Reaching Financial Independence under Australia’s Superannuation System and the “Two Bucket” Method

There is a controversy within the Australian financial independence and retire early (FIRE) community about whether to salary sacrifice into superannuation while you are young to get the tax benefits. (For international readers, “superannuation” or “super” is the Australian version of the American 401(k) or IRA, basically a retirement fund.)

When you salary sacrifice into your super fund, the money going in is taxed at 15% rather than your marginal tax rate. For example, if you are earning $100k per year, your marginal income tax rate is 37% so there are large tax savings to be made if you salary sacrifice into super.

However, there is a downside because you do not have access to this money in your super fund until you are 60. For many young people, this is too far away, so they’d rather take the money now.

In my opinion, if you earn under $37k, there are insufficient tax benefits to warrant salary sacrificing into super, but once you earn over $37k, additional income will be taxed at at 32% and 37% so you should be salary sacrificing.

The table below shows that once you earn over about $18k, additional income is taxed at 19% so the reduction to 15% is hardly worth it, but once you start earning over $37k, there is quite a large gain from salary sacrificing.

Australian income tax rates for 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 (residents)

Income thresholdsRateTax payable on this income
$0 – $18,2000%Nil
$18,201 – $37,00019%19c for each $1 over $18,200
$37,001 – $90,00032.5%$3,572 plus 32.5% of amounts over $37,000
$90,001 – $180,00037%$20,797 plus 37% of amounts over $90,000

There are many arguments made not to salary sacrifice into super, and the most common arguments are provided below.

You may need the money while you are young e.g. to raise children, so you should not lock your money up in super

It is important to realise that there is a limit to how much you can salary sacrifice into superannuation. The amount your employer contributes plus the amount you salary sacrifice cannot exceed $25k, so even if you are salary sacrificing into super, there is still money you are not investing in super, so you are likely to have money outside of super to cover any unforeseen expenses.

Futhermore, when most people invest outside of super, they lock the money up anyway, e.g. they buy and hold ETFs or invest in property. It is true that ETFs and property can be sold to be used for necessary expenses, but there is a hassle involved, especially with property. There are large transaction costs involved in unwinding these investments including but not limited to capital gains tax. The only truly liquid asset is cash, and most people hold small amounts of cash to meet day-to-day expenses because they are aware that they can get better returns elsewhere, so why not apply the same principle to supernanuation and lock it up for the tax benefits?

Another consideration is that money locked up in super is still accessible in dire situations e.g. if you are bankrupt and living on the streets, you are able to access money in super via “hardship provisions.”

Another perspective is to look at money locked up in super as an argument for it rather than against it. Many people recommend getting an investment property as an investment because the compulsory monthly mortgage repayment provides “forced savings.” Since property is difficult and costly to unwind, this prevents the average person from raiding the piggy bank to pay for frivolous costs. Super can be seen as the ultimate form of “forced savings” because you cannot access it unless you are 60. Good money management is mostly psychological. Cash in your wallet is as good as gone because there is very little preventing you from spending it at the shops, but money in super is the other end of the extreme, and buying and holding shares or property are in the middle.

Forcing yourself to save money via a mortgage or superannuation is very useful for those who lack self-discipline, and while it is easy to think of yourself as being self-disciplined, most people are not.

Money outside of super can earn more than money inside super. Super is invested in shares and is therefore risky so you should leave money outside super and invest it in safer investments e.g. property.

This is a common argument given, that money in super is invested in shares, and most people perceive shares to be risky, so it is better to not invest in super and invest in property, which is perceived to be safe.

There is so much wrong with this idea. Firstly, most super funds invest not only in shares but also e.g. bonds and listed property. Furthermore, anyone can use a self-managed super fund (SMSF) to invest in almost anything, including Australian residential property (e.g. via BrickX).

Using an SMSF, it is possible to e.g. invest in residential property and even to leverage investments e.g. via internally geared ETFs. There are even margin loans designed for leveraging into super e.g. Nab Super Lever.

Another false assumption is that property performs better than shares. Many equity indexes perform just as well as property if not better. For example, looking at the historical performance of properties on BrickX, the best performing properties average 8% per annum capital gains, but the net rental yield of these properties is about 1.5% per annum. Historical performance of the STW ETF, which tracks the ASX200 index, as of July 2019, according to Bloomberg, also shows 8% per annum capital gains over five years, but the STW ETF also provides 5.93% dividend yield as at writing this, and that is not counting franking credits. If we look at equity indexes such as the S&P500, then performance is even better for shares. One could argue that other equity indexes have not performed well or that particular shares may not have performed well, but the same argument can be levelled at property. The 8% performance for property was plucked from the best performing properties in BrickX. Had you invested in other property, you would not have achieved these results. Furthermore, investing in shares allows you to easily diversify via index funds, and many super funds use either index funds or their active management policies require them to diversify globally, so you are getting instant diversification, but if you buy one house, you are not getting any diversification at all, which is a huge risk.

