I had the pleasure of interviewing author Emily Birken to discuss her book and these important retirement issues. Emily let us in on some secrets for what you should be thinking about and doing when you’re in the “red zone” before retirement. Some of the topics we cover included:
- Why rules of thumb don’t work as you near retirement
- How to determine how much income your nest egg can generate
- How many different ways can you opt to receive social security
- The pros and cons of annuities
- How to deal with debt in retirement
Here’s a transcript of the interview:
Rob: Emily, welcome to the show.
Emily Birken: Thank you for having me.
Rob: We were just chatting a little bit before we started the podcast, and we talked about it being a small world. You’re in Indiana now, but you actually spent some time in Columbus, Ohio and taught at Grove City High School, right?
Emily: I did, yes. I was an English teacher at Grove City High School for four years.
Rob: And that’s significant to me because I grew up in Grove City. My mom still lives there. So there you go; it’s a small world.
Well, listen, thank you so much for your time today. We’re going to talk about your book, which I thought was fantastic and incredibly comprehensive: The Five Years Before You Retire. But before we get into the book, why don’t you tell everyone a bit about yourself?
Emily: Well, I am a personal finance blogger, primarily. I’ve been doing this for about four years. I write on a number of topics from budgeting to retirement to saving for college – pretty much anything finance related. That’s something that I’ve been doing for a little while.
Last year, I had the opportunity to write The Five Years Before You Retire to help people get ready for retirement – the ones in that red-zone where they know that it’s coming but they’re not exactly sure what to do. There’s so much out there about how to save more for retirement, but they don’t tell you what to do once you’ve done all that saving.
Emily: That was the opportunity I had last year, and it’s been an incredible ride. I had a lot of fun writing the book, and now that it’s out, I’m having some fun promoting it.
Rob: I’m sure, and I’ve got a ton of questions for you about the book. I’m curious, though. You said you write for personal finance blogs. Who do you write for?
Emily: There’s a number of them – Wise Bread, PT Money, Money Crashers, and the Dollar Stretcher are some of the main sites, although you can see me other places every once in a while. I’ve been on Huffington Post and Yahoo! Finance, among other places.
Rob: That’s great. I’ve been in the personal finance blogosphere since 2007, and I know all of those blogs that you’ve mentioned. They’re all great websites, and folks ought to check them out. I know the bloggers behind them. It’s sort of a tight-knit community.
Emily: A small community, yes.
Rob: And you work with FinCon, right?
Emily: I do. I was the main blogger for FinCon’s blog in 2013, and that’s a relationship that just continues to grow. I have a great deal of respect for Philip Taylor from PT Money and Finance.
Rob: Right. Yeah, I know Phil really well. He obviously started FinCon, which has been just a wonderful conference for personal finance bloggers. Yes, it’s been a great way to build a community.
Rob: So my first question about your book is, how did you come up with the idea for the book? Because your book focuses on the red-zone – which is a great way to think about the five years before retirement. But how did you come up with that idea?
Emily: The idea really came from the fact that there is so much information out there, that it seems to conflict.
So, for instance, I had a friend last year who was telling me her husband was turning 65, and she heard from three different places – all of them somehow official – what he needed to do to sign up for Medicare. She was just not sure what to believe – what was true; what was not true.
The idea was I wanted to create a resource that would give all of that information in one place without it being overwhelming. So that people could say, “Okay, here’s what I need to do in order to be ready for this.”
Because with so many different aspects of retirement, there’s a lot of information. Some of it is good. Some of it is not good. And it takes a lot to read through it.
My idea was to provide all of that information in one place, so that people who are in their early 60s or a few years from retirement aren’t trying to page through all of the information on how to start a 401(k) and how to find more money in their budget to put aside, when what they really need to know is, “How do I sign up for Medicare?” or “What can I expect from Social Security?” Those sorts of questions.
Rob: The thing that struck me about your book is the scope of it. You mentioned a couple of things like Social Security and Medicare. You could probably have a whole book on each of those topics, yet you are able to boil it down in a way which is easy to read.
Far beyond that, I mean, you cover annuities, reverse mortgages, whether you should have debt when you retire and if you do what you should do about it. What if you don’t have enough saved?
