Many doctors love talking about the idea of FIRE (Financial Independence and Retire Early). “I cannot wait to be able to do what I want, when I want. Every. Single. Day!” What we don’t spend as much time talking about is the early retirement gap that is created when we FIRE. Said differently, “How can I access my retirement savings before the age of 59.5 without the 10% penalty?”
That’s the early retirement gap. The age between your early retirement and 59.5 when you can tap into your 401K, 403B, IRA, etc.
Let’s talk about bridging the gap.
Basics: What’s the problem?
When we make our plans for early retirement, we often think about the freedom it will provide. Sometimes, however, we fail to think about the tactics and strategy of early retirement.
Most people use “the 25X rule” to determine how much they need to save to retire, though I follow a hybrid model of financial independence. Others utilize a 30X rule for early retirement. That is likely to last a very long time based on the Trinity Study even for an early retiree. So, if you are aiming to spend $100,000 annually then you likely need $2.5 million – $3 million to be financially independent.
However, this math gets a bit dodgy when the majority of our savings are stuck inside a retirement account that we cannot use (e.g. our 401K or 403B) until age 59.5 lest we receive a 10% penalty on anything we take out.
Note: The Rule of 55 (and some other exceptions) do exist that allow you to withdraw from your retirement savings earlier than 59.5 years old.
6.5 Ways to Bridge the Early Retirement Gap
There are certainly ways to retire early and to have the income we need to do so, but we need to make a plan. Here are 6.5 of the best ways to have the money you need to retire early.
Number 1. Cash reserve
Many early retirees advocate for having a year or two of annual expenses saved up in a cash reserves. There are two major advantages to this tactic.
First, if you don’t touch your investments for the first two years you retire, you can let your investments grow without having to worry about Sequence of Return Risk. This is a great way to make sure that you truly have enough in retirement.
The second reason is that it is the easiest way to bridge the early retirement gap! There is no penalty on money that is sitting inside a high-yield savings account or money market fund, though there is loss in cash value to inflation. Either way, it is there for you to use at will.
Number 2. The taxable account
Another source of money to bridge your early retirement gap is your taxable account.
A taxable brokerage account has a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of access. You simply take the money out that you put in, and pay your long-term capital gains taxes (if held for more than one year). These taxes, which are usually 15-20%, are often substantially less than what you were paying in your peak earning years.
In fact, some people actually stop contributing money to their 401K/403B and, instead, put it into a taxable account so that they can access it more easily.
However, cash and brokerage accounts aren’t the only options.
Number 3. Partial FIRE
One of the least complicated ways to have enough money in early retirement is to have income from work. I hear you saying, “Wait a minute! I thought we were talking about retirement.”
This is true, but let me give you an example. My main gig is working as an anesthesiologist. However, that is not the only way that I make money. For example, both my work at Attend where I am co-founding a comprehensive financial platform that actually does what’s best for doctors is work that I love. In fact, it doesn’t even feel like work.
Given my work at Attend, I actually cut back my time at the hospital to 0.75 FTE before I became an associate professor at Wake Forest in 2023. A similar move might be made in early retirement where you continue to work part-time on something that you love.
Humans are meant to be productive in one way or another. This is why the people that retire well still have passions that they pursue. Playing golf every day is going to get old.
You need something to do when you are bridging that early retirement gap. Hopefully, it can also make a little money for you.
Number 4. Access your 457 in early retirement
One of the most common questions I get from my new colleagues is about 457 plans. I’ve written a post about everything you need to know about investing in a 457 plan previously.
Briefly, 457’s are definitely useful for early retirement. Unlike your other retirement accounts, you can access the deferred compensation 457 as soon as you leave your employer. You’ll, of course, pay taxes on what you deferred… but that’s fine. At least you aren’t getting slapped with the 10% penalty.
This is perfect for early retirement.
I could subtract my current age from 59.5 and stretch my 457 until I can access my 401K/403B. Ideally, I would be in a lower tax bracket in early retirement than I was in my peak earning years anyway. So, this could provide a great tax benefit without getting hit by the 10% penalty.
Or I could take it out over a shorter period of 5-10 years to avoid getting hit with high taxes while I perform a Roth Ladder Conversion on my 401K (see below). Also, a shorter time period means I don’t have to worry about the financial stability of my institution longer than necessary once I am gone and have no idea how it’s doing. Remember, the 457 is considered owned by the employer and is available to creditors if your employer falls on bad financial times.
Number 5. Roth Ladder Conversions
Using a Roth Ladder conversion is a really good strategy to bridge the early retirement gap. Particularly, in early (full) retirement so long as you can keep your taxable income low enough to take part.
The basics involve converting a portion of your 401K/403B into a traditional rollover IRA upon leaving your employer. (I believe that this must be done within 60 days of leaving most employers). You then take your money out of the traditional IRA and convert it (i.e. you get taxed) to a Roth IRA. You can then take your money out of the Roth IRA tax and penalty free.
There’s a catch, though – you have to wait 5 years to access that money! So, you still need five years of money saved up in early retirement (likely from numbers 1-4 above) to get you through the five years until you can access the money you have laddered.
As an example, you might convert money in years 1-5 that you then plan to take out in years 6-10. If you want to read more about Roth Ladder Conversions you can check out the articles written by Big Law Investor, Money Under 30, and Route to Retire.
Number 6. Substantially Equal Periodic Payments
I have talked about SEPP options to avoid the 10% 401K/403B penalty before. However, it is an available to access money in early retirement before age 59.5
The IRS states that if you take payments “as part of a series of substantially equal periodic payments beginning after separation from service” you can avoid the 10% penalty. The stipulations are the following:
- The payments must be “substantially equal” and occur after leaving your employer.
- They must not be altered or stopped for five years after payments begin or 59.5 (whichever is later).
- You must determine your payment in one of three ways: By calculating RMDs (required minimum distributions) for your age, using it as an annuity, or via amortization.
The gist is that you can arrange for equal payments to occur for you from your 401K/403B for five years or until age 59.5 (whichever happens later). This can provide some money if you need some not covered by the four above.
Number 6.5 Take Roth contributions out
This one isn’t a full number for a reason. You can choose to take out Roth contributions from earlier in your career tax-free. However, this has two problems.
First, you have to determine the proportion of which is your (Roth/penalty-free) contribution and what is part of the gains that are supposed to be left until age 59 1/2. So, if you want to take out $10,000 and $9,000 of this is the contribution the remaining $1,000 will be taxed and possibly be assessed a 10% penalty if accessed early. This can get complicated. Particularly, if you made a backdoor Roth IRA conversion.
Second, you should be accessing your Roth money last as this is money that is best left as a stretch Roth IRA inheritance and also has the biggest tax benefit. You’ve already paid the tax. Let it grow tax-free and take it out tax-free later.
I mention this because it is, technically, an option. Just not one that I would choose lightly.
Retiring early can seem like it is all fun in the sun, but there are some details that must be worked out first. Chief among them is how you plan to access all of that money you have saved away for the impending early retirement gap.