Make your money work when you’re not: Creating an income-producing portfolio


If you have savings and investments to support you in retirement — or, before then, if you take an unpaid leave from your job — you can put that money to work in ways that help cover your short-term income needs without sacrificing your long-term security.

How much income you can generate depends on several factors, including how big your nest egg is, how it’s invested, where interest rates go and your risk tolerance.

A lot goes into creating and managing an income-producing portfolio that works for you. But here are some basics to consider.

Three questions to answer

Ideally, you want to begin planning three to five years ahead of when you plan to draw income from your portfolio.

Start by asking:

How do I want to occupy my time when I leave my job? 

Will you still do paid work, just not put in as many hours? Do you want to travel a lot? Go back to school? Build an eco-friendly home?

Whatever your choices, the more specific you can be, the easier it will be to assess your actual income needs when the time comes, said certified financial planner David Seufer, founder of Gravitas Wealth Planning.

What fixed sources of income will I have? 

That is steady payments that won’t fluctuate. Social Security benefits are the most typical example. (You can get an estimate specific to your earnings history here.)

If you’ll get a pension, count that too.

How much will I spend? 

Knowing your expenses will give you a good sense of the income you’ll need.

Marguerita Cheng, a certified financial planner and founder of Blue Ocean Global Wealth, asks her clients to write down what they consider to be their “core and essential” expenses — she doesn’t call them “fixed,” because some are not, like your energy bill, which can be seasonal. She also asks them to write about their “variable or lifestyle” expenses, which reflect what you do regularly that is important to you.

If there are new expenses you will incur based on your plans, add those in. Or if you plan to move, account for how your living expenses may change.

Ways to generate income

Take the income you think you’ll need and subtract from that the income you expect. For example, if you need $65,000 a year but will only bring in $40,000, you’ll need to generate the other $25,000.

There are several ways savings and investments can do that, or at least cover part of that shortfall.

Among the most common is interest from high-yield savings accounts, money market accounts, certificates of deposit, Treasury bills and government and corporate bonds.

Dividends are another income source. But you don’t just want dividend-paying equities in your portfolio.

“When one invests only in stocks that pay dividends or that only pay the highest dividends, one may miss out on the capital appreciation potential of stocks that pay no dividend at all or much lower dividend rates,” said David Edmisten, a certified financial planner and founder of Next Phase Financial Planning.

Instead, Edmisten recommends having both growth stocks and dividend-paying stocks. That way, he said “[you] collect dividends for income, but also generate capital appreciation to help combat inflation.”

Capital gains, which result from selling an asset for more than you bought it, are another income source.

Keep in mind you don’t need to buy individual stocks and bonds. You can get exposure to both through low-cost mutual funds and exchange-traded funds.

Setting up an income-producing portfolio

You want to have enough cash to support you in the near term — and to protect you from having to sell assets at a loss in market downturns. But you also need long-term growth in your portfolio because, even when you retire, you may live for 25 or more years.

Edmisten recommends using a bucket strategy:

• Keep 18 to 24 months of expenses in cash or cash-equivalents, which include high-yield savings accounts, short-term CDs and Treasury bills.

• For money you’ll need in three to five years, use short-term corporate bonds as well as longer-term CDs.

• For years six through 10, have a mix of stocks and longer-term bonds.

• And for years 11 and up, your money should just be in stocks.

Replenishing your cash reserve

If your cash reserves are running down faster than you expect, you can replenish them in several ways.

You can stop reinvesting some of your dividends and instead take the cash payout.

You can take some capital gains off the table and rebalance your portfolio, Cheng said. Say your plan allocates 20% of your portfolio to a given asset class (e.g., large-cap growth stocks) and it grows to 25%. You can sell shares equal to that 5% difference and put the money into your cash accounts.

Or, if you don’t have a lot of gains, you might liquidate some of your bonds in your three-to-five-year bucket so you don’t have to sell long-term growth assets, Edmisten said.

Another option: If you or your spouse are still working and maxing out contributions to a workplace retirement savings plan or IRA, you might temporarily reduce them.

To reduce your cash needs, you also might look to see what expenses you can trim. The biggest costs for many people are housing, transportation and health care, Cheng said.

Diversify and mind the tax consequences

Having a diversified income stream gives you flexibility to pull from one type of investment over another when it’s most advantageous to do so.

Beyond dividend-paying stocks, bonds and interest-bearing instruments, some people may want annuities to be part of their income stream. You can purchase them in exchange for the guarantee of a steady paycheck over a given number of years.

“Annuities can make sense in certain situations — with clients who are a little risk averse … especially if they don’t have a pension or other sources of guaranteed income,” Seufer said.

But annuities are complex. They can be expensive and give you less flexibility to make changes if your life changes. So be informed. “Understand the contract. And understand what the limitations are,” Edmisten said.

You also will want some flexibility to time which accounts to draw from, based on their tax consequences, Seufer said. For example, a pre-tax 401(k), a taxable brokerage account and tax-free money in a Roth IRA offer a good mix of options. Similarly, some investments generate tax-free income at the federal or state level, such as Treasury bills and municipal bonds.

Get help with what you need

You may feel fine managing everything on your own. If not, you may want to pay a flat fee to a fee-only certified financial planner to provide a roadmap for how to set things up and to offer periodic guidance throughout the year. Or you may be interested in letting a CFP not only come up with a plan but directly manage your investments, too, if they’re qualified.

Tell the planner what you want. It could be guidance on cash flow management, taxes or optimizing when you and your spouse should take Social Security. “It’s okay to be direct about where you think you need help,” Cheng said.

And if you do decide to let a firm manage your nest egg, ideally you don’t want to pay more than 1% of your assets a year for that service, she suggested.


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