We’re going to cover some of those topics today. But the scope of it was very impressive. Just curious, though, how long did it take you to write this book?
Emily: It was about four to five months.
Rob: That is amazing. I’ve got to tell you, that is amazing.
Emily: Some of this is because I have been blogging for a while. These are all topics that I had written on in the past, so I could draw on some of the research from the past. Some of it comes from the fact that I have been writing for my entire life.
When it comes down to it – when I know what I want to say – boom, then I write it! The research definitely took longer than the writing aspect of it. But because I had some background in it, I was able to start from a place where I wasn’t completely at sea. I knew what I needed to look up and where I had to get the information.
Rob: Right. When you sat down to write the book, what was your daily schedule like? Were you writing eight hours a day for five months? I see myself as a failed author because I have all these book ideas in my head which have never actually made their way to a book.
Emily: Well, it’s actually all tied to my son’s school schedule. I have a 3-year-old who was two last year when I was writing this. He goes to Montessori, and I had to write while he was at Montessori. So that was helpful and infuriating at the same time because I was forced to write during the time I had the house to myself. I knew nothing was going to get done while he was at home. But it was also infuriating because just when you get into the zone, you realize, “Oh, I have to go and pick him up.”
He was at Montessori camp during the summer, which was when I wrote the majority of the book, and that was about six hours a day. I had six hours a day to work – four of which were for writing and two for pottering.
Rob: I wish I had your discipline. That is amazing. I don’t have an excuse. We are empty nesters and I’ve got not excuses. That is fantastic.
But let’s jump into the book. As I mentioned, it covers so much I wouldn’t be able to look at and talk about every aspect of it. It is really comprehensive. But a number of things really caught my attention.
One of them towards the beginning of the book where you focus on when you are about five years away from retirement. Are you on track to retire? Do you have enough money? And you talk about a savings gap and a savings return factor, and formulas that people can use to figure out if they have enough to retire or where they are. Can you tell us how that works?
Emily: Sure. One thing I want to say is, part of the reason people are so frightened of saving for retirement and planning for retirement is because they don’t know where they stand. I look at it in the save way as when you start a weight loss regimen. The hardest thing to do is get on a scale and see where you are.
That is the same thing with saving for retirement. The very hardest thing is finding out where you are. We are so afraid of what reality is going to be. And often times you will find out that you are better off than you think you are.
You step on the scale and say, “Oh, I’ve only gained 15 pounds, not the 20 I thought!” This is the same, “Oh, I don’t actually need a million dollars. I can get by with $700,000 and I’ll be fine.”
The thing is, it’s still an overwhelming amount. Once you know where you are, you can make a plan to get where you need to be. So the first thing you need to do is figure out how much you need to retire. There are multiple ways to do that, and that is what I walk you through in the book.
It is figuring out how much you can count on in retirement in Social Security, and if you have things like a pension. Then figuring out how much you would need to live on and feel comfortable – figuring out what that gap is.
What you can count on with Social Security and pensions and income is that it’s guaranteed, and what you need to save or put aside. So once you have that number, then you can start figuring out what to do to get there if you are not there yet.
So, again, all of this is a little overwhelming and frightening, somewhat like stepping on that scale. What you don’t want to do is say, “I will think about it tomorrow.” The best thing is to do it as soon as you can. Peel off the Band-Aid. Just tear it off and go from there because you can’t figure out what you need to do it you can’t figure out where you are right now.
Rob: Right. And I know in the book, for folks who get it, you walk them through step-by-step how to do this whole process. What you think Social Security benefits might be, pension, and what that gap is. You know, maybe you need – whatever – $75,000 a year, and Social Security and pension provide – I’m just making numbers up here – say, $40,000. And you’ve got that gap of $35,000 that you need.
Now how much should you have saved to generate that $35,000, of course, depends on assumptions of market returns. You have different assumptions people can choose.
One of the things you do that I found interesting is that rather than using a rule of thumb about how much you need – like 80% of your salary, which is a common one you hear – you actually suggest that people walk through and prepare a budget. You have budget worksheets, and you have sources and websites that you mention in the book that the folks can go to.
