When Retirement Comes At You Fast

Sometimes people have years to plan for retirement. And sometimes they’re forced to cram a lot of big life decisions into just a couple of weeks.

It might sound odd, but this happened last spring to a South Michigan couple in their 50s, when their company, a Big Three automaker, went through a restructuring plan and as a result offered a group of senior employees, including the couple, an early buyout plan.

The two had both been working at the company since their late teens, their entire adult lives, maxing out their 401(k) plans and preparing to retire at age 65 like everyone else. But they’d done minimal planning and now had only a matter of days to decide on the course they would take for the next several years. That meant making an overwhelming number of life-changing decisions (like whether to keep working).

With no idea what to do, they turned to Adam Blocki, an advisor at Schechter Investment Advisors in Birmingham, Mich., after getting a personal recommendation. Blocki set out to determine whether they could retire and how they would fund it—and most important, he tried to figure out how to make them feel comfortable and happy with their choices.

The couple had a healthy savings of $4.5 million in their 401(k) plans, so they were well situated financially. The funds were invested in equity index funds, with a small amount in “very vanilla bond funds,” Blocki says. But they had made no adjustments to switch some of the portfolio from equities to bonds as they aged; they held 95% of the portfolio in stocks.

As part of the retirement package, they each were offered one year’s full salary, and they each had defined benefit pension plans through the automaker valued at $475,000 and $250,000. The pension plans included health insurance at a discount rate.

“I was a little surprised that they were questioning whether they could retire because of the savings and pensions that they had amassed,” Blocki says. “But one of the main things I needed to do was make them comfortable with what seemed to them to be an overwhelming situation. We eventually had to diversify their 401(k) holdings, and I wanted them to introduce some alternatives into their portfolios using their defined benefit pension funds. Education became a major part of the two-week process.”

He met with the couple three times over the two weeks. Spoiler alert: Even though they are now happily retired, they had to make some big changes to get to this point. And they had to make some adjustments along the way.

They determined they needed $15,000 a month to maintain their current lifestyle, including a $2,500 monthly mortgage payment on their house. The mortgage has since been paid off, so that money is now free for other expenses or activities. They also no longer had to set money aside to contribute to their retirement plans, so that gave them extra spending money as well. At the same time, they had company cars before their retirement, and those would no longer be available.

“Although the mortgage has been paid, we still included it in the amount we figured for monthly expenses to give them a safety margin,” Blocki says. “Many couples experience drastic changes to their spending habits in retirement, so when running retirement projections, we like to assume a higher level of spending than they anticipate to see if the plan can still be successful with some unfavorable assumptions built in.”

For their first year of retirement (a period they’re still in), the couple is using their severance pay. At the end of the first year, they’ll begin withdrawing 4% annually from their 401(k) funds.

“The 4% withdrawal rate is a widely used rule of thumb for new retirees, and we confirmed that this was a sustainable spending level by running the retirement projections for this couple to make sure that we were comfortable with the odds of success it showed,” Blocki says.

He adds that he would have liked for the couple to invest their 401(k) money in a broader range of investments, but they are restricted for the time being. “Normally, a retiree would roll the assets in a 401(k) plan into an IRA to gain access to a wider selection of investments. However, there is a penalty for withdrawing assets from an IRA before age 59 and a half. In the meantime, the 401(k) plan allowed both of them to take withdrawals penalty-free as long as they were retired and over age 55. So the assets had to stay in the 401(k) plan. While this allowed them to withdraw some funds without penalty, it also heavily restricted how we could invest the remainder of the assets.”

He also wanted to water down the 95% stock concentration in the plan, an allocation that had worked well until that point, but now needed more diversity. He set a goal of 75% stocks for the first year and planned other shifts later. For funds outside the 401(k) plans, Blocki wanted the couple to diversify across sectors.

“I advised them to invest in some private credit and structured notes, which seemed like a radical idea for this conservative couple,” he says.

“We wanted to increase diversification with investments that were not correlated to the equities market,” he continues. “At the same time, we focused on education so they would know alternatives come with their own rewards, but also their own risks. With Schechter’s institutional knowledge of asset classes in general and of specific managers it makes us very comfortable with the risk-reward trade-off experienced when using alternatives.”

Blocki wanted the couple to be completely comfortable with these asset choices before any changes were made. Private credit investors lend money to borrowers who may have trouble accessing loans elsewhere, while private equity involves buying ownership shares in nonpublic companies. Money in these investments is usually tied up for longer periods of time. Structured notes, meanwhile, are complicated debt products that offer a variety of payouts, though they carry more risk.

Blocki’s firm, Schechter, views alternative investments as core portfolio holdings and proactively discusses these offerings with clients since alternatives can help them reach their financial goals. The average exposure to alternative investments across the firm is 30%, with the largest holdings in private credit and private equity.

The firm acknowledges in its client materials that “investors who are new to alternatives may find it difficult to invest in funds with lockups of seven years or longer, but private credit liquidity is becoming friendlier to accredited investors with the growth of interval funds.”

As of right now, Blocki says the Michigan couple hasn’t moved into alternative investments, but they might in the future. “For this couple, cash flow was not a problem, but the nature of their investments was,” he says.

Another thing Blocki had to plan for was the couple’s two adult daughters, for whom they wanted to provide a legacy. The couple owns land in Michigan, which they are adamant about saving for the daughters. They also want to have money left over at the end of what could be a long retirement to further provide for the children, Blocki says.

The next question to address was when the couple should start taking Social Security. They have deferred the decision for now, but projections indicate they should wait until age 70, Blocki says.

Since they had not seriously considered retirement before they were offered the buyout, the couple had not put a lot of thought into what they would do in retirement, and they are now making those plans.

“The bottom line was the couple wanted to hear ‘You can retire’ before they actually made such a life-changing move,” Blocki says. “They took the leap and are now both happily retired.”

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