* The 4% rule is actually very safe for a 30-year retirement

* A withdrawal rate of 3.5% can be considered the floor, no matter how long the retirement time horizon

-“Safe Withdrawal Rate for Early Retirees“,MadFientist.com. October 19. 2015.

I thought this was interesting because it gives you a target for retirement. According to the American Community Survey, the median household income in the United States was $62,860 in 2019. Median earnings for a worker was $41,537 (Table A-6). Thresholds for poverty for a single person are $13,300 if they are below 65 years of age and $12,261 if they are older than 65 years old (Table B-1). Let’s calculate:

- $12,261 / 0.035 = ~$350,315
- $13,300 / 0.035 = ~$380,000
- $41,537 / 0.035 = ~$1,186,772
- $62,860 / 0.035 = ~$1,796,000

Now, let’s go the other direction. How long would it take you to reach these thresholds, if you managed to save 20% of your total income?

- $350,315 / ($12,261 * 20%) = ~142 years
- $380,000 / ($13,300 * 20%) = ~155 years
- $1,186,772 / ($41,537 * 20%) = ~143 years
- $1,796,000 / ($62,860 * 20%) = ~142 years

Since we are multiplying by 0.035, it is obvious these numbers would all be around the same. Equally obvious, you either need to quadruple the savings rate or the annual salary, or double both, in order to retire after 35 years of work.

Which really brings us to the point of this exercise, the only people that can look to be an early retiree are either a) using leverage to build equity, such as real estate and renting, b) investing in some kind of investment vehicle that returns at least a 7% rate of return (using the rule of 72, this gives us a doubling of savings roughly every 10 years), or c) radically increase your savings rate by living as frugally as possible, or d) have a much higher than median salary.

Doing the calculations over with a 7% interest rate, it takes about 35 years with a 20% savings rate for every income level mentioned above to get the necessary savings to do a safe withdrawal rate that replaces income. It’s rather sobering when you work through the numbers when someone starts talking about safe withdrawal rates and early retirement. Who is this advice for?

It can be done. If you are smart enough to do this kind of calculation before you go to work, you have a relatively high income, you pool your resources with a partner, you get a sizable inheritance, you get involved with index funds early or you do real estate. These are the options. Otherwise, you are working your whole life.