How do you know when you portfolio is enough to retire on? You have to figure out a withdrawal strategy first. This is a tricky question and full of worries about running out of money. You could take out a fixed amount (i.e. $50,000 a year). You could take out a fixed percentage (i.e. 4% a year). You can adjust for inflation. You can implement upper or lower guardrails.
Personally, I appreciate the behavioral reasons why living off income while keeping your ownership stake is desirable. The analogy I fall back on is owning a rental property. If you are reliably getting rent checks that increase with inflation, you can sit back calmly and ignore what the house might sell for on the open market.
I’ve also come to feel that dividend yield can be a quick-and-dirty way to adjust your withdrawal rate for valuation. For example, if the price of S&P 500 index goes up while the dividend payout stays the same, then wouldn’t it be prudent to simply spend the same amount? Check out the historical S&P 500 dividend yield via Multpl. Focus the last 20 years – the yield was highest in the 2008 crash and lowest in the 2000 tech bubble.
Now check out the absolute dividend amount (inflation-adjusted), also via Multpl:
Note that if you only buy “high-yield” stocks and “high-yield” bonds, that actually increases the chance that those yields will drop sooner or later. I am trying to reach some sort of balance where I spend the income on a “total return” portfolio.
Even the venerable Jack Bogle advocated something similar in his early books in investing. He suggested owning the Vanguard Value Index fund and spending only the dividends as way to fund retirement.
One simple way to see how much income (dividends and interest) your portfolio is generating is to take the “TTM Yield” or “12 Mo. Yield” from Morningstar (linked below). Trailing 12 Month Yield is the sum of a fund’s total trailing 12-month interest and dividend payments divided by the last month’s ending share price (NAV) plus any capital gains distributed over the same period. SEC yield is another alternative, but I like TTM because it is based on actual distributions (SEC vs. TTM yield article).
Below is a very close approximation of my most recent portfolio update. My current target asset allocation is 66% stocks and 34% bonds, and intend that to be my permanent allocation upon early retirement.
|Asset Class / Fund||% of Portfolio||Trailing 12-Month Yield (Taken 10/23/17)||Yield Contribution|
|US Total Stock
Vanguard Total Stock Market Fund (VTI, VTSAX)
|US Small Value
Vanguard Small-Cap Value ETF (VBR)
|International Total Stock
Vanguard Total International Stock Market Fund (VXUS, VTIAX)
Vanguard Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
|US Real Estate
Vanguard REIT Index Fund (VNQ, VGSLX)
|Intermediate-Term High Quality Bonds
Vanguard Intermediate-Term Tax-Exempt Fund (VWIUX)
|Inflation-Linked Treasury Bonds
Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities Fund (VAIPX)
If I had a $1,000,000 portfolio balance today, a 2.5% yield means that it would have generated $25,000 in interest and dividends over the last 12 months. (The muni bond interest in my portfolio is exempt from federal income taxes.) Some comparison numbers (taken 10/23/2017):
- Vanguard LifeStrategy Moderate Growth Fund (VSMGX) is a low-cost, passive 60/40 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.06%.
- Vanguard Wellington Fund is a low-cost active 65/35 fund that has a trailing 12-month yield of 2.48%.
These income yield numbers are significantly lower than the 4% withdrawal rate often quoted for 65-year-old retirees with 30-year spending horizons, and is even lower than the 3% withdrawal rate that I usually use as a rough benchmark. If I use 3%, my theoretical income would cover my projected annual expenses. If I used the actual numbers above, I am close but still short. Most people won’t want to use this number because it is a very small number. However, I like it for the following reasons:
- Tracking dividends and interest income is less volatile and stressful than tracking market prices.
- Dividend yields adjust roughly for stock market valuations (if prices are high, dividend yield is probably down).
- Bond yields adjust roughly for interest rates (low interest rates now, probably low bond returns in future).
- With 2/3rds of my portfolio in stocks, I have confidence that over time the income will increase with inflation.
I will admit that planning on spending only 2% is most likely too conservative. Consider that if all your portfolio did was keep up with inflation each year (0% real returns), you could still spend 2% a year for 50 years. But as an aspiring early retiree with hopefully 40+ years ahead of me, I like that this method adapts to the volatility of stock returns and the associated sequence of returns risk.