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When you retire, how you put your investment portfolio together is more important than ever if you want your retirement savings to last as long as you do.
Your investments need to not only keep pace with inflation, they also need to grow to pay for your lifestyle and to be protected from investment risk.
Balancing all these competing requirements can be tricky. One solution is a retirement bucket strategy. This approach establishes different ‘buckets’ or accounts for different types of spending and investing over the entire period of your retirement.
What’s a bucket strategy?
The bucket approach to managing retirement portfolios was pioneered by US financial planning guru Harold Evensky in 1985.
Bucket strategies are designed to balance the need for income stability and capital growth in retirement. The aim is to make your money last, while still giving you the flexibility to make a lump sum withdrawal for expenses like holidays or home renovations.
Although there are several ways to use the bucket concept, the most common is a three-bucket strategy.
The approach is popular with many retirees because it eliminates the risk of having to sell your investments when the market is down to pay for regular living expenses. Its popularity has seen some industry super funds begin offering super pensions based on the strategy.
How does the strategy work?
The bucket approach divides your retirement into different phases, with a separate account established to meet your financial needs as you age.
A three-bucket retirement strategy, for example, divides your retirement savings into three accounts (short, medium and long-term), each of which has a different role:
1. Short term bucket
This is the liquid component and is designed to meet your near-term living expenses for the next 2–3 years. It’s not designed to provide investment returns, but to hold the capital to meet your financial needs not covered by other income sources (such as the Age Pension).
Your cash bucket provides peace of mind you can pay your short-term expenses and ride out market volatility without needing to sell your long-term investments.
2. Medium-term bucket
The second bucket provides income and stability for your retirement portfolio. Income from this bucket is used to refill the short-term bucket as the assets in it decline.
2. Long-term bucket
The third bucket is designed to grow, ensuring your retirement savings do not run out.
The investment returns from this bucket are likely to fluctuate over the short- to medium-term. The assets in this bucket are not sold if the market declines but are held over the long-term and ride out any return volatility.
Once the bucket strategy is operational, the only bucket with automatic withdrawals is bucket 1. The other two buckets are adjusted manually – often annually – with funds from bucket 3 refilling bucket 2 and bucket 2 refilling bucket 1.
How your retirement buckets are invested
Each of your retirement buckets has a different time horizon, objective and asset allocation:
Bucket 1 is designed to fund your short-term living expenses, so it’s invested in assets that do not fluctuate with the market (like cash), as you need this money to live on and pay your fixed expenses. Your cash bucket provides peace of mind you can pay your bills and ride out the normal ups and downs affecting your longer-term investments.
The other buckets contain assets that won’t be needed for several years or more, so they are invested in diversified strategies designed to deliver both medium and long-term objectives.
4 drawbacks to the bucket strategy
Using the bucket strategy to manage your retirement savings is not for everyone. As with any investment strategy, this approach has some issues you need to consider:
1. Establishing the strategy can be complex
There is no definitive or best way to set up a retirement bucket strategy. Opinion varies over whether you should use two or three buckets, while there are also approaches using buckets based on your needs and wants.
Working out the right asset classes and investments to use for each bucket can also be complex.
2. Managing it can be tricky
A bucket strategy is generally not set-and-forget. Maintaining the various accounts and keeping the right amount of money in each bucket can be time consuming.
You also need to establish rules for when and how you will replenish your buckets and what you will do with returns if your investments do better (or worse) than expected.
3. Compatibility with a transition-to-retirement (TTR) strategy
A bucket strategy may not be suitable if you are also using a TTR strategy. As this approach involves withdrawing from your super account while simultaneously salary sacrificing money back in, you are in effect recycling your cashflow.
4. Unsuitable for conservative retirees
A bucket strategy may not be right for retirees with a conservative risk profile. With historically low interest rates for your cash bucket, you must be prepared to invest in riskier assets in buckets 2 and 3. If not, the strategy may not work as your savings will not be growing enough to replenish your first bucket.