Furthermore, the argument that shares are riskier because they are more volatile is also false. The reason why stock prices move up and down quickly is because shares or ETFs are listed on the stock exchange. The price is disclosed whenever the market is open, which is every weekday. However, we only learn about the price of property when we buy or sell it or when we have an auction, and this happens very infrequently, e.g. every ten years. If there is an auction for a particular house every single day, there will be price volatility. Because there is not an auction every single day, this hides the volatility, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t actually exist.

The fact that house price volatility is hidden also hides losses very well. For example, one of my friends had a mere $10k in his superannuation fund, and during the GFC his balance went down by $4k. He was so freaked out seeing the balance in his fund reduce so much so quickly that he withdrew all the money. He is an old man, so he is able to do this. However, this friend also owns a property that is valued at about $1 million, and in the recent 2017 and 2018 property price declines in Australia, the valuation of his property using CoreLogic data shows that his property went down in value to $800k, so basically $200k was wiped out, and he didn’t seem fussed at all. When my friend saw $4k wiped out from his super fund, he saw the balance go down instantly. He saw the market gyrations on the financial media and the stock market charts in free-fall. A mere $4k loss was enough to freak him out. However, when $200k is wiped out from his property, he doesn’t bat an eyelid. He knew in general that property prices were going down, but there is no dramatic price charts, and it is often uncertain to really know how much your property is worth. Most people have no idea. This story illustrates how irrational most people are with regards to property vs shares.

The government may change the rules and start taxing your super heavily.

This is another common argument against superannuation, that if you put your money in super, it is at the whims of government legislation. Supposedly if your money is locked in super, there is temptation for the government to increase taxes on super or increase the age at which you have access to it.

However, the problem with this argument is that even if you don’t put your money in super e.g. you put it into property or shares outside of super, it is also at the whims of government legislation changes e.g. if there are changes in income tax, capital gains tax, or franking credit legislation. Government can change anything, not just legislation that impacts on superannuation but also legislation that impacts on funds held outside of superannuation.

The only way you can avoid the risk of rising taxation imposed by the Australian government is to move your money into offshore havens or to e.g. cryptocurrency such as bitcoin, ether, or monero. However, offshore havens are not immune from the risk of legislation change. If your money is held in e.g. Bermuda, who is to say the Bermuda government can’t change its legislation? Cryptocurrency is also not a foolproof tax avoidance mechanism since crypto is still subject to capital gains tax by the ATO. There are other risks with crypto as well because even if you avoid countries and government, arguably the country or government in a crypto investment is the community of investors or the miners and the legislation is the protocol that governs how the crypto operates, and this is subject to change by developers. A whole book can be written about this, but basically there is no way to avoid risk of changes in legislation negatively impacting investments unless you diversify.

Contributing to super prevents you from retiring early

This argument is somewhat true but not as bad as you may think. Basically if you salary sacrifice into super, you don’t get access to the funds until 60, so if you are putting a huge amount into super, you may have enough to retire early but you don’t have access to it, which means that effectively your early retirement is deferred. To take an extreme example, suppose you need $1 million to retire, and you salary sacrifice so much that you have $1 million in super but nothing outside of super (because you use all your cash outside super to spend on expenses). Then you cannot retire until you reach 60 even if you managed to amass $1 million in super by e.g. age of 40.

However, as I stated before, there is a limit to how much you can salary sacrifice into super. The employer contribution plus amounts salary sacrificed cannot exceed $25k per year, so more realistically the amount you save outside of super should roughly equal the amount going into super. Rather than reach the age of 40 with $1 million only in super, chances are you will have $500k in super and $500k outside super. The amount outside super will likely be in e.g. ETFs, shares, and property.

Early retirement according to the FIRE community relies on the “four percent rule” i.e. your annual expenses should equal 4% of your net worth. If you reach age 40 with $1 million in your super, you cannot retire early and spend $40k per year because you don’t have access to the funds, but if you reach age 40 with $500k in super and $500k outside super, you probably can. Simply take the age at which you can access your super and subtract it by your age. In our example of someone retiring early at 40, this means there is 20 years left before he or she has access to super at age 60, so the money outside of super of $500k needs to last for 20 years. The simplest way to make sure you don’t spend over $500k in 20 years is to apply a simple straight line calculation and divide $500k by the years left, so in this case $500k divide by 20 is $25k per year you should spend before you have access to your super fund. By the time you have access to your super fund, that $500k in 20 years should be about $2 million assuming 8% per annum growth, and this means by the time you reach 60 you can apply the four percent rule and draw down $80k from your super per year. This is what I call the “two bucket system” and it is briefly explained by Aussie Firebug in his Australian Financial Independence Calculator as well as Mister Money Moustache in his article How to Retire Forever on a Fixed Chunk of Money.

