27 comments

Silly and Misleading Retirement Calculators

I think the main reason people seem amazed at the idea of retiring at age 30, 40, or even 50 is the lack of real information on early retirement in general.

If you type “retirement calculator” into a search engine these days, and enter some basic stats about yourself, you will find some very strange assumptions that are guiding you to think you need an absolute shitload of money to retire.

For example, I was once working through such a guide in a magazine from Northern Trust, a bank that caters to the wealthy. It went something like this:

“Consider your goals for retirement. What life events do you need to be prepared for? The following table lists average costs.”

  • children’s and grandchildren’s university education ($100,000 per child)
  • children’s and grandchildren’s weddings ($25,000)
  • assisted care facilities ($100,000 per year)
  • medical costs
  • funeral arrangements ($25,000)
  • trust funds for loved ones
  • estate and legacy planning
  • charitable foundations

Wow.. looks like you are well into the millions before you even get to buy yourself some groceries.

Another retirement calculator on cnn.com has various parts to fill out and drop-down boxes pre-filled with handy values.. like retiring at age 65, and needing 70% of your maximum pre-retirement income constantly for the rest of your life. The drop-down box with 70% in it did not even offer a value lower than 40%.

This “percentage of income” concept is one of the most anti-Mustachian ones out there. If you make $200,000 per year just before retiring, does this experience corrupt you so much that you need $140,000 per year for the rest of your life? Or is it possible to maintain the same luxury standards of a person who has a merely comfortable income, like $40,000/year?

This goes back to the ideas of the “Get what you need” posting I made recently. And that is, why not go for maximum happiness rather than maximum consumption? I propose that maximum happiness is achieved at a spending level where you live in a comfortable space, eat healthy foods and get to do lots of active and stimulating things with friends. That doesn’t have to cost $140,000 per year, or even $50,000 for most of us.

The other assumption they push on people is a very low rate of savings – they assume you will put less than the $16,500 annual limit on 401K contributions, and don’t say much about what to do if you save more than that (which the high-income person mentioned a few paragraphs ago could certainly do).

So, these banks and mutual fund companies will continue to tell you that you need millions of dollars to retire, because it benefits them for you to invest your money with them. Luckily, it’s a harmless bit of tomfoolery, since the saving benefits you as well. But the disservice they do is in scaring people out of dreaming to save faster, or to think about much shorter time horizons like 10 years, instead of just plain old “Age 65″.

So I’ll give you a quick retirement calculator of my own: a typical adult couple with no kids (or whose children are grown) can live very comfortably on $40,000 per year in retirement. My own family lives very comfortably with one child on somewhere in the $27,000 range.

You can shoot higher or lower depending on what level of luxury you want to pursue ($20-80k is a good absolute maximum sane range).. but if you don’t want to calculate everything out, just go for $40k and figure out how to make your savings produce that for you. For a single person, it might be difficult to slice it in half because you lose some benefits from sharing a house and car. But you can come close.

Two quick early retirement budgets:

  • An early retiree couple lives on $30k per year, earning 5k of that combined in part-time luxurious post-retirement careers. The remaining 25k per year is generated by their savings:
    $625,000 of total savings are required to generate this amount of passive income using the 4% rule.
  • An Early Retiree Single person lives on $25k, earning $10k in his or her mini-career. $15k per year is required from the savings, which calls for a nest egg of about $375k.

I’m working on some much more detailed and exciting sample budgets using real numbers from my own spending experiences before and after retirement. A recent reader posting suggested creating some “square one” plans that tell various hypothetical people in different walks of life exactly what to do to get to a nice retirement partytime in 10 years. Sounds good to me!

But they’re not done yet because the Call of the Canyons has sounded and the MMM family is off for some desert adventures and camping for a few days. You wouldn’t want a fake financial superhero who tells you how great it is to be free, but then sits at home all day as a slave to his blog, would you?? No.

  • svwashout April 24, 2011, 3:43 pm

    Dude, those retirement calculators are set up by companies that need to pull in big assets under management to make payroll. When you see the light these clowns’ll never make a dime off ya. Keep spreadin’ the word!

    Reply
    • MMM April 24, 2011, 5:05 pm

      Thanks SV.. I wholeheartedly agree!

