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6

Creating a Comfy "Income Cushion"

As a retiree, I maintain a five-year cushion of income that is not invested in the stock market. Like many Fools, I do so because I know I will spend that money within the next five years, and I don't wish to sell stocks during a down market when I need that cash. Accordingly, I keep that five-year income cushion in things like money market funds, Treasury bills, certificates of deposit, and short- to mid-term bonds where it can still earn interest yet avoid most of the volatility found in the stock market. (For more on such investments, visit our Savings Center.)

There are a number of ways you can establish the size of your five-year pot. I simply start with the gross income I want for the first year. From that, I subtract my known income from pensions, wages, Social Security benefits, etc. That establishes the years shortfall that must come from investments. Then, using an assumed inflation rate, I simply inflate that estimate to determine my shortfall for each of the next four years. Let's look at a hypothetical example to see what I mean.

Say I desire $35,000 in pretax income for my first year in retirement. $18,000 of that income will come from a company pension, $12,000 from Social Security, and the remaining $5,000 from investments. I expect inflation to average 3% annually over the next five year's. My pension will not increase along with inflation, but my Social Security benefit will. Before I take my first year's income, my investment stash is $100,000. Given all that, I can construct the following table:

Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
Income 35,000 36,050 37,132 38,245 39,393
Less:
Pension 18,000 18,000 18,000 18,000 18,000
Soc.Sec. 12,000 12,360 12,731 13,113 13,506
Shortfall 5,000 5,690 6,401 7,133 7,887


Note that I have inflated my desired income in the second and subsequent years by the assumed inflation rate. I did the same for my Social Security benefit, which has yet to be denied an inflationary increase by Congress. My five-year income cushion is simply the sum of the shortfalls for Year 1 through Year 5, or $32,110.

I now subtract that amount from my initial retirement stash of $100,000, which leaves me with $67,890 to invest in stocks. From the $32,110 cushion, I take $5,000 (the current year's shortfall) and invest it in a money market fund until I withdraw it later in the year when I need it to meet living expenses. I invest the remaining $27,110 in short-term and intermediate-term bonds. In total, $95,000 remains invested with 71.5% in stocks and 28.5% in bonds. Does that sound anything like asset allocation to anyone?

At the end of Year 1, I note what happened. I see that my actual inflation rate was 2.5% for the year; that my stock portfolio earned 11% to end at $75,358; and that my bond portfolio earned 6.5% to end at $28,872. I increase my second year's desired income by 2.5% to keep pace with the actual inflation rate, and construct a new table for the next five years based on the new year's desired income. However, I keep future inflation constant at 3%. The new table looks as follows:

Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6
Income 35,875 36,951 38,060 39,202 40,378
Less:
Pension 18,000 18,000 18,000 18,000 18,000
Soc.Sec. 12,300 12,669 13,049 13,441 13,844
Shortfall 5,575 6,282 7,011 7,761 8,534


The new shortfall for all years shows my five-year income cushion should be $35,163. The cushion at the end of Year 1 is only $28,872, so I'm short $6,291, an amount I take from the stock portfolio. (Note: Had stocks been down for the year, I would not take anything from that portfolio. Instead, I would take only the $5,575 I need as income in Year 2, and that would come from the bond portfolio. I would then replenish the bonds in a later year when stocks were up again.)

From the $6,291 taken from stocks, I then take $5,575 (my needed income for Year 2), and again put it in the money market fund. The remaining $716 is invested in bonds. When all is said and done, at the start of Year 2 I have $69,067 remaining in my stock portfolio and $29,588 in my bond portfolio, for a total of $97,608. Of that total, 70% is in stocks, and 30% in bonds, a slightly lower ratio of stocks to bonds than the year before.

So there you have it, one Fool's way of determining a five-year income cushion and investing same. It's not the only way or even -- except for me -- the best way. It's just one way of many. Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to find the way that works best for you.


Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2008, at 9:53 AM, drippinfool wrote:

    This article still resonates with me as it did when I first read it. It strikes me as an elegantly simple yet sound basis for retirement spending. I continue to refer to it now that I am nearing the point that I will need to start making regular withdrawals from my retirement savings. Kudos to Dave Braze (TMFPixey) for hitting the nail on the head.

  • Report this Comment On June 17, 2008, at 9:57 AM, drippinfool wrote:

    I Apologize for misspelling Dave's screen name. It is/was TMFPixy.

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