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Surviving Market Volatility in Retirement: The Power of a Solid Cash Strategy Thumbnail

Surviving Market Volatility in Retirement: The Power of a Solid Cash Strategy

CFP in Centerville, Ohio

Retirement is meant to be a time of relaxation and enjoying the fruits of your years of labor. However, market turbulence can quickly disrupt those peaceful golden years if you don't have a smart financial strategy in place. The key is being prepared with enough cash reserves so you don't have to sell investments at the wrong time.

Having a prudent cash management approach is one of the most critical components of a retirement financial plan. When designed thoughtfully around your specific income needs, assets, and risk tolerance, a sound cash strategy can help shelter your portfolio during periods of market declines.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore how having adequate cash reserves reduces sequence of returns risk in retirement, saving you from being a forced seller when markets tumble. You’ll also discover key factors in determining your personal cash buffer amount and tips for where to park cash to keep it safe but accessible.

Key Takeaways on Managing Cash Flow in Retirement

  • Maintain 12-18 months of living expenses in readily accessible cash as a minimum buffer. Consider 2-3 years' worth early in retirement.
  • Hold cash in FDIC insured savings/money market accounts and short-term CD ladders to balance liquidity, yield, and low risk.
  • Scale cash reserves based on withdrawal rate, other income sources, risk tolerance, and asset allocation. More aggressive means bigger cash buffer.
  • Replenish cash spent from market returns during positive periods. Don't tap long-term assets if possible during sustained declines.
  • Having ample cash reduces "sequence of returns" risk and supports stable lifetime income better than selling assets when markets drop.

Why Cash Is So Vital for Retirement Income Planning

A common retirement planning goal is to generate consistent, reliable income that supports your lifestyle without worrying about running out of money down the road. Achieving that means having a handling on these two key risks:

  1. Longevity risk - The risk of outliving your assets if you don't withdraw at a sustainable rate.
  2. Sequence of returns risk - The risk of experiencing poor investment returns early in retirement, amplified by withdrawals, which can prematurely drain a portfolio.

Having a sufficient cash cushion in retirement helps minimize sequence risk by preventing the need to sell investments during periods of decline simply to generate income. Cash reserves give your portfolio time to recover losses so you don't have to lock in low values.

What Exactly Is Sequence of Returns Risk?

Sequence risk refers to the impact of short-term volatility on long-term returns when you are withdrawing funds from a portfolio. If the sequence of your returns is poor early in retirement, it magnifies the effects of volatility since you may have to sell declining investments to keep paying the bills.

This chart illustrates the striking difference two identical investors can experience based solely on the sequence of their returns:

Investor #1 Investor #2
Starts with $1M portfolio Starts with $1M portfolio
Takes $50k annual withdrawals, increasing 2% per year Takes $50k annual withdrawals, increasing 2% per year
-15% portfolio loss in Years 1-2 -15% portfolio loss in Years 10-11
Runs out of money around Year 18 Money lasts 25+ years

Even though both investors endured the same -15% loss, Investor #1 experienced it right as retirement withdrawals kicked off. By selling declining investments early on to generate income, they locked in losses and never recovered.

Investor #2 had the same experience but much later in retirement when the portfolio was larger. They avoided being a forced seller during the downturn by using a cash buffer, allowing more time for their investments to rebound before taps needed replenishing.

This demonstrates why having 2-3 years of cash on hand is so valuable. It helps mitigate sequence risk by avoiding liquidations when markets drop.

How Much Cash Should You Have in Retirement?

Financial planner in Beavercreek, Ohio

So what is the magic number for how much cash reserves you should have on hand? The general guideline financial planners use is:

12-18 months' worth of living expenses

But in retirement, it often makes sense to err on the slightly higher side, with some advisors recommending keeping 2-3 years' worth of income needs readily accessible. This gives you a larger window of time before having to sell investments at an inopportune moment should a market decline happen early in retirement.

The exact amount will depend on your personal situation, including:

  • Withdrawal Rate - If you are withdrawing more aggressively (over 4-5% of total assets yearly), then having closer to 3 years of cash is smart to be extra cautious.
  • Other Income Sources - If you have pensions, annuities, or Social Security providing guaranteed baseline income, you may feel comfortable with only 1-1.5 years of cash since you have backup funds coming in.
  • Risk Tolerance - How flexible are you if forced to reduce spending temporarily during prolonged market drops? Can you cut back discretionary costs without much pain? If not, having the full 2-3 years of cash allows more lifestyle stability.
  • Asset Allocation - The more aggressive your portfolio asset mix is (i.e. heavy equities), the larger an emergency fund you need since volatility will be higher, increasing sequence concerns. Conservative allocations can size down cash a bit.

A retirement cash reserve covers all regular, recurring expenses like housing, food, utilities, transportation, healthcare, insurance, and basic entertainment/travel.