Why did you do it that way? Why did you have a step-by-step budget plan versus just a rule of thumb like 80% of income?
Emily: I feel like rules of thumb are really good for when you are saving for retirement in your early years of working for 20, 30, 40-somethings. Once you get closer to retirement, a rule of thumb is just too general. Because if you have not met that rule of thumb, you get a little overwhelmed. “What do I do now?”
So at the point where you are actually looking at the actual start of your retirement, you need to know specific dollars and cents because you don’t live by a rule of thumb. You live on your specific budget. You live on your day to day – how much you spend, how much you are able to save by doing X, Y, or Z. So I feel it is much better to be specific and particular.
That’s also because I write a lot of articles and read a lot of financial articles. We writers love rules of thumb because then you can say, “You need to do this. The math is easy.” Then, boom, you’ve got a 500-word article that gives some good information but not specific information.
And no one is going to be able to retire based on those short, 500-word articles I’ve written or that we read everywhere, like, “Okay, save 80% of your income. That is what you should plan for.”
I wanted to make sure that this was going to be something that would work for pretty much anyone on any budget – to figure out what they can do on their budget.
Rob: It does seem like the right way to go for many reasons. Everyone’s situation is different. Some folks may be a few years away from retirement and still paying for a mortgage, while others may have their home paid off. Or they are living with family. That is just one issue.
You multiple that by other issues, and you really need to figure out the details. I expect a lot of people who go through that exercise in your book may find they can live on a lot less than what the rule of thumb suggests.
Emily: Yes. That’s something else because rules of thumb are set for pretty much anyone, anywhere in the country. So someone who has lived their entire life in New York City is going to need a much different amount to retire than someone who has lived his entire life here in Louisiana where the cost of living is extremely low.
That’s something I feel is extremely important – to make sure that people can figure it out based on their own situation and not the situation of someone living on the coast or in a situation completely different from their own.
Rob: Right. Let’s talk about generating income during retirement. You talk about the 4% rule and the bucket method. Now, I had some financial analysts on the show in Podcast 46 who were from Vanguard, and we talked extensively about the 4% rule, which is pretty well-known. But I am curious as to what the bucket method is and how that works.
Emily: Sure. The bucket method is – basically you’re going to separate out your nest egg into separate buckets. Asset allocation is the technical term for it.
You’ve got the bucket for the first five years of retirement. In that particular bucket, your assets are going to be in things that are pretty stable and do not generate a great deal of interest. So things like CDs, Treasury bonds, cash equivalents.
Then you’ve got a bucket for years 5 to 15. And there you can be a little bit more aggressive. You don’t need to tap into that until about 5 years or so down the road. So you can go into bonds, some stocks that you know are going to be stable.
And then you’ve got the final bucket, which is going to be for years 15 through 30. Since you have so much time before you need to tap into that, that particular bucket can be much more aggressive. You can go after the returns that a younger person, who is still working, might be going after with part of their retirement accounts. That allows you to still have growth in retirement.
The reason why I like the bucket method is that you are not negatively affected by a downturn in the market at any point in your retirement. For instance, the people who retired in 2008 who were planning on using the 4% rule and who had everything just kind of generally diversified, instead of a bucket method, might have taken a huge hit in 2008 that they would never really be able to recover from unless they kept on working in order to replace it again.
With the bucket method, you might take a huge hit in part of your retirement accounts, but you know that some parts of it will be set, and you can still retire on time and just go through that early bucket that was not affected by the market downturn particularly negatively. And you know that you still have time to rebuild your nest egg.
Rob: And I take it that in the bucket method, there is some flexibility to whether it is exactly 1 to 5 years for the first bucket and from 5 to 15 [for the second]. I wonder, too, if that might not even change based on market conditions. What are your thoughts on that?
Emily: One of the reasons I like the bucket method is that it forces you to stay on top of your retirement. The 4% method – some people could very easily just say, “Okay, I am withdrawing 4%, and I am all done until next year.”
Whereas with the bucket method, you need to allocate your assets once or twice a year, and kind of figure out if everything is where you need it to be. Just go ahead and move money around if you need to. And that is something that I think is very important and powerful.
