TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Estimating Retirement Spending
- Determining Total Savings Needed
- Calculating Required Savings
- Prioritizing Retirement Savings by Account
- Interpreting the Personalized Retirement Plan Projection Chart
Betterment provides financial advice in our Digital service and through our advisors who clients can contact over the phone or via email (using the Betterment Premium plan or advice packages). In both cases, we have a standard methodology that incorporates research and economic circumstances.
Betterment permits clients to provide additional information relating to their retirement goals in order to set up a personalized retirement plan (“PRP” or “retirement plan goal”) and provide more complete retirement planning advice. Here, we provide an overview of our financial planning methodology for PRP goals. Please note, retirement goals that are not part of a personalized retirement plan are not subject to these assumptions, and instead are treated the same as other Betterment advice goals, as described in Betterment’s Goal Projections and Advice Disclosure. For example, if a client has a Betterment IRA retirement goal that is not part of a PRP, the IRA retirement goal advice is consistent with Betterment’s projections and advice for other investing goals, such as General Investing.
PRP goals have more complex advice and assumptions. Betterment’s retirement planning advice factors in other variables, such as the impact of Social Security, other income streams like rental real estate, as well as future spending, tax rates, and inflation, as described below.
Retirement Planning Considerations
There are several considerations clients should be aware of when making retirement planning decisions. These include various federal tax benefits, account types, portfolio construction decisions, asset management strategies, economic forecasting, and insights from behavioral economics. Based on these considerations, Betterment’s PRP goals consider the following inputs in projecting your estimated retirement needs:
- Projecting an estimate of your desired spending in retirement
- Determining the total pre-tax savings amount you’ll likely need to achieve that spending level with high confidence
- Calculating how much you should save during each period prior to retirement
- Prioritizing which retirement savings vehicles are likely to be most efficient
Betterment may update its retirement planning methodology for PRP goals, as regulations change or as retirement planning methods improve.
2. Estimating Retirement Spending
How much you would like to spend during your retirement is one of the most important drivers of your retirement plan, but it is often the hardest part to predict. Betterment’s retirement planning methodology focuses on how much you’ll need to spend (or consume), rather than your pre-tax income, because pre-tax income that is subsequently taxed does not help you maintain your lifestyle.
Betterment uses several factors to help you estimate your spending when you retire, including how your earned income will grow over time, what the local cost of living will be like, and what your spending habits look like before retirement. In this section, we’ll describe our methodology for anticipating each of these factors when making client recommendations.
A. Growth of Real Earned Income
How much you spend is strongly related to how much you earn, but your income could change during your life for multiple reasons, including job promotions and inflation. Betterment models real growth of your annual pre-tax income as the first step to estimating consumption at retirement. A young worker with 40 years ahead of them should plan on earning more just before they retire.
Betterment uses the current pre-tax income provided by you, and then, by default, estimates that the growth of your annual income will outpace inflation by 1% per year. You can modify this assumption if you’d like.
B. Cost of Living for Where You Retire
While it’s common to retire where you lived during your working years, some people plan to retire somewhere else. By default, we assume you’ll continue to live where you do now (using the ZIP code you specify in your user profile), but if you’re expecting to move somewhere less or more expensive, you can specify a ZIP code to help you estimate that new cost of living. It can be enlightening to learn how much less you need to save if you move somewhere less expensive in retirement. We assume that the cost of living in that ZIP code will be the same at the time you retire as it is now, adjusted for inflation.
C. Spending Prior to Retirement
It can be difficult to predict exact expenses in retirement. We assume that, during retirement, you’ll want to maintain the standard of living you had just before you retired, which means consuming the same amount (adjusted for your new zip code, if different from your current). Although you may no longer have a mortgage or be supporting children, those expenses are typically replaced by new activities or hobbies, as well as travel and medical expenses. While you are saving, your finances can be described simplistically as:
Net Income = (Gross Income - Pre-tax savings) * (1 - Average Tax Rate)
Spending = Net Income - Post-tax Savings
However, we need a way to estimate how much of your income you save. Generally at low income levels you consume a higher proportion of your income, but as net income rises that proportion falls. That relationship is modeled by our Average Propensity to Consume (APC).
