What Is the Safe Withdrawal Rate (SWR) Method?

The safe withdrawal rate (SWR) method is one way that retirees can determine how much money they can withdraw from their accounts each year without running out of money before reaching the end of their lives.

The safe withdrawal rate method is a conservative approach that tries to balance having enough money to live comfortably with not depleting retirement savings prematurely. It is based largely on the portfolio’s value at the beginning of retirement.

Key Takeaways

  • The safe withdrawal rate (SWR) method calculates how much a retiree can draw annually from their accumulated assets without running out of money prior to death.
  • The SWR method employs conservative assumptions, including spending needs, the rate of inflation, and how much annual return investments will return.
  • One problem with SWR is that it projects economic and financial conditions at retirement to continue as-is into the future, when in fact they can change in the years or decades after retirement.

How Much Should Retirees Withdraw From Accounts?

The Safe Withdrawal Rate Method Explained

Figuring out how to use your retirement savings isn’t easy because there are so many unknowns, including how the market will perform, how high inflation will be, whether you will develop additional expenses (such as medical), and your life expectancy. The longer you expect to live, the faster you could draw down your savings; in addition, the worse the market performs, the more likely you are to run out of money.

The safe withdrawal rate method tries to prevent these worst-case scenarios from happening by instructing retirees to take out only a small percentage of their portfolio each year, typically 3% to 4%. Financial experts recommended safe withdrawal rates have changed over the years as experience has illustrated what really works and what doesn’t work and why.

Knowing what safe withdrawal rate you’d like to use in retirement also informs how much you need to save during your working years. If you want an SWR of 4%, you need to save more than if you want an SWR of 3%. The rate you choose affects how aggressively you need to save and how long you need to work.

Limitations of the Safe Withdrawal Rate Method

A shortcoming of the safe withdrawal rate method is that depending on when you retire, the economic conditions can be very different from what initial retirement models assume. A 4% withdrawal rate may be safe for one retiree yet cause another to run out of money prematurely, depending on factors such as asset allocation and investment returns during retirement.

In addition, retirees don’t want to be overly conservative in choosing a safe withdrawal rate because that will mean living on less than necessary during retirement when it would have been possible to enjoy a higher standard of living. Ideally, though this is rarely possible because of all the unpredictable factors involved, a safe withdrawal rate means having exactly $0 when you die, or if you want to leave an inheritance, having exactly the sum you want to bequeath.

Alternatives to the Safe Withdrawal Rate Method

People often make the mistake in retirement that they continue spending too much even at times when their portfolio is down. This results in possibility of failure (POF) rates, or the percentage of simulated portfolios that fail to last to the end of one’s expected retirement.

An alternative to the safe withdrawal rate method is dynamic updating—a method that, in addition to considering projected longevity and market performance, factors in the income you might receive after retirement and reevaluates how much you can withdraw each year based on changes in inflation and portfolio values.