Cashay logo

Empowering your money

How to use the bucket strategy for retirement asset allocation

At a glance:

  • What is the bucket strategy for asset allocation?

  • Maintaining the bucket strategy

  • Summary of the bucket strategy and retirement allocation

The bucket approach to retirement-portfolio management, pioneered by financial planning guru Harold Evensky, effectively helps retirees create a paycheck from their investment assets.

The bucket concept is anchored on the basic premise that assets needed to fund near-term living expenses ought to remain in cash, dinky yields and all.

Assets that won't be needed for several years or more can be parked in a diversified pool of long-term holdings, with the cash buffer providing the peace of mind to ride out periodic downturns in the long-term portfolio.

Here's how the bucket approach works and how to fill each bucket.

COCONUT GROVE, FL - JULY 24:  Carol P. Murphy, a real estate loan officer at the Coconut Grove Bank, speaks with a customer about a home loan July 24, 2002 in Coconut Grove, Florida. Murphy stated that "as the financial markets continues its wild swings, people have been trying to get their money into safer places such as real estate." Murphy also stated that the number of calls for loans has been sky rocketing.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A real estate loan officer at the Coconut Grove Bank, speaks with a customer about a home loan in 2002. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

What is the bucket approach for asset allocation?

The first bucket is key

The linchpin of any bucket framework is a highly liquid component to meet near-term living expenses for one year or more.

When cash yields are close to zero, bucket 1 is close to dead money, but the goal of this portfolio sleeve is to stabilize principal to meet income needs not covered by other income sources.

To arrive at the amount of money to hold in bucket 1, start by sketching out spending needs on an annual basis.

Subtract from that amount any certain, non-portfolio sources of income such as Social Security or pension payments.

The amount left over is the starting point for bucket 1: That's the amount of annual income bucket 1 will need to supply.

More conservative investors will want to multiply that figure by 2 or more to determine their cash holdings.

Alternatively, investors concerned about the opportunity cost of so much cash might consider building a two-part liquidity pool—one year's worth of living expenses in true cash and one or more year's worth of living expenses in a slightly higher-yielding alternative holding, such as a short-term bond fund.

A retiree might also consider including an emergency fund within bucket 1 to defray unanticipated expenses such as car repairs, additional health-care costs, and so on.

The other buckets

Although retirees may customize different frameworks for the number of buckets they hold, and the types of assets in each, consider two additional buckets, as follows.

Bucket 2: This portfolio segment contains five or more years' worth of living expenses, with a goal of income production and stability.

Thus, it's dominated by high-quality fixed-income exposure, though it might also include a small share of high-quality dividend-paying equities and other yield-rich securities such as master limited partnerships.

Balanced or conservative- and moderate-allocation funds would also be appropriate in this part of the portfolio.

Income distributions from this portion of the portfolio can be used to refill bucket 1 as those assets are depleted. Why not simply spend the income proceeds directly and skip bucket 1 altogether?

Because most retirees desire a reasonably consistent income stream to help meet their income needs.

If yields are low, the retiree can maintain a consistent standard of living by looking to other portfolio sources, such as rebalancing proceeds from buckets 2 and 3, to refill bucket 1.

Bucket 3: The longest-term portion of the portfolio, bucket 3 is dominated by stocks and more volatile bond types like junk bonds.

Because this portion of the portfolio is likely to deliver the best long-term performance, it will require periodic trimming to keep the total portfolio from becoming too equity-heavy.

By the same token, this portion of the portfolio will also have much greater loss potential than buckets 1 and 2.

Those portfolio components are in place to prevent the investor from tapping bucket 3 when it's in a slump, which would otherwise turn paper losses into real ones.

Maintaining the bucket strategy

In the bucket approach to retirement allocation, we have the following:

How the maintenance would work

The bucket structure calls for adding assets back to bucket 1 as the cash is spent down. Yet investors can exercise a lot of leeway to determine the logistics of that necessary bucket maintenance.

The following sequence will make sense in many situations:

  • Income from cash holdings in bucket 1. These will be of limited help in a yield-starved environment, but could become more meaningful when yields rise.

  • Income from bonds and dividend-paying stocks from buckets 2 and possibly even 3. (Income-focused investors might decide that their bucket maintenance starts and stops with these distributions.)

  • Rebalancing proceeds from buckets 2 and especially 3.

  • Principal withdrawals from bucket 2, provided the above methods have been exhausted. Such a scenario would tend to be most likely in a 2008-style environment, when bond and dividend yields dropped and equities slumped, thereby making it an inopportune time to unload equities. (Such a scenario would generally be a decent time to engage in tax-loss selling, but the proceeds from that would be best deployed back into equities.)

Summary of the bucket strategy

Now you know how the bucket approach works. You can probably see that it's an intuitive approach, and if you are nearing retirement, you might already be doing a version of it.

And if you are younger, you might still be doing a version of it, since it can also work for other life goals.

We've covered the basic nuts and bolts of the bucket approach. If you desire deeper knowledge and more technique, there is plenty more written about it.

This content was created in partnership with the Financial Fitness Group, a leading e-learning provider of FINRA compliant financial wellness solutions that help improve financial literacy.

Read more information and tips in our Investing section

Read more personal finance information, news, and tips on Cashay

Follow Cashay on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook