How To Plan For Retirement in An Upside-Down World


By Walter Updegrave, RealDealRetirement @RealDealRetire

Gyrating stock values, slumping oil prices, turmoil in foreign currency markets, predictions of slow growth or even deflation abroad…Suddenly, the outlook for the global economy and financial markets looks far different—and much dicier—than just a few months ago. So how do you plan for retirement in a world turned upside down? Read on.

The roller coaster dips and dives of stock prices have dominated the headlines lately. But the bigger issue is this: If we are indeed entering a low-yield slow-growth global economy, how should you fine-tune your retirement planning to adapt to the anemic investment returns that may lie ahead?

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We’re talking about a significant adjustment. For example, Vanguard’s most recent economic and investing outlook projects that U.S. stocks will gain an annualized 7% or so over the next 10 years, while bonds will average about 2.5%. That’s a long way from the long-term average of 10% or so for stocks and roughly 5% for bonds.

Granted, projections aren’t certainties. And returns in some years will beat the average. But it still makes sense to bring your retirement planning in line with the new realities we may face. Below are four ways to do just that.

1. Resist the impulse to load up on stocks. This may not be much of a challenge now because the market’s been so scary lately. But once stocks settle down, a larger equity stake may seem like a plausible way to boost the size of your nest egg or the retirement income it throws off, especially if more stable alternatives like bonds and CDs continue to pay paltry yields.

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That would be a mistake. Although stock returns are expected to be lower, they’ll still come with gut-wrenching volatility. So you don’t want to ratchet up your stock allocation, only to end up selling in a panic during a financial-crisis-style meltdown. Nor do you want to lard your portfolio with arcane investments that may offer the prospect of outsize returns but come with latent pitfalls.

Fact is, aside from taking more risk, there’s really not much you can do to pump up gains, especially in a slow-growth environment. Trying to do so can cause more harm than good. The right move: Set a mix of stocks and bonds that’s in synch with your risk tolerance and that’s reasonable given how long you intend to keep your money invested and, except for periodic rebalancing, stick to it.

2. Get creative about saving. Saving has always been key to building a nest egg. But it’s even more crucial in a low-return world where you can’t count as much on compounding returns to snowball your retirement account balances. So whether it’s increasing the percentage of salary you devote to your 401(k), contributing to a traditional or Roth IRA in addition to your company’s plan, signing up for a mutual fund’s automatic investing plan or setting up a commitment device to force yourself to save more, it’s crucial that you find ways to save as much as you can.

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The payoff can be substantial. A 35-year-old who earns $50,000 a year, gets 2% annual raises and contributes 10% of salary to a 401(k) that earns 6% a year would have about $505,000 at 65. Increase that savings rate to 12%, and the age-65 balance grows to roughly $606,000. Up the savings rate to 15%—the level generally recommended by retirement experts—and the balance swells to $757,000.

3. Carefully monitor retirement spending.  In more generous investment environments, many retirees relied on the 4% rule to fund their spending needs—that is, they withdrew 4% of their nest egg’s value the first year of retirement and increased that draw by inflation each year to maintain purchasing power. Following that regimen provided reasonable assurance that one’s savings would last at least 30 years. Given lower anticipated returns in the future, however, many pros warn that retirees may have to scale back that initial withdrawal to 3%—and even then there’s no guarantee of not running short.

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No system is perfect. Start with too high a withdrawal rate, and you may run through your savings too soon. Too low a rate may leave you with a big stash of cash late in life, which means you might have unnecessarily stinted earlier in retirement.

A better strategy: Start with a realistic withdrawal rate—say, somewhere between 3% and 4%—and then monitor your progress every year or so by plugging your current account balances and spending into a good retirement income calculator that will estimate the probability that your money will last throughout retirement. If the chances start falling, you can cut back spending a bit. If they’re on the rise, you can loosen the purse strings. By making small adjustments periodically, you’ll be able to avoid wrenching changes in your retirement lifestyle, and avoid running out of dough too soon or ending up with more than you need late in life when you may not be able to enjoy it.

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4. Put the squeeze on fees. You can’t control the returns the market delivers. But if returns are depressed in the years ahead, paying less in investment fees will at least increase the portion of those gains you pocket.

Fortunately, reducing investment costs is fairly simple. By sticking to broad index funds and ETFs, you can easily cut expenses to less than 1% a year. And without too much effort you can get fees down to 0.5% a year or less. If you prefer to have an adviser manage your portfolio, you may even be able to find one who’ll do so for about 0.5% a year or less. Over the course of a long career and retirement, such savings can dramatically improve your post-career prospects. For example, reducing annual expenses from 1.5% to 0.5% could increase your sustainable income in retirement by upwards of 40%.

Who knows, maybe the prognosticators will be wrong and the financial markets will deliver higher-than-anticipated returns. But if you adopt the four moves I’ve outlined above, you’ll do better either way. (1/20/15)

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.comIf you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at

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