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Retirement Calculator: How Much Do I Need ?

Category: Financial and taxes in retirement

June 2, 2019 — One of the top Google search phrase is for retirement calculator. Or, phrased slightly differently, “how much can I spend in retirement without running out of money”.  It is a tough question, dependent on a lot of factors unique to you. The short answer is: “a lot more than you thought”.

We liken the problem to a maxim our old friend Ralph came up with on a fall camping trip. After a night when the temperature dropped, the fire died down, and we ran out of firewood well before bedtime, he came up with the solution for the next campfire.  Before it gets dark go out and collect about as much wood as you think you will need. Then go back out and gather at least that same amount again…. now you will probably be OK!

Here in this article we will address how to calculate how much you need to retire comfortably. We want to stress that people usually underestimate two related things: how much is needed, and how long they will live. To be safe, keep Ralph’s maxim in mind. We will also explain the major withdrawal techniques, and provide a list of the situations that cause people to underestimate their needs.

Calculating much do you need – the budget

The lifestyle you plan to live will determine how much you need. Step 1 is to calculate how much you are spending now, and estimate how that might change once you retire, including estimates for future medical expenses.  You probably won’t spend a whole lot less than you do now, particularly if plan to travel a lot. If you make big changes to where you live, those expenses might go down a lot.

Step 2 is to calculate how much you will have coming in from Social Security, pension (if so lucky), 401(k)/ IRA distributions, and any other investments.  Your company HR department should be able to tell you what your pension income might be. Social Security has many tools to calculate your monthly payment, depending on when you decide to take it (the longer you wait, up to age 70, the more you get).  Social Security’s Retirement Estimator is a good tool for that. For the savings and investment income portion you can use one of the withdrawal techniques  discussed below, as well as the income estimators available online at Vanguard, Fidelity, etc.

After you have done all that, you are ready for Step 3 – compare how your projected retirement income matches up to your expenses. Here is where you will find out if you are going to be short, in surplus, or right on the money.

How much will your savings provide

In this case let’s say that the entire $15,000 has to be sourced from your retirement funds.  Using the 4% rule (discussed below), you need a nest egg of $375,000 to get that amount each year. Unfortunately, most retirees haven’t saved that much. If you need $30,000 in annual investment income, your savings better total $700,000. Various withdrawal approaches might yield slightly different required amounts.

Withdrawal techniques vary

The 4% rule. The most basic approach to safely withdrawing your retirement savings is the good old 4% rule. The theory is that if you take out that percentage from your savings every year you probably won’t run out. That’s because chances are you will earn close enough to that amount from your savings and investments every year and avoid running out of capital before you die. The problem with that approach is that when it was popularized interest rates were higher – now a 2% rate on a bond or CD is pretty good! If you live to be 100 or more and this lower interest rate environment continues, you could be in trouble.

RMD approach.  The federal government has developed required withdrawal tables for 401(k) and IRA owners. Starting at 70 1/2 years of age, these Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) begin very low, 3.65%, but gradually increase, reaching 15.87% at age 100. The advantage of this approach is that is conservative – you start out slow but take out a lot as the end of life approaches.

Hybrid approach. Two experts, Sun and Wei, believe that a hybrid of the RMD strategy works even better. There retirement withdrawal approach modifies the RMD withdrawal method by suggesting you add your interest and dividend income to your annual distributions, but not capital gains. This modification gives extra income to younger retirees without jeopardizing future losses to inflation.

Why people run out of money

Not enough. The biggest problem stems from not having enough money put away in the first place. That leads people to take out more than they should early on, which reduces returns and principal. Discipline is key – have a budget for how much you can take out each year and stick to it.

Relatives and friends. You might have adult children or grandchildren that need financial help. Giving (or loaning) them more than you can afford to might help them (or not), but it could severely cramp your financial future. Our recommendation is to be cautious here.

Medical needs. Experts agree the expense that is most often underestimated is medical.  Medicare and supplemental premiums will go up.  Deductibles can become very high, particularly if you have a serious medical situation. You might exceed a reimbursement limit. Many prescription drugs are frightfully expensive. If you have to have nursing care or go into a nursing home or rehab you could blow through a lot of savings in a hurry. If we are lucky we will get old, and if we get old the odds are we are going to have medical issues. Bottom line: leave plenty of room in your budget for medical.