I think that people need to stay on top of that and actively manage their money. I am a big believer in having a financial planner – partnering with an adviser who can help you make those decisions. That is not the sort of decision that any lay-person will be able to do just easily off the top of their head.
However, partnering with a financial planner – meeting them once or twice a year to manage the accounts – will allow you to maximize your money. I feel like it will allow you to retire with less in the bank than what they might suggest because you can actively manage it and make sure you have what you need each year.
I feel that’s much wiser for people. That way they don’t get to age 78 and say, “I am out of money.” They will know where they are.
Rob: I’m not at the point where I’m 5 years from retirement, but I am thinking about it. And I do like the bucket method. When you think of asset allocation when you’re saving, it’s usually based on percentages.
So you might have 70% in stocks and 30% in bonds – whatever your asset allocation is. What you are suggesting, and I’ve read about the bucket method in another context, is that it’s really the same as allocation, but you’re not breaking it up based on some percentage. You’re breaking it up in a number of years’ living expenses.
Rob: I suppose you could do all of that and still follow some part of the 4% rule. Even with the buckets, you’ve still got to decide, “Okay, I’ve got all these buckets, and they are based on annual expenses. There can be some variability in there from year to year.” One year you can decide to take out 4.5%, and the next year 3.5%. You still have to decide how much you are actually going to take out, right?
Emily: Absolutely, yes.
Rob: I think that is a great part of the book, and it’s a helpful way to think about retirement spending. As you said, to avoid those first 5 years where the performance in the market can have a huge impact on the likelihood that your money would outlast you, I guess it’s the goal, right?
You also talk about annuities. One thing I liked about your book was you didn’t say annuities are good or bad. There is truth in all of this. You often have this table which has its pros and cons, and I think that is the best way to write about personal finance because there is no hard and fast right answer for everybody.
You did the same thing with annuities. I am curious – who do you think can benefit from annuities, and what are the big pros and cons of annuitizing some part of your assets during retirement?
Emily: For me, I think that often financial writers and columnists tend to take the psychology out of money because they are able to look at it very rationally and straightforward. If you look at it that way, then annuities might not make sense for any number of people.
For me, I want to remember that money and psychology are very intimately connected. We have these weird views of money which cause our brains to scramble. So, annuities, in particular, are going to be great for those people who do not want to manage their money.
For those who get a shiver from the idea of it – it makes them feel overwhelmed and frightened, and they just don’t want to do it. They are not wrong for feeling that way. If they were going to find an annuity that’s going to work for them, that will allow the to basically continue to collect what seems like a paycheck and continue in a way that has worked for them during the time that they were working.
There are people who are perfectly able to budget their paychecks but for whom the idea of investments is just a bridge too far. So there is absolutely nothing wrong with individuals in that situation to annuitize part of their retirement.
I would never recommend annuitizing everything because diversifying is important in every aspect of what you are doing – not just in investments. So having that amount that you can count on each month throughout an annuity is going to be so helpful and less distressing for individuals who just hate the idea of dealing with their investments.
Rob: Yes, that’s a great point. That’s what I have learned from blogging. To my mind, investing is so easy. But I have talked to enough people to realize that there are folks that just get real nervous and uneasy with all of that.
I wrote an article on the psychology of money. It had to do with Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, and there is a little bit of Spock in all of us. The logical part tells us to open up the spreadsheet and figure it all out. Then Captain Kirk comes in with all his emotion going against the odds – and of course it always works out.
The psychology of money is important. It seems like a good way to use annuities for part of your retirement, particularly if you are not comfortable with managing your money. All of it – investing it. I guess it gives you some security.
And, as you said, there are some downsides to it – to annuities. But I liked the way you covered that in the book. It was very good.
The other thing that struck me – moving to some different topics – is Social Security. That’s a great section of the book. The one thing that struck me is that you said there are 81 different ways to take Social Security for married couples. Did I get that right?
Emily: That is correct, yes.
Rob: Can you explain that? Because that is mind-numbing. Eighty-one different ways to take Social Security?
Emily: Basically, with married couples, because there are so many variables like who is older, who makes more money, and that sort of thing, there are different was you can take Social Security in order to maximize your checks.
