“Drawing” Board?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI



While drawing boards have been used by engineers and architects for more than two centuries, the phrase “back to the drawing board” is of much more recent origin, coined by the Peter Arno in a cartoon first published in the March 1, 1941 issue of New Yorker magazine.(1) The cartoon features a crashed plane in the background, a parachute in the distance, several military officials and rescue workers rushing to help/investigate—and one remarkably nonchalant individual, walking in the opposite direction with a rolled up document tucked under his arm as he comments, “Well, back to the old drawing board.”

For all the much-deserved focus on retirement savings accumulations, a growing amount of attention is now directed to how those already in (and fast-approaching) retirement are actually investing and drawing down those savings.

A recent EBRI analysis(2) found that at age 61, only 22.2 percent of households with an individual retirement account (IRA) took a withdrawal from that account. That pace slowly increases to 40.5 percent by age 69 before jumping to 54.1 percent at age 70, and by the age of 79, almost 85 percent of households with an IRA took a distribution.

IRAs are, of course, a vital component of U.S. retirement savings, holding more than 25 percent of all retirement assets in the nation, according a recent EBRI report. A substantial and growing portion of these IRA assets originated in other employment-based tax-qualified retirement plans, such as defined benefit (pension) and 401(k) plans.

The EBRI analysis also found that the percentage of households with an IRA making a withdrawal from that account not only increased with age, but also spiked around ages 70 and 71, a trend that appears to be a direct result of the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules in the Internal Revenue Code.(3) Those rules require that traditional IRA account holders begin to take at least a specific amount from their IRA no later than April 1 of the year following the year in which they reach age 70-½, or else suffer a fairly harsh tax penalty.

In fact, at age 71, 71.1 percent of households owning an IRA that took a withdrawal reported that they took only the RMD amount, increasing to 77.4 percent at age 75, 83.2 percent at age 80, and 91.1 percent by age 86.

However, the EBRI report noted that IRA-owning households not yet subject to the RMD—those headed by individuals between the ages of 61 and 70—made larger withdrawals than older households, both in absolute dollar amounts as well as a percentage of IRA account balance. Indeed, the bottom-income quartile of this age group had a very high percentage (48 percent) of households that made an IRA withdrawal—and their average annual percentage of account balance withdrawn (17.4 percent) was higher than the rest of the income distribution. Moreover, those younger households that made IRA withdrawals spent most of it.

While a significant percentage of those in the sample are drawing out only what the law mandates, the data indicate that more of those in the lower-income groups not only draw money out sooner, but also draw out a higher percentage of their savings—perhaps too early to sustain them throughout retirement.(4)

Planning and preparation matters—not only for retirement savings, but in retirement withdrawals. Because for those whose retirement resources run short too soon, it’s generally also too late to go “back to the drawing board.”


(1) You can see the original cartoon online here.

(2) The data for this study come from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. See “IRA Withdrawals: How Much, When, and Other Saving Behavior,” online here.

(3) As noted in a previous post (see “Means Tested”), there are advantages to a drawdown strategy based on the schedule provided by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for required minimum distributions, or RMDs. See also Withdrawal “Symptoms.”

(4) The EBRI Retirement Readiness Ratings™ indicate that approximately 44 percent of the Baby Boomer and Gen-Xer households are simulated to be at-risk of running short of money in retirement, assuming they retire at age 65 and retain any net housing equity in retirement until other financial resources are depleted. Those individuals may well become part of the significant percentage of retirees who eventually must depend on Social Security for all of their retirement income. See “All or Nothing? An Expanded Perspective on Retirement Readiness.”

About ebriorg
President and CEO, EBRI

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