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Three steps to planning your spending in retirement

How to make your retirement savings last is an age-old conundrum. Bill Sharpe, the US economist and Nobel Prize winner, called it “the hardest, nastiest problem in finance”. How much can you sustainably withdraw from your pension pot? And what’s a sensible way to allocate assets in it?

The problem of ‘decumulation’, to use the industry jargon, is simple to state but not easy to tackle. How long will you live? You don’t know. What return will you earn on the money? You don’t know that either.

Baby Boomers, those born from the end of the Second World War to the mid-1960s, are retiring in their millions with no perfect answers to these questions. So in the absence of an optimal solution, how do you find one that works for you, based on well-founded principles?

Break down the problem

My wife and I had retirement savings and other assets but were not members of defined benefit pension schemes. In my career as an actuary and superannuation fund consultant, all I knew about were the principles underlying these schemes. So I decided to conduct a thought experiment: I would project a defined benefit scheme forward some decades and imagine that the two of us are the last surviving members.

The principles are straightforward.

Make a reasonable assumption about the average future lifespan of the members. That, along with the benefit formula, leads to an estimate of the annual cash flow promised to the members. Make some reasonable assumptions about the investment return of the fund. That tells you whether the amount in the fund, plus the future returns, will be sufficient. If it’s insufficient, you need to add more money.

When there are only two of us left, and the withdrawals we’d like are too large to be supported by our super pot, nobody is going to contribute more money for us. Instead, we need to reduce our withdrawals.

There were three steps involved.

First, we assessed our combined longevity and its uncertainty.

Second, we needed to balance cash flow safety and investment growth, in other words, decide on our tolerance for taking investment risk.

Third, we needed to estimate the pace at which we can sustainably withdraw money to spend.

It’s like driving on a long journey. We know where we are on the map, and we’ve made our own decisions on direction and speed. There’ll be corrections as the map unfolds, but we feel we’re in the driver’s seat, and that’s as much control as anyone can have.

1. How long will you live?

For a large scheme with many members, average life expectancy works fine as an estimate. For us, outliving the average was a big financial risk, with a 50/50 chance of this happening by definition. I thought we should reduce the risk and see what the numbers looked like when we used a longer time horizon, one that, not 50%, but only 25% of couples like us would outlive.

I used this longevity table by the American Academy of Actuaries and Society of Actuaries (Editor note: former financial adviser, David Williams, has an Australian version here).

What did that mean for us? When I reassessed our position after I turned 70, our ‘joint and last survivor’ life expectancy (the likely period until the second death) was 26 years, meaning that 50% of couples of our ages would live longer. The period that only 25% would outlive was 31 years, so that became our initial planning horizon.

We could have been even more cautious and chosen the horizon that only 10% of couples of our ages are likely to outlive. That would have been 36 years.

2. How will you allocate between assets?

The second step involved balancing cash flow safety and investment growth.

Take it as a given that we wanted growth so we focusses on investing our pot in a global equity index fund. Yes, there are alternatives, but this was simple, inexpensive and didn’t require expertise. But wait. Putting 100% in growth assets from which we need to make periodic withdrawals exposes us to something called ‘sequence of returns risk’ (or sequencing risk).

Because we’re always withdrawing money, our assets decline over time. So if we have poor returns early, there won’t be enough of a base to make up the losses even if the later returns become above average. So we need to be able to make withdrawals without affecting the shortfall too much.

What do pension funds do when faced with this problem? They don’t invest 100% of their assets to seek growth. They invest some assets in ways that automatically match a few years of cash flow, so they get that early cash flow without touching the growth assets.

How much is a matter of risk tolerance. For me, I’ll feel OK withdrawing cash flow from the growth assets as long as they haven’t lost purchasing power. In other words, I want a return of at least 0% after allowing for inflation.

That left me with a specific question to investigate. Over the past 50 years, what period of consecutive years was necessary after a decline until the market recovered, say, 75% of the time? (I chose 75% because that would give us the same chance of investment success as we sought with our longevity risk.)

The answer varies by country. Suppose you place six years of withdrawals in safe instruments and the rest in growth assets. If the market falls and you use your safe instruments for cash flow, historically 75% of the time your growth assets will have recovered before you need to make a withdrawal from them.