Consumption Ratio = APC * (Net Income)
Spending = Net Income * Consumption Ratio
Our goal is to deliver the same amount of spending in retirement as just before retirement. Critically, once you're retired, you're no longer saving, so you don't need as much income to support the same level of consumption. Your APC goes to 100%.
Net Income = (Gross Income) * (1 - Average Retirement Tax Rate)
Consumption = Net Income * 1
As a result, you enter a positive cycle — you need less gross income for the same amount of consumption because:
- You aren't saving before tax.
- As you take less gross income, your average tax rate falls, as well.
Net Income = (Gross Income) * (1 - Average Retirement Tax Rate)
This model allows us to model how much gross income (pre-tax) you need in retirement to actually experience the same living standards as you had pre-retirement. If you’d prefer to specify your spending needs based on your own estimates, you can override our estimation.
D. No Specific Assumptions on Required Minimum Distributions
Required Minimum Distributions occur in tax-deferred retirement accounts after you reach a certain age. Distributions from these accounts are generally taxed at ordinary income rates in retirement.
Aside from planning that distributions will be taxed appropriately, we do not specifically calculate or handle Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) in this retirement planning advice. We assume that your spending needs will meet or surpass your RMD requirements, if you have accounts subject to RMDs.
We do calculate your RMDs for your Betterment Traditional IRA or SEP IRA on an annual basis and provide this to you in your tax forms if the account was held here on Dec. 31st of the prior year.
3. Determining Total Savings Needed
After determining how much you’ll likely spend in retirement, Betterment calculates the total amount you’ll need to have saved for retirement by the time of your desired retirement date to have a 99% chance of success you will not run out of money during retirement. In the event you’re already retired, Betterment will recommend auto-withdrawal amounts based on a 96% chance you will not run out of money before the end of your retirement period (see 3C “Preparing for Bad Scenarios”).
A. How long will your retirement be (the time until end of life)?
The length of your retirement dramatically affects how much you’ll spend in total once you stop saving and, therefore, the total amount of savings you need. We ask for your desired retirement age, and we default your life expectancy to 90 years old (a fairly conservative assumption), which determines how many years you’ll be spending for. You can adjust both your retirement age and your life expectancy if you’d like.
B. Accounting for all sources of retirement income
Income in retirement can come from multiple sources. We need to understand all sources before we can figure out how large your nest egg needs to be. The main sources for most people are Social Security and investment income or withdrawals from retirement accounts. However, some people may have additional sources such as rental property or a pension.
Social Security Based on Retirement Age
Social Security is one of the most common sources of income in retirement for Americans. The extent of this government benefit varies by both your level of lifetime earnings and when you decide to start claiming Social Security income.
We estimate Social Security income according to the U.S. Social Security Administration’s benefit rules. Inputs for their rules include current income (for you and your spouse separately), assumptions for growth rate of your earned income, assumptions for inflation, and the age you (and your spouse, if applicable) choose to retire. Generally, we assume you start benefits in the year you retire.
Additionally, we apply the following assumptions to the SSA’s guidance:
- Because you can’t take Social Security before age 62, if you choose a retirement date before this, we will assume you take withdrawals from your portfolio or other sources to meet your income needs until Social Security income can be taken at age 62. Our assumptions regarding those withdrawals are described below.
- If you retire between ages 62 and 70, we assume you start Social Security benefits at the retirement age you choose, unless you specify a different age. In general, each year you delay claiming Social Security benefits after age 62 but before age 70 increases your benefits.
- There are no benefits to delaying claiming Social Security after age 70. However, if you input a retirement age greater than 70, we assume any SS benefits you receive before you actually retire are spent instead of saved.
- If you specify a retirement age for your spouse that is earlier than your retirement age, we assume you will simply spend their Social Security benefits rather than investing them, so that they don’t affect your plan or portfolio growth.
Social Security benefits are subject to an annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) that varies year to year. We assume COLAs are constant in retirement at the assumed level of inflation, but you can override this setting when editing assumptions within your Betterment account.
Finally, given the projected deficits in the Social Security trust funds, some clients prefer to plan for retirement assuming partial or zero income from Social Security. According to the Social Security Administration (the “SSA”) predictions, younger workers may only receive three-fourths of benefits because of the deficit. As a result, Betterment defaults to three-fourths of calculated benefits, unless you adjust your PRP goal assumptions.