Expense Control. There are things you can do to lower your expenses, and most of those center around your housing. If money is going to be tight, consider moving to a home that costs less to maintain and operate, and/or in a more affordable area.

Bottom line

Ultimately, calculating how much you need for retirement depends on what kind of lifestyle you hope to have. Knowing how much you need to retire in advance is one of the best planning decisions you can make for retirement.

For further reading

Goodbye 4% Rule

What is Your Number

Comments?  What is your formula to calculate how much is enough for retirement? Do you estimate you will get to your target number, or did you already? Please share your experiences in the Comments section below so we can all learn from one another.

Posted by Admin on June 1st, 2019


  1. When estimating what we think we’ll need husband and I looked at what we thought would be 3 phases of retirement – assuming one or both of us will survive into our 90s (and that there will an average inflation rate of about 2 – 4 %). Early retirement (up to about 78 or so), mid retirement (perhaps up to 88 +/-) and late retirement. And for each phase we considered what we think we’ll be spending and what the spending pitfalls might be and how to best try to avoid those pitfalls like the temptation to way overspend on all sorts of things. We assume that as we move to mid retirement we’ll spend more time at home and activity costs will decline but we’ll have to spend more of hiring people to do house/yard work, etc. and in late retirement we do expect the costs will increase to cover some sort of long term care. TO try to minimize future health expenses we make sure to follow all recommendations for screenings and preventative care, and also live a lifestyle our friends describe as “health nuts”.

    by Jean — June 2, 2019

  2. It also depends on cost of living in the state you live in on how much money you will need.

    Here is a list of states that show lowest to highest cost of living:

    by Louise — June 2, 2019

  3. Thanks for the COLA for each state. They did not seem to include taxes, i.e., real estate, personal property, sales, earnings, income or licensing fees for automobiles for each state. That can make a big difference.

    by Joyce — June 3, 2019

  4. In this article we report on Kiplinger’s list of the “Cheapest States to Retire“, if that is your chief objective.

    by Admin — June 3, 2019

  5. Jean, you bring up a good point about the likelihood of needing different amounts for various needs during phases of retirement.

    Because my husband is delaying SS until age 70, our situation is further complicated by lower income during the earlier, more expensive, stage of retirement.

    Would you share how you arrived at your forecasted needs for the three stages you identified and what you came up with? If phase one is 50K per annum, for instance, do you expect to need 20% less in phase two and 50% more in phase three?

    So far my budgetary challenges have been the large expenses, some unexpected, others not. We need to replace an aging gas-guzzling SUV, have had to do some major home repairs, etc.

    Spending more time at home also tends to make one look at the house a bit more critically and think things like, “It would sure be nice to replace this ten year old carpeting with wood floors.” and “Hmm… this bathroom is really out of date. I wonder how much it would cost to bring it out of the 80s and into the 21st century.”

    Anybody else going through this?

    by JCarol — June 4, 2019

  6. Yes, JCarol. I am currently having work done under my house due to standing water. Very expensive and definitely not in the “budget. I feel your pain. I, too look around at all the needed updates that need to be done to my home. Truth is I really want to downsize, but my husband is reluctant. We both still work part time and draw state retirement checks along with Social Security. So not that much has changed as far as the day to day budget. We would like to put off drawing our retirement savings as long possible. We will continue to save in our emergency fund for those unexpected expenses.

    by Sharon — June 4, 2019

  7. JCarol, When arriving at our thoughts the first thing we did was just look at our families. I had 3 grandparents who lived into their late 90s, my mother made 98 and m-I-l is 95 and grew up in the same town they all lived in so saw how they aged and managed their finances (they were too old to even have SS!) and on our own experience so far ( I retired at 55 to spend time with mom and he retired at 60 ). Thinking about how the old relatives fared sort of gave us their idea of three phases. As for the amounts needed, that’s just an educated guess. Our role models offered both ideas on what to do and what to avoid. For example, my m-i-l NEVER thought she’d live and be active as long as she is and consequently spent like crazy after f-i-l died. She liked to spend her money on family vacations every summer (and it’s a big family) and for a number of years, an annual trip to a Broadway show every winter, etc. etc. etc. It’s now to the point that the children (or those who can) will have to start supporting her. To contrast, my mother was very fugal with her money; the lifestyle she learned growing up in the depression never left her, and it was a good thing – my sister and I took over her finances when she was in her late 80s and she was able to live in her own home (as she wanted) till the end – the last 7 years with a live in aide and she still left a nice estate.