      On the scale of Mass Consumer Deceptions, at least we can say that financial companies are on the low side, because they are selling you something that can benefit you. Much less dangerous than, say, car or credit card companies.

      Reply
  • Unattentive April 26, 2011, 2:48 pm

    “…if you can get 5% after inflation.” After tax? Is that a statistically good assumption?

    Reply
    • MMM April 26, 2011, 4:06 pm

      Hi Unattentive, thanks for the question, many people are probably wondering the same thing!

      Yes, I’d say 5% is on the conservative side of good statistics. If you look up historical returns on the S&P 500 index for the period from, say, 1950-2010 (i.e. including the great recent crash and not even counting the recent recovery), you’ll see that on an inflation-adjusted basis the compound annual growth rate is 7.16%. I admit there is high standard deviation with these results and Mr. Money Mustache’s approach of a 10-year time horizon adds to the variability. But I’m also suggesting people pay off all their debts quickly, which usually yields a guaranteed payoff of 5-7%. As for taxes, you only pay those when you actually cash in your capital gains, and as a frugal MMM reader, you will be living on an efficiently small taxable income. (My overall tax rate was less than 5% last year). Does this sound reasonable?

      Here’s one simple-to-use S&P return calculator on someone else’s blog:
      http://www.moneychimp.com/features/market_cagr.htm

      (Man, I should write one of those calculators myself using the publicly available data, it could be a great magnet for potential new readers searching on Google!).

      Reply
  • Acorn May 25, 2011, 11:16 am

    Does the $40,000 figure count on owning your own home, or is it inclusive or rent/mortgage?

    Reply
    • MMM May 25, 2011, 9:13 pm

      Yeah, I find that we spent less than $40,000 for our own family of three including some mortgage payments which totaled about $13,000 per year. So now that this mortgage is paid off, I guess we’re down to $27k. Or somewhere in between – Party time!

      Reply
  • Fu Manchu May 26, 2011, 1:15 pm

    Mr. Mustachio, great blog! I spend a good deal of time reading financial blogs, and even though the ideas are all principally the same, it’s good reinforcement for me as I take the bus to work or skip an offer to eat at a restaurant :-). That said, I find your perspective & writing voice refreshing and relatable – moreso than the other financial “gurus”. So keep writing and I’ll keep reading!

    Quick math question, since you seem like a pretty analytical guy: do you have a formula for retirement that takes into account the assumption that you will eventually SPEND the principal (rather than live off only the interest)? I’d be interested if it also factored in assumed inflation rate the interest the invesmtment would make. With something like that, I could plug in a bunch of hypotheticals and be endlessly entertained.

    Trying to wrap my head around all that but what can I say…math is not my strong point.

    Reply
    • MMM May 26, 2011, 4:12 pm

      Hey Fu Manchu,

      The interesting answer is: over a long time period of retirement (30 years or more), you really don’t spend ANY of the principal – you live entirely off its passive gains. Because as soon as you nibble away even something tiny like $100 per month of the principal, its power to produce income shrinks, leading to more principal erosion the next year, in an exponential fall-off.

      It’s only in the last 15 years of your life that you would really start sucking away that stuff. But most old people can’t predict when they are 15 years from death.. at age 55, you may have 15 years to live, or you may have 45 years.

      Having said all of that, here’s one calculator I just looked up that seems to calculate what you were talking about: http://apps.finra.org/investor_information/calculators/1/retirementcalc.aspx

      Reply
      • Megan January 28, 2014, 8:40 pm

        Wow, what a powerful calculator. I have never seen one as flexible as that one.

        I am having a moment here: I just ran some scenarios and realize that if we make a few tweaks from our current path, we could retire in 15 years (I just turned 32). While that isn’t a crazy early retirement date like is being discussed on this website, it is a heck of a lot earlier than I had previously dreamed of. This gives me such inspiration! This was just running as-is numbers and increasing savings by a bit, without even going down the path of cutting expenses. This gives me such motivation – thank you for sharing!

        Reply
  • rosarugosa June 6, 2011, 6:06 pm

    You are so right Dude, go off and have a good time in the canyons!

