Billy Kaderli separated a delicious–looking piece of cheesecake with his fork. That’s when he turned to me and smiled. “A financial reporter recently interviewed me,” he said. “I explained that we live off the proceeds of our investment portfolio. She was surprised when I told her we have more money now than we did when we first retired.”

That might not sound unusual until we realize that Billy and his wife, Akaisha, have been retired for 27 years. In 1991, they quit their jobs. They were just 38 years old. Billy worked as an investment broker. Akaisha ran their restaurant. But in search of greener pastures, they sold their business, their home, and nearly all of their possessions. They retired decades before conventional wisdom says they should.

The Kaderlis put their entire proceeds, about $500,000, in Vanguard’s S&P 500 index fund. “We knew that we were going to be retired for a really long time,” says Billy, “so we decided not to include bonds in our portfolio.” The couple planned to spend no more than 4 percent of their portfolio each year. To stretch their money, they spend most of their time outside the United States, in low-cost countries.

They have since tweaked their investments. But I wanted to see what would have happened if the Kaderlis had withdrawn an inflation-adjusted 4 percent annually from their initial $500,000 portfolio.

In 1991, the first year of their retirement, they would have withdrawn $20,613. That included an adjustment for inflation, which was 3.06 percent that year. The following year, 1992, inflation was 2.90 percent. That year, they would have withdrawn $21,211.

 

 

 

 

By the end of 2017, they would have made twenty-seven annual withdrawals, totaling $775,592. By February 28, 2018, their portfolio would have been worth more than $4.3 million–despite those withdrawals. This doesn’t include capital gains or dividend taxes. But one thing is clear: the Kaderli’s portfolio would have been worth a heck of a lot more than its initial $500,000.

I wanted to see what would have happened if they had built a more diversified portfolio. I back-tested the following:

  • 40% Vanguard Total Bond Market Index
  • 35% Vanguard S&P 500 Index
  • 25% Vanguard International Stock Market Index

After withdrawing the same $775,592 over twenty-seven years, they would have had more than $1.8 million by February 28, 2018.

The 4 Percent Rule In Action
1991-2018 - Starting Value: $500,000

Year Inflation Withdrawal Year-End Value:
S&P 500
Year-End Value
35% U.S. Stocks
25% International Stocks
40% U.S. Bonds
1991 3.06% -$20,613 $630,495 $578,417
1992 2.90% -$21,211 $656,087 $570,779
1993 2.75% -$21,794 $699,196 $635,017
1994 2.67% -$22,377 $685,042 $621,012
1995 2.54% -$22,945 $918,616 $727,195
1996 3.32% -$23,707 $1,105,061 $775,766
1997 1.70% -$24,111 $1,447,724 $863,612
1998 1.61% -$24,499 $1,837,521 $972,764
1999 2.68% -$25,157 $2,199,501 $1,098,489
2000 3.39% -$26,009 $1,974,302 $1,038,998
2001 1.55% -$26,413 $1,710,516 $955,385
2002 2.38% -$27,040 $1,304,680 $853,790
2003 1.88% -$27,549 $1,648,991 $1,019,608
2004 3.26% -$28,445 $1,797,650 $1,106,222
2005 3.42% -$29,417 $1,854,061 $1,153,623
2006 2.54% -$30,164 $2,113,902 $1,282,608
2007 4.08% -$31,396 $2,196,376 $1,361,138
2008 0.09% -$31,424 $1,351,838 $1,030,707
2009 2.72% -$32,279 $1,677,601 $1,221,060
2010 1.50% -$32,762 $1,895,031 $1,326,658
2011 2.96% -$33,733 $1,898,555 $1,289,188
2012 1.74% -$34,320 $2,164,676 $1,407,545
2013 1.50% -$34,835 $2,826,336 $1,577,207
2014 0.76% -$35,099 $3,173,033 $1,630,334
2015 0.73% -$35,355 $3,177,288 $1,580,752
2016 2.07% -$36,088 $3,516,659 $1,648,201
2017 2.11% -$36,850 $4,241,788 $1,868,145
2018     *$4,318,264 *$1,862,624
Total Initial Value   Total Withdrawn Account Value 
Feb 28, 2018
Account Value Feb 28, 2018
$500,000   $775,592 *$4,318,264 *$1,862,624

The biggest risk of withdrawing an inflation-adjusted 4 percent per year might be dying with too much money.

But that doesn’t mean retirees can’t run out of money. In 1999, Philip L. Cooley, Carl M. Hubbard and Daniel T. Walz tested the 4 percent rule back to 1926. They looked at rolling 30-year retirement periods, publishing their results for the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education.

Two things are worth noting. Based on rolling 30-year retirement periods, a portfolio of 100 percent stocks had a 98 percent chance of lasting. But the portfolio’s survival improved to 100 percent if it included a 25 to 40 percent allocation to bonds.

Long-term, stocks easily beat bonds. But after stocks take a dive, withdrawing an inflation-adjusted 4 percent can take huge chunks out of the portfolio’s total value. By including some bonds, retirees might reduce risk.