    Another thing that helped project is my husbands “hobby” (ocd? LOL) of tracking everything we spend in a pc software program that ‘he’s done since we got a home PC back in the 1990s. He can make pie charts that show how much we spend (or spent) on food, eating out, vacations, clothing, you name it! From that we saw a big drop in spending after we each retired and he can model “what if” to project future stuff. LOL, it IS his hobby and it got worse after he retired (he was a software engineer with an MBA in finance.)

    Of course there always are unexpected events that can hit your wallet! But that’s something we have always planned for! As for the idea that spending more time at home getting ideas of putting lots of money into the house, I would put that under the “temptations” list and be very careful about going crazy with those things if they dont fit into a budget (or not something we can do ourselves as a sort of hobby) and would require tapping into an emergency fund or our “long term care” fund – those investments are low risk but have some growth and wll never be touched except for their purpose if needed.

    by jean — June 5, 2019

  8. Joyce, I found this article which might help you with the question about taxes and such as they relate to retirees.

    by Curt — June 5, 2019

  9. Kiplinger’s tax ratings are garbage. They rate Indiana as “least tax friendly” and Illinois as “mixed” simply because Illinois does not tax 1099-R income (yet). We moved from Illinois to Indiana and our total state and local tax burden DROPPED by $6,000 per year even though my pension and IRA distributions were now taxed. How? Our income taxes did increase by about $1,500 per year. Our property taxes, however, dropped by a whopping $7,500 per year (same size house, both suburban locales). Overall, sales taxes are slightly lower in Indiana because most Illinois cities add on their own sales tax which brings the number often to well over 8% which more than makes up for the Indiana auto excise tax. People (including retirees) are leaving Illinois in droves, many for Indiana. Maybe Kiplinger should run some realistic numbers before making comparisons that make them look stupid. In a state like Illinois they should probably separate the Chicago area from downstate since costs and property taxes are completely different and looking at an overall average is meaningless.

    by JD — June 5, 2019

  10. My strong suggestion is to determine expenses in retirement……and then add about 10-15% to that number to account for those totally unanticipated expenses. They are unanticipated, but we all know that they will occur.

    by John Sarnow — June 5, 2019

  11. I am 78, wife 68. We live in Summerville, SC. 2 of our 4 children live here. We live on 2 SocSec checks and 1 pension check. After taxes and health insurance, we have $5000/month to live on. The total of our other expenses are $2200 including a car payment and mortgage. We have always lived on less than our income. We have a very, very low 6 figure savings account. Probably because we like to travel. And we travel at least one week a month.
    We use 1 credit card, for points, and pay it off when we get the bill.
    The key to living in retirement is the same as when we were working- live below your income. Kids all graduated from private universities debt free. We paid for tuition, fees and room. If they wanted to eat or wear clothes, they had to get a job. All did. And all are now “blowing us out of the water” on how well they are doing.
    Retirement is simple for us since we live below our income.

    by Jack — June 5, 2019

  12. Jack, Good Show! Some similarities, but we have no mortgage and never buy on credit except for “zero interest” loans (2 — one now paid, the other small). Watch the fine print on those.

    Jean,. I would love to have a long discussion with your husband. We share the same “OCD? LoL” hobby. I’m a retired software engineer who took lots of accounting, finance, etc. courses. One specialty was spreadsheets and mine has correctly helped us manage 16 years in retirement including modeling “what If”.