For instance, my husband and I are 2 years apart. He is 2 years older than me, so by the time we reach our Social Security age – he would like to retire at, say, 65, and retirement age might be 67. But I want to keep working until I am 68. So that would mean that he’d be retiring about 5 years before me.
Would it make sense for him to take Social Security when he retires? Or would it make sense to wait for a few years?
One of the things that is a possibility is, I could start taking Social Security when he reaches retirement age at 67 even though I would only be 65 at the time. That would allow me to take advantage of his higher salary. And then I would take my retirement when I reached my retirement age 2 years late. That’s just an example of it. And, yes, it is that complicated!
Rob: I’m kind of a math geek, but this is almost overwhelming for me. Are there tools? Calculators? And you mentioned in your book – I’m trying to remember – tools that can help folks calculating different ways to see which is best for them?
Emily: There are a few calculators available on IRS.gov that will allow you to figure that out. Sorry, it’s SSA.gov. Excuse me. However, for those particular 81 different ways, you will have to meet with a financial planner.
There are software programs that allow you to figure it out. You type in the numbers, and it helps you figure it out. But they are probably expensive for just an at-home purchase. A financial planner will have those to help you figure it out.
Rob Right. I know there are some free calculators like at AARP. And, like you said, the Social Security Administration’s website – they have links, too. What I have read is not as sophisticated and is quite expensive, so it’s better to go with a financial planner and . . .
Emily: Considering the amount of money that you could be leaving on the table if you don’t take Social Security in a way that maximizes your benefits, it’s worth it even if you meet with a financial planner only once to find out when to do what. And to get this information.
Rob: I get so frustrated that things must be so complicated. I’m sure there’s a point to it, and everyone’s situation is different. Social Security is trying to address all the different situations, but it just seems crazy. The thing is, it is good for people to know this. That this is out there.
The other thing that I’ve learned is that if you are divorced, you might still be able to get Social Security benefits, depending on the circumstances, from your former spouse’s income.
Emily: That’s correct.
Rob: Which is also in your book. I learned a lot from that. And 81 different ways just boggles the mind. But it is good to know and good to plan for it.
You quoted a statistic about mortgages: 40.5% of households headed by someone 65 to 74 have a mortgage. 40% – I would have guessed lower. Do you have any tips for folks who are nearing retirement that know they are still likely to have their mortgage? What can they do to address that issue? And how important is it to address? Can we just go into retirement with a mortgage? It’s not the end of the world.
Emily: That is a possibility. We have come away from the hard and fast rule of our parents and grandparents where you do not retire with a mortgage. You pay that off before you start thinking about retirement. Things are different now.
Our parents bought one house and stayed in it their entire lives. People nowadays are more likely to move, upgrade houses, and that sort of thing – which is part of the reason more people are retiring with mortgages. It’s not necessarily the end of the world if you retire and you still carry a mortgage, if that’s something you can afford.
However, in crunching the numbers, if your mortgage is going to be eating up a great deal of your retirement income, that is something you need to deal with. There are a couple of different things you can do.
Downsizing is something you may be open do. Do you need the house that you’re in? Not only does downsizing mean that you can wipe out your mortgage, but you might even be able to get some equity out of your house which you can add to your retirement. That is a really good opportunity for a lot of people.
Other options out there- you can refinance. Depending on what that is going to do to change your monthly mortgage, it may be enough to make a difference.
Rob: You said refinancing?
Emily: Yes. That is a possibility. Other possibilities that are a little bit more out there are: Could you rent out a room? Is there a way you could me making some money to help you pay for your mortgage? Roommates are not just for 20-somethings.
Rob: Right. Yeah, every situation is different. I know for us it’s definitely downsizing. I don’t want to wait til I retire. That is a topic for another podcast. Maybe I’ll have my wife on the show on why we are not going to downsize! But I do think downsizing or moving to a different location is dependent on where you live. It’s not only housing, but also taxes.
Rob: That is great. Okay, a couple of things before I let you go – and I do appreciate your time today. We kind of touched on this with the bucket method. You have a good list of pitfalls towards the end of your book, with one being retiring without your first 3 years of income set aside. What is the pitfall if you don’t have 3 years’ of income set aside?
