Exploring the Retirement Consumption Puzzle

by David Blanchett, CFP®, CFA

Wanting to learn more about consumer spending in retirement? This article discusses the following topics:

  • Empirical research on retiree spending has noted a “retirement consumption puzzle,” where retiree expenditures tend to decrease both upon and during retirement. This decrease in spending is inconsistent with general economic theories on consumption, which suggest individuals seek to maintain constant consumption over their lifetimes.
  • Government data on consumption was analyzed in this study to understand how retiree consumption actually changes over time.
  • The results of the analysis suggest that although the retiree consumption basket is likely to increase at a rate that is faster than general inflation, actual retiree spending tends to decline in retirement in real terms. This decrease in real consumption averages approximately 1 percent per year during retirement. 
  • A “retirement spending smile” effect is noted. This finding has important implications when estimating retirement withdrawal rates and determining optimal spending strategies.