One of my favorite lines came from the movie, A League of Their Own. In the film, Tom Hanks plays the role of a reluctant manager of a women’s baseball team during WWII. In a totally sexist scene, one of his players expressed emotional vulnerability on the field. Dumbfounded, Hanks popped out of the dugout declaring that “There’s no crying in baseball! There’s no crying in baseball!”
Having worked with retirees for over two decades now, I feel similarly about retirement. While I’m hopefully more empathetic in my delivery, there really is no failure in retirement, either. It’s just not how it works in reality.
Over the years, financial planners have been given some pretty good retirement modeling software to help clients map out their future. While the mathematical basis of a client’s future income and investment returns has been pretty solid, the modeling of how they actually spend money in retirement has always left something to be desired.
For anyone who has ever had the pleasure of reviewing a typical retirement model produced by financial planning software, the language of “success” and “failure” has likely struck you as both alarming and silly. When most retirees face particularly difficult future scenarios, such as a deep bear market or an unfortunate stretch of lower-than-expected investment returns, they don’t just blindly spend themselves off a cliff. They actually talk, think, prioritize and adjust.
Worse yet, the sophisticated modeling of thousands of future outcomes of your retirement years, known as a Monte Carlo simulation, often shows an absurdly wide variation of possible outcomes. These outcomes range from you running out of money to watching your portfolio grow into the stratosphere! At both extremes, you are assumed to spend more and more each year in retirement, as if you are an unthinking robot.
Then, in an unhelpful summary, the final report shows that your retirement dreams have a 75% chance of “success” along with a heart-stopping 25% chance of “failure.” Ready to hang it up, and with the odds seemingly in your favor, you cross your fingers and decide to retire.
Of course, it’s a known fact that real retirees aren’t robots at all. I’m pretty sure I haven’t met one! In reality, the description of success and failure in retirement is more accurately about accepting the possibility of needing to make some spending adjustments as your future actually unfolds.
So, rather than modeling the impossibility of blindly driving off the cliff, the more helpful plan is to establish and monitor portfolio-level guardrails and then use them to proactively nudge things safely back on the road to the goal. Based on my experience working with living, breathing human beings, that’s exactly how retirement looks in the real world.