty.
  2. Taxable interest, dividends, and capital gains distributions may be the next best source of income.

If additional funds are needed, your anticipated future tax bracket comes into play. If we expect a higher marginal tax bracket in the future, withdrawing from the traditional IRA today may be the most advantageous choice. But be careful the distribution doesn’t push you into a higher tax bracket in the year you take it.

If you anticipate a lower tax bracket down the road, a Roth IRA may be the best option for today’s income needs. If cash is still needed or desired, then look to a traditional IRA.

However, there is one big advantage to leaving the Roth alone. You continue to take advantage of the tax-free umbrella the Roth provides. Or, you can hold on to the Roth for unexpected expenses. Moreover, the Roth can be used as an estate planning vehicle because heirs may be able to sidestep federal taxes when withdrawing from it.

These are just a couple of ideas designed to provide you with the proper framework as you enter or gear up for retirement. It is a broad overview that’s designed to shed light on a situation that’s unfamiliar to many retirees.

Each situation is unique, which means there are many other aspects of retirement income planning that could be useful for your specific situation.