Physician Finances

Estimating Your Income Needs In Retirement

For many people, and most physicians, getting to a retirement age means being able to work because you want to work and not because you have to work. A year and a half ago, I wrote a 12-part post on financial planning for physicians, with one goal of saving enough for retirement. But how do you know how much money you are going to need in retirement if you stop working? There are a lot of on-line retirement income calculators but I find that they are too simplistic and can be misleading, mainly because they will ask you to make an assumption of what percent of your current income you will need in retirement – commonly 85%. What number do you use for your current income? Should you use your current pre-tax income, your current post-tax income, your current post-tax & post-retirement contribution income? There are just too many layers of financial nuance. These on-line calculators are convenient because they only take 1-2 minutes but projecting your retirement income warrants a bit more accurate analysis. I think that a relatively easy and much more confident way to estimate your retirement income needs is to make 3 calculations: determine what your current net disposable income is, what your projected retirement income will be, and what additional expenses you will likely have in retirement. It should take less than 15 minutes.

(1) Calculate your current net disposable income

The amount of money that you currently live off of is a great starting point for figuring out what you are going to need when you retire. If you are pretty happy with your current lifestyle and you can buy most of the things you really want and do most of the things you really want to do, then there is a pretty good chance that you’ll be happy in retirement if you have the disposable income that you have currently. To calculate your current net disposable income, you’ll need a few things: (a) a paycheck stub (preferably one from the end of the calendar year in December), (b) your last year’s income tax forms, and (c) a tabulation of everything that you put into retirement savings the previous year. You’ll then need to calculate the following:

  1. Your gross annual income. The easiest way to get this number is to look at your W-2 form in the box that has city income (box 18 on the W-2 form). This number will be higher than your federal income because it will include all of the money that went toward pension, 401(k), and other benefits. If  you have more than one W-2 form, then add up all of the city income numbers. If you additionally have self-employment income (reported on your federal income tax schedule C form, line 31), then add this in.
  2. Your total income taxes. Add up your federal income tax (form 1040, line 63), your state income tax, and your city income tax from the respective income tax forms from last year. You can also usually find the totals for your federal, state, and city income tax payments on your end-of-the-year paycheck stub.
  3. Your total retirement contributions last year. Look on your W-2 forms and add up any pre-tax retirement savings that you contributed to last year. This will include your portion of pension contributions (but do not include your employer’s portion of pension contributions), 401(k), 403(b), 457, etc. that will be reported on your W-2 form box 12 (typically with codes D through H) Add in any money that you put into an IRA, Roth IRA,  or SEP plan (the SEP contribution is on your federal income tax form 1040, line 28). Also add in any money that you put into your personal investments last year, such as stocks, bonds, or mutual funds.
  4. If you plan to pay off your house mortgage before you retire, then determine how much you are currently paying on your mortgage. The easiest way to do this is to multiply your current monthly mortgage payment by 12 and then subtract your annual property tax. This assumes that the bank that is holding your mortgage loan is currently paying your property taxes from the mortgage escrow account, which is usually the case. If you have other major loans (student loans, etc.) then treat them similarly.

Next, subtract your total income taxes, total retirement contributions, and mortgage payments from your gross annual income. This is your current net disposable income – essentially, what it costs you to live your current life style.

(2) Calculate your future net retirement income

This can be a little tricky and can get pretty complicated when you try to figure out which of your retirement funds are going to be income tax-free (e.g., a Roth IRA), which will be taxed at the capital gains tax rate (e.g., a mutual fund), which are going to be taxed at a regular income tax rate (e.g., a 401(k) or pension) and which will be taxed at a variable tax rate (e.g., Social Security benefits). Most people will have the largest percentage of their retirement savings in pensions and 401(k)s/403(b)s/457s. So, an easy way is to take a “worst case scenario” approach and just figure that all of your retirement savings will be subject to regular income tax. If you have a relatively large amount in non-retirement investments or in Roth accounts, then you can adjust your projected annual income taxes and capital gains taxes in retirement accordingly.