There are several other important assumptions that are used in our Social Security calculations:
- We use full retirement age as defined by the SSA rules and your date of birth.
- Salary growth is assumed as you specify, with a default of 1%. Note that the SSA.gov benefits calculator does not assume any income growth. Earnings history is also estimated using this growth rate in the opposite direction (i.e. you earned less when you were younger).
- COLAs are assumed to be equal to our assumed rate of inflation (2% by default).
- You can override the start age and benefit amount in “Edit Assumptions > About your income” for you and your spouse.
- Social Security continues until life expectancy for each person. No survivor or disability benefits are assumed.
Other Income Sources
Often, retirees also have income from other investment sources, such as rental properties, pensions, or annuities. You can add these to your PRP goal by navigating to the “Plan” section of your account and selecting “Edit Assumptions.” For any of these other income sources, we assume they begin at your retirement age, are adjusted for inflation, and will end upon your specified date of death (or your spouse’s, whichever is later). If you add other income sources to the assumptions, we interpret the value to be in today’s dollars, and will adjust it for inflation through accumulation and retirement.
If Social Security and other sources of income are not enough to meet your spending needs, the resulting gap needs to be filled by your savings and investments. We assume you will need to make withdrawals from your portfolio each year to make up this gap, making adjustments for taxes and planning for the variability of markets.
C. Preparing for Bad Scenarios
Not having enough savings in retirement is a dire situation, and securities markets are unpredictable. Betterment employs a conservative market performance expectation in retirement to estimate how much you’ll need to have saved when you retire. These assumptions also apply to estimate how you will make withdrawals or otherwise liquidate your investments in retirement. For PRP goals, Betterment projects that clients’ withdrawal approach will be gradual (rather than lump sum, like a Major Purchase goal for a home down payment). If you are already retired, Betterment provides advice on what withdrawal amount maintains at least a 96% likelihood of having $0 or more at the end of the time horizon (a “safe withdrawal”), i.e. not running out of money before the end of the time horizon.The monthly safe withdrawal is based on a 96% likelihood of having $0 or more at the end of the time horizon, assuming the following assumptions hold true:
The safe withdrawal amount assumes that you adjust the withdrawal rate and allocation according to our advice at least once per month;
The safe withdrawal amount assumes that you do not live past the specified time horizon (“plan-to-age”);
Calculations assume the current Betterment portfolio strategy. If the portfolio changes over time or has different expected returns, outcomes may vary. Calculations will always be updated based on the current portfolio held;
As to any external linked accounts, we apply the assumptions described in the Goal Projection and Advice Disclosure. With respect to external linked cash accounts or accounts that hold crypto assets, Betterment’s calculations reflect the balance of such accounts based on currently available balance information plus any planned annual contributions, and do not assume any other growth or losses;
Withdrawal advice and graphs are in real terms, using an inflation rate of 2%; and
The default time horizon (“plan-to age”) is 90 years of age, or your current age + 50 years if younger than 40, or your current age + 10 if older than 80. The model will use this value or the value that is entered by you, the user.
D. Accounting for Taxes on Withdrawals in Retirement
Accounting for future taxes is complex—impossible to do precisely —because we cannot predict with 100% certainty the outcome of your retirement investments, your future personal situation, or what tax rates will be during your retirement years. Yet, ignoring taxes completely would not be accurate either, so in Betterment’s retirement planning practice, we attempt to adjust for your tax liability using reasonable but conservative assumptions.
We estimate your future tax rate based on your specified spending (income) in retirement (see Section I.), your state of residence, and standard deductions for your marital status. Your withdrawals will come from growth on the holdings you have when you start a PRP goal as well as future deposits into your investment accounts working toward retirement. In both cases, your retirement accounts likely may include accounts invested with Betterment and those held at an external firm. We handle each part of your savings differently based on what we know, so here we’ll provide an overview of our method.
Projecting Current Retirement Balances
Because we know your current retirement account balances and types, we use these balances to make projections and adjust for taxes using your current tax rates and what we assume tax rates might be like during your retirement.
- For existing traditional IRAs and employer plans, we assume you’ll pay no taxes while saving, and, during retirement, you will pay your average rate on the full amount of each withdrawal. Notably, this means we assume all traditional retirement accounts have zero cost basis. If you have made after-tax contributions to your traditional retirement accounts, this assumption will cause us to overstate the taxes you will owe.