Ideally, the cash bucket is enough to maintain your core lifestyle even if you didn't withdraw anything else from investments for 2-3 years. This allows your portfolio assets time to recover should an early retirement sequence of returns event happen.

Where To Hold Your Cash Reserves

Retirement advice in Dayton, Ohio

When it comes to placing your cash, you’ll want it stored in secure, liquid accounts that also earn a reasonable return:

High-Yield Savings Accounts

The FDIC insures these up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank. Shop around for the highest rates without sacrificing accessibility. Some of the best right now earn over 4% interest.

Money Market Mutual Funds

These invest in short-term fixed-income securities like T-Bills and CDs. Minimums are usually low ($1-3k) and while technically investment accounts, the asset values are extremely stable. Top yields today are over 4% also.

Short-Term CD Ladders

Consider laddering short-term 6-12 month CDs so each month/quarter a batch matures, keeping cash flowing while earning better rates (currently 4%+) than straight savings. Manage penalties if needed for early withdrawal.

Cash Buffer in Investment Portfolio

Some retirees hold a segment of their investment portfolio (5-15%) in cash equivalents like money markets and short-term bonds for periodic income distributions before tapping equities.

The key is spreading cash reserves over accounts/vehicles that emphasize preservation of principal but ideally generate some yield above inflation. Avoid too much idle, zero-interest cash which loses buying power over time.

Sample Scenario: Cash Strategy in Action

Let's see how this might work for Linda, a 65-year-old recent retiree with an $800k portfolio. Her annual spending goal is $50k pre-tax. Social Security will provide $20k yearly guaranteed income once she claims it at age 70. So for now, she needs to pull $30k each year from her investments to complement other income sources.

  • Linda has a moderate risk tolerance and conservative 60/40 investment asset allocation between stocks and bonds.
  • Given ongoing market volatility and 5% initial withdrawal rate ($30k / $600k investable assets), Linda's planner recommends keeping 3 full years of cash on hand as a buffer.
  • 3 years of living expenses = $90k cash target

Here is how Linda structures her cash reserves:

High Yield Savings - Holds $30k emergency fund

Money Market Fund - Keeps $60k for near-term income distributions

6-Month CD Ladder - Ladders $150k in 6-month CDs, maturing $25k every quarter

This gives Linda ample liquidity to fund living costs for 3 years without tapping her investment portfolio during a potential early retirement downturn. Her CD ladder keeps a portion of cash functioning at higher yields while retaining access in a reasonable timeframe if needed before maturity.

The result? Less pressure to sell assets like bonds or stocks at unfavorable prices just to generate retirement income. Linda has insulated herself from sequence risk which gives her more confidence in her financial plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

Still have questions about using cash strategies to better navigate retirement? Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

What if I have several years of guaranteed pension/annuity income in addition to Social Security? Should I bother with such large cash reserves?

  • If your essential, non-discretionary living expenses are fully covered by guaranteed income sources like pensions or annuities, then you likely don't need multiple years of cash. But holding 6-12 months as a contingency fund is still smart practice.

My advisor says I need to be more aggressive to hit my retirement income goals and recommends minimizing cash. What should I do?

  • Express your concerns over avoiding sequence risk, even if it means adjusting withdrawal rates/lifestyle inflation. Discuss tradeoffs of ratcheting up portfolio risk versus maintaining adequate liquidity. Get a second opinion if necessary.

How often should I monitor and replenish my cash allocation as I make withdrawals in retirement? 

  • Check cash levels at least quarterly when you take distributions. Market gains periodically need rebalancing to cash to keep adequate reserves. Target replenishing once thresholds dip below 50-75% of target.

If I'm nervous about investing, why not put everything in cash? What's the downside?

  • Holding too much in cash long-term can hurt portfolio longevity by not keeping up with inflation over decades. Losing buying power, cash hoarding also misses out on earning investment market returns in excess of inflation.

In Summary: Retirement Requires Agility

There is certainly no one-size-fits all approach to managing cash flow in retirement. Each person's situation is unique based on their income sources, risk appetite, and total assets.

The overarching principles remain:

  1. Mitigate sequence risk with ample liquidity so you aren't forced to sell declining investments too early just to generate income.
  2. Customize cash reserves to your specific retirement withdrawal plan, guaranteed incomes, asset mix, and risk capacity.
  3. Continuously monitor cash levels as you take distributions, replenishing prudently from portfolio returns.

Finding the right cash balance means your retirement income plan can better adjust to whatever the markets throw your way next. With flexibility and agility, you can confidently enjoy retirement knowing your nest egg has a cushion against short-term volatility shocks.

Here's to thriving securely on your retirement journey!

👉 If you would like to get a FREE retirement assessment, click the link to schedule your 20-minute call to start the retirement assessment process.

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