Retirement by 40?

I overheard a conversation a few days ago on the near-impossibility of retiring by forty. It is understandable (consider 40 in relation to standard benchmarks for retirement – a private pension can be withdrawn at 55 and the state pension is given at 65, and these numbers are trending upwards). I’m not sure I agree, though; there exist quite a number of examples of people that have done this [1, 2]. Meta-analyses disagree (against: [3], in favour: [4]). It’s true that internet and media sources may perhaps not be reliable, but in any case one can perform the relevant analysis.

Even given the option, I’m not certain I would take it. It’s arguable that I had a taste of retirement for the two-odd months in between submitting my Masters thesis at Imperial and starting full-time at Palantir, and I didn’t find it that easy to fill my time after a while. I’d probably stand a better chance now, having reignited a couple of interests in things apart from computer science.

Anyway, let’s get to analysis. One simple way of decomposing this problem can involve

  1. Figuring out the amount required before retirement is feasible, and
  2. Figuring out the required savings rate to reach the result obtained in step 1.

For the first point, there is a well-known 4% rule. Suppose you withdraw 4% of your portfolio in the year when you retire, and then adjust your withdrawals for inflation every year. Then, your portfolio will last for at least 30 years in 96% of historical scenarios. I have some issues with this, biasing in both directions.

I think 4% seems lower than is reasonable, for several reasons:

  • The idea that one blindly draws the stipulated salary even when the market is down seems absurd. Really, one should factor in market returns when making one’s decisions about income, as in [5 – note, technical!].
  • The study assumes that the portfolio alone supports the retiree; yet, a side hustle of some kind may be relevant, and at least in the UK the state pension could kick in once the retiree reaches 65 (or whatever the age is at that time).
  • The study used the US markets, which have been performing very well. Of course, one can decide to use exclusively the US markets, but that tends to introduce currency risks too.

Yet, there are certain reasons to adjust the figure upwards too:

  • The life expectancy of someone who’s 40 is probably higher than 30 more years (especially one who’s considering retirement at 40!), hence that’s not enough as a baseline.
  • The study in question does not account for fund and platform fees. These can be kept quite low (I estimate my own portfolio operates at about 0.22%, and some of this is by choice because I hold some active and smart-beta funds, along with indices that are a bit more exotic) but invariably chew into returns.

It seems like it’s a reasonable rule of thumb, though I wouldn’t treat the figure as authoritative.

One needs to estimate asset returns and inflation for both parts 1 and 2; this can be partially simplified by working everything in real terms, though there is a risk that owing to high inflation increasing one’s savings in line with inflation can prove untenable. Typically, one relies on historical data; for instance, UK stocks have returned about a CAGR of 5.2% from 1900 to 2011 [6]. Post-retirement sequence of returns risk can prove troublesome, although the variance might indeed be smoothed out over a longer period.

Notice that assuming one starts from zero and using the 4% or any constant-percentage model, the only factor after the asset returns and inflation rate have been factored in would be your savings rate – the level of expenditure needed is a function of this. I guess one could introduce another factor for decreased spending upon retirement! An example of a concrete calculation (inclusive of a link to a spreadsheet) can be found in [7]. Using the examples there (5% real returns, 4% withdrawal rate) and bearing in mind that I have 14 years till I’m 40, that clocks in at a smidge above 55 percent.

For an individual, though, there’s probably a somewhat easier method to determine if a retirement by 40 or early retirement is feasible:

  1. As above – figure out the amount required.
  2. Given one’s past saving and investment patterns, estimate the amount one is likely to have at 40 if one continues to behave in the same way.

Of course, we need to make the same assumptions involved in figuring out the value computed in step 1. We also still can’t get away from estimating inflation or market returns in step 2. However, the previous calculation for step 2 assumes a constant savings rate; with this method it is a lot simpler to adjust the model to account for events peculiar to one’s own situation (such as long CDs maturing, stock options, vesting of bonuses, known large expenses etc.).

We then compare the figures in steps 1 and 2; there is of course some wiggle room. I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between deciding that one is financially independent and pulling the retirement trigger, though that’s perhaps a separate discussion topic. [8] I certainly would be interested in the first, but not the second at this time (and, hopefully, even at 40).

One can even switch the method up a bit further:

  1. Figure out the amount one is likely to have at 40 (step 2 above)
  2. Figure out the withdrawal amount one can derive from that. Decide if that’s feasible.

Again, we don’t get away from assumptions concerning inflation or market returns. Deriving values in step 2 gets tricky; one can always use the 4% rule or assume some other constant factor. It’s worth saying (for all of the methods) that building in fudge factors to leave some leeway for underwhelming market returns is probably a good idea, since getting back into the workforce after a long spell of early retirement might prove difficult.

Personally I’m very fortunate that this should be possible if I decide to push hard on it. It’s difficult to say though – past performance is not an indicator of future performance, and I’m at a point where I’d say my past spending is also not an indicator of future spending. I think I’m pretty frugal, but don’t entirely fancy maintaining the same degree of strictness I’ve been running with in my university years throughout. It’s certainly possible, but also definitely not easy, and I’m not sure it’s what I’d want to do.

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