- For existing taxable accounts, taxes are paid in two ways:
- As you save, you will need to pay taxes on dividends and capital gains realized from rebalancing. For taxable accounts, the projection assumes a 0.92% lower return than for a tax-advantaged account, which is meant to reflect the effect of paying taxes on dividends and realized gains in the account throughout the savings period. Learn more about after-tax returns.
- For when you withdraw from your PRP goal, we assume your assets have zero cost basis, meaning we assume that you will pay tax at the long-term capital gains rate that is associated with your future taxable income on the whole balance.
- For existing Roth retirement accounts, we assume no taxes are paid while saving or withdrawing, because you have already paid the taxes before contributing.
You can also connect external accounts to your Betterment profile (such accounts, “connected accounts”) or to a specific goal (such connected accounts linked to a specific goal, “linked accounts”). To add a linked account to your PRP goal, you can go to your account and add them via Plaid or add them as manually synced accounts. With respect to any linked cash accounts or accounts that hold crypto (as to which we do not project growth or losses), we assume that you take withdrawals at an even pace over the course of your retirement, regardless of whether you retire before or after you are eligible to receive Social Security. For more information about external accounts, including connected accounts and linked accounts, please review our Goal Projections & Advice Disclosure. Some manually synced accounts are assumed to have no fund fees.
Projecting Future Retirement Contributions
Betterment’s retirement planning methodology conservatively assumes all withdrawals from those savings are taxed at your average tax rate during retirement. This assumption is likely to overstate your tax rate (make your tax higher than it is) in certain situations, such as the case of all savings being in a Roth IRA (which is not taxed on withdrawal).
Using this tax rate, we estimate the total tax you will pay on your withdrawals of these balances, and we add that to the amount you need to have saved when you retire. We accomplish this with a simple formula:
After-Tax Balanced Needed / (1 - Average Tax Rate) = Pre-Tax Balance Needed
For example, if we calculate you need $1,000,000 of after-tax money to live off of, and your average tax rate of your withdrawals will be 25%, you actually need $1,333,333.
$1,000,000 / (1 - 0.25) = $1,333,333
4. Calculating Required Savings
Once Betterment calculates an estimated target retirement balance, our retirement advice calculates how much you should save to reach that total balance, broken down by month or year. The estimated savings amount required depends on how much time you have until your retirement age, the level of risk you’re willing to bear in order to pursue higher returns, and how much certainty you feel you need to hit that balance.
Betterment’s risk advice for your PRP goal is based on your time until retirement, but you can tailor your allocation as you see fit. If you follow the recommended allocation of stocks and bonds in your Betterment accounts for your PRP goal, Betterment will, if you elect, automatically adjust your risk level over time as you near retirement.
Betterment’s default retirement savings advice for PRP goals gives you a 60% probability of hitting your goal. That level of certainty is more conservative than many basic retirement calculators, which often assume an expected average return (or, effectively, a 50% chance).
Shorter time horizons, less risk, and greater certainty will all lead Betterment to recommend higher savings amounts.
5. Retirement Account Savings (How to Save)
Saving intelligently for retirement can be boiled down to maximizing expected spending in retirement per dollar saved today. Prioritizing which accounts you save into depends on your specific tax situation and access to retirement accounts. Betterment provides clients with retirement savings recommendations in advice labeled “See How to Save,” when reviewing your PRP goal. Betterment is not a tax advisor and does not cover all potential accounts, nor do we have your tax return and all details about your situation. So, Betterment’s recommendation for PRP goals only incorporates the certain linked accounts that you have synced to your PRP goal, as well as any Betterment accounts within your PRP goal. Betterment does not provide recommendations related to opening a specific traditional or Roth retirement account type, but does provide guidance on eligibility. The retirement account type eligibility guidance should not be considered personal tax or investment advice. Contact a qualified tax advisor to understand your personal situation.
A. Identifying Employer-Sponsored Retirement Savings
Our “See How To Save” retirement account suggestions are based on your eligibility to take advantage of different retirement account types according to IRS rules, based on your income, your marital status, and your eligibility for certain employer plans—depending on if you have synced your employer plan (electronically or manually) as a linked account. If you do not add existing plans, we assume you do not have them available.
