Buck the Trend and Retire Early

BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Industry surveys and coffee shop talk alike are full of alarming stories about how a growing number of those nearing retirement age will need to keep working past 65. Financial inadequacy is the culprit, especially on the heels of a recession that cut deep into savings.

But what about those who have no desire, or ability, to work well into their seventies? Is there a way to not just retire "on schedule," but leave the work force, two years, five years or more ahead of schedule?

Frugal savers who plan an equally frugal retirement are the best candidates for leaving the work force two, five or even more years ahead of schedule.

It can be done, though not everyone has the wherewithal to do so -- and the closer you are to retirement, the harder it is to accomplish.

The key to a successful early retirement is realizing that "everything centers around spending policy," says Jonathan Satovsky, chairman and CEO of Manhattan-based Satovsky Asset Management.

"If your spending rate is under 3%, you can pretty much weather any storm, as long as you are not speculating and putting everything on red," he says. "But as your spending rate creeps past 5%, you are forced to take more risk, and you need the world to cooperate to be able to insulate yourself from the chaos."

A crucial step is to craft a realistic, post-retirement budget -- an honest assessment of future spending needs. Doing so requires more than the "guesstimate" many use to predict their future finances. All assets -- retirement accounts, Social Security, real estate and a general portfolio -- need to be tallied with realistic expectations for future gains and losses. Inflation, though stagnant, has to be considered as imminent. A reasonable assumption, 3%, will erode savings at a compounded rate.

Reducing expenses can mean selling a home and downsizing. It can include moving to another state -- or even outside U.S. borders -- to reduce the cost of living and medical expenses.

Redefining your vision of "retirement" may also be needed.

"Among those who want to retire early, the ones I've seen who are most successful build a little bit of flexibility into their system," says Brent Burns, president of Asset Dedication, a portfolio engineering firm that works with independent financial advisers and their clients on strategies for retirement income predictability. "Maybe they mostly, but don't fully, retire. They go back and do a little consulting or part-time work. They also build a plan around their baseline expenses: 'Here's the things we really need to cover, and we'll only do the extra things when we can afford them.' Those are the people who can most successfully go ahead, retire early and start to enjoy the good life. But there's a qualifier to it."

Anxiety over having enough saved can sometimes yield a pleasant surprise for would-be early retirees.

"We see two camps," Burns says. "There are the people who figured they would have to work forever, who were really frugal, they saved and live a moderate lifestyle. It turns out they can go ahead and retire. They can go ahead and accelerate things.

"Then there are the ones who just never really did any planning and they end up in scramble mode. There are a number of people out there who have been making a lot of money, but living a lifestyle that reflects it ," Burns says. "For the folks that haven't been squirreling away, there's not a lot we can do. It's a shame, and I hate to see it, but from an investment standpoint, there's not much we can do."

Controlled spending is only part of the picture. As important is ensuring a suitable income stream. Social Security and drawing down on 401(k)s or IRAs will be a baseline. But especially as people live longer and more productively, establishing a suitable, lifetime income stream is crucial. That necessity has been among the selling points, for instance, in the current wave of annuity products promoted by firms such as Fidelity, MetLife ( MET), John Hancock, Prudential ( PRU), Genworth ( GNW), New York Life and Allianz.

For someone escalating their retirement date, their portfolio needs to protect them from running out of money.

Burns is a proponent of using individual bonds as a safe "paycheck portfolio," with careful use of equities to ensure long-term appreciation.

"Most people aren't so frugal that they can spend whatever the yield curve is," he says. "They need some exposure to equities."

Burns advocates bond laddering, dividing investment dollars evenly among bonds that mature at regular intervals. He stresses the value of individual bonds over bond funds.

"By using individual bonds to build an income portfolio you can build a time buffer," he says. "The person who wants to retire now, they have to keep their spending in check. And they need to give themselves time to let equity markets do what they do, which is occasionally go down -- sometimes a lot -- but go up more than they go down if you are able to hold them for a long time and not make dumb decisions at the wrong time. If you are just pulling money out of your portfolio and there's no real structure to the income piece, it gets really scary, and that's when people make the wrong decision at the wrong time."

"A big advantage for an individual bond is that when interest rates start to rise you already know your worst-case scenario," he adds. "Your worst-case scenario is the yield to maturity and then you get your principal back. Whereas with a bond fund you can lose money."

-- Written by Joe Mont in Boston.

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