Four Financial Solvency Tips for Physicians

Rather than buying that expensive car you’ve been wanting, hold off until your debt is paid.
Rather than buying that expensive car you’ve been wanting, hold off until your debt is paid.

Physicians, for the most part, live like the middle class, but for them, living within their means is dramatically different, according to financial planner Ben Utley.

“They make somewhere between three to 10 times as much as other middle-class people, so that shifts everything,” he said. “They tend to have bigger budgets than other middle-class families and a lot of extra money.”

Physicians graduate late and with lots of debt, are paid well, but often work long hours that can cause burnout. These are just a few of the reasons why you need to focus on finances long before you are thinking about retiring. Here are some financial considerations for all stages of your career.

Don't live large

After years of college, medical school, and residency, young doctors may be suffering from pent-up purchasing desires. They go from a low-paying residency, an old car, and an apartment to quadrupling their income literally overnight.

Instead of trying to catch up all at once and spending everything you earn, you might want to live like a resident for a while, said Joel Greenwald of Greenwald Wealth Management in St. Louis Park, Minn.

“The ones who are ultimately successful are the ones who can still live on $50,000 or $100,000 a year and be pretty happy,” he said.

Because of all of the time in school, physicians get a later start on savings than people in many other occupations. Greenwald said he tells his clients that early in their careers, they need to make up for that by saving, not spending.

“If doctors spend all of what they make when they start practicing, they aren't going to be saving enough and they will end up being tied to the job longer than they want to be,” he said.

A savings plan

The first thing you need to know about savings is how much you need to save. Utley, from Physician Family Financial Advisors in Eugene, Ore., said financial planners back into that number by understanding the sustainable withdrawal rate: 4% of the portfolio's total. So, if you want to be able to take out $120,000 a year during retirement, you will need about $3 million of after-tax assets.

To get to this point, he recommends saving a minimum of 15% of your income throughout your career. The secret to doing this is making savings automatic. If money comes out of your check each pay period, you never miss it.

“If clients tell me they will send me a big check at the end of the year, that never works,” Greenwald said. “They end up remodeling or getting a new car or something.”

One major mistake Utley sees most people make is assuming that if you fully fund your 401k plan at work, then you will be on track for retirement. That, he says, is not the case.

The most someone who is under 50 years old can put into a 401k is $50,000 a year. Over 20 years, that would only net about $1 million. He recommends putting money into IRAs and other accounts like a joint taxable account, real estate, or purchasing a medical office building.

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