I'm generally an even-keeled guy. I don't get worked up about much. I understand that different people have different perspectives, so I try to be respectful when others disagree with me. Having said that, there are indeed certain things that piss me off.
So how much are you supposed to be saving in order to finance 20 to 30 years post-work? The commonly accepted rule of thumb is that you'll want about 70% of your former annual income — at least — to continue living at or near the style to which you've been accustomed.
Let me be blunt: This rule of thumb is asinine.
This “rule” (which is used by most retirement calculators, both on the web and from financial planners) estimates how much money you'll need by using your income as a starting point. The 70% ratio is commonly used, but plenty of places use 80% or 90%. Regardless the percentage, estimating your retirement spending from your current income is ludicrous. It's like trying to guess how much fuel you'll use on a trip to grandmother's house based on the size of your vehicle's gas tank!
- Say you make $50,000 a year but spend $60,000. In this case, your income understates your lifestyle by $10,000 a year. If you based your retirement needs on your income, you'd be screwed.
- On the other hand, if you're a money boss who saves half what she earns, you'd only spend $25,000 of a $50,000 salary. Basing your retirement needs on your income would cause you to save much more than you need. You'd be working long after the point at which you could retire safely.
Predicting how much much to save for retirement based on income makes zero sense. (Zero!) It's one of those pervasive financial rules of thumb — such as “buy as much home as you can afford” — that does more harm than good. There's a real danger that if you heed this advice you won't have enough saved in retirement. If you're proactive like many Get Rich Slowly readers are, you run the risk of saving too much, meaning you'll miss out on using money to enjoy life when you're younger.
Instead of estimating how much to save for retirement based on your income, it makes far more sense to plan your retirement needs around your spending. Your spending reflects your lifestyle; your income doesn't.
So, how much do you need to save for retirement? How much will you spend? It depends.
For many people, expenses drop when they stop working. They drive less. The kids are out of the house. The mortgage is gone. And, ironically, they no longer have to save for retirement. Meanwhile, other expenses increase. (Most notably, health care costs tend to balloon as we age.)
That said, it is possible to get a general idea of how much you'll need in the future. According to the 2016 Retirement Confidence Survey: about 38% spend more in retirement than when they're working. 21% spend less, and 38% spend the same. Past iterations of this survey have shown that roughly two-thirds of Americans spend the same (or only slightly different amounts) during retirement as they did while working.
Translation: In general, your pre-retirement expenses are an excellent predictor of your post-retirement expenses. That's why I prefer this rule of thumb: When estimating how much you need to save for retirement, assume you'll spend about as much in the future as you do now.
Forget the “70% of your income” bullshit when planning for retirement. Use 100% of your current expenses instead.
When I originally published this article at Money Boss in July 2016, financial planner Michael Kitces — who has an awesome blog — sent me a note to explain why advisors use the “70% of your income” rule. The answer? “Because it works.”
Generally speaking, the 70% of income replacement ratio works because once you subtract taxes and work-related expenses (plus savings), it's close to 100% of expenses in most cases. I still think this is a crazy way to come at it — why not just use 100% of expenses? — and that it's completely off-base for folks with high saving rates. For more on this subject, check out Michael's article in defense of the 70% replacement ratio.