Will Your Spending Go Down in Retirement?

People have many different views on how they will spend their “golden years” once they’ve left the workforce. Some envision a lifestyle filled with travel, adventure, and leisure, whereas others just want to have more time to spend at home, with maybe an occasional visit from the grandkids. Some dream of owning a boat and a vacation home, while others just want to unload the stressful job they feel tethered to.

In our experience working with clients, the best starting point to plan for your future lifestyle is by looking at your current expenses. While some retirees are willing to completely sacrifice their current standard of living just to quit work, rarely do they seem truly satisfied thereafter. After all, research shows that our personalities, preferences, and values change less and less as we age, and we’re unlikely to be happy if we have plenty of time but no money to live the lifestyle we want.

And while traditional financial planning has often taught us to expect to spend in retirement at 80-90% of our pre-retirement level, we have not seen this to be true – at least for clients with means who want to enjoy the wealth that they have so carefully built. While on the one hand it does make intuitive sense that some pre-retirement expenses will indeed disappear, such as dry-cleaning, commuting, and workplace lunches, many new ones will probably surface, even if for no other reason than we now have more time to do things we enjoy. In fact, our observation is that, if anything, costs tend to go up for the first few years of retirement while people have the time and resources to pursue their passions and long-delayed dreams.

However, at some point (and that point is different for every person), it is typically health-related concerns that cause spending to begin to go down. Whether it be physically or mentally “slowing down,” the end result is that people often reach a point in life where they just don’t feel like taking exotic vacations or living a lifestyle to which they were once accustomed. Now, new research is coming to light that sheds additional insight (and empirical data) on the situation. As it turns out, our clients are not unique in this regard: costs on average do tend to go down slowly over time in retirement, but typically not at first.


New research on retiree spending trends has been published in the last decade that shows spending tends to decrease in retirement over time, when adjusted for inflation. For instance, one early example of this research is a 2005 article published in the Journal for Financial Planning. In this paper, Ty Bernicke, CFP, reveals his research done on decades of Consumer Expenditure Survey data, which showed that real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) costs in retirement tend to drop by 15% every five years, on average. The cumulative effect is that in 20 years, those in their late 70s are spending less than half of what they spent in their late 50s.

To us, that finding seems overly optimistic. (Optimistic in the sense that spending less means your money lasts longer.) Indeed, significant criticism of this data emerged, and subsequent studies were done to further test those findings. For example, the Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research published a study that reported a similar, if less pronounced, trend. Their report showed an inflation-adjusted 1% drop in expenses per year, even after adjusting for other factors.

Both of these studies relied on the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data on consumer expenditures (the CES survey), just sorted and organized slightly differently. But what about data sets outside of government sources? Do they show anything different? Surprisingly, no. Morningstar did research on the Rand Health and Retirement Study (HRS), and JPMorgan conducted its own review of private credit and debit card data, each reaching similar results. The bottom line is that while spending for the typical retiree will probably start out similar to his or her pre-retirement budget, it will most likely decline in inflation-adjusted terms as time goes on.


When you retire is one of the most important factors. Those retiring early in their 50s often find that lifestyle expenses stay the same or even increase, at least for the first decade or so of retirement. The gradual decline often comes later, after they have taken the dream vacations and crossed a few things off the old bucket list. On the other hand, those retiring in their late 60s or even 70s often see their expenses drop more immediately.

The JPMorgan Chase study is interesting in this respect, because it accounts for the retirement spending trends of “mass affluent” households (with $1-2 million) as well as those with $2-5 million and above $5 million. It finds essentially no drop, on average, in spending during the first few years of retirement, regardless of wealth level, and then, just as shown in previous studies, spending does go down over time.

Additionally, the JPMorgan study found variations in spending patterns by lifestyle, breaking out the households into four distinct profiles: foodies, homebodies, globetrotters, and health care spenders. Without diving into the details of each group, the fact that such distinct patterns emerged reveals the wide range of spending patterns that people have. Each household is different, which is why we start with your current spending level when planning for retirement and then adjust as we get to know you.


Spending matters because there are two factors making saving for retirement even more difficult in today’s world. First, as medical improvements and higher standards of living have translated into longer and longer lifespans in the developed world, saving for a 30-40 year retirement requires a serious amount of capital. Second, our current economic environment of low interest rates means that traditionally “safe” investment products, such as government and high-quality corporate bonds, often don’t pay enough interest to fund retirees’ spending needs. These low interest rates translate into lower returns on traditional investment portfolios over the short term, which potentially means higher portfolio values are needed before retirement, all else being equal.

(As an aside, if we have learned anything from history, we can probably assume that “this too shall pass.” Trends come and go in the investment world, and projecting current market conditions out over a 30-40 year life expectancy is obviously a bad idea.)

Yet, we can take some of the stress out of the situation by recognizing that there is some probability that expenses will decrease over time in retirement, on an inflation-adjusted basis. If we have less aggregate spending in retirement, then obviously we need less capital up front. (Maybe that means clients can save less or retire earlier than expected?) In addition, if the client has significant pension and Social Security income to rely on, his or her withdrawals from investment assets may decrease significantly over the years, assuming the pension and Social Security income streams rise with inflation.


Again, the wrinkle with all of this is, of course, that while statistics tell a story that may help to begin having educated discussions around these topics, they tell us nothing about your individual situation. Our clients aren’t statistical averages.  They are real people with individual goals, plans, and circumstances. Knowing that the average spending level potentially goes down over time tells us nothing about what their individual experience will be.

So what’s the answer to this from a planning perspective?

We get to know our clients.

Only by building a relationship over time can we help clients make these difficult decisions. At the end of the day, statistics can’t tell us the future.  They can only tell a story about trends in the past. Individual people have to make individual, real-world decisions about when to retire, what retirement budget to set, and when to break or not break that budget. And we can help you make those decisions by giving you both the knowledge and the process to weigh those decisions within a reasonable framework so that you can feel comfortable and confident in retirement. That’s part of the value of working with an experienced Personal CFO.

Authored by: 

Curtis Hearn, CFP®

Wealth Advisor
Wealth Management


Gratus Capital is an SEC-registered investment advisor. Registration with the SEC does not imply any level of skill or training. Our ADV documents are available upon request. The opinions expressed are as of January 2019 and may change as economic conditions vary. The information provided is not intended to be relied upon as specific investment advice and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities. No graph or chart by itself can be used to determine which securities to buy or sell or when to buy or sell them. As with any investments, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. There is no guarantee that any investment strategy will achieve its objectives, generate profits or avoid losses.