Step 1: Develop a Budget

Once you are truly good and retired – no phase-out, no gig jobs, no income-earning hobbies – most people end up living on a “fixed income.” While that income may fluctuate somewhat based on cost-of-living increases and investment gains, those increases may be few and far between. What you really need to work on before you retire is a “fixed budget.”

A fixed budget is a line-item record of your living expenses, from housing and insurance to food and utilities to transportation and healthcare. Bear in mind that those are not exactly “fixed expenses” either. Seasonal changes and inflation can swell prices on household goods and insurance rates, while higher interest rates impact auto purchases and credit card debt. These are all factors a pre-retiree needs to consider when developing a post-retirement budget.

Retirement Income

However, the first step in developing a budget isn’t to add up your expenses, it’s to figure out how much money your retirement income sources will provide. Many folks pull from three basic sources of retirement income: Social Security, a pension, and personal savings – comprised of savings accounts, employer-sponsored retirement plans, and an investment portfolio. Bear in mind that with a few exceptions (e.g., savings accounts, Roth IRA), you’ll need to factor in paying taxes on distributions from these accounts during retirement. Add up how much post-tax income you will likely receive each month/year in retirement.

Retirement Budget

Depending on your retirement goals, you may need less or even more income than you earned while still working. One way to break down anticipated retirement expenses is to categorize them as essential (e.g., food, housing, transportation) and discretionary expenses (e.g., travel, entertainment). Calculate a monthly total with considerations for other outlying expenses, like paying for auto or home insurance and property taxes once a year to take advantage of discount savings.

Also factor in periodic expenses for home and auto maintenance. In addition to your monthly budget, consider how much you should retain in a liquid savings account for emergencies, such as the deductible for a major auto repair to replace the roof on your home or the occasional big-ticket appliance.

Reconcile Income with Expenses

Next, compare the total of your income sources with your total budgetary needs. Bear in mind that if your income comes up short, you have a few options. You can create a plan to reduce your essential expenses, perhaps by selling your home and moving into a smaller, cheaper-to-maintain home. You may want to take another look at your discretionary expenses and decide to cut out country club fees or travel abroad. It is possible to enjoy retirement while playing golf or tennis at public facilities and vacationing at the extraordinary locations that America has to offer.

One retirement strategy is to ensure that all of your essential living expenses in retirement will be covered by guaranteed income sources, such as Social Security, an employer pension, and an annuity. For discretionary expenses, plan to pay for them via an allocation of your retirement assets to other investments that are not guaranteed, but offer growth potential. In fact, you may be more inclined to invest these other retirement assets more aggressively when confident that your essentials are covered through guaranteed income sources.

Income Strategies

One of the more common ways retirees draw income is to simply spend down their assets. This basically means withdrawing however much you need each month above and beyond what you receive in Social Security and pension benefits. Bear in mind that if the amount you withdraw each year is too high, you risk running out of money in the later stages of retirement.

Some investors cap how much they withdraw each year at about 3 percent to 5 percent and adjust their budget to meet this limit. In doing so, they can ensure the rest of their investment portfolio has the opportunity to continue growing. To keep up with annual increases in the cost of living, you may want to allocate an equity component in your portfolio to allow for income growth opportunities throughout retirement. However, be aware that stocks can have down years so that 3 percent to 5 percent distribution might deliver less income when the market is volatile.

You also may consider ways to increase your retirement income. Developing a retirement plan a decade or so before you actually retire will give you time to max out your annual retirement account contributions and perhaps even create some form of passive income to help supplement retirement expenses. Many pre-retirees plan ahead by creating passive income sources, such as rental property or royalty payments on writing, music, or a patent on intellectual property.

The Social Security Caveat

Currently, the trust fund that supplements Social Security benefits is projected to fund 100 percent of total scheduled benefits until 2033. Thereafter, the fund will be able to supplement only 79 percent of scheduled benefits. The upcoming election is important for a lot of reasons, but what is currently under the radar is the need to reform how benefits are funded. The options include reducing benefits, increasing the retirement age, allowing people to invest their account funds privately, and increasing or removing the Social Security tax cap on individual wages ($168,600 in 2024).

Because the direction of Social Security reform is unknown, pre-retirees need to work harder to create their own income sources. While the federal government has the authority to make changes to shore up Social Security solvency, individuals, by contrast, have less flexibility to plug holes in their retirement income plans.