When it comes to Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE), many people get turned off because they define retirement as “never, ever working again for money”. Financial independence fits better with my goal of spending the most of your limited time on Earth aligned with your values.
If the idea is to maximize your independent time, then you have to accept that luck matters. This chart from Michael Kitces explores equally likely scenarios from someone spending down a $1,000,000 portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds.
- Ending up broke or feel alarmingly like you are headed towards broke.
- Ending up with many, many times more money than you started with.
Is retiring as soon as you reach the 4% rule too risky because you might run out of money? Or is working longer for 3% too risky because you might have wasted years of your life working when you didn’t need to?
Let’s look again at some charts from Engaging Data. Here are sample results for the early retirement scenario at 4% withdrawal rate at age 40 ($40k from a $1m 65/35/5 portfolio, retirement horizon 50 years, female longevity table).
- Red – Alive, but ran out of money.
- Light green – Alive, with less money than you started with.
- Green – Alive, with between 100% and 200% of what you started with.
- Dark green – Alive, with over 200% of what you started with.
- Grey – Dead.
Here is retired at 40 with a lower 3% withdrawal rate ($30k from a $1m 65/35/5 portfolio, retirement horizon 50 years, female longevity table):
Notice at even with the riskier 4% withdrawal rate, you have roughly a 60% chance that your portfolio never goes below the starting balance for as long as you are alive. That means you just spend your 4% every year and it just replenishes itself over and over. Sure, the 3% chart looks safer as there is no red “failure” area. But is that chance of failure worth working maybe another 10 years to go from 25x expenses (4%) to 33x expenses (3%)?
If your portfolio value drops early in retirement, flexible withdrawals are one important tool to improve your portfolio survival odds. However, what about flexible income as well?
What if you retired earlier so that if things go well, you get more retirement years, but if things go bad, then you fall back on some part-time back-up work? Your main risk is of poor returns in the first 10 years of retirement or so. You would accept the chance that you might have to do a little work again to prop your portfolio up during that time. A good part-time job would have the following characteristics:
- Scales up and down easily. Ideally, you could spend 10 hours a week, 20 hours a week, or 40 hours a week on it as necessary. This could mean hourly shift work or flexible self-employment.
- Higher-paid skilled work that is at least partially satisfying. Unskilled work will be the easiest to obtain, but the pay will be low. Uber/Lyft driver, food delivery, home health aide, retail, warehouse, etc. You want something where your special skills are compensated accordingly.
- Minimal maintenance. For some jobs, if you aren’t constantly putting in hours, you’ll become obsolete and won’t be able to start back up again. There may be professional licenses to maintain, etc.
Here’s a brief list of ideas:
- Healthcare. Many positions in the healthcare field can be part-time and hourly, from doctor to nurses to technician positions.
- Elder care. This may be related to healthcare, but the overall aging population is another trend to consider.
- Accounting. An accountant or someone with similar skills can usually find work during tax season, assisting other accountants.
- Tech. There is often consulting or project work available, if you keep your contacts and skills up-to-date.
- Passion work. Turn your hobbies into work. You could be a travel guide, taking people on hikes, tours, kayaking, etc. Carpentry projects could turn into an Etsy store. If you like to fix things, become the neighborhood handyperson.
- Real estate. I tend to break up residential real estate investing into two parts – the actual ownership and the property management. Property management is basically a part-time job which you can do yourself, and the effective wage can be quite high if you are skilled at managing tenants. (The catch is that you can also lose money if you are unskilled at it.)
- Teaching and kid-related. People are having fewer kids, but spending more on each one. Sleep training consultant. Potty training consultant. Academic tutoring at any age. Sports coaching at any age. Chess coaching. Language coaching. Musical coaching. These all command premium hourly rates.
I am a conservative person at heart, and I know that I would worry about my family’s finances if my portfolio dropped significantly from my retirement date. Therefore, I am both using a conservative withdrawal method and maintaining a semi-retired work schedule for the time being. I don’t have the luxury of a full traditional retirement, but I like the balance so far.
Bottom line. Living off of an investment portfolio of stocks and bonds depends a lot on luck. One way to deal with this is to be flexible with your withdrawals. Good luck means spending more, bad luck means spending less. This flexibility may allow you to retire earlier with a smaller portfolio balance. However, you could also plan for a little work income to offset early bad luck with portfolio returns. If you instead have early good luck with market returns, then you’ve just won many more years of free time.