This is the twelfth and last in a series of posts made in preparation for a presentation I will be making for physicians in fellowship training at an upcoming ACCP meeting. In this post, I’ll summarize the key points from the last 11 posts.

Retirement planning for physicians is different than for everyone else. You make a lot more money. You have a lot more educational debt. Because of how long you trained, you have less years to save for retirement. Because of your income, your children are not going to be eligible for financial aid in college. And you have different insurance needs. Here is my list of the 13 rules to invest by for your retirement.

Start saving for retirement as early as you can afford to. Compound interest is a beautiful thing and you need to make it work it’s wonders for you.

Know your tax rate. It is not your income tax bracket that is important, it is your effective income tax rate and these are very different numbers. You also need to know your capital gains tax rate and which types of income are susceptible to income tax versus capital gains tax. Also, realize that changes in tax laws and tax rates are inevitable and the rates today will very likely not be the rates when you retire.

Tax-deferred investments are almost always better in the long run. Financial advisors who tell you that you will be in a lower tax bracket when you retire and so you should invest in post-tax investments are wrong – your goal is to retire in the same or a higher tax bracket than you are in now. Tax-deferred investments outperform other types of retirement investments.

If you have access to a defined benefit pension plan, take it. We’ve all heard about defined benefit pension plans that went belly up during the great recession and many people got scared of these pension plans. But the reality is that all investments went belly up during the recession. Unlike a blue collar worker or high school teacher for who the pension plan may be the only retirement plan that they have, you will have a lot of additional options and a defined pension plan is a fantastic component of a well-diversified retirement portfolio.

Investment priority listSet a priority list for retirement investment options. Each different plan has different tax implications and some are going to be better than others in the long haul. Employer-matched 401(k) or 403(b) plans are a no-brainer because the you can basically double your money from the outset. 457 plans have an advantage of no penalties for early withdrawal compared to 401(k) and 403(b) plans. If you are at a university, you may be able to invest in BOTH a 457 and a 403(b) plan. Once you become eligible for a 415(m) plan, you will likely have to make a one-time irrevocable decision about whether to contribute to it and how much to contribute to it – I recommend you choose to contribute the maximum percentage of your salary that you can; even if you can’t afford to do that now, you can always reduce your 403(b)/457 contributions for a few years until you are financially able to do both the 415(m) and your other tax-deferred investments. If you have self-employment income (from consulting, etc.), then open an SEP and put the maximum contributions that you can into it. Every year, put money into a traditional IRA and then immediately convert it into a Roth IRA – this gives you additional diversification in the types of retirement accounts that you have. After you have done all of that, then start putting retirement savings into regular investment accounts (i.e., those made up from post-income tax money). Don’t put money in a traditional IRA unless you are going to convert it into a Roth IRA.

Buy term life insurance.  But only buy as much as you need during the time in your life when other people who depend on you need it.

Buy a $1 million umbrella insurance policy. Remember, as a physician, you have a big red bull’s eye on your back that every personal injury attorney in the United States can see.

Seek no-load mutual funds with low expense ratios. The easiest options will be index funds.

Pay off your student loans on time but don’t try to pay them off too early. Being debt-free is always desirable but if you are careful with your personal budgeting and finances, then you will be better off contributing to a tax-deferred retirement plan than making additional early payments on your student loans.

If you use a financial advisor, pay him/her by the hour. Avoid using financial advisors who get paid by investing your money. No matter what they say, they are going to be motivated by making as much money off of your investments as they can. By paying by the hour, you avoid the conflict of interest that comes with getting advice from advisors who work on commission. Some investment companies (such as TIAA-CREF and Vanguard) will have free financial counseling by advisors who are not on commission, take advantage of free advice that comes without a conflict of interest.

For your children’s college savings, open a 529 plan and make regular monthly contributions to it. The tax advantages of 529 plans are huge and the control you have over the account puts these plans far ahead of other college savings options.

Diversification is the foundation for a strong retirement portfolio. Know the right percentage of stocks versus bonds in your portfolio for your age. Your goal is to have the optimal balance between risk and returns – when you are younger, take greater risks in order to get greater long-term returns – when you are older, take less risks in order to get more predictable short-term returns. Don’t forget that a defined benefit pension plan is the ultimate in predictable returns and this gives you a great foundation for portfolio diversification.

Above all, realize that you can be your retirement fund’s best friend or its worst enemy. Knowledge and patience are your most powerful tools in investment for retirement. If you try to beat the market, you most likely won’t since even professional stock analysts usually don’t. You need to make a long-term plan and stick with it. When the stock market crashes and everyone is in a panic, that’s the time for you to put a little extra into your retirement funds rather than pull money out of stocks because even though stock markets go down, they always eventually come back up and as a physician, you are going to have a secure enough job and high enough income to weather economic declines compared to people in just about any other profession.

September 7, 2016

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