    In contrast to your thoughts, for the first time this year we have invested heavily in home improvements — mainly to resolve issues that were tending toward “money pit”. Given my family history, I wanted to be able to leave my wife with a “turnkey” sale. Unfortunately, that also sucked in most of our 50th anniversary savings. But rest assured we are having a nice 50th and the house now helps with this. At this point it’s all working for us and per the above “what if”, these extras can be managed. Now back to our regularly scheduled budget planning/management. ?

    by RichPB — June 5, 2019

  13. Jack. Same with me. I retired at 56 and after a lifetime of saving for retirement I seem to forget that I have been retired now for 14 years and put of habit still don’t spend as much as my income. Which by the way is low compared to many here.The key is to not want useless material things, and so much of what people buy is useles. I’ve always traveled a lot throughout life, and it always cracks me up to see articles on travel telling you good places to shop. For what? I already have everything I need at home.
    The English author Dickens supposedly said his father have this advice. 19 pounds income 20 pounds expenditures misery. 19 pounds income 18 pounds income bliss. Now I no doubt didn’t that accurate which is why I didn’t put it in quotations, so any Dickens scholars here don’t have to correct me lol! The point is he knew you can’t spend more than you make. Also a good look at inflation. 19 pounds income?

    by Bob — June 6, 2019

  14. Bob and RichPB: thank you for your comments. I retired at 62+. At the time our youngest was 14. When I went to the SS office they informed me that I would get additional income until she turned 18. I was stunned! Is America a great country or what? Her check began around $1200/month. We used half for our budget and put the other half in her college fund. That amounted to almost $30,000 after 4 years with interest. Put us “over the top” for her funding which was our greatest fear when wife and I discussed my retirement. Especially since we just put 2 through college and had 1 currently in. So, in the end, I had a p/t job netting $600/mo that made the segue into retirement virtually seamless. P/T job was 16-18 hours a week.
    But that allowed us to continue to live well below our full net retirement income.

    by Jack — June 6, 2019

  15. Note: We moved several comments about when to take Social Security to a different post in an attempt to keep this closer to the topic at hand.

    by Admin — June 6, 2019

  16. Thank you Kurt!

    by Joyce Sanders — June 6, 2019

  17. Agree with Bob that “shopping” is not necessarily a good attribute of traveling. At this point in our retired life, we are definitely trying to GET RID of things rather than acquiring them!

    by Clyde — June 7, 2019

  18. Although, I don’t usually shop on a vacation, except for a souvenir polo shirt I buy on each trip, my wife does shop. However, it is not for her. She like to buy things for the grandchildren, especially for their birthdays and Christmas. She also enjoys to haggle with the vendors. It’s kind of a sport for her.

    by LS — June 8, 2019

  19. For many people traveling and shopping are intertwined. To each their own!!

    by Bubbajog — June 8, 2019


    by Louise — July 3, 2019

  21. Thanks for posting that link, Louise. While the article is definitely worth the couple of minutes it takes to read it, the more interesting part of that page is the comments. I agree with what most of those remarks.

    by JCarol — July 3, 2019

  22. Very Interesting – I wonder why Oregon was so high? I didn’t expect it to be that amount.

    by JoannL — July 4, 2019

  23. I think the Marketwatch story is useless. There are wide variations in the cost of living in each state. The few comments I saw were telling. Can’t comment there because I’m not a registered user.

    by Linda — July 4, 2019

  24. J says: “the majority of people living in Washington, DC are not retiring (ON sic) anywhere near $100,000 per year.”

    J – the article STATED: “To retire comfortably there (DC), you will need to spend upwards of … especially considering its high housing and grocery costs … according to an analysis by personal finance site … the analysis looked at consumption expenditures of Americans aged 65 and older for items like groceries, housing (includes utilities and housekeeping), transportation, health care and more; it then adjusted those figures to every state’s itemized cost of living index, and added an additional 20% savings buffer (so you can retire comfortably)… (HELLO!!!) the reality for most of us is likely to be much different.”

    “Americans are facing a shortfall of retirement income (because) their saved assets are not enough to fund their desired or even current lifestyle,” says James Carlson, chief investment officer at Questis, a financial services firm based in Charleston, South Carolina.”

