Financial Independence: Calculating Your FI Number and How Points Help
Some of you may have read my previous Financial Independence (FI) articles and thought “That’s all great, but how much do I need to retire?” Others may notice banks, commercials, family members, and co-workers are giving out unsolicited advice on how much you need to retire. But determining your FI number is highly personal. Luckily, the Trinity Study provides a handy rule that each of you can apply to your unique situation to determine your FI number. Let’s talk about the Trinity Study, the 4 Percent Rule, calculating your FI number, and how points can help.
The Trinity Study and the 4 Percent Rule
Based on a 1998 paper by three finance professors at Trinity University, the Trinity Study is also referred to as the “4 Percent Rule.” Part of the study attempts to determine “safe withdrawal rates” from retirement portfolios that contain stocks. Safe withdrawal rate is the maximum rate you can spend your retirement savings while not running out of savings during your lifetime. The study reflects that a person has sufficient savings in assets if 4 percent of the individual’s assets are sufficient to cover one year’s expenses.
Determining Your FI Number
First, identify how much you spend annually – on everything. Take that number and multiply it by 25. By using 25, you are following an exact 4 percent safe withdrawal rate. For example purposes, let’s pretend that you spend $50,000 annually.
$50,000 * 25 = $1.25 million
Others are more conservative with their estimates for what they will need in retirement and trend to a 3% rule. Instead of multiplying by 25, we would multiply by (100/3), or 33.3. We’ll use the same $50,000 example:
$50,000 * 33.3 = $1.665 million
Others are more confident and may choose to follow a 5% rule, which ends up with the following calculation:
$50,000 * 20 = $1 million
I tend to follow the exact 4 percent rule, which turns out to be plenty for the Trinity Study’s worst-case scenario in the 65-year period they covered.
But Is That Really Your FI Number?
I would imagine you used what you currently spend annually as the basis for calculating your FI number above. But, to more accurately determine your FI number, you should use your projected annual spending in retirement. Great news – you have so much control in decreasing this number! You can move to a lower cost of living area, you can downsize your home, and you can cut expenses in so many other ways. Using the above example, if you lower your annual spending by just $10,000 to $40,000 annually, a 4 percent safe withdrawal rate results in an even $1 million FI number. That’s a 20% decrease!
Consider your future goals, retirement location, and spending, then apply the 4 Percent Rule again to determine a more accurate FI number.
Trinity Study Assumptions
As Mr. Money Mustache highlights in his excellent 2012 article on safe withdrawal rates and the 4 Percent Rule, the Trinity Study includes noteworthy assumptions. These assumptions are music to FI’ers’ ears. The study assumes that a retiree will:
- Not earn any more money
- Never collect social security or a pension
- Not adjust spending, like during a recession
- Never collect an inheritance from parents or other family members
- Not spend less as he/she ages
In reality, though, I, and many of you, will experience the opposite of at least one or all of the above! For instance, after reaching FI, I’ve worked seasonally a few times for the fun of it. Also, while I did not incorporate these into my safe withdrawal rate calculations, I do have a pension that kicks in when I’m older, and I expect to collect some form of social security (even if it ends up being small). I bet most, if not all, of us are making a few spending adjustments due to the current COVID-19 challenge, as well. And so on down the list! Basically, these assumptions highlight all of the various safety nets to the 4 Percent Rule.
How Points Can and Do Help
In my second Path to Financial Independence article, I shared what I would do if I was starting over. I mentioned that I would convert more of my credit card rewards to cash for saving and investing. Many of you can do this now! Most travel rewards currencies can be transferred into some form of cash. Reflect on your goals beyond travel, if you haven’t done so already. If you would like to save and invest more, consider dipping into your travel rewards for an immediate financial boost.
Also, using your points and miles can substantially, and almost totally (for me), defray your travel expenses. I maximize my travel freedom while traveling close to free. In retirement, I have a more fulfilling life of travel without it becoming a significant, or even noticeable, expense in my annual spending. In short, points and miles are enriching my life as an effective complement to my savings and investments. We will dive into these dynamics more in future articles.
If you are interested in achieving FI, crunch the numbers! The 4 Percent Rule is a great guideline to get you started. It was for me, and I continue to refine and recalculate annually. Remember to reflect on your goals for travel and beyond as you determine your future spending and calculate accordingly. The importance and impact of cutting unnecessary expenses is magnified even further as you make these calculations. Have fun!