    Reply
  • PeachFuzz November 4, 2011, 1:29 pm

    Hey MMM,
    This is powerful advice! Reminds me of the famous quote by Albert Einstein: “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”

    On another note, try entering “35″ into the retirement age in the calculator! Apparently, MMM, your retirement is “invalid”!

    Reply
  • Joel December 28, 2011, 11:47 am

    I just noticed this exact issue on a calculator on Merrill Edge’s website. At first I was psyched because they would even let me change the default 85% assumption. But then…

    http://i.imgur.com/Yjee3.png

    “No! You may NOT retire without spending at least 50% of your current income.”

    Reply
  • Agent9 January 12, 2012, 4:29 am

    Can someone point me to the articles that refer to the square one plans mentioned?

    “A recent reader posting suggested creating some “square one” plans that tell various hypothetical people in different walks of life exactly what to do to get to a nice retirement partytime in 10 years.”

    I tried the Google search bar but couldn’t find references to square one plans. Thanks.

    Reply
    • MMM January 12, 2012, 9:32 am

      Thanks for searching! I have still never written any examples like that. Yes, I am a disorganized blogger.

      Reply
      • Agent9 January 12, 2012, 9:54 am

        Ah. Good to know I didn’t miss anything.

        BTW, thanks for the quick replies to my questions. It shows that you really do care about me as a reader.

        Reply
  • getagrip October 9, 2012, 1:53 pm

    Two points that drive me nuts about the bulk of retirement calculators.

    1. Percent needed to retire (80-120% typically suggested) to maintain your current standard of living. Looking at this logically, you are typically saving 10-15% for retirement, paying 7.8% for Social Security and Medicare you won’t be paying without earned income, likely saving or paying 8% for college for children, then 10-20% for current mortgage payments (or more!). Add it up and you’re at 35-50% of your money you are technically not currently living on? So you could plan on 50-65% of your final salary by this view (though it never hurts to err on the conservative side, like 70-75%). Obviously YMMV, but take it all with a grain of salt, not a dollop of fear mongering. The trick is not to let lifestyle inflation nail you when your kids are getting off your dime, your mortgage is paid off, etc.

    2. You want to preserve your nest egg and never, oh my gosh, ever, touch your principle. Why? So you can leave it to your heirs. When I look at this I figure it this way, If I die five years into retirement, my 30 and 40 year old kids get a lot of money at a tough point in their lives. If I die 30 years into retirement, my 60 and 70 year old kids dang well shouldn’t be needing my money. If I preserve my principle, I limit my income. Say you determine you need $60K a year, want to be conservative, and only draw 3% so you need $2M. You live on that money, but what are you doing that really helps your kids? You want to fund grandchild’s education? You want to help a child with a medical issue? If I plan the fund for 30 years, that $60K becomes $102K. That’s tens of thousands more for 529 plans, trust funds, personal investments, etc. that if judiciously used can result in strengthening families. My point is, I want to use the money while I am alive to help in ways I can see. I don’t want them waiting on my death to get rich and feeling rooked if I preserve my life and drain my funds to do it. Again, YMMV.

    Reply
  • Christina M January 17, 2013, 9:19 am

    I thought I’d let you know that Charles Schwab actually has a decent retirement calculator that lets you put in any value for the age you want to retire, how much you save per year, how much you have now, how much % you need to live on and your investment style.

    On the down side I think you need to be a customer to use it.

    Reply
  • Sean April 22, 2013, 2:22 pm

    Is this the Calculator you’re talking about?

    http://www.schwab.com/public/schwab/investing/retirement_and_planning/retirement/retirement_calculator

    MMM, have you checked this one out and does it look any better than the others?

    Reply
  • Matt N May 1, 2013, 7:57 am

    FIrst off, I just want to say what a big fan I am of this philosophy and so glad I found the site.

    My biggest question so far has to do with my 401(k) savings at work. I’m currently putting away 11% and my company matches me another 6%. Every time I get a bump in my pay, I usually bump up my contribution another 1% and currently I’m adding about $13,000/year to the account.

    So, what the hell am I supposed to do with all of those savings if I retire in the next 10 – 15 years? I’m only 29 and have about $100,000 between my 401(k), mutual funds, and Roth IRA but 2 out of 3 of those accounts are untouchable until I’m 59 1/2 without severe penalties to Uncle Sam.

