Take the risk (some of it, at least) out of your retirement

jULY 7, 2023

Will your retirement savings and income be enough to meet your needs? To understand how big a risk you face if income unexpectedly declines or expenses increase, you should know how much money you really need, and how much you can do without, if necessary.

Retirement can be a risky business: Will your retirement savings and income be enough to meet your needs? Will the market take a downturn when you can least afford it? Will declining health – yours or a loved one’s – eat away at your resources? You can’t know what’s ahead and how it will affect you, but you can plan to mitigate whatever bumps may intrude along your path to retirement.

To understand how big a risk you face if income unexpectedly declines or expenses increase, you should know how much money you really need, and how much you can do without, if necessary. That means distinguishing between your true needs and what are “merely” wants or desires. One way to prioritize your needs and wants is with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, created by psychologist Abraham Maslow to explain psychological health and human motivation.1 Use it to identify your most pressing needs so you can continue to fund them during potentially tough times. It’s one way to reduce the risk of financial shortcomings.


There are two categories of retirement risk you might face: personal risk and portfolio risk

Personal risks are those that affect you as you age, including those that concern your health and living situation. Long life is a gift, but many people worry about outliving their retirement savings. You can address this concern by delaying your retirement – and, in particular, your Social Security benefits – until age 70.

Others worry about the risk of high, unexpected healthcare costs; even with Medicare, a couple can pay $315,000 over their retirement in Medicare premiums, copays, and out-of-pocket costs.2 To reduce this risk, consider Health Savings Accounts, Medicare Supplement insurance, and long-term care insurance.

Where personal risks affect the money you need in retirement, portfolio risks deal with portfolio performance and can potentially affect the money you have to meet those needs. For example, inflation hasn’t been “a thing” in decades; now, it is, and it’s eating away at retirement savings.

To mitigate this risk, talk to your financial professional about diversifying your portfolio with commodities such as gold, real estate, floating-rate bonds, and Treasury inflation-protected securities. You’ll also want to discuss ways to mitigate stock market and global uncertainty, tax risks, and more.

With time, money, and effort, you can mitigate some but not all risks. So, which risks can, or should, you accept? How much risk can you live with? There is no single right answer to these questions. Your answers depend on your goals, on where they fall on Maslow’s Hierarchy, and on your circumstances, such as your age, years until retirement, health, and other sources of income.

Your answers will also depend on both your tolerance of risk and your capacity for it. Those might sound alike, but they’re not. Risk tolerance refers to the amount of risk you can take until your anxiety kicks in and says, “no more!” Risk capacity, on the other hand, refers to the amount of risk you can handle financially. This is another conversation to have with your financial professional. The more they know about your risk tolerance and capacity, the better they can propose retirement strategies with the right mix of assets for you.

That “mix” is a crucial concept, with broad applicability to retirement planning. To balance risk and reward, for example, you can diversify your portfolio with a mix of investments that are collectively designed to preserve your capital, generate steady income, and enable growth. Your goals, risk tolerance, and capacity aren’t the only factors that help determine the mix that’s right for you. You’ll also want to consider your age and the number of years you have until retirement.

As those numbers change from year to year, so should your mix of assets – also called “asset allocation – in your diversified portfolio. For example, in your youth, you can afford to invest mostly in stocks because their relatively high returns will grow your nest egg, while you have time to recover from periodic downturns in the market. As you age, you’ll want to invest more and more in bonds, which do a better job of preserving your savings as you get closer to retirement, albeit at the cost of slower appreciation.

Bonds aren’t the only relatively conservative asset you’ll want to pay increasing attention to as you get closer to retirement. Annuities are another retirement product that can provide protected, reliable income when you need it. They can help bridge the gap between your retirement savings and traditional sources of retirement income, such as Social Security. Long-term care insurance, which we mentioned earlier, is another dependable source of income to address sudden needs for certain types of healthcare expenses that Medicare doesn’t cover. Portfolio income insurance is another way to hedge your bets against a downturn in your portfolio’s value.

Want to learn more about risk and how you can prepare for it? Download a free copy of our white paper, Retirement planning is full of risks: Here’s how to manage them. It’s a great conversation opener for discussions with your financial professional.


What is an annuity?

Annuities are long-term, tax-deferred vehicles designed for retirement.  Variable annuities involve investment risks and may lose value. Earnings are taxable as ordinary income when distributed. Individuals may be subject to a 10% additional tax for withdrawals before age 59 ½ unless an exception to the tax is met.

1. Saul McLeod, simplypsychology.org, "Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs," April 4, 2022.

2. Stephanie Dhue and Sharon Epperson, cnbc.com, "Americans can expect to pay a lot more for medical care in retirement," May 16, 2022.


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