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How not to run out of money in retirement

Firstlink’s Graham Hand shares his tips to ensure you don’t need to go back to work after retirement.

The Australian superannuation system ensures most people retire with an account-based pension, either instead of or supplemental to the age pension. The superannuation guarantee started in 1992, allowing most workers to accumulate some retirement savings by the time they reach the age of 65. A superannuation pension is an attractive investment vehicle because earnings and withdrawals are tax free. People who have accumulated savings over their lifetime will hopefully have enough accumulated in super to enjoy a reasonable standard of living in retirement.

Assuming a person has achieved a so-called 'Condition of Release', which generally means achieving the age of 65 (or 60 and ceasing an employment arrangement), they can move super from the accumulation phase of their working years to the pension phase of their retirement. They are then required to withdraw a minimum amount each year, depending on their age, as shown below (source: ASIC’s MoneySmart website).    

How much is needed for a comfortable retirement?

The obvious issue is whether taking this much out of a pension account each year means a retiree might run out of money in the account. Of course, superannuation is not the only source of wealth, and usually, people hold savings outside super as well as owning their own home.

The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) produces an estimate of how much money is needed for both a modest and comfortable lifestyle in retirement. You can see the assumptions on their website. Crucially, the numbers assume retirees own their own home and are in good health. Home ownership is a massive issue in retirement, and these amounts will be insufficient for people required to pay rent in major capital cities.

A simple calculation shows the challenge for retirees in the current low rate environment. If a couple has $1 million in a pension account earning say 3% per annum, the income is $30,000 a year. This is far less than the $61,786 a year required for a comfortable lifestyle if their only source of income is a pension account. They will therefore need to draw down their capital to meet expenses. Moreover, the average combined superannuation balance for people aged over 15 is only about $289,000 (men $168,000, women $121,000).

Consequently, most retirees fear running out of money. Recent research by AllianzRetire+ reveals only 44% of Australian retirees feel secure in their current financial position, and:

“The response from current retirees is to assume a frugal and conservative retirement investment approach to fund their retirement (75%).”

The result is that two-thirds of retirees are spending only on necessities, worried about unexpected costs and illness.

Graeme Colley of SMSF administrator SuperConcepts has run the numbers based on the ASFA comfortable standard of $61,500 a year after tax for a retiring couple aged 57 and 59. There are many variables in calculating how long the money might last, but assuming income earned on the retirement savings is 5% per annum, and the capital is allowed to deplete to zero in the 25th year after retirement, the total amount required in today’s money is $1.1 million.


How much can be withdrawn safely?

There is no simple answer to the safe withdrawal rate dilemma because it depends on many unknown factors, including the returns generated in the pension account and life longevity. If the account delivers a healthy return of, say, 10%, then drawing down 4% each year is fine. But many highly-conservative retirees are restricting investments to cash which earns less than 2%. This barely covers inflation, and so the capital in the account is depleted each year.

This 4% drawdown level is a common ‘rule of thumb’ used in the financial planning industry as a safe drawdown rate, but it is based on a desire to spend only the fund’s income and not the capital. This often means the retiree lives frugally and then leaves money in their estate, when they could have enjoyed a better lifestyle.

A group of Australian actuaries has developed a new rule to help retirees who have reached age pension eligibility decide how much they can withdraw from their savings. Their report is called, ‘Spend Your Age, and a Little More, for a Happy Retirement’.

“The reality is that many people can have a better retirement if they have higher confidence that they are able to draw down a little bit more of their savings than the minimum required by the government,” said Actuaries Institute President, Nicolette Rubinsztein.

“Many retirees draw a bare minimum from their account-based pensions, or their savings, after they stop work,” she said. “They can’t afford to pay for professional advice from a planner, and they live frugal lives because they fear outliving their savings. But the ‘rule of thumb’ is simple and accurate and takes into consideration a retiree’s asset base and age."

They defined ‘optimal’ as a draw down which allows the best possible lifestyle but allowing for the fact that spending too much early in retirement means less is available later. The calculations allow for age pension eligibility.

Here is their simple ‘rule of thumb’ for a single retiree:

  • Draw down a baseline rate, as a percentage, that is the first digit of their age
  • Add 2% if the account balance is between $250,000 and $500,000

For example, a single retiree with a super balance of $350,000 would draw down $28,000, which is 8% of $350,000. The draw down amount would increase to 9% when the person reaches 70.

What about people with less money? The actuaries acknowledge that someone with only $40,000 might “buy a caravan and go around Australia”, knowing they can rely on the age pension. But those with more money are more likely to use it wisely for a better retirement.

The main problem with these types of calculations is that nobody knows how long they will live, and longevity continues to push out. And while nobody should aim to rely on the age pension, it is the safety net for the majority of people. For many couples who own their own house and with other assets less than $394,500, the full age pension including supplements is $1,407 per fortnight, or $36,582 a year. This may be acceptable for a modest lifestyle, but people should aspire to better.


The lessons behind the numbers

The lessons from these insights, notwithstanding the potential for unlimited assumptions and uncertainty, are:

  1. The money required in retirement depends on personal lifestyle aspirations.
  2. Life expectancy and future expenses are uncertain, and anyone who does not want to live on the age pension needs to consider saving more, spending less and working longer.
  3. Owning a home is a significant risk mitigant (which also comes with the financial advantages of tax-free capital gains and exclusion of the home from the pension assets test).
  4. Investing wisely and saving early allows the benefits of compound interest to build retirement balances over time. Education on financial opportunities is an important skill.

Retirement years should be a time to enjoy the rewards of a fulfilling working life, not worrying about when the money will run out.





Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Firstlinks. A free subscription for nabtrade clients is available here




About the Author
Graham Hand , Firstlinks

Graham Hand has over 40 years of experience in financial markets, including Group Treasurer and Managing Director Treasury roles at major banks. He ran a financial consultancy business for many years before spending a decade in wealth management at Colonial First State. In 2012, Graham was the Co-Founder (with Chris Cuffe) and Managing Editor of Cuffelinks, now Firstlinks, a leading financial newsletter with 80,000 Monthly Active Users. Morningstar acquired Firstlinks in October 2019 and Graham is now Editorial Director at Morningstar. Graham has written extensively for major financial publications, and two of his books, one on the banking system and one a novel, have been published.