Emily: If you don’t have 3 years of income set aside in a place where you know it is safe – where you know it’s not going to affect the rest of your nest egg – if there is some market catastrophe right within those first couple of years after retiring, then you are left in a position where you say, “Okay, what do I do now? Do I live on a fraction of what I planned on living on this year and next year until things recover? Do I take the money I planned on taking and have a permanent hit because the money is not there compounding interest and can’t grow? What do I do? Am I going to live on cat food and ketchup for the next year or two?”
Rob: Cat food and ketchup – I haven’t heard that one before! It doesn’t sound very good. That would be bad, I gather.
Emily: Yes. So it is important to, partially for your own peace of mind, to retire knowing exactly what you’re going to live on for those first three years. That way, if there’s a terrible market downturn on the day you retire, you aren’t having sleepless nights trying to figure out what you’re going to do.
Rob: So the idea is, you’ve got your bucket method. And you suggest, as a rule of thumb, one to five years in safe investments. And at the absolute minimum, out of your entire nest egg, you want at least three years of it in CDs and savings accounts, or things that aren’t going to go south if the market has some bad years.
Rob: Okay. Lastly, what would you suggest for folks – and this is a hard question – but perhaps folks that listen to this podcast can find that with crunching the numbers, in 5 years they are not going to be able to retire with enough money. That puts them in a hard spot. There are no easy answers. But what are some of the ideas you can give them on ways to address that situation?
Emily: What I think is really important to do is to make sure that you know what is your bottom line. So is your bottom line, “I have to get out of this job. It’s driving me crazy!”? Okay, so if that’s your bottom line, what are you willing to sacrifice in order to retire on time?
For instance, I told a story about a woman who knew she and her husband had not saved enough and how the market downturn really negatively affected the investments they did have. As an elderly widow, she ended up living in a kind of group home with very, very little. But she was content because she had a safe place to live; she had three meals a day, and she had access to a library. She was a reader, so as long as she had enough to read and eat, she was happy. That was the bare minimum.
Rob: Sounds like my grandmother.
Emily: Exactly. A lot of grandmothers are like that. They get to a point where they realize what is most important.
So figure out what your bottom line is. What is it that you absolutely have to have, and what are you willing to sacrifice?
So for you, perhaps it means you can stay in that job for another five years if it means you can have a better life in retirement. If that’s something you can do, then go ahead and double down on working. And make sure you put money aside during that time.
So if you absolutely have to live near your grandchildren, what is the least you are willing to live in? Are you willing to go back to not so great apartments? That sort of thing? That will save you money. So have those really deep discussions with yourself and with your spouse about what is absolutely most important. Rank your top three and everything else, like how you are willing to compromise.
Rob: Right. Yeah, you know, those are some good suggestions. Are you familiar with Pete – Mr. Money Mustache?
Emily: Of course, yes!
Rob: He’s a great guy. I interviewed him in Podcast 7, and his story is about how he retired at 30. And for the folks listening who are worried about if you are going to have enough, I suggest you listen to that podcast, too.
The thing I liked is I think it has so much application for folks in their 50s and 60s. He was talking about how he retired at 30, but what he was really talking about is not retiring in your 30s but how to live on 50% of your income. That’s what he really talks about. And to me, that can have really good application in many different contexts.
Take me, for example. I don’t want to retire. I’m almost 50, and I don’t want to choose to retire, but I still learned a lot from that podcast. Because people say, “I can’t save even 10%,” or “I can’t save 15%.” Of course, every circumstance is different, but you can kind of get motivated from him – about how he did it.
And I think a lot of times we think we can’t do something until we are forced into a situation where we really have to make smart decisions. Maybe we find out that they are not as bad as we’ve made them out to be. Sometimes they are, but not always.
Rob: Well, listen, I want to thank you so much for being on this show. You’ve written a great book that I think will really help a lot of people – especially those nearing retirement. I appreciate your time.
Emily: Thank you.
I hope you’ve learned a lot from this interview with Emily Birken, author of The Five Years Before You Retire. If you’re nearing retirement (or even if you’re not quite there yet), this is a great resource to check out. I’d highly recommend it if you have any questions on retirement-related issues.