    Median household income, 65 and older in WDC = $47,906
    Median household income, ages 45-64 = $71,558
    WDC average = 66.95%
    The national average is 60.27%.

    by Rich — July 5, 2019

  25. My husband and I are nearing retirement (I’ll be 66 in November) or past retirement age (he’s 72) but still work full time. We upsized our home 3 years ago to accommodate a visiting growing family with grandchildren. We have a mortgage but make enough income to cover expenses while working. We made a sizeable down payment so it will be nearly paid off once we sell our first home–that is a nightmare situation with very bad, non-paying tenants we are working with a lawyer. We have a 401K, 403b, some savings, life insurance, etc. I do not mind working and he dreads retirement. Our kids are financially successful and have promised to manage our care and finances when we are unable to. Hope that never happens but as a nurse, I know it is more likely than not.

    by Jo — July 12, 2019

  26. Those of you who keep spreadsheets of your retirement expenses have my admiration and respect! I tried it for two years and found it was sooooo much work. And with 3 dogs, two with special medical needs, it was getting depressing to see I was spending more on them each year than on vacation. Also was hard to break out groceries for me from groceries for the dogs since I home cook for them. So now what I do is just keep running track of total expenditures each month (what did I start with in the bank, how much was added, and what did I end with), with a comment when I have an extraordinary expenditure (new AC, major roof repair, etc., property tax payment, LTHC payment) so that I know it’s not a normal monthly expense. You would think that as a finance MBA and tax geek I would love spreadsheets, but I had my fill of them while working and just can’t face them anymore. 🙂

    by JoannC — November 3, 2020

  27. Thanks for the strokes, JoannC. The spreadsheet WAS significant work when first established in 2003-4.

    I hope this long post from 18 years of retirement management on an originally small budget with limited resources may help others trying to plan.

    Mostly the spreadsheet development was compiling and documenting income, expenses and “educated guesses” about future changes — things most people have to (or should) consider when making retirement decisions. The spreadsheet itself was a matter of recording info and guesses in a way that could be easily changed (inflation, medical and insurance guesses, etc.) and extending the projections out to age 100 (which showed that our resources would not last that long :<). Within a few years, I had added a sheet that accepted input of most of these changes/guesses (such as base inflation, investment growth rate and about 25 other items). The sheet was more complex at the beginning as it allowed draw down and adjustment from various sources (savings, IRA, investments) and income (primarily SocSec), but it became simpler as resources depleted. It also provided for estimating taxes (guessing) which proved to be way more difficult than expected — especially when we reached RMD. My practice of being conservative (inflation at 3% — a changeable item and trying to minimally over-estimate expenses helped). With budgeting (we save receipts for everything, my wife tracks the expenses, I manage the spreadsheet and compare budget to expenses quarterly. Every December, I update the sheets based on new situations including investments. Because of my conservative approach, this usually involves improved investment results. Over the years, the original sheet became additional sheets. One considers my possible premature death and where that would leave my wife. Another considers the sale of our home and renting or downsizing. The latter has gotten a lot of use in recent years (including last month), but we have so far ended up deciding that there is no place like home.

    We track pet expenses separately even if it means making dog purchases a separate billing (receipt). Based on experience with 19 dogs, dog medical is a large projected expense. We plan for a new vehicle every seven years, a new laptop for each every three years, replacement of major appliances per best guess, home upkeep and improvement separately, and have even included a worldwide cruise at 80 (not likely at this point).

    We started with a total of a few hundred thousand in resources plus a fully paid home and a budget of $40K annually. Reasonable budgeting, tracking and decent mutual fund investments over years have improved our position. We never over spent the budget without doing "what if" on the spreadsheet. We have decent health insurance (though dubious health) and long term care.

    There's much more to it, but it only takes a few hours a month to manage costs. And every person will have different requirements and different ways to manage.

    by RichPB — November 4, 2020

  28. Long gets longer. I meant to add that my change input sheet for inflation, house value, investment rate etc. Also includes a gragh of our projected resources and budget to 100. So. if the input for base inflation changes from 3 to 4 percent, the graph shows our resources running out that much sooner, etc. This is our primary what-if tool.