What if we wanted a 90% chance of growth assets recovering after a fall? In the US, we’d need 11 years of withdrawals in cash-like assets.

Historically, a portfolio with 90% growth assets and 10% government bonds needed 5-year holding periods for a positive real return 75% of the time, and only 6 years for a positive real return 90% of the time. Raise the level of bonds to 20%, and the portfolio needed the same 6 years for 90% positive real returns, but only 3-year holding periods for positive returns 75% of the time. We used 5 years.

This is encouraging, but bear in mind that the last three decades have been an exceptionally favourable period for bonds as interest rates fell. And remember, all my analysis is just history. I’m not expecting it to repeat itself. If it repeats itself in broad terms, well and good. If it doesn’t – well, I don’t expect it to, and I’ll adjust.

3. How much will you take?

With our 25% risk exposure level, how much can we actually withdraw? And what if our risk tolerance is not 25% but 10%? Without these numbers, we don’t know how much future spending is sustainable, and how we’ll feel about it.

Remember that in the 25% risk situation, my wife and I would need to hold 5 years of cash flow in safe assets and the rest in growth. I used 0% as the future annual real return for these assets and 4% for the growth assets. (That’s lower than history suggested, but I wanted a further margin of caution. Also, in these days of low interest rates, that hoped-for 0% annual real return on the safe assets isn’t coming through.)

Every year we take a year’s indicated withdrawal from the safe assets and replenish them by cashing in from the growth assets. The withdrawal (to be increased by inflation each year) must be calculated so as to last 31 years.

Answer: for each $100,000 of our pension pot, the indicated annual sustainable withdrawal was $5,080.

So the safety amount is five years of that, or $25,000 in round numbers. To my mind, this isn’t an investment, it’s our personal self-insurance bucket against a market decline. The remaining $75,000 goes into growth assets (perhaps diluted to 90/10 by government bonds). By traditional measures that’s an astonishingly high percentage but it’s based on long-standing pension principles.

Traditionally, exposure to growth assets in decumulation is suggested to be 100 minus your age. For a 70-year-old, this means 30% in growth. But that’s a rule of thumb, and I’m defining caution much more clearly: not an arbitrary reduction in volatility but avoiding sequence-of-returns risk with a (historical) 75% chance of success.

What would the result be with the 10% risk posture, involving a 36-year horizon and 11 years of anticipated withdrawals in the self-insurance bucket? Answer: for each $100,000 of our pension pot, the annual sustainable withdrawal would be $3,930, so the self-insurance bucket holds 11 times this amount ($43,230) and the remaining roughly 57% goes into growth assets. That 57% is also dramatically higher than traditional practice suggests.

This framework leads to our decision

Now, with these numbers available, we could make our decision. We scaled the annual withdrawal numbers to reflect our total retirement savings pot (which includes all our financial assets, not just our tax-deferred assets). We went for the higher withdrawal level at a risk tolerance of 25%. We didn’t consider anything in between 25% and 10%.

Here’s a table showing how the indicated withdrawal per $100,000 pension pot changes with the length of the planning horizon and the number of years in your self-insurance bucket. Multiplying by your own pot and adding your other sources of income, you can see what’s indicated for you.

Estimated annual sustainable real withdrawal per $100,000 in retirement savings

(Based on annual real returns of 0% in the safety bucket and 4% in the growth portfolio)

Theory and practice

What happened when we put all this to work?

The global stock market index dropped about 8% in December 2018. We took no action and decided to see where we were in five years. When the global index fell 8% in February 2020 and a further 13% in March, our attitude was the same.

Of course, we were lucky that the market recovered quickly. It was much worse from September 2008 to February 2009, when the cumulative fall was 40%. But again we were lucky, because before the end of 2009 the markets had recovered that loss.

What if we’re not lucky in the future? Then after five years the market won’t have recovered, and we’ll have exhausted our self-insurance bucket, and we’ll be forced to cash out from the growth assets at some low level, with no further protection from market volatility.