B. Accurately Assessing Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI)
By default, we assume that your MAGI for IRA limit calculations is equal to the pre-tax income you provide us with when setting up your PRP goal. You can adjust your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) and add “above-the-line” deductions you take on page one of Form 1040, such as IRA deductions, student loan interest, HSA contributions, and others. See IRS Pub 590a for details on what makes up MAGI for IRA qualification limits. You can enter these values under “Edit Assumptions > About your taxes” when reviewing your PRP goal on the Plan tab in your Betterment account. You should keep these values up to date each year to get accurate guidance from Betterment. If these values change during the year but you do not update them, the guidance may not be applicable to your changed circumstances. Contact a qualified tax advisor or investment adviser if you have questions.
C. Account Types Included in Prioritization Eligibility Determinations
Betterment’s retirement account eligibility guidance is limited to eleven account types that are typically available to most people: traditional IRA (deductible and non-deductible contributions), Roth IRA, a spouse’s traditional IRA, a spouse’s Roth IRA, employer-sponsored retirement plans (401(k), 403(b) etc.), Health Savings Account (HSA), a spouse’s HSA, and taxable investment accounts. We do not consider the possibility of after-tax contributions to employer plans, since relatively few plans offer them.
If you are a self-employed individual, you should know that we do not include SEP IRAs in Betterment’s retirement eligibility guidance, though you can open a 5305 SEP IRA at Betterment. If you’d like to use a SEP IRA, this account can be put toward a PRP goal, but will not be included in Betterment’s “How to Save” tool.
If you are a self-employed individual, you have access to various other types of retirement accounts. These include SIMPLE IRAs, SIMPLE 401(k)s, Individual 401(k)s, Defined Benefit Plans, and more. Betterment does not support these types of accounts, and thus they are not included in our prioritization of which accounts you are eligible to save for retirement.
HSAs are only available to IRS eligible individuals with qualifying high-deductible health insurance plans. HSAs allow for pre-tax contributions and tax-deferred growth. Additionally, if withdrawals from the account are used for qualified healthcare expenses, the withdrawal is also income tax-free. If you include your HSA in your PRP goal, Betterment makes the assumption that you will be using the account as a vehicle for long-term healthcare savings, and that any withdrawals from the HSA will be for qualified medical expenses.
D. Prioritization Based on Matching Contributions and Tax-Advantaged Accounts
As mentioned above, our guidance seeks to maximize your expected spending in retirement per dollar saved today.
We account for the potential positive impact of an employer match.
As long as you sync your external employer-sponsored retirement plan as a linked account or if you’re enrolled in a Betterment at Work 401(k) plan, Betterment will use the information we have on your employer match percentage and maximum contribution percentage. For Betterment at Work 401(k) plan participants, we prompt you to tell us your match information. If your 401k has a fixed match, we use a weighted average of your plan’s matching tiers. If you indicate you have a match but do not provide those details, we assume your employer matches 50% of your contributions up to 6% of your compensation.
If you specify that you have a “discretionary match,” meaning your employer may match, we also prioritize recommending that you contribute to the employer plan up to the amount needed to maximize the potential match, since there is some chance of match. Again we default to the most common matching scheme above (50% of 6% of compensation), unless otherwise specified by you.
External linked retirement account assumptions.
We recommend either the employer-sponsored plan or another retirement account that you qualify for, depending on the cost and which of the account types has the best projected after-tax outcome.
To project the better after-tax outcome of the account type possibilities, we factor in how much time you have between your current age and your retirement age. We assume the same average expected returns for all accounts (based on the Betterment portfolio strategy allocated to your current target allocation), with the following adjustments if you add a linked account to your PRP goal:
- The projection working in the background adjusts for Betterment’s management fees on your PRP goal and assumes that external employer-sponsored plans that you link to your Betterment retirement goal have fees that align with the fees assessed to Betterment at Work 401(k) plans.
- For taxable accounts, the projection assumes a 0.92% lower return than for a tax-advantaged account, which is meant to reflect the effect of paying taxes on dividends and realized gains in the account throughout the savings period.
We only prioritize account types we expect you to be eligible for.