  1. If you have a pension, determine what your annual pension will be when you retire. Most pension plans (for example, State Teacher Retirement System of Ohio), will give you an annual report that will tell you what your projected annual retirement benefit will be based on when you plan to retire.
  2. Calculate the amount of money that you will have in retirement savings (other than pensions) when you retire. The easiest way to do this is to use an on-line compound interest calculator. If you know how much you have in retirement savings currently and your total retirement contributions from last year (as an estimate of what you are going to be contributing in the future), then you can get a rough idea of what to expect your retirement savings are going to be on the day that you retire. You will need to enter an estimated interest rate – if you are younger and exclusively invested in stock funds, then use 9-10%. If you are older and are more heavily invested in bond funds, then use 6-7%. If you are mid-career with a balanced retirement portfolio, then use 8%. This calculation works best if you are pretty close to retirement but if you are younger, it will underestimate your retirement fund’s future value because you will likely be adding more money to your pension or 401(k) in future years as inflation results in you having a higher annual income and higher 401(k) contribution limits.

Next, add these numbers together to get your future gross retirement income and then calculate your federal income tax – you can use a quick on-line income tax calculator to get a rough idea of your projected income tax. Do the same to estimate your state income tax. Add the estimated state and federal taxes together and subtract them from your future gross retirement income and that will give you your future net retirement income. In all likelihood, you will not need to pay city income tax on your retirement income so you won’t need to include city income tax in your calculations.

(3) Adjust for new expenses in retirement

The expense that people frequently overlook is health insurance. If you are working, the chances are that you are paying a portion of your health insurance premium and your employer is paying a portion. And it is likely that your employer is paying more than you are. The average healthcare costs per person in the U.S. is about $10,000 per person per year (this number will be lower for younger people and higher when you become older in retirement). You will also need to add in the annual costs for vision and dental insurance that are currently covered by your employer since in retirement, you will need to pick up the total cost of these premiums. If you retire before age 65, then you are going to have to purchase your own health insurance and this could cost around $18,000 for a couple. If you are over age 65, you still have to pay Medicare premiums as well as out of pocket deductibles and secondary insurance premiums.

Anticipate what you are going to be doing in retirement and factor that into your expenses. Planning on doing a lot of fishing? Then factor in the cost of  a fishing boat. Planning on doing a lot of traveling? Then factor in the cost of travel. Planning on taking up golf? Then factor in country club dues. Planning on buying a condo in Florida as a second home? Then factor in the mortgage costs.

Add up all of these projected new expenses and subtract them from your calculated future net retirement income. This will give you your future adjusted net disposable retirement income.

Is your future and current net income aligned?

Your goal is to be able to at least maintain your current lifestyle in retirement. So, you want to be sure that your current net disposable income matches your future adjusted net disposable retirement income. You’ll need to make one more calculation to determine if you are on target by adjusting for future inflation. It is not possible to know exactly what the inflation rate will be in the future since the inflation rate has historically fluctuated widely from one year to another. But use 3% annual inflation as an average. Take the current net disposable income that you calculated in (1) above and plug that into an on-line forward flat rate inflation calculator. This will tell you what your current net disposable income will be in retirement year dollars. If this number is lower than what you calculated your future net disposable retirement income to be in (3) above, then you are in great shape and you are going to have extra spending money in retirement. On the other hand, if this number is higher than your calculated future net disposable retirement income, then you are either going to have to save more for retirement or postpone your retirement date in order to maintain your current lifestyle.

Once your retirement savings plan results in equilibration between your current net disposable income and your calculated future net disposable retirement income, then you are in a perfect position for retirement. In the year that you retire, you want your current net disposable income to be aligned with your net disposable retirement income and that give you power. Power to continue to work because you want to work and not because you have to work. Power to change to a different lower-paying job that you always wanted to do but couldn’t afford to do in the past. Power to trade work for travel/hobbies/family. Retirement then becomes freedom.

April 10, 2018

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor Emeritus of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and former Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital