Living off Capital

Philip Brewer is perhaps my favorite personal finance blogger. I thoroughly enjoy his writings and I’ve told him so in the past. A few months ago, I offered him a very rare guest post slot here at The Simple Dollar so I could share his writing more directly with you all. This is the article that Philip contributed. If you enjoyed it, feel free to read some of his other stuff.

People who come from wealthy families learn how to live off capital. The rules are taught along with all the other things they learn from their parents–how to dress, how to eat, how deal with bankers and trust officers. But even though most people don’t learn the rules, living off capital is just a skill, and it’s one that everybody should learn, because everybody lives off capital sometimes.

People usually think about living off capital in the context of retirement, but that’s just one (albeit important) example. Perfectly ordinary transitions, such as losing a job and having to find another, also amount to living off capital. There is also the broad swath in between: Living off capital for longer than just the length of time it takes you to run through your emergency fund, and doing so without the institutional support–social security, medicare, maybe even a pension–that comes along with retiring at an ordinary retirement age.

If you’ve got a lot of capital–that is, if you’re wealthy–then living off capital is easy: You invest enough in treasury bonds that you can live off the interest.

It’s not trivially easy, of course. You have to allow for taxes. You have to allow for inflation. You have to have some sort of cushion or reserve in case your investment return falls. But, generally, living off your income is straightforward.

You allow for taxes by setting aside enough of your income to pay your taxes. This isn’t hard, even if you have to file quarterly estimated taxes, but you have to do it yourself; you don’t have an employer automatically taking care of it for you by deducting it from your pay. Screwing up is expensive–screwing up badly may even be criminal.

You allow for inflation by reinvesting enough of your income to preserve the value of your capital. If your money is in US dollars, TIPS (Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities) will do exactly that. The principle value of the bonds increases automatically to keep you even with inflation, and the interest is paid out on the inflation-adjusted principle, so your income rises with inflation as well. (The adjustment is based on the Consumer Price Index while what matters to you is your own cost of living, so you can’t entirely delegate the job of allowing for inflation, but TIPS will do most of the heavy lifting.)

You allow for reversals by having a cushion somewhere. Ideally, have two cushions: First, a reserve fund with enough money to cover any unexpected expenses. Second, some flexibility in your cost of living, so that a decline in income can be matched with a decline in spending.

Beyond just income
The wealthy have other concerns than just supporting themselves–they want to pass down an estate. Because of that, they teach their kids this rather conservative version of living off capital. If you only spend your income, and if you reinvest enough to keep even with inflation, then you’re preserving your capital intact. (If you reinvest more then the minimum, or if some of your capital is invested for growth, than you can be growing your capital at the same time you’re living off it.)

If leaving an estate is not a concern for you, then you can spend more than just your income.

There’s a common rule of thumb that (if you have a well-diversified growth portfolio), you can probably spend about 4% of your capital and still expect to have more capital the next year. That won’t be true every year (it was really, really not true in 2008, for example), but historically it’s been true on average.

Still, the wealthy know that spending capital is a bad idea. Anytime you spend more than your income, you’re in danger of entering a death spiral: Your reduced capital earns less money so you have to spend even more capital to support your standard of living; repeat until broke.

A lot of people have back-tested versions the 4% rule, looking at historical periods to see if following that rule ever led to a death spiral. From what I’ve seen, it looks pretty good, but the current circumstance is going to put it to a particularly harsh test–especially for people who started living off their capital in 2007.

If you can afford it, choosing to spend only income is a safer strategy. If you can’t, you probably ought to accept that at some point you’ll have to earn some more money–and if you’re going to do that, sooner is probably better than later (before you’ve depleted your capital). Happily, a pretty small amount of money can make a big difference, if you’re right on the edge of being able to live on capital. Every dollar you earn is a dollar of capital that can go unspent.

If you were really rich, the safest thing to do would be to invest enough in TIPS that the income would support you. Then you could invest the rest of your money however you liked. Most people aren’t that rich–at the moment you’d need close to $2.5 million invested in TIPS to earn an inflation-protected $50,000 a year. Treasurys without inflation protection are earning more than twice as much. (Of course, you have to reinvest a big chunk of that to keep even with inflation).

Dividend-paying stocks can earn still more money, and dividend growth can provide some amount of inflation protection (as can capital gains). in recent years it has been tough to invest for dividend yield, but even with the recent recovery in the stock market, there are plenty of companies paying a reasonable dividend now–there are more than 40 companies in the S&P 500 whose dividend yield exceeds the yield on a 30-year treasury. None of those will be as safe as treasurys, but at least there are some options now for someone looking for income.

If you have it in you to be a landlord, there’s also the option of earning rent on real estate investments.

You can arrange the mechanics several different ways. The simplest version is simply to have the income from your investments directed into your checking account and use it to pay your bills. A slightly more complicated version would direct your income into the savings account where you keep your reserve fund, and then transfer money from there into your checking account. That makes it easier to even out the month-to-month money flows, which tends to be necessary because stocks generally pay dividends quarterly and bonds generally pay interest semiannually.

(If a lot of your capital is tax-sheltered in an IRA, 401(k), or similar vehicle, the tax rules make it more complex to use that capital for spending, but there are rules for handling the case when you’re actually retiring early.)

The key step–the one that rich families make sure that their children know–is to evaluate your capital every year: Make a new budget with your projected expenses for the following year, and then reinvest enough of your surplus that its earnings will cover any increase in your cost of living.

If you don’t have enough of a surplus to do so, you were living beyond your means.

It’s easy to do this by mistake. Even most people with a budget don’t know their cost of living accurately enough to know if they’re properly accounting for things like those large-but-rare expenses like a new car or a new roof, and any particular category of expense can rise much faster than overall inflation. (Think health insurance, college tuition, and fuel.)

People who are accumulating capital (rather than living on it) can use each year’s new savings as a buffer–even a major un-budgeted expense can often be covered out of this year’s planned savings without needing to dip into capital. Someone already living off capital doesn’t have this option. They have to provide their own buffer out of their reserve.

Fluctuations in income
There’s a second reason that a reserve is essential: The income earned by capital fluctuates. Anyone living off capital right now knows this quite acutely–the rate paid on Treasury securities is at generational lows. Other investments (such as dividend-paying stocks) earn an income that doesn’t necessarily shift in lock-step with treasurys, but can still go down–particularly during a recession.

The children of rich families learn that the key technique for stabilizing your earnings from capital is diversification.

You should diversify across time by investing some of your money in long-term treasurys, which will pay a fixed rate for a long period (decades). That offers some stability, but has two downsides. First, it while it protects you from falling rates, it makes it harder to take advantage of rising rates. Second, if all your treasurys mature at once, you might have to reinvest the whole sum at a much lower return. Avoid that making sure that your long-term securities mature in a staggered fashion. (Arranging for a fraction of your long-term securities to mature at regular intervals is called setting up a ladder.)

You should also diversify across kinds of investments by investing in more than one kind of vehicle. As attractive as TIPS are for someone living off capital, you probably want to have some of your money invested in ordinary treasurys, in stocks, and maybe in real estate. Other options (such as owning a business) are worth considering as well. This reduces the chance that your income streams will all fluctuate in the downward direction at the same time.

Other kinds of diversity are good as well. Consider investing in foreign treasurys as well as US issues, and maybe in corporate or municipal bonds.. Your stock investments should include multiple companies in different industries, and should include foreign companies as well as domestic ones.

The other key for dealing with a fluctuating income is to have a flexible cost structure, so that you have the option to cut your expenses, if necessary, to match your diminished income.

Those are the basics:

Invest for income
Reinvest to preserve your capital
Keep enough flexibility that you can adjust your expenses

Learn those skills and you’ll have as much ability to live off capital as someone who grew up in a wealthy family. Then you just need the wealth.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.