If this happens, we could at least avoid a massive cut to our withdrawal amount by spreading that reduction over the remaining period to the end of the planning horizon. A really bad outcome means five successive years of gradual reductions, followed by complete exposure to market volatility.

There’s another safety factor here. When one of us passes away, the 25% longevity estimate for the survivor will fall and the required spending to retain the lifestyle will also fall, since it only has to support one person. Our assessment doesn’t take either adjustment into account in advance, so we have two further margins of safety.

Of course, there are risks. Market declines might be steeper and longer than history suggests. If that happens, the gradual declines in our withdrawals following a negative return won’t be enough. We’re conscious of that.

More risk than traditional planning

One takeaway from this exercise is that you can afford to take more investment risk with your portfolio than conventional thinking suggests. But perhaps the hardest is the ongoing discipline.

You need to gather the relevant information about your pension pot; have an idea of a desirable budget; use longevity tables; have access to something like the spreadsheet I mentioned; and make sensible assumptions about future investment returns.

Those are the set-up tasks; the ongoing disciplines are creating the self-insurance and growth portfolios, making the withdrawals and rebalancing periodically (which is much more tedious than making the withdrawals).

You may be wondering whether you want to sign up to this or will be able to maintain it throughout your retirement. Of course, if you want to proceed but lack confidence, you can ask a financial planner for advice.


Don Ezra, now happily retired, is the former Co-Chairman of global consulting for Russell Investments worldwide, and the author of “Life Two: how to get to and enjoy what used to be called retirement”. This article is general information and does not consider the circumstances of any investor.


August 12, 2021

I really like the this Principle in your opening web pages. "* There is no one correct investment strategy for anyone, and like any life skill, investors need to be as financially literate as possible to participate in their own investing." Articles like this help when compiling a strategy to suit one's self. Yours seem to be overthinking it to me, but given your background I am sure it works for you. Still very useful information for the rest of us.

July 11, 2021

Very interesting analysis of asset allocation and worth giving thought to

July 11, 2021

I think you are over thinking. Invest in well run companies (wealth creators) and the rest will take care of itself. That has been my approach and as a result my SMSF is worth a lot more than when I went into pension phase. If you want some personal cash safety to ride out periods of low stock prices I think a large overdraft facility secured against the house is a good idea, but the main question is what you buy not the percentage allotments of risk.

July 12, 2021

You are basing these comments on the favourable investing environment over the last couple of decades, albeit with a couple of hiccups, GFC, Covid. This guy is trying to insure against a much less benign environment, which for a retiree would be disastrous.

July 12, 2021

Hopefully does not get much worse than GFC and Covid but of course you never know. Even if there is a huge share market fall, ultimately those companies that can earn a high return on investment will win through. I think this should be the focus with some safety facility. Concentrating too much on buckets on investment in different pools at the expense of reasonable returns I do not think the way forward.

July 11, 2021

SMSF commenced 2000 invested 100% equities. Imputed credits have offset mandated withdrawals and growth has ensured capital has not declined. Am in my 92nd year and capital is the same as in 2000 - although PPP has declined.

July 09, 2021

The "real" problem is that the only attractive longevity insurance of relevance to most retirees is the capital and risk free Age Pension.

Fortunately, it is about 2 x the cost of living for home owners.

Thus investments need only furnish the cost of entertainment - and a capital buffer (the full Age Pension Asset Test $401,500).

From a fund invested in risk free assets yielding real 0%, to withdraw for 30 years $37,000 / y to equal the capital and risk free Age Pension requires initial capital deposited into the fund of:
= PV(0%, 30, 37000, 401500, 0)
= -$1,511,500

Each additional $1 of capital provides 1 / 30 = $0.03 of entertainment.

July 21, 2021

What is p/v abbreviated?

July 26, 2021

PV = Present Value. A spreadsheet function.

July 09, 2021

The problem for some of us reinvesting the compulsory draw down is that the compulsory draw down increases as we get older.

Another variable then is whether we are capable due to our health when we are older to invest this money outside of super.

