How Much Do I Need to Retire?

Park Bench Crop Much of personal finance revolves around the effort to amass sufficient financial resources to retire. And at the center of all that is a simple and powerful question: just how much will I need to pull it all off, to stop working once and for all?

I have never worked with a financial planner, and I have certainly never worked as one, but I will speculate that this is a question that often pops up very early in the conversation. I can imagine an earnest middle-aged couple outlining what they want to do in 25 years and then asking “So, how much will we need to have?”

If the planner is being honest, he will answer “Nobody knows.” I am betting few of them say this. At least not in so many words. Bad for business.

The problem is not that the math is particularly complicated or that this is an economic phenomenon not yet understood by financial theory. The problem is that the numbers you need to plug into the relatively straightforward calculations are at best speculative. What income will you need in 25 years? What will your investment returns be before and after you retire? And the tax rate? How long will you live? What will you get from Social Security?

All of those questions can be answered with reasonable and sober estimates. But they are all forms of what we investment professionals call “predicting the future.” Moreover, you do not need to be very far off with your predictions to get meaningfully different results. How much do I need to retire is an unstable problem, a house built on shifting sands liable to tilt one way or the other in response to minor tremors.

To illustrate this, I decided to visit a few of the on-line “calculators” that you can find easily of you Google “how much do I need to retire.” I did my best to enter the same data in each one. 45 year-old couple, makes $100K now, needs $85K to live in retirement, will retire at 70, will live to 90.

Fidelity.com comes up with $2,479,000 as “your goal.” Very helpfully, they illustrate what I might actually have in a 25 years based on both average and poor investment return scenarios.

Kiplinger’s puts The Number at $1,605,289. It took me a few tries to get it to work.

CNNMoney spits out the suspiciously round figure of $2.6 million. They do mention that it is $1.2 million in today’s dollars, which is useful to know. I guess.

Bankrate.com gives me $1,772,181.68. They were the only ones to get it down to the last penny, so they get points for accuracy.

MSNMoney, bless them, tells me I will only need $597,568. That’s reassuring. For a while there I thought I might have to start saving. They point out that the wife and I will get $86K in Social Security per year starting in 2037.

But then ING burst my bubble with $2,983,333. (This is a somewhat modified version of a tool I discussed in 2010.)

$600K to $3M is a pretty wide range of results. They are that different because although each calculator, presumably, does the same math, they each ask the user for a different subset of the necessary inputs and supply their own hidden assumptions for the rest. Which really calls into question calling these calculators. Rough estimators would probably be a more appropriate and useful term.

Trying to calculate how much you will need to retire several decades from now is like trying to guess which parking space you will use at the mall as you pull out of your driveway. For now, just focus on getting there.

My advice would be to use several of these tools to get a general idea of the numbers involved and act accordingly in your saving and investing. And then repeat the process once a year or so.

And remember that even on that magic day when you retire, what will happen with your finances in the following 20ish years is far from scripted. Life is a journey, and you are a driver, not a passenger.

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