    Also, every budget item in the main sheet has a separate column for its inflation rate — either the base inflation or a rate consistent with our recent experience. For example, our medical insurance inflation rate has been as high as 15% some years to currently 5%. That rate is projected out to age 100 and is one of the typical December updates.

    by RichPB — November 4, 2020

  29. I guess I have just a basic spreadsheet. I pretty much just keep track of our income and assets. I have projected out pension and annuity payments. So far we’re on disability and insurance payments and when they end, we will begin pension and annuity payments to cover our monthly expenses.
    I have a book where I keep track of the bills and I did create a separate spreadsheet to keep track of the utility bills so I can give that to the home buyer when we ultimately move. I follow the market and update the investment account totals almost daily. I figure, if we don’t dip into savings before the next deposit, we’re doing okay. We use cash and and we know we’ll need some savings for home improvements or a trip – when we can travel again.
    I remember that our financial advisor asked if they created a budge, would I follow it and I emphatically said, “no.” I tried once – was a disaster BUT, I have a system that has worked for me all these years and we were able to retire comfortably and have everything we need. However it works for you – it really helps to stay organized!

    by Myquest55 — November 5, 2020

  30. I do a simple spreadsheet and update it as needed. It has helped me. My budget has worked so far so long as I do not go overboard on variables like groceries. So far I have what I need. I am able to save a bit each month. Yesterday I replaced my garbage disposal and I know that things like that will need to be accounted for. I am gentle on appliances and do not get computerized bells and whistles that might require costly repairs. My last garbage disposal was installed in January 2008, so it had a good run. The spreadsheet lets me see at a glance what I have been spending and is a good tracking tool for me.

    by Jennifer — November 6, 2020

  31. I do admit to being a bit odd. Algebra intrigued me with what you can do with numbers. I loved balancing equations in chemistry. Even accounting thrilled me with the control offered. Trig defeated me. Calculus made my brain hurt trying to master it. When I discovered spreadsheets, it was a new world and I still think it’s fun to use to manage my life. I didn’t trust the online retirement calculators because I couldn’t see what went on behind them. For years now my spreadsheet has verified them, so feel free to go that way. :<)

    by RichPB — November 6, 2020

  32. RichPB – well, you’ve given me the motivation to try it again in the new year. Perhaps if I combine expense categories so that I’m not tracking costs in 37 different categories (five of which are for the dogs alone), it will be less daunting. If we have another year of Covid, it will be a much easier year to track – no vacations, no eating out, no tickets for various events.

    by JoannC — November 7, 2020

  33. JoannC, we track 82 different categories/subcategories via receipts. My wife uses Quicken to manage the expenses, generate quarterly status reports and provide annual tax info. If I were tracking on Excel, I would use as separate sheet for category inputs. Simple depends on expertise with the tool.

    These are our categories/subcategories in case they help anyone. Items that don’t apply at this time (like RV) are shown with “0” cost.

    Unantic. Exp. (in a given year)
    Auto or Transport
    Service charges
    Car Payment or Transport
    Bank Charge
    1/3 New computer (budgeted, but only spent every 3 years)
    Movies, music, etc.
    Misc Entertainment
    Gifts Given
    Misc Gifts
    Groceries, etc.
    Home Improvement
    Home Repair/Maint
    New Appliance (planed)
    Yard Work/Maint Fee
    General Expenses
    Home Owner/Renter Ins.
    Liability Insurance
    Life Insurance
    Long Term Care Ins.
    Investment Expense
    Medical (some items rouped under Med Ins.)
    Med Ins
    Dent Insurance
    Prescrip Ins
    Vis Ins
    Personal Care
    Health Related
    Misc Pers (cosmetics,etc)
    Hottub Upkeep
    Dog Food
    Dog Discretionary
    Dog Medical
    HOA Fees
    Car/Property Tax
    Satellite TV
    Verizon Phone/Data
    Trash Collection

    by RichPB — November 10, 2020

  34. I’m working now but planning for the end game. My plan is no debt, house paid off, Travel trailer paid off, all autos paid off, plus some other toys paid off. Well I was there actually debt free at age 50; wife is a home person never held a income earning job. I max out 401K , HSA accounts and just save in a IRA. Currently I see what paycheck I’m left with every week to live on as its been working for many years. I just plan on just doubling that amount for my withdraw in retirement from my investments and ensure it grows with inflation. That way my spending power stays the same. I should be good to go by age 57 I figure. That is unless I’m looking at this retirement game wrong..

    by Ty — August 23, 2021

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