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If you're invested in stocks, you're probably not looking forward to seeing your first-quarter financial statements -- even with the recent rally we've seen. If you're already retired, though, you might well be on the verge of panic as you watch your life savings dropping in value.

Falling markets are tough for any investor to endure. When you're just starting out, it's painful to watch any of your hard-earned savings disappear. But when you're depending on your savings to provide you with income for the rest of your life, you can't afford to take the same risks younger investors can. That makes any losses you suffer even harder to bear.

No matter how much you've managed to save, the universal fear among retirees is running out of money. But by anticipating the ups and downs in various markets, you can keep the odds in your favor.

Can you trust the 4% rule?
Those who've read the Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service know about the 4% rule. In simple terms, based on past historical market returns, a portfolio of stocks and bonds has always been able to support annual withdrawals of 4% of the initial portfolio value for 30 years or more. So if you have $1 million when you retire, you could take withdrawals of $40,000 each year, adjusting upward for inflation every year, and expect to have money left 30 years later

That makes plenty of sense during good times. With stocks returning roughly 9%-10% per year on average, a 4% withdrawal seems quite conservative when the market is rising.

But when stocks fall, it's hard to believe you can sustain withdrawals based on a nest egg whose value is dropping. If you're unlucky enough to retire at exactly the wrong time, it can take some fortitude to count on having history repeat itself.

The worst-case scenario?
Consider, for example, someone who retired at the top of the market in 2000. A Rule Your Retirement article from the newsletter's archives showed that depending on exactly what investments you made, following the 4% rule could have left you looking at big losses. With the S&P down just about 50% from its March 2000 highs, a portfolio with 75% invested in an S&P 500 index fund and 25% in a short-term bond fund would have lost around a third of its value even before taking withdrawals into account, and those annual 4% withdrawals -- based on the original balance -- would now represent much larger percentage of your remaining assets.

That's not too surprising, given how lots of companies have seen their stocks perform lately. Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) has lost 27% in the past year, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) 22%, and Merck (NYSE: MRK  ) 26% -- and those are good results compared to the overall market.

The 4% rule was designed with these sorts of historical drops in mind. After all, the market has gone through long stretches of so-so performance before. Even so, counting on history to repeat itself isn't necessarily reassuring after you've seen a big chunk of your net worth go up in smoke.

Spreading out the risk
But there are things you can do to avoid that worst-case scenario. A more diversified portfolio that the RYR article discussed included more than just the large-cap domestic stocks you'll find in the S&P 500 -- and it performed much better over the same time period with less risk. By including small-cap stocks such as Take-Two Interactive (Nasdaq: TTWO  ) and Actuant (NYSE: ATU  ) , REITs such as Public Storage (NYSE: PSA  ) , and international stocks such as Petroleo Brasileiro (NYSE: PBR  ) , retirees in 2000 have captured some of the relative outperformance in those assets.

Unfortunately, they've still been hit hard by the recent bear market, which hasn't provided many safe havens for investors. But over time, owning different types of stocks should help smooth out returns.

You shouldn't keep all of your eggs in one basket, especially during retirement. By building a diversified retirement portfolio that includes assets that will do well when others are performing poorly, you can avoid the anxiety that comes from down markets that come soon after you retire.

More on securing a happy retirement:

To get more details on structuring your portfolio to get maximum benefit from diversifying, sign up for a 30-day free trial of Rule Your Retirement. You'll get access to back issues, including the June 2007 newsletter that discussed withdrawal rates during tough markets. Try it out today, and start sleeping better at night.

Frustrated with your 401(k)? Even if your employer's plan isn't the greatest, you don't have to give up your dreams of a happy retirement. Get the tips you need to turn your retirement savings around in our special report, "How to Make The Most of Your 401(k)" -- just click here for instant free access.

This article was originally published April 2, 2008. It has been updated by Dan Caplinger, who doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. Actuant is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. Petroleo Brasileiro is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Google and Take-Two Interactive are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool's disclosure policy never runs out of information.

Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (5)

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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 April 01, 2009, at 9:23 AM, WishToRetire wrote:


  • Report this Comment On April 01, 2009, at 9:26 AM, WishToRetire wrote:

    Anyone know what the 4% rule is assuming for fees (e.g. commissions, mutual fund MERs) every year as a percentage. E.g. 4% may be a safe withdrawal rate. But what if the drain on your portfolio is 4% + 3% per year? Is that still safe?

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