I back-tested two retirement portfolios to 1973. I chose that year because it would have been one of the most horrific times in history to start inflation-adjusted withdrawals from an investment portfolio. In 1973, U.S. stocks fell 18.18 percent. The following year, they fell another 27.8 percent.

That two-year drop would have made 2008/2009 look pleasant by comparison. For example, a $10,000 investment in U.S. stocks on January 2008 would have been worth $8,103 by December 31, 2009. In contrast, a $10,000 investment on January 1973 would have been worth just $5,906 by December 31, 1974.

If that wasn’t bad enough, inflation started to run like a pack of wild dogs. In 1974, inflation was 12.34 percent. In 1979, it was 13.29 percent. In 1980, inflation hit 12.52 percent.

The 4 Percent Rule In Action
1973-2018 - Starting Value: $500,000

Year Inflation Withdrawal Year-End Value: S&P 500 Year-End Value
60% U.S. Stocks
40% U.S. Bonds
1973 8.71% -$21,741 $387,336 $432,653
1974 12.34% -$24,424 $255,177 $345,886
1975 6.94% -$26,118 $325,566 $408,438
1976 4.86% -$27,388 $384,354 $468,384
1977 6.70% -$29,224 $342,217 $431,660
1978 9.02% -$31,859 $339,290 $423,676
1979 13.29% -$36,094 $385,467 $458,293
1980 12.52% -$40,612 $472,650 $514,132
1981 8.92% -$44,235 $408,800 $476,446
1982 3.83% -$45,929 $446,659 $548,445
1983 3.79% -$47,671 $500,203 $586,800
1984 3.95% -$49,553 $461,582 $580,184
1985 3.80% -$51,435 $554,494 $689,235
1986 1.10% -$52,000 $583,304 $739,147
1987 4.43% -$54,306 $544,244 $701,030
1988 4.42% -$56,706 $581,783 $731,899
1989 4.65% -$59,341 $686,040 $838,552
1990 6.11% -$62,965 $581,379 $776,742
1991 3.06% -$64,894 $704,804 $912,420
1992 2.90% -$66,776 $702,215 $923,889
1993 2.75% -$68,612 $708,209 $956,418
1994 2.67% -$70,447 $636,568 $868,452
1995 2.54% -$72,235 $792,131 $1,053,697
1996 3.32% -$74,635 $883,542 $1,119,672
1997 1.70% -$75,906 $1,081,485 $1,292,119
1998 1.61% -$77,129 $1,255,955 $1,450,164
1999 2.68% -$79,200 $1,475,834 $1,557,731
2000 3.39% -$81,882 $1,237,889 $1,464,444
2001 1.55% -$83,153 $1,018,991 $1,329,147
2002 2.38% -$85,129 $720,274 $1,152,085
2003 1.88% -$86,729 $859,378 $1,293,001
2004 3.26% -$89,553 $877,383 $1,318,145
2005 3.42% -$92,612 $837,243 $1,285,032
2006 2.54% -$94,965 $872,144 $1,325,783
2007 4.08% -$98,840 $821,181 $1,323,534
2008 0.09% -$98,931 $418,103 $1,000,997
2009 2.72% -$101,623 $436,467 $1,064,948
2010 1.50% -$103,143 $407,933 $1,102,336
2011 2.96% -$106,199 $305,658 $1,045,665
2012 1.74% -$108,048 $247,290 $1,050,775
2013 1.50% -$109,670 $220,090 $1,138,387
2014 0.76% -$110,500 $136,946 $1,132,441
2015 0.73% -$111,306 $26,040 $1,029,924
2016 2.07% -$113,615 $0 $998,667
2017 2.11% -$116,011 $0 $1,015,133
2018     $0 $1,015,364
Total Initial Value   Total Withdrawn Account Value Feb 28, 2018 Account Value Feb 28, 2018
$500,000   $3,104,504 $0 $1,015,364

Both portfolios would have served most retirees well. After 30 years, the portfolio invested entirely in stocks would have been worth $859,378. The portfolio allocated 60 percent stocks and 40 percent bonds, would have been worth $1,293,001.

But early retirees (and those that live a long time) might face greater risks if they face falling stocks and run-away inflation.

For example, those that retired in 1973 with 100 percent stocks would have run out of money by 2015. The balanced portfolio would have lasted longer. But even then, it faced a dim future. As seen in the table above, if an investor continued to withdraw an inflation-adjusted 4 percent per year, by 2017, they would have withdrawn more than 10 percent of the portfolio’s remaining value.

 

 

 

 

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli, however, didn’t face falling markets and run-away inflation. You probably won’t either. But nobody can see the future. That’s why investors need to put prudence in their favor. Keep investment costs low, diversify, and if stocks fall hard or inflation runs wild, try to sell a little less than you originally had planned.

After all, we can’t control the market. But we can control our costs and our behavior.

Andrew Hallam is a Digital Nomad. He’s the author of the bestseller, Millionaire Teacher and Millionaire Expat: How To Build Wealth Living Overseas