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Watch an Elite Financial Adviser Hack His Own Retirement

Michael Kitces is waging war against 'lifestyle creep' to win the flexibility he'll need for financial independence

Michael Kitces could drive a hot new car, work out in a high-end gym, and relax in a sprawling house. He can afford it. He just doesn’t want it. 

What does the 37-year-old financial planner, a partner and director of research at Pinnacle Advisory Group, want? To save enough so that he doesn’t need to earn any income from his work.

And when he reaches that point, he’ll probably just keep working—and driving his Kia Spectra, which just turned 10.

Michael Kitces
Michael Kitces
Source: Michael Kitces via Bloomberg

It’s part of a philosophy—and plan—he started following in his twenties. Back then, Kitces (Kit-sis) focused on building up his human capital by staying continuously enrolled in one career-related course after another. He wound up with two master's degrees and seven professional designations after his name.

“When you recognize that even as a 37-year-old I could be working in some way for the next 50 years, investing in myself and being able to improve my earnings power matters way more than anything else,” he said.

The married father of two young girls has built himself into a financial-planning brand. Along with advising clients, he writes books, has a blog he says has about 100,000 unique visitors a month, gives speeches at about 70 conferences a year, has partnered with or co-founded half a dozen financial services businesses, and has developed a newsletter service. All those activities feed into kitces.com, his website. His wife stays at home with their daughters "in part to help support my ability to grow my business for our family's benefit," Kitces said.  

The goal

Starting with a savings goal is going at it backwards, Kitces said. “I start from a spending lifestyle first, not a savings target,” he said. “I don’t say I want to save 10 percent or 20 percent a year.” 

He’s aiming to save the equivalent of his current lifestyle—his annual spending—times 30. How does he get 30? The studies on safe withdrawal rates show that you can maintain a constant (inflation-adjusted) standard of living for a long period of time and ride out market volatility if your initial spending rate is low enough. The “safe” initial withdrawal rates are about 5 percent for 20 years, 4 percent over 30 years, and 3.5 percent for 45 years. Since Kitces expects his financial independence could last 50 years or more, he targets an initial spending rate of 3.3 percent, to be conservative, and that is equivalent to having about 30 times your spending in available assets.

“On the one hand, it’s a big number,” he said. “But when you’re shooting for lifestyle times 30, you constantly think about expenses that might affect your lifestyle.” The more he can control spending, the faster he can hit the crossover point into financial independence. 

The motivation

In his financial-planning practice, Kitces has seen how decades of “lifestyle creep," as he calls it, can haunt people. Most of his clients who are just over 50 and struggling to get to retirement are in such a bind because they let spending rise with their income. They had great careers but never really got ahead in their saving. Now they're at a point where they have to go backwards in lifestyle if they want to save enough to retire comfortably. He's also seen, among clients, “many people who retire and stop working completely and become miserable,” he said. “They lose all purpose and focus.”

That lifestyle

Avoiding lifestyle creep is crucial to Kitces’s plan. As his income grows, all the savings that accrues from not buying fancier stuff, or just more stuff, gives him the financial flexibility to take any opportunity that comes along.1 "When you talk to a lot of people who climbed the ladder in advancing their career, very few tell the story of going in a straight line,” he said. “There’s almost always some bouncing around.”

That may mean making a lateral move that could ultimately leave you in a much better place in your career. “If you have the opportunity of a lifetime that requires you to take one step back to get four steps forward, you can’t take that opportunity if you’re spending everything you have,” he said. “I live below my means to create that environment of financial flexibility.”

So that he and his wife don’t go bonkers tracking every expense, they use personal financial management program mint.com. Looking at it once a month for a half hour gives him a sense of where the money's going and makes it much easier to reassess expenses. It helps that he and his wife charge everything they can to their Chase Sapphire 1% cash-back card. (He already has all the frequent flier miles he could possibly need, from his travel to speak at conferences.)

The debt

When you have big monthly payments, you are crimping the one thing Kitces is laser-focused on—financial flexibility. His only debt is the mortgage on the house. He and his wife pay off their credit cards in full every month.

The cushion

Many planners recommend an emergency savings fund of about six months. Kitces's is 12 to 18 months. “That’s probably a little higher than I’d recommend for other people, because a lot of my income is self-employed income. If something happens to me, my income falls off a cliff a lot faster," he said, explaining that "getting sick and being out for a few weeks or months means a significant loss of income, and the chance I'll lose clients who won't come back after I get better." 

The savings

At first, fresh out of Bates College and working in sales, Kitces couldn’t save anything. When he could, any savings went to paying down debt or building an emergency fund. Then he began saving a small percentage of his income, and now, with his lifestyle little changed over the years while his income has risen, he saves more than half of his income. “It’s not because I was trying to do that from the start,” he said. “There’s no way I could have. But it was really easy not to spend more and to save half of my income.” 

He focused first on saving in the right kinds of accounts. When his income and tax bracket were low, he saved in a Roth 401(k). Now he contributes to a traditional 401(k) because he’s making more money and wants the tax deduction.

The big asset

After joining Pinnacle in 2002 as director of financial planning, he became a partner and the director of research in 2012. (Pinnacle has $1.4 billion under management.) Buying into the firm was expensive, but his long-term spending discipline made it possible.

“The biggest investment I’ve made, dollar-wise, was buying in as a partner,” he said. “Owning [part of] an advisory firm is like buying stocks with leverage. The revenue is tied fairly heavily to markets, but we have staff and overhead.” He views his job as akin to owning a really volatile stock and, to an extent, manages his assets accordingly. “It’s partly why my reserves get up to 18 months,” he said.   

The 'treats'

Kitces doesn't feel deprived, since his goal is “not to get on that roller coaster.” Because he has a good handle on expenses, he can afford to indulge himself once in a while. The trick is choosing treats that won't become a permanent part of his budget. A few years ago, that was a new TV; he figures they won’t need another one for a long time. Vacations also work well. “For almost any remotely normal family vacation, I don’t care how fancy you go, it’s a whole order of magnitude less expensive than when you’re talking about things like buying new cars,” he said.

Once you get the big expenses right—where you live and what you drive—the small ones are less of a worry, Kitces said. He has no problem driving his Kia to Starbucks and indulging in a cafe misto. “My car takes me from point A to point B,” he said. “I know people with very nice cars who will work 20 years longer than I do.” 

(An earlier version of this article misstated the way Kitces calculates his savings goal.)

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  1. 1 “It’s exponentially easier just to not increase your lifestyle than to have to go backwards," said Kitces. "Many people are too casual about the decision to introduce something new into their lifestyle, and it gets harder to get rid of it later. I don’t know anybody who has bought a new car and then went back and bought a used one.”