You’ve done all the right things—financially speaking, at least—in saving for retirement. You started saving early to take advantage of the power of compounding, maxed out your 401(k) and individual retirement account (IRA) contributions every year, made smart investments, squirreled away money into additional savings, paid down debt, and figured out how to maximize your Social Security benefits.

Now what? When do you stop saving and start enjoying the fruits of your labor?

Key Takeaways

  • You should start spending your nest egg once you are debt free and your retirement income covers your expenses plus any inflation.
  • Penny-pinching and denying yourself pleasures in retirement can lead to health problems, including cognitive deterioration.
  • Required minimum distributions from retirement accounts may have to be taken, but they don’t have to be spent and can even be reinvested.

Switching From Saving for Retirement to Spending in It

Many people who have saved consistently for retirement have trouble making the transition from saver to spender when the time comes. Careful saving—for decades, after all—can be a hard habit to break. “Most good savers are terrible spenders,” says Joe Anderson, CFP, president of Pure Financial Advisors, Inc. in San Diego. It’s a challenge most Americans will never face: More than half (55%) are at risk of being unable to cover essential living expenses—housing, healthcare, food, and the like—during retirement, according to a recent study from Fidelity Investments.

Fast Fact

Fifty-five percent of Americans are at risk for not being able to cover living expenses in retirement.

Even though it’s an enviable predicament, being too thrifty during retirement can be its own kind of problem. “I see that many people in retirement have more anxiety about running out of money than they had working very stressful jobs,” says Anderson. “They begin to live that ‘just in case something happens’ retirement.” 

Ultimately, that kind of fear can be the difference between having a dream retirement and a dreary one. For starters, penny-pinching can be hard on your health, especially if it means skimping on healthy food, not staying physically and mentally active, and putting off healthcare.

Being stuck in saving mode can also cause you to miss out on valuable experiences, from visiting friends and family to learning a new skill to traveling. All these activities have been linked to healthy aging, providing physical, cognitive, and social benefits.

2:10

Retirement Savings: How Much Is Enough?

Fear Is a Factor

One reason people have trouble with the transition is fear: in particular, the fear that they will outlive their savings or have medical expenses that leave them destitute. Spending, however, naturally declines during retirement in several ways. You won’t be paying Social Security and Medicare taxes anymore, for example, or contributing to a retirement plan. Also, many of your work-related expenses—commuting, clothing, and frequent lunches out, to name three—will cost less or disappear.

To calm people’s nerves, Anderson does a demo for them, “running a cash-flow projection based on a very safe withdrawal rate of 1% to 2% of their investable assets,” he says. “Through the projection they can determine how much money they will have, factoring in their spending, inflation, taxes, etc. This will show them that it’s OK to spend the money.”

In retirement it’s vital to put your needs ahead of those of your children.

Heirs Are Another Concern

Another reason some retirees resist spending is that they have a particular dollar figure in mind that they want to leave their kids or some other beneficiary. That’s admirable—to a point. It doesn’t make sense to live off peanut butter and jelly during retirement just to make things easier for your heirs.

“Retirees should always prioritize their needs over their children’s,” says Mark Hebner, founder and president of Index Fund Advisors in Irvine, Calif. “Although it is always the desire for parents to take care of their children, it should never come at the expense of their own needs while in retirement. Many parents don’t want to become a burden on their children in retirement, and ensuring their own financial success will make sure they maintain their independence.”

When to Start Spending

As there’s no magic age that dictates when it’s time to switch from saver to spender (some people can retire at 40, while most have to wait until their 60s or even 70+), you have to consider your own financial situation and lifestyle. A general rule of thumb says it’s safe to stop saving and start spending once you are debt free and your retirement income from Social Security, pension, retirement accounts, etc. can cover your expenses and inflation. Of course, this approach only works if you don’t go overboard with your spending; creating a budget can help you stay on track.

RMDS—A Line in the Sand

Even if you find it hard to spend your nest egg, you’ll have to start cashing out a portion of your retirement savings each year once you turn 70½ years old. That’s when the IRS requires you to take required minimum distributions, or RMDs, from your IRA, SIMPLE IRA, SEP IRA, and most other retirement plan accounts (Roth IRAs don’t apply)—or risk paying tax penalties. These aren’t trivial penalties: If you don’t take your RMD, you will owe the IRS a penalty equal to 50% of what you should have withdrawn. So, for example, if you should have taken out $5,000 and didn't, you’ll owe $2,500 in penalties.

If you’re not a big spender, RMDs are no reason to freak out. “Although RMDs are required to be distributed, they are not required to be spent,” Charlotte A. Dougherty, CFP, founder and managing partner of Dougherty & Associates in Cincinnati, points out. “In other words, they must come out of the retirement account and go through the ‘tax fence,’ as we say, and then can be directed to an after-tax account which then can be spent or invested as goals dictate.”

As Thomas J. Cymer, DFP, CRPC, of Opulen Financial Group in Arlington, Va., notes: If individuals “are fortunate enough to not need the funds, they can reinvest them using a regular brokerage account. Or they may want to start using this forced withdrawal as an opportunity to make annual gifts to grandkids, kids, or even favorite charities (which can help reduce the taxable income). For those who will be subject to estate taxes, these annual gifts can help to reduce their taxable estates below the estate tax threshold.” 

Note that there's a helpful tax vehicle for using RMDs to give to charity: the qualified charitable distribution (QCD). Giving your money according to this method can simultaneously take care of your RMDs and give you a tax break.

As RMD rules are complicated, especially if you have more than one account, it’s a good idea to check with your tax professional to make sure your RMD calculations and distributions meet current requirements.

The Bottom Line

You may be perfectly happy living on less during retirement and leaving more to your kids. Still, allowing yourself to enjoy some of life's pleasures—whether it’s traveling, funding a new hobby, or making a habit of dining out—can make for a more fulfilling retirement. And don't wait too long to start: Early retirement is when you’re likely to be most active.