For physicians paying close attention to their financial picture, there are a host of resources and advisors—most dedicated to young, new physicians. But not everyone put themselves on a solid financial course from the start of their career.
“Keeping expenses in check is probably the most important piece of the puzzle to financial well-being,” says W. Ben Utley, financial adviser and president of Physician Family Financial Advisors in Eugene, Oregon. “The only way to have money is to save it. It’s something physicians are not taught at school and it’s a lesson often not taught at home as well.”
If you’re a physician in your 40s and beyond who could use some financial guidance, here are four things to consider.
Making a plan
Physicians face a triple whammy of obstacles to financial independence—a truncated career due to an extended education, large student debt loads, and years of sacrifice and pent up demand before suddenly starting to earn a decent income—that can often lead to foolish investment decisions or an altogether lack of them.
“You should be getting your financial plan in order or at the very least started by your mid-30s,” Utley says. “A solid financial plan will include a specific year or target date when you will become debt-free and when you can stop working. It’s a date you can hang your hat on—or your stethoscope.
“Mid-career is the time to be confident about your life in general and money in particular,” Utley says. “A financial plan brings a lot of confidence.”
A 2015 analysis by Fidelity Investments of more than 13,000 physicians’ workplace retirement savings plans found that while physicians save on average a healthy 19.8%, nearly half of doctors are saving an average of only 9%. According to Fidelity’s Money FIT Physicians Study, 48% of physicians also feel they cannot afford to max out their workplace retirement plan.
The four As
“If you’ve been a doctor for a decade (by mid-career) and don’t have a plan, the best piece of advice I can give you is to get some help,” Utley says.
Creating a written plan for retirement includes four components: Aim, Awareness, Analysis and Action, he says.
- Aim: Determine a retirement date and a dollar amount of income you’d like to have in retirement. For example, you’d like to have $8,000 a month and retire at age 60.
- Awareness: Assess where you are, how much money you have and the details of your retirement accounts.
- Analysis: Look at your options, which include different types of investments, tax strategies and asset protection strategies.
- Action: Decide how much you’re going to save monthly and where you’re going to put the money.
The best way to save money is to lower your tax burden, according to Noah T. Kaufman, MD, president and co-founder of Physician Tax Solutions LLC. “While everyone is running around looking at investment strategies, they don’t take into account that their biggest expense is their tax burden. If you reduce your tax burden, you’ve got more money to invest, more money to service your debt, and more ways to shorten your financial freedom date, which is the ultimate goal.”
Dr. Kaufman co-founded Physician Tax Solutions after he and his wife, who is also a physician, realized they were working through May or June of each year to pay their taxes due to their high tax rates.
Physician Tax Solutions bills itself as a concierge financial service which employs a team of tax experts to help clients with 1099 earnings find deductions, credits, loopholes and strategies in order to pay less in taxes.
Doctors who freelance can structure their 1099 earnings to decrease their tax burden, liability and risk of audit, Dr. Kaufman says. “Tax laws are set up to favor businesses and investments, primarily real estate investments,” he says. “If you’re a locum tenens doc or a business owner with your own practice, the government says you’re creating value, and to encourage that behavior, gives you legal ways to lower your taxes. Physicians need to take advantage of those breaks.”
Physician Tax Solutions begins by helping physicians develop a custom tax strategy geared toward their unique situation. They may then choose to employ PTS on a month-to-month retainer or use their own team of experts to put their tax shelter plan into action.
Avoiding mid-career money mistakes
“Mid-career is the time to attempt to achieve some balance in your life, which includes a financial balance of what you’re consuming now and later,” Utley says.
Some of the biggest financial mistakes that mid-career physicians make, according to Utley, include:
- Paying off the mortgage too quickly: “Aggressive investments are going to outperform a mortgage, and physicians are leaving money on the table in most cases by putting more money toward their mortgage,” Utley says.
- Sticking with a failing business: “Physicians are not trained as business people. If a business is failing, they need to take a hard look at it and possibly give that thing a heave-ho,” he says.
- Failing to focus on what really matters: “Your family, particularly your spouse and your personal well-being and health, should be priorities,” Utley says, adding that not prioritizing these things leads to burnout, which can have financial repercussions such as a shortened career.
With physician burnout at an all-time high, Dr. Kaufman encourages physicians to concentrate on personal satisfaction and happiness. “A sound financial plan can free physicians from the stresses of worrying about money so they can enjoy what they do best—taking care of people,” he says.