A Frugal Retirement: How to Live on Less

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- How much of your retirement savings can you withdraw each year -- 7% or 1.8%? Or something in between?

The answer, of course, will make a huge difference in your lifestyle. Fortunately, if you need a smaller withdrawal to keep your nest egg going, it may not have to be permanent, and people in or near retirement can consider some attractive short-term lifestyle changes to keep life interesting on a reduced budget.
You could find yourself living large or living on little. Here's how to be flexible and frugal with your funds.

The key: Keep flexible by avoiding big long-term commitments such as a second home, a large mortgage, oversized car payment or owing a pricey, unsalable condo with big association fees.

Since the early 1990s, many financial advisers have recommended starting retirement with a 4% annual withdrawal rate, or $40,000 for a $1 million nest egg. If you start there, you can increase the annual withdrawals by enough to offset inflation and keep going for 30 years.

That was the theory, anyway. But recent research says that as conditions change the withdrawal figure could be as high as 7% and as low as 1.8%. That impressive $1 million nest egg could therefore generate a tidy $70,000 a year, or a stingy $18,000 -- before taxes.

The first thing to note is that unless you can live on a very, very low withdrawal rate, your fund would have to include some stocks and long-term bonds as well as cash. After all, a five-year certificate of deposit yields only 1.157%, according to the BankingMyWay.com survey. But stocks obviously have risks, and you could face lengthy downturns.

The second point: You might well have to trim your withdrawals if the markets dip. Taking a full withdrawal when your stocks are down could inflict permanent damage on your nest egg, especially if the markets stayed down for several years.

This is where the temporary lifestyle adjustments come in. They can be an appealing alternative to the standard money-stretching strategies of retiring later, working part time or reducing your annual retirement income permanently. With a significant but temporary cutback, you can leave your nest egg intact but preserve an attractive future.

Many temporary strategies require good health, so they're more likely to work in the first decade of retirement than the last.

Lots of us hope to travel in retirement and envision a sequence of cruises, rented vacation condos and tours. But it is far, far cheaper to throw a bike or kayak on the roof of the car and some camping equipment in the trunk. To keep those expensive plans alive, you could consider spending a few years with low-cost alternatives such as seeing America's rails-to-trails network, national parks and rivers.

Moving to a trailer park may not be an appealing money saver, but attaching a small camping trailer on the back of the car can be an equally low-cost but more adventurous way to enjoy part of your retirement. You could rent out your home while you spend a year or two on the road, avoiding a dip into your nest egg and perhaps even adding to it if the rent exceeds your costs.

If that doesn't suit you, think about buying a little place in the hinterlands, where real estate is cheap and taxes are low. Live there for a few years and move back to the pricier city or suburbs after you've had your fill of country life and allowed your retirement funds to grow.

Some new retirees have even shored up their finances by spending two years in the Peace Corps. The lifestyle is not lavish, but it's interesting. And your low-cost way of life will earn admiration from friends and family rather than pity.

Whether you'll need a temporary cost-reduction strategy or not, the key is to be in a position to employ one if necessary. That means minimizing your long-term financial obligations - those big mortgages and so on. As in business, the winners will be retirees who can adjust nimbly as conditions change, leaving plenty of money for the later years when the cheaper options are no longer as practical.

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