Of course, retiring early on $25k and then suddenly reverting to $80k after 60 is a very weird way of implementing the two bucket method because I use a straight line method to draw down funds before access to super and then after access to super I use the four percent rule. Ideally you should use the four percent rule both before and after age 60 and arrange it such that you run out of pre-super funds just as you hit 60. This requires a much more complicated formula that Aussie Firebug has worked out in his spreadsheets above, but I believe that using the straight line method before access to super is much easier. The straight line method ignores growth in the pre-super funds, and so it is very conservative.

If you salary sacrifice heavily and use the straight line method to draw down funds before access to super, you will likely push early retirement out a little. If you are not willing to do this eg if you are absolutely determined to retire at age 40, then one way to still retire early while also salary sacrificing into super is to temporarily retire in a low-cost-of-living (LCOL) area e.g. Southeast Asia and then come back to Australia when you are 60 to access your super and retire here. The benefit of this approach is to use geoarbitrage to get the most bang from your buck in a LCOL area while you are young but then come back to a welfare state to access generous healthcare systems when you are older. However, this will be the subject of another post where I speak in more detail about retiring in LCOL areas as well as the “two bucket” system.

Is Salary Sacrificing into Super Worth It?

Because I live in Australia, there are some financial ideas that are unique to Australians e.g. franking credits, negative gearing, and superannuation.

Firstly, what is superannuation? Superannuation (or super) is a retirement fund similar to the US’s 401k. When your employer pays you, they are required by law to put 9.5% of your salary into your super. This super is locked up until you are old (about 60 to 70).

Why salary sacrifice into super? Compared to many other countries, income tax is high in Australia. Any amount you earn over $37k has a 32.5% income tax rate applied to it. If you earn over $90k then any amount over $90k attracts a 37% income tax rate. However, suppose you earned $100k per year and you arranged with your employer to salary sacrifice $10k into your super fund, then this means that rather than paying $3700 tax on that $10k and receiving $6300 in your bank account, you instead have that $10k go into your super fund and where it is taxed at only 15% i.e. you pay $1500 tax. This means you save $2200 per year assuming you salary sacrifice $10k per year.

If the tax benefits are so good, why not salary sacrifice everything into super? The answer is that there is a limit. The amount your employer puts in (9.5%) and the amount you salary sacrifice cannot exceed $25k per year. Take the example of someone who earns $100k. This figure does not include super. The employer is paying $9500 (9.5% of $100k) per year into superannuation by law. However, if the worker wants to top this up by salary sacrificing, they should simply find the difference between $25k and the compulsory contribution amount ($9500) and then salary sacrifice this amount. In this case, the person earning $100k should salary sacrifice $15500 per year to fully take advantage of the tax benefits. If you get paid every fortnight, simply divide this by 26 and therefore salary sacrifice $596 per fortnight. In my opinion, you should always salary sacrifice a little bit below the limit because your salary will likely increase bit by bit over time. If the amount you salary sacrifice is exactly $25k then the next salary increase (e.g. due to inflation correction) can tip you over the $25k mark, which leads to punitive taxes applied to you. Therefore, I recommend aiming for $23k or $24k just to be safe.

Using the example of earning $100k per year, if you are salary sacrificing $10k per year you’d save $2200 per year. If you salary sacrifice to the max then you’d be making $3410 per year.

Assuming you save $3410 per year over 30 year, then assuming 8% per annum returns, you’d have $250k.

What are the downsides of salary sacrificing into super?

Even though there are tax benefits, the main disadvantage of salary sacrificing into your super fund is that you do not get access to this money until you are around 60 to 70. However, there are hardship provisions in superannuation that allows you to access your super under severe financial hardship. Given that I am a long-term investor, I normally buy and hold investments forever. I will only ever sell if there is severe financial hardship. Therefore, keeping money in super doesn’t make much difference. For most people who do not salary sacrifice into super, their main reason is that they need to pay the mortgage, but they are simply building up savings in their house, and because houses have high transaction costs, chances are they will only sell the house under severe financial hardship as well.

One common argument people use against superannuation is that the “rules can change.” That is, while your money is locked up in superannuation, the government could change the rules and e.g. increase taxes on it. However, this is not a good argument. The risk of government changing rules or legislation apply to all investments. For example, if you do not salary sacrifice and invest in property and shares outside of super, the upcoming proposed changes to negative gearing, capital gains tax and franking credits will affect you. Unless you invest in offshore accounts or cryptocurrency, you are at risk of “rules changing,” and even if you invest in, say, offshore accounts, then offshore jurisdictions are subject to changes in legislation, and cryptocurrency protocols can change, leading to “hard forks.” You can never escape the risk of legislative or protocol amendment. The only way to mitigate this risk is to diversify.

The key downside of salary sacrificing into super is that you do not get passive income, which impacts on your ability to be finacnially independent. If you salary sacrifice $10k into super, that $10k does not produce dividends that go into your bank account for spending. It simply accrues in the super fund and accumulates until you are, say, 60. This means that if you seek to be financially independent quickly or retire very early, salary sacrificing into super can be a problem. However, there are workarounds.

The four percent rule

The four percent rule states that when you retire you spend 4% per year. Suppose you retire with $1 million in net worth. You simply spend $40k per year. Now suppose you had $500k in super and $500k outside super. One strategy is to continue to use the 4% rule but to retire at a time such that you can use the 4% rule and then time it so that you run out of your $500k outside of super just before you have access to superannuation.

Coast FI or Barista FI

Another option is called “coast FI” or “barista FI” which are terms used among the online FIRE community (financial indepence retire early). Basically you can salary sacrifice to the max early in your career such that you have, say, $200k in super by age 30. Assuming 8% per annum growth, then this $200k in super will become $2 million by age 60 assuming no extra contributions. Therefore, through aggressive early savings, your 60s are covered. Having $2 million when you are 60 is more than enough. However, because you have locked up a considerable amount of money into super, you may live a lower standard of living up until you are 60.

One solution to this suggested by the FIRE community is “coast FI” which sadly has nothing to do with the Gold Coast. Rather, you coast to your 60s by taking it easy and doing easy jobs (e.g. a barista, although based on what I have seen being a barista is quite difficult). However, in my opinion, this is not a good strategy because even easy work is still work, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to find easy work in the upcoming age of automation. The whole point of financial independence is to enable you to live without a job so that you can pursue whatever you are passionate about.

Although there are problems with barista FI, the insight that barista FI brings up is that you don’t need to retire early. Once you live off dividends, rather than retire and stop working, you can keep working but simply don’t work as hard. You don’t need to work as a barista, but you can work the current job you work but simply work in a more relaxed manner. This may mean you spend more time at work chatting to coworkers or it may mean you work part-time and take more holidays. A more mainstream term for this is “semi-retirement.” Another option is to change jobs and do something you are passionate about e.g. you may build online social enterprises that help the world.

The solution to the superannuation dilemma

Superannuation presents many Australians with a complicated dilemma. Either you salary sacrifice and increase your wealth thanks to tax benefits but lock your money up unitl you are very old, or you do not salary sacrifice, reduce your wealth, but reach financial independence faster.

In my opinion, you should salary sacrifice to the max early in your career. However, to accelerate your chances of becoming financially independent as fast as possible, live as minimalist a life as possible (e.g. living with roommates or with parents, riding bikes or taking public transport, never having children, etc) and then with your money outside of super apply the Peter Thornhill approach by investing all your money into high dividend paying Australian equity ETFs and LICs (e.g. VHY, IHD, RARI, EINC, RINC, BKI, AFI, and ARG). Because Australian equities are blessed with high dividend yield and franking credits, this coupled with a highly minimalist lifestyle will allow you to quickly achieve financial independence. To use some example numbers, the cost of a sharehouse found via Gumtree or Facebook is about $700 per month. The cost of meal replacement drink Aussielent (which I use as the basis for the cost of food) is $256 per month. Then if you get a bike then you can cover all necessities for $1000 per month or $12,000 per year. Assuming dividend yield of 7% then this means you need to save up $170k. Adding income tax and offsetting it with franking credits, this means you’ll only need to save up about $200k in high dividend ETFs or LICs to be able to be financially independent. After you have $200k, you can start to diversify your portfolio away from Australian equity to reduce risk (e.g. into bonds and international equities). Then over time, as your dividend income increases, you can slowly increase your living standards, e.g. live by yourself rather than with housemates or parents. You can eat tastier food rather than Aussielent, etc. However, for the sake of financial indpendence, your living expenses should not exceed your passive income because you must minimise the amount of time you are dependent on your job.