A perfect opportunity for those less honest among us

July 09, 2021

Heartened to see my much less analytical approach looks about right. I am working on a 5% of total assets (in and outside super) as an annual budget and around 5+ years of cash reserves. I currently have more like 8 years of cash (more if I allow for cash generated via dividends etc) but am not sure if now is the best time to add more to my growth assets (currently 60/40 growth/defensive with a 75/25 target; the 60/40 mix has
about 8% historical return and the 75/25 around 10%). As the current mix is still providing >5% return hence not drawing down capital I have some reserves to add to the market if there's a fall. Intending to revisit the plan every three years and adjust.

July 08, 2021

Regarding : "Don Ezra, now happily retired, is the former Co-Chairman of global consulting for Russell Investments worldwide, and the author of “Life Two: how to get to and enjoy what used to be called retirement”. " He seems to have made retirement almost impossibly difficult for himself with all his analysis and introspection , so I can only hope that he is now enjoying it ! Lighten up a bit Don ! You appear to have managed your financial affairs successfully up to this why all the doubt that you won't continue to do so in future ? I would think that "more of the same" would be the way-to-go , do what you understand and stop scaring yourself with all the pessimistic "what if's" !!!! "Cut your coat to suit your cloth " and "live within your means" are just a few of the aphorisms that my parents quoted at me [ successfully it seems ! ] which gave me my simple values and guidance , without all the in-depth-analysis. I think that Don has over-thought the process ! If all else fails in Australia , there is always "the dreaded pension" available ! If you run-out-of-money in your SMSF, it is unfortunate perhaps , but not at tragedy !

August 12, 2021

I agree. If you have successfully managed your finances to date, that should continue almost automatically. I do have an issue with investing all in one global equity index fund. I would need the reassurance of greater diversification into several entities - a basket of 3 to 8 ETFs, LICs and managed funds with low fees would not be hard to manage

July 08, 2021

Thank you Don for your very enlightening article. It has convinced me that I have taken an excessively conservative approach with our SMSF, so it's time to take a bit more risk.

Graham Hand
July 09, 2021

Hi John, not offering any investment advice but markets are expensive and Don's article is about positioning for the long term. Portfolio adjustments are best done gradually towards a goal, and living with the short-term volatility.

Jon Kalkman
July 08, 2021

"Because we’re always withdrawing money, our assets decline over time. So if we have poor returns early, there won’t be enough of a base to make up the losses even if the later returns become above average. So we need to be able to make withdrawals without affecting the shortfall too much."

With this one paragraph, Don has described the problem that I have with institutional super funds funding my retirement that I do not have with our SMSF.

In an institutional fund I buy assets (units in the fund) with my super contributions in accumulation phase. In pension phase, each pension withdrawal is paid by the sale of some units in the fund. Once sold, these units cannot be replaced as a pension fund cannot accept any more contributions. The number of units sold depends on the unit price and the process continues until all units are sold and the pension expires. Selling assets into a falling market (think GST or COVID) simply hastens the day when the pension stops. Selling assets to fund a retirement raises the critical question: “Will I expire before my assets do?”

It makes sense to take pension withdrawals from a non-volatile bucket such as cash but this is only a temporary solution because assets still need to be sold when the cash bucket needs to be replenished. It is just that in timing such a sale, it may be possible to avoid a market downturn.

It is possible to structure an SMSF so that that the pension withdrawal is paid from income produced by the fund, not by selling assets. A cash buffer is still needed to cover any unexpected shortfall in income. It means the fund is less concerned with market volatility and that means the asset allocation can be tilted towards growth assets and higher returns.

As this strategy provides adequate income now, and in the future, this could continue indefinitely if it wasn’t for the mandatory pensions that increase with age. In time, some assets will need to be sold to pay these large pensions but it does not mean that the capital is lost. It simply means that this capital must be removed from the tax-concessional area of a super pension fund. It can therefore be reinvested outside super to continue to produce income - albeit in a less attractive tax environment.

July 10, 2021

Jon, you make some valid points about the issues with unitised investments that reinvest dividends/distributions. A similar "income drawdown from dividends/distributions plus cash bucket" strategy can be put in place in Industry and retail structures via a Self Managed option. You swap some flexibility (some percentage of assets may have to be held in the Industry fund's options and there may be restrictions on ETF's, funds and shares) and possibly lower brokerage costs for less admin as the "back end" is all handled by the fund.