We use the following assumptions to determine which account types you’re actually eligible to contribute to.
- We utilize IRS guidelines for the most current tax year for contribution limits and income phaseouts. We do not consider contributions made in the calendar year following the current tax year.
- We factor in cost of living adjustments using an estimate of 2% per year.
- We estimate your marginal federal income tax rate based on your gross income, marital status, standard deduction, age, and age of spouse. If you itemize deductions or have dependents, you can provide these values to make the estimate more accurate by selecting “Edit Assumptions.” We include state income tax for the state on your account profile, but we do not include local tax. We assume you are not eligible for the increased standard deduction associated with being legally blind. You can also override this estimation entirely by adjusting the “Federal Tax Bracket” selection in Settings under “Financial Information.”
- We estimate your tax rate during retirement from the desired income you specify, leaving out wage deductions for Social Security and Medicare. This conservatively assumes you will be paying full taxes on all income sources, but may not be true if your Social Security is not taxable, or if your income needs are met from tax-free sources like Roth IRA withdrawals.
E. Advantages of Employer Plans that Are Not Considered in Betterment’s Retirement Tool
While not an input into our guidance for any individual, there are other potential features of employer-sponsored plans, 401(k) accounts in particular, that are not incorporated into Betterment’s recommendations. Here’s a brief list that may be worth considering depending on individual circumstances:
- 401(k) accounts offer greater protection from creditors in the case of bankruptcy.
- You may have the ability to take penalty-free distributions at an earlier age or to defer minimum required distributions.
- Some 401(k) accounts allow for loans or distributions in a broader set of circumstances.
- Some 401(k) plans offer specific educational and advisory services to participants. The desirability of contributing to a 401(k) may also depend on the range of investment options offered within the 401(k).
To learn more about these various benefits, you should contact your plan administrator about whether such features are relevant to your personal situation. In our retirement advice, we assume that the fees applicable to Betterment at Work 401(k) plans apply, and do not consider the actual fees on investment options available in externally synced employer-sponsored plans.
6. Interpreting Your Personalized Retirement Plan Projection Chart
As described above, for PRP goals, Betterment’s retirement planning advice factors in other variables, such as the impact of Social Security, other income streams like rental real estate, as well as future spending, tax rates, and inflation. When viewing your PRP goal and our advice on retirement saving and spending, you should note several assumptions and aspects of our visualization.
- The PRP goal projection graph shows after-tax investment growth, in real dollars (adjusted by the recommended rate of inflation of 2%, or the rate you specify).
- PRP goals recommended monthly contributions estimate is based on a 60% likelihood of the portfolio value reaching the goal target at the end of the investment term. PRP goal projections are displayed in inflation-adjusted terms; non-retirement graphs are in nominal terms.
- For a client’s first retirement goal, the goal will be shown as “On Track” when the total projected portfolio value exceeds the goal target assuming slightly below average market performance. This is equivalent to a likelihood of 60% and above of reaching the goal target. The goal is shown as “Off Track” when the future projected portfolio value (i.e. current balance plus future contributions, plus investment growth) is not sufficient to reach the goal target assuming slightly below average market performance. This is equivalent to having less than 60% likelihood of reaching the goal target.
- Goal projections are assumed to be net of Betterment’s management fee, and if you are a client on Betterment for Advisors, any management fee charged by the third-party Advisor. Goal projections are also assumed to be net of fund fees. For more details about the fee assumptions made for advised clients, please review Betterment’s Goal Projection Disclosure.
- All current investments and recommended additions to your accounts from present day forward assume the expected returns of your selected portfolio strategy according to your current target allocation. This includes external linked accounts, regardless of whether they have the same allocation as your current target allocation, with the exception of linked cash accounts or accounts that hold crypto assets, which are assumed to have a flat balance based on currently available balance information, plus any planned annual contributions. For more details about the assumptions and limitations of our projections, please review Betterment’s Goal Projection Disclosure.
- If you have opted in to having Betterment automatically adjust your allocation, our goal projections will include adjustment over time.
- The contributions line on the graph (shown in black on the Plan tab in your account or in Goal Forecaster), is not inflation-adjusted.
Projected withdrawals during retirement assume that you would follow Betterment’s safe withdrawal advice and assume a cost of living adjustment (COLA) in line with inflation.