Because you salary sacrifice into super, there is a good chance a large chunk of your net worth will be in illiquid assets, so your living standards will be low up until you are 60 and then suddenly after 60 you will have a very high standard of living.

Retirement (or semi-retirement) in Southeast Asia

If you salary sacrifice into super, you will have a considerable amount of money in your 60s or 70s, but before you are old, you will likely live a minimalist lifestyle assuming you live off dividends. A way to increase your standard of living is to retire early in Southeast Asia where the cost of living is lower. Before I spoke about how $1000 per month is enough to live a very minimalist lifestyle in Australia, but in many Southeast Asian cities e.g. Chiang Mai, Ubud or Sihanoukville, $1000 per month can afford a more comfortable standard of living. You can retire early and then come back to Australia in your 60s to collect your superannuation and then retire in Australia. Because Southeast Asia is a bit “rougher” than Australia, younger people in their forties or fifties can tolerate it better, so if you end up retiring early in your forties or fifties living off dividends, you can go to Southeast Asia for retirement and then come back to Australia to cash out your super. One of the benefits of living in Australia is its socialist healthcare system (Medicare) that provides free medical care for all. This is particularly useful for older people. That being said, if you reach the age of 60 or 70 with net worth of $2 million, that sort of money can buy good healthcare even in e.g. Thailand. Cities such as Bangkok have international-standard private hospitals that many people from all over the world travel to for medical treatment.

Disclosure: I currently own IHD.

The Problem with Index Funds and Superannuation

Work has been tough for me, and when I talk to people about it (that is, complain and whine about it), they either tell me to just quit or to endure it because “that’s the way it is.”

I would love to quit and retire right now in my early thirties, but I don’t feel like I have enough passive income. Passive income is a great measure of how much freedom you have. When I was younger, I set myself a goal of producing $1000 per month in passive income (mainly from dividends from shares), and I achieved that about half a year ago.

When I was very young, I was investing in boring and ordinary low-cost index funds. I also in eating in a few direct shares here and there. If you read any personal finance blog nowadays (e.g. Mister Money Mustache), this is the advice they give you: invest in a wide range of low-cost index funds. Most of these people invest with Vanguard. Many mainstream personal finance bloggers also advise you to put your money into tax sheltered retirement accounts. As many of these people are American, the advice is to plow as much of your salary into 401(k) and IRA accounts. In Australia, we have retirement accounts as well. Everyone who works has what is called a superannuation fund (or super fund). Employers must by law put in 9% of an employee’s salary into this fund. Employees can then elect to salary sacrifice a portion of his salary into the super fund in order to save on tax as any income going into a super fund is taxed at 15% rather than whatever a person’s marginal income tax rate it (usually 30%).

So I have been following this advice. I have invested in low-cost index funds and I have plowed a lot of my salary into retirement accounts. However, about six months ago, when my passive income reached $1000 per month, I decided to change plans.

The problem is that most mainstream low-cost index funds do not pay much passive income. For example, the ETF issued by Vanguard Australia that invests in the US (Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF) has a very impressive management cost of 0.05% per annum (extremely low) but has a dividend indicated gross yield of 1.87% according to Bloomberg. Furthermore, superannuation funds lock up your money until you are around 65 (i.e. too long). It is clear then that if you are investing in low-cost index funds and plowing your salary into retirement accounts, your passive income will grow, but it will not grow much, and because passive income is the key to freedom, I needed to make a change.

It should be noted that superannuation laws are very strict in Australia. As far as I am concerned (and I am very happy to be corrected) it is virtually impossible for anyone to have access to his super until he is 65 (i.e. very old). In the US, intelligent bloggers have found loopholes that allow them to access their retirement accounts early (see these blog posts by the Mad Fientist: Roth IRA Horse Race and Retire Even Earlier). The only arrangement that comes even close in Australia is the “transition to retirement” plan where you can take out money from super to top up any existing income if you take it out as an income stream. However, you need to be around 55 to 60 to be eligible for this.

Salary sacrificing into superannuation is definitely helping me build wealth, but this wealth could only be accessed far into the future, which meant that I had to wait until I was really old before I can be rich. I was building up too much future wealth while sacrificing present freedom. I started to realize all this when circumstances at work became difficult. Basically I had been saving up hard for about seven years but only had a passive income of about $1000 per month. I realized that most of my money was locked up in super as well as low-yielding investments.

My plan now is to take a hit with taxes, pay more, but focus on investing in funds that pay double-digit (over 10%) yield. Once I get about $4000 per month in passive income, I plan to quit my job and focus on trying to find a way to make money online. I am tired of working for a manager.