    Should I stop putting so much into the 401(k) and instead pile it into my mutual fund account at Morgan Stanley? Help!!

    Reply
    • Agent9 May 1, 2013, 7:32 pm

      If your question is, “How am I supposed to tap my retirement savings in my sheltered accounts?” then the answer is, you don’t. At least not until you are at that age. You also need to have non-sheltered accounts/investments that you will draw from if you do an early retirement. You will draw down your non-sheltered accounts until you can start drawing from the sheltered accounts and then balance your withdrawals between the 2 based on tax advantages.

      Reply
    • Andrew G May 9, 2013, 7:34 am

      I have the exact same question! Do I stop taking advantage of the tax shelters for the sake of building the stash I’ll use between 35-59.5?

      Reply
      • Matt N May 9, 2013, 8:36 am

        Andrew – after reading more of MMM’s articles and thinking about this more myself, my plan of action is to actually reduce my contribution to my 401(k) down to 6%. That’s my company’s match so I don’t want to miss out on any money there and I’ll still be putting 12% away for when I hit the magic age to pull it out tax/penalty-free.

        With the extra 5% that I had been contributing to the account, I’m going to pay down my debts that much faster and then plow that cash into a low-fee index fund as soon as the debt is paid off. Not sure if I’ll use the exact Vanguard funds that MMM is always raving about – I need to do more research there – but I like the idea of a low-fee fund.

        I have a Roth IRA and a mutual fund account at Morgan Stanley and just took a closer look at my statements. I’m paying over $80 each QUARTER just to keep the accounts open and we only have $25,000 in those two accounts total. I can only imagine what the fees are at higher balances, but with fees like that coming out already my real rate of return will take a HUGE hit over the next 10 – 15 years before I retire!

        Reply
        • Andrew G May 9, 2013, 5:07 pm

          I hear you on not wanting to miss out on the company match.

          Are you thinking of nixing the Roth contributions in favor of taxed investments? I hate the idea of leaving tax-free money on the table, so I’m torn.

          Reply
          • Mark June 11, 2013, 6:07 pm

            Andrew, look up and read the Mad Fientist on how to maximize tax-advantage accounts. He’s a bit more of a quant than MMM, and really likes the details of the IRA tax scene. Glad somebody does…

            Reply
  • R. September 1, 2013, 12:07 am

    This is a good post. I was shocked to learn that I needed close to 3 million dollars to enjoy retirement via a Learnvest calculator that I used a couple of years ago. At the time, I was thinking that even if I save/invest aggressively I won’t be able to have that much at retirement. Granted I wasn’t making big bucks and I did what I could but it just seemed so unattainable to me. I suppose it’s not impossible.

    Reply
  • missj August 14, 2014, 1:19 am

    thanks so much for this! yeah…retirement calculators, what a crock!

    A couple years ago I remember my financial adviser running the numbers and telling me that if I wanted to retire at 55 (like my mom did) I would need 4 million bucks! …. so I basically blew that idea off and figured I’d work until I was 67 like my social security statement says I should.

    Then I asked her a week ago “Why do I need so much money in retirement since I’m not paying a mortgage, or saving anymore, or driving to work, or paying for life insurance etc” She said “well, your health care costs will be huge” to which I replied I’ll get employer paid medical from age 55-65. She rebutted that I’ll need money to spend to entertain myself unless I just want to sit on the porch in a rocking chair. And she said that saturday is the day of the week that she spends the most money and when you’re retired everyday is saturday.

    But now I just crunched a few numbers and I’m thinking: Bullshit! If I remove my debt service, and retirement savings and life insurance I’m ALREADY living on just 30% of my take home pay.

    Which brings me to my next question: is your 25% spending goal based on gross earnings, or take home pay?

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache August 14, 2014, 10:13 am

      Excellent, Missj!

      Sounds like your “adviser” is wearing the the standard consumer blinders. The idea of spending money to entertain yourself seems more and more ridiculous to me now, 9 years into retirement. Sure, we spend money regularly, but it has nothing to do with entertainment. It’s mostly food, plus whatever purchases that come up on the long quest to lead a better and more meaningful life.

      My 25% ideal is based on take-home pay. But it is pretty extreme – a 50% savings rate works perfectly well for most people too.

      Reply

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