Outside super you could employ this strategy "income drawdown from dividends/distributions plus cash bucket" losing some flexibilty but leaving the "back end" to fund by using a structure like Vanguard Personal Investor (not a recommendation but an example of a structure that may become more popular).

Jon Kalkman
July 10, 2021

In an institutional fund there are certain advantages because you are not the trustee.

The “Self-invest” option is just one of the investment options you can choose. You can allocate your money among other managed options as your needs change and that may be attractive as you get older. There is also no more compliance paperwork such as the audit or tax return.

But there are also disadvantages because you are not the trustee.

The fund trustee owns the shares, not the member. These “shares” can be sold without your knowledge or consent. The member does not automatically benefit from share ownership, eg. share buybacks.

The “dividend” is paid to your account by the Fund, not the share registry. Any franking credit refund is paid to your account by the Fund, not the ATO. Your pension must be paid from a managed option, not from your “dividends”. These arrangements depend on fund policy, not legislation and are easily changed.

The fund provides no advice on your asset allocation to equities. In fact, you are charged extra to use you own broker. The fund accepts no responsibility for your investment outcomes. Clearly, they prefer to have your money in their managed options because that generates their fees.

July 11, 2021

Jon - really good points, thank you ! That said, some institutional funds allow you to 100% 'DIY' (individual shares, LICs, ETFs if you wish) these days ... does that solve the issue (or most of it) ? ING Living Superannuation is one example (but I'm aware of others too) .....

July 08, 2021

Although many of the principles are similar, the Australian retirement landscape is a little different in that:

- income and capital gains are tax free
- mandated minimum drawdowns as you age

I agree the old 60/40 equities/bond split is a bit academic as is the mantra that the "% in Bonds should equal your age" - somewhere between 2 and 4 years living expenses in Cash/Bonds seems about right to weather most storms, so it then becomes an Asset Allocation decision as it usually does!

Given the tax free status in Oz, it does not really matter if you chase income or you realise capital gains when required. What I am seeing amongst a number of retirees in their mid 70's and 80's with reasonable balances of $1m or more, where they are "forced" to drawdown 6% or 7% of their Super Funds each year, it is often "more" than they need. While it may forcibly "come out" of Super, dependent on their other investments, may still be invested, effectively, tax free, with any income under the income tax thresholds. Not all bad!

July 08, 2021

Hi Rob, from 65 - 74 years old, we compulsory to withdraw 5%. Then from 75 is 6% etc. I think it is fair, because all the income or capital gain in our pension fund (which changed to allocation) are tax free. Government aim self fund retiree to spend their money. If you do not need 6% and 7% to live on, you still can invest outside the super. Yes, pay tax if you make profit or have distribution.

July 08, 2021

Spot on! If you have the assets to do so, set aside up to 5 years cash as a buffer to live on if markets have a major correction, and then actively invest the rest. Just by increasing the amount in active growth and income investments early on, you increase your overall pot SO MUCH MORE than the traditional ultra conservative approach. In Australia, with franked dividends and tax free pension earnings, you may find your pot grows much faster than you can draw it down. You should be able to generate in excess of the 5%, 6% etc. mandated annual withdrawal. And as the pot grows, the amount you withdraw also goes up - and you can put aside outside of super, what you don't spend to splash!
A fixed percentage in conservative investments doesn't make sense if you have substantial balance to start with - just work out what you will need and invest the rest.

John De Ravin
July 08, 2021

I agree with Tony’s comment. In Australia for example, due to our tax regime, companies pay quite high dividends- they probably average out to 4% to 5% inclusive of imputation tax credits. It’s true that dividends fall when the market tanks, but by proportionately less than the fall in market values. The dividend stream has a big impact on the size of the cash bucket that you need to maintain.

July 08, 2021


Have you read The Sustainability of Global Withdrawal Strategies by Estrada?


July 12, 2021

Thanks for the heads-up Seamus I now have an interesting read to look forwards to

July 08, 2021

The safety amount should factor in annual income from investments (or at least a portion of annual investment income for safety reasons) as this is cash available each year. When this is done, it will increase the % in growth investments.


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