Concerned About Longevity? Three Mistakes to Avoid

Longevity is often cheered as an achievement, but the downside of living well beyond one's average life expectancy is that it can strain (or worse, completely deplete) an individual's financial resources.

Longevity is often cheered as an achievement, but the downside of living well beyond one's average life expectancy is that it can strain (or worse, completely deplete) an individual's financial resources. The first step in addressing longevity risk is to evaluate just how great the odds are that either you or your spouse will have a much longer-than-average life span. Health considerations, family longevity history, employment choices, and income level may all be factors. If you've assessed these considerations and are concerned about longevity risk--or if you've determined that you'd simply rather be safe than sorry--here are three key mistakes to avoid.

Image: The Atlantic

Image: The Atlantic

Mistake 1:

Holding a Too-Conservative Portfolio. When investors think about reducing risk in their portfolios, they often set their sights on curtailing short-term volatility—the risk that their portfolios will lose 10% or even 20% in a given year. But a too-conservative portfolio (one that emphasizes cash and bonds at the expense of stocks) can actually enhance shortfall risk while keeping a lid on short-term volatility. But, right now, interest rates have much more room to move up than they do down, which may reduce the opportunity for bond-price appreciation during the next decade. With such low returns, retirees with too-safe portfolios may not even outearn the inflation rate over time.

Mistake 2:

Not Delaying Social Security Filing.* Because it provides an inflation-adjusted income stream for the rest of your life, Social Security is designed to provide you with at least some money coming in the door even if your investment portfolio runs low (or out) during your later years. If you file early (you're eligible to do so as early as age 62), you permanently reduce your annual benefit from the program. Delayed filing, on the other hand, has the opposite effect, amping up the value of your hedge. Not only will your benefits last as long as you do, but they'll be higher, perhaps even substantially so, as well. Those who delay filing until age 70 may receive an annual benefit that's more than 30% higher than what they would have received had they filed at full retirement age (currently 66) and more than 50% higher than their benefit had they filed at age 62.

Mistake 3:

Not Adjusting Withdrawal-Rate Assumptions. Just as savings rates are the main determinant of success during the accumulation years (much more than investment selection, in fact), spending rate is one of the central determinants of retirement plans' viability.

The 4% rule, which indicates that you can withdraw 4% of your total portfolio balance in year 1 of retirement, then annually inflation-adjust that dollar amount to determine each subsequent year's portfolio payout, is a decent starting point in the sustainable withdrawal-rate discussion. But it's important to tweak your withdrawal rate based on your own situation. If you have a sparkling health record and it looks likely that you'll be retired longer than the 30-year withdrawal period that underpins the 4% rule, you may be better off starting a bit lower.

In a similar vein, it's important to not set and forget your retirement-plan variables, such as your spending rate and your asset allocation, because retirement progresses and new information becomes available about your health and potential longevity, market valuations, and so forth.

This is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, tax, or financial planning advice. Please consult a legal, tax, and/or financial professional for advice specific to your individual circumstances. Asset allocation and diversification are methods used to help manage risk. They do not ensure a profit or protect against a loss. Returns and principal invested in securities are not guaranteed, and stocks have been more volatile than bonds.

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