I was asked to give a presentation on financial planning to fellows attending this fall’s annual meeting of the American College of Chest Physicians. In preparation for that presentation, I am preparing several posts about retirement planning for physicians. This is the first of these posts. As a disclaimer, I am not a financial planner but after more than 30 years of being a physician with 15 of those years spent as the treasurer of our Department of Internal Medicine, I have seen physicians make a lot of good choices and bad choices so I have a few thoughts on the subject.

The question everyone asks when planning retirement income is: “How much money will I need?”. The answer is… a lot. Before you can even begin to try to answer the question, you have to consider a number of variables including:

  1. How long will you live in retirement? Somehow, this one always gets me queasy whenever I have to consider it. Currently, the average life expectancy for an American who is 30 years old is age 77 for a man and age 81 for a woman. Since you are a physician, you can probably add a couple of years to that since you are likely a non-smoker and have reasonably healthy eating and exercise habits. So, if you are looking at retiring at age 65, then you’re going to need 15-20 years of income saved up. And if you’re planning on living to 100 like me, then you’re going to need to support yourself for 35 years.
  2. What is the inflation rate? The consumer price index goes up each year with an average inflation rate for the past 100 years of 3.1% per year. But remember, that is an average. The year I started medical school, the inflation rate was 13.5% and a couple of years of that rate will dramatically erode your retirement account. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the consumer price index goes up the same amount in the next 30 years when you get ready to retire as it has in the past 30 years when I was a resident. If that is the case, then an annual income of $250,000 this year will be equal in purchasing power to an annual income of $549,813 in 30 years.
  3. Will your fixed expenses change? Hopefully, you’ll have the house paid off, the kids out of the house and their college paid off. Once you retire, you won’t have to be setting aside a big chunk of your annual income for retirement savings since you’ll be drawing off of those savings. But things happen and it is possible that you’ll have different fixed expenses in 30 years. But for simplicity sake, subtract out your current mortgage payments, retirement contributions, and kid’s college savings contributions from your current income to determine what percentage of your current income is used for your activities of daily living in order to determine what you will need to maintain that level of daily living in retirement.
  4. What portion of your retirement income will be subject to income tax? As you will see in a later post, there are taxable and non-taxable retirement savings options for you but most of your retirement income is likely to be subject to income taxes, just like your current income is.

So, for the purposes of example, let’s assume you are a physician making $250,000 a year currently. And let’s further assume that you are spending $30,000 a year on your mortgage, you are putting $40,000 a year away for retirement, and you are saving $10,00 a year for your children’s college savings and all of those expenses are going to go away when you retire with your house paid off and your children graduated from college. That means that your effective current income is $170,000 per year. If the consumer price index goes up at the same pace as it has for the past 30 years, then in order to have the same lifestyle in 30 years as you do now, you’ll need to have $374,000 per year. The good news is that your annual income will likely be also going up each year for the next 30 years and presumably the amount that you are contributing into your retirement fund will also so it won’t be quite as much of a sudden shock to your finances.

There are a lot of formulas for estimating how much of your retirement account you should plan to take out each year. A commonly quoted number range is 3-5% of your total retirement portfolio.  Let’s go with 4% as your initial withdrawal rate and you estimate that you will live for 30 years in retirement. In order to have $374,000 per year, starting 30 years from now, you’ll need to have about $9,000,000 in your retirement account in order to fund yourself entirely out of your retirement savings.

If you are a physician and you and your spouse are making a lot more than $250,000 per year, then your retirement target may be closer to $15,000,000 or $20,000,000. These are really scary numbers but as I’m going to show you in the next several posts in this series, it is actually pretty do-able as long as you start saving early and you save smartly.

 

August 16, 2016

 

 

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