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The Best Interest » Fundamentals Of Retirement: Is the Summit “Good Enough?”

Fundamentals Of Retirement: Is the Summit “Good Enough?”

The Adirondack Mountains are a gorgeous outdoor wonderland, attracting tourists from all over the world. The park covers 20% of New York state (3x larger than Yellowstone!). Perhaps the “ADK’s” most extraordinary natural resources are the 46 “High Peaks” in the park’s northeast corner.

Photo credit to Brendan Wiltse

Friend-of-the-blog/pod Tyler led me on one of my first High Peak adventures (hey Tyler, thanks for reading!). We conquered the Dix Range, summiting four peaks in one day, trudging ~15 miles through the mountainous woods over 11 hours

Hiking is Hard Work

It was a draining day. I drank more water than expected and chafed in…uncomfortable…ways. I ate dinner for two that night and slept like a baby and learned many applicable lessons for my next hike.

For example, during our rest breaks at the summits, I observed the other hikers around us. What were they doing that I wasn’t? Some were fit and lean, others a bit overweight. Some had expensive gear, others had gym shorts and sneakers. The pros drank from Nalgene bottles and ate rehydrated meals. The amateurs had Poland Spring bottles and Nutrigrain bars.

All shapes and sizes. There was a broad spectrum between the expertly prepared and the woefully inexperienced. Yet all of these hikers had reached the top. And hopefully they all got back to the bottom, too.

Are You Prepared?

More preparedness requires more research, more time, and more money. But it provides a higher probability of summiting the mountain(s), a more straightforward path, and the mental confidence of knowing you’re prepared.

Less preparedness is easier upfront. But is it easy in the long run? Likely not. “A stitch, in time, saves nine,” as Ben Franklin said. This idea rhymes with the concept of, “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.”

Courtesy Darius Foroux.

Where do you want to fall on the spectrum of preparedness? That’s totally your call. There is no correct answer in general, but only a correct answer for you.

You’ll hopefully reach “the summit” either way. But your preparedness provides flexibility in how easy or hard that journey will be.

Retirement Works the Same Way

In my experience running The Best Interest and working professionally in financial planning, retirement preparedness works the same way. I received a perfect example last week via email from a blog reader, Jon…

Hi Jesse, my wife and I are 56 and 58 years old, respectively, and on the verge of retirement, I hope. We have about $2M in Traditional accounts, $510K in Roth accounts, and $430K in taxable accounts. 95% of that money is invested in diversified stocks. We’ll both receive significant Social Security benefits (north of $3K/month each at age 67). We live within our means…last year our total outflow of money was just shy of $90,000. Do you think we’re ready to retire? Can we chat with you about retirement readiness?

Jon (and Eva)

Some quick math: Jon and Eva have $2.9M in assets to support an $90,000 annual lifestyle. They’re at less than a 3% annual withdrawal rate, and we haven’t even accounted for their Social Security income. They are more than set!

Do Jon and Eva need professional help? I don’t see how.

Could Jon and Eva benefit from professional help? I’m positive.

It’s like my adventure in the Dix Range. I conquered the mountains! I didn’t need to be more prepared. But I could have (and should have) done many things differently to make my day more manageable and eliminate the probability of failure.

Many of us don’t need intervention. But it would undoubtedly help.

Questions for Jon and Eva

I find it hard to imagine a scenario where Jon and Eva live a failed financial retirement, regardless of professional advice. They’re on course to “summit the mountain.” Still, many critical financial questions come to my mind:

  • They’re retiring before 59.5 (the age of normal IRA distributions). What’s their plan for funding those intervening years?
  • Fof 99%+ of people on the verge of retirement, a portfolio of 95% stocks is inappropriate. Red flag!
  • In general, how do they plan on balancing withdrawals from their Roth accounts (no tax), their Traditional accounts (fully taxable as Income), and the taxable accounts (with capital gains)? Done poorly, they’ll “leak” money to taxes.
  • Are they sure waiting until 67 is the optimal Social Security move for both of them? It usually isn’t.
  • What’s their healthcare plan before Medicare?
  • Do they have any significant financial goals beyond “live our normal lifestyle?” Are they prepared to fund those goals?
  • And many more. There are lots of puzzle pieces to retirement and many ways to arrange them.

I’m sure Jon and Eva have answers. However, my experience with similar families is that their answers are rarely optimized. While it’s terrific that they’re better off than most, there’s still room for optimization – and therefore, room for dollars saved and dollars earned.

If they were hikers, they’d be in peak physical shape (peak?!) with plenty of water. I can’t see them failing to get up the mountain. But did they bring a map and compass, just in case? Are they aware those cotton underpants are going to get very uncomfortable? Or that the trailhead parking lot is “by reservation only?”

They’ll reach the summit regardless. But their day will be more annoying than it needed to be. Who wants that?!

person standing on rock formation during golden hour

Is Preparedness Worth It?

Just as I wrote earlier, I’m asking Jon and Eva,

“Where do you want to fall on the spectrum of preparedness? That’s totally your call. There is no right answer in general, but only a right answer for you.”

Based only on Jon’s short email, I have plenty of questions for them. They could use a sanity check (or more) for retirement preparedness.

But preparedness costs money, time, energy, etc. Do they want to incur those costs to get more prepared? Will they see enough benefit from those costs, or are they beyond the point of diminishing returns?

Perhaps they’re ready to hit the trail as is. They’ll reach their retirement goals regardless. But they might have more annoying financial moments than needed. Who wants that?!

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