3 Ways to Stress-Test Your Retirement Income Plan

Engineering fascinates me, particularly when it comes to building something that will last. After all, when you build a skyscraper, you can’t have it fall. The same thing is true for building a retirement income plan – it needs to last.

Early in my career, I began to seek ways to find an engineering-like approach to deliver financial planning advice. I wanted answers based on data, not on speculation. But in the financial planning business in 1995, providing answers based on data was not the norm. At that time, many financial services firms taught their sales force to recite canned answers. Online calculators were not-in-play yet, so the only way to do an analysis to give someone a quantifiable answer was to build your own spreadsheet – and this was discouraged.

Those canned answers frustrated me. And, most of the answers taught to us financial representatives were canned. The industry did a fabulous job of training all of us young, well-intentioned (but ignorant) commissioned salespeople to provide answers that would sell more products for the company that employed us. Eventually, I figured that out and made the decision that I would only work in an environment where I was not required to push investment products.

I began to build my own spreadsheets and find ways to stress-test financial projections. If I told someone that they could afford to retire, I needed to know I was right. Retirement is the biggest financial decision you make; you don’t have the luxury of more time to recover from big mistakes. As our planning process became specialized, it evolved into three specific engineering-like stress tests that we run on each plan. Here’s what it looks like.

What Does an Engineer-Like Retirement Income Plan Entail?

Engineers use math applied in the form of tests and formulas. This approach can be applied to retirement too. We use three specific types of projection models, what we call “retirement readiness tests” to analyze a client’s financial situation. If they pass all three tests then we are confident their retirement income plan will work throughout their projected life expectancy. Let’s take a look at each of these tests.

1. Fundedness

Many people ask me if “fundedness” is a word. It is a word used in the coursework we study to become a Retirement Management Advisor. Fundedness is based on a math concept called present value.

Let’s look at a simple example… assume you are retiring in five years, at age 65. You need $30,000 a year of income.

You’ve learned that if you wait and begin Social Security at age 70, you’ll receive $30,000 a year. If you take Social Security earlier, you’ll get less. Can you afford to wait? To retire earlier than 70, from ages 65 to 69 you will need to withdraw $30,000 a year from your savings and investments. You can begin to lay this out in a timeline format.

etirement Withdrawal Needed

How much would you need to have saved right now, earning what rate of return, to have the $30,000 a year withdrawal for five years starting at age 65?

You can calculate the answer using the “present value” math formula on a financial calculator or by using the “NPV” formula in Excel. “NPV” takes the net present value of a series of cash flows. Using the NPV Excel formula, you see the answers below.

etirement Withdrawal Needed

This shows if you currently have $118,515 saved, and invested earning 3% a year, then your withdrawal plan is fully funded. You have enough to deliver the $30,000 a year you’ll need in five years. If your savings earn 1% a year, you need $138,536 in the bank today to meet your future withdrawal needs.

Since you need the first withdrawal in six years, your time frame is relatively short, which means you would want the portion of your money assigned to meet these withdrawals invested safely. The price of safety is lower returns, which is why I use lower rates of return in this example.

The example I used is very simple. In reality, this type of analysis incorporates all aspects of your financial life – your 401(k), IRA, taxes, inflation, health care costs, pension, stock options, deferred comp plans, downsizing later in life, etc. After coordinating all your financial items, a withdrawal plan is created. It shows you how much you need to have, earning what rate of return, for the plan to work over life expectancy. And it incorporates the assumption that funds invested for longer time frames would be earning higher returns than 1 – 3%.

That is what we do with our fundedness analysis. It is the same type of analysis used in the Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) method for analyzing stock prices or other investment opportunities.

Another retirement readiness test we use is a historical audit.

2. The Historical Audit

With a historical audit, your specific withdrawal plan is tested over past markets. For example, if you had retired in the early 70’s right before the market crash and years of high inflation, would your plan have worked? You can find out. It feels really good when you know your plan could have successfully weathered every past recession since the Great Depression.

We work with our investment partner, Asset Dedication to run a historical audit based on your specific plan. It’s not a simulated example for an academic paper. It’s your numbers tested over the past.

Here’s how it works. Assume you could clone yourself and go back in history. One of your clones retires in 1927, the next in 1928, the next in 1929, and so on. You have sixty clones, each living for thirty years. That means there are sixty complete thirty-year blocks of time to test. The results show up in what I refer to as the “spaghetti chart” like the one you see below. Each yellow line represents the path of the financial assets of one of your clones. You can see your sixty clones and which ones had financial accounts that grew over their thirty years, and which ones didn’t.

To be confident in the success of your retirement income plan, we want to see a 100% success rate when tested back to 1947 – visually, that means the majority of the yellow lines are well into the green area.

Figure 5-10 used with permission. It is from Chapter 5 of the 2nd edition of Control Your Retirement Destiny.

We are ok if a few yellow lines from the Great Depression-era end in the red as we know if such a horrible economic time occurs again there are adjustments that could be made to make sure a minimum lifestyle is secured.

Now, on to one more way to test a retirement income plan.

3. Monte Carlo Analysis

Monte Carlo is a famous casino in Monaco near the French Riviera. Monte Carlo is also the name for a set of algorithms that generate random results. In retirement income planning, a Monte Carlo analysis can be used to stress-test your retirement plan and see how it would hold up under a random pattern of hypothetical investment returns. Unlike the historical audit, these returns are randomly generated – so the software can simulate market conditions that are far worse than what we’ve seen in real life. The graph below comes from a Monte Carlo simulation run by a financial planning software package called Finance Logix. 

Retirement planning graph analysis.

If the red line results aren’t within the parameters we want to see then we see what adjustments need to be made to keep you out of harm’s way.

Let’s review.

  1. As you near retirement, you can’t afford to make big mistakes. You need an engineering-like approach applied to retirement income planning.
  2. At Sensible Money, our financial advisors are both Certified Financial Planners and Retirement Management Analysts (RMA). The RMA is an advanced certification that teaches us engineering-like tools that we can use to test retirement income plans.
  3. After gathering an incredible amount of data, we use three tests, Fundedness, a Historical Audit, and Monte Carlo, to determine if we are confident your plan will work.

If you haven’t rigorously analyzed your retirement income plan, maybe it’s time.

This introduction to creating a successful retirement plan is a lot to take in. If you want to learn more, watch our recording of How to Recession-Proof Your Retirement class on YouTube.

Written by Dana Anspach.