Categories
Physician Finances Physician Retirement Planning

The 15 Commandments of Physician Financial Health

For physicians completing residency or fellowship, managing finances can be bewildering when that first paycheck as a practicing physician comes in. There was no class in personal finance in medical school. So, here is a short course on the basics of financial health: 15 rules to live by.

1. Have an emergency fund

This is the very first thing that a newly practicing physician (or anyone, for that matter) needs to do to ensure financial safety. No event in generations has made this more clear than the COVID-19 pandemic which brought unemployment rates higher than any time since the Great Depression.

But unemployment comes in cycles and it is certain that there will be 2-3 additional spikes in U.S. unemployment during your working career. Although physicians were relatively immune to the 2020 COVID-associated unemployment spike, it is common to suddenly find oneself out of a job if the hospital terminates the contract with your practice group, the hospital closes, or a hurricane destroys your hospital. Although physicians can usually find a new job somewhere, it can take several months to process a hospital application or obtain a medical license in a different state. You need a minimum of 3 months-worth of expenses and preferably 6 months-worth in a safe investment (checking account, savings account, or money market account).

2. Eliminate excessive debt

A newly trained physician has a lot of pent up consumption. The roommate that you graduated from college with 7-8 years ago drives a new BMW, vacations in the Turks and Caicos, and just joined a country club. Meanwhile, you’ve been driving a 15-year-old Chevy that was handed down from your aunt, your only vacation last year was to visit your in-laws in New Jersey, and fine dining involves a Domino’s pizza. You want to catch up and that first paycheck is going to be more than you made in the past 4 months of residency. You will be tempted to max out your credit cards in anticipation of that paycheck and you’ll be tempted to put that first paycheck towards a new house/car/vacation. There will come a time for expensive purchases but have patience and do not take on excess debt, especially early in your career. If you cannot pay off your credit cards every month, then you are buying too much stuff. Too high of a monthly mortgage payment or car loan will financially suffocate you for years to come.

3. Buy insurance judiciously

Everyone needs health insurance and most people need some other type of insurance. When you are first starting out in your career, you will have lots of people trying to sell you things, especially insurance policies. But be careful and only buy the insurance that you actually need:

  • Life insurance. This comes in 2 main types: term and whole life. When you buy life insurance, you are making a bet with the insurance company – you’re betting that you are going to die when you are young and the insurance company is betting that you are going to die when you are old. Term life insurance is relatively inexpensive and straight forward: you pay the insurance company a set amount each month and the insurance company pays your beneficiaries if you die while your policy is active. Whole life is a lot more complicated and considerably more expensive – it is the marriage between term life insurance and a savings account and that marriage cost you much more than the individual cost of the insurance plan and the savings plan individually. The insurance agent will try to sell you on whole life in order to put his or her children through college. My advice is that term life insurance is necessary when you have young children or a spouse who does not work – once you are close to retirement, you no longer really need it. Avoid whole life insurance.
  • Disability insurance. Every physician should have disability insurance until they retire. Unlike life insurance which is there to support your dependents if you die prematurely, disability insurance is there to support both you and your dependents if you become disabled. After you retire, you no longer need it.
  • Umbrella insurance. Once you become a practicing physician, you will have a big red bull’s eye on your back that every plaintiff attorney in the country can see. They know that you don’t bother to sue a person at fault who is broke, you sue the person who has money… and physicians have money. If you or a family member are involved in a motor vehicle accident with injuries or if a pedestrian falls and breaks their neck on your sidewalk, you need excess coverage. Buy a $1 million policy.
  • Annuities. These are the opposite of life insurance and can be considered as death insurance: You are placing a bet with the insurance company that you are going to live a long time and the insurance company is betting that you are going to die soon. However, this is really what a pension is – a way to insure that you still have an annual income if you live longer than you expected to. So, buying a simple annuity is a lot like purchasing a pension. The problem is that annuities can be extremely expensive and insurance companies often dress them up with all kinds of extra features that you don’t really need (and most people don’t understand). Insurance agents make a bunch of money on annuities, so they will push them very hard. They still might be worth it for people with a relatively lower income. For high-income physicians, avoid them – your regular investments will be substantial enough to buffer your retirement and will be much less expensive than an annuity.

4. Start saving for retirement early

The secret to building a sizable retirement fund is compound interest. It is true investment magic. Over the past 50 years, the U.S. stock market has averaged an annual 10.9% rate of return. So, lets assume that after expenses, you get a 10% annual return. If you invest $36,000 into your retirement fund today, how much will you have in 35 years when you retire?

Compound interest is the secret to turning $36,000 into $1,012,000 for your retirement. Therefore, the earlier you can start saving for investment, the less burdensome investing will be – even a small amount of investment early in one’s career can make a huge difference. But most people do not just contribute to their retirement account in 1 year, most people contribute something to their 401(k), 403(b), 457, IRA, or SEP every year. Once again, compound interest is magic:

5. Use 529 plans for your kid’s college savings

College is expensive and it keeps getting more expensive, faster than normal inflation. For most families, college will be the largest expense they will have after their house. One of the challenges is that unlike retirement, where you have 35 years for compound interest to create wealth, you only have 18 years from the birth of your child until that child has college expenses. Therefore, it is essential that you start saving as early as possible, preferably the year the child is born. There are a number of investment options to save for your child’s education but none are better than the 529 plans. Their advantage? The investment grows tax-free and then when you take the money out for educational expenses, you don’t have to pay any taxes on the withdrawals. Furthermore, you can usually deduct contributions from your state income tax – in Ohio, you can deduct up to $4,000 per year of contributions into each child’s 529 plan. No other college savings investment comes close to these tax advantages of the 529 plans.

When our first child was born in 1988, our goal was to have enough saved up to pay for 4 years of a public university in Ohio by the time that child was a senior in college. So, we put $5,000 into a college fund the year she was born and then had $100 automatically transferred from my checking account into the college fund each month. For our children born later, we increased the monthly transfer a bit to allow for inflation. By the time each of them was in college, their college funds had enough to pay for a public university.

But 1988 was 33 years ago and college will cost a lot more 18 years from now. So, to pay tuition, room, and board for a public university in Ohio in 18 years (estimated at $255,000), you would have to start with $15,000 initial investment and additionally save $250 per month. If your goal is for your child to go to a private university, for example, the University of Notre Dame, you’re going to need $764,000. That means that you’ll need to start off with $15,000 initial contribution and add $1,000 per month.

6. Don’t pay someone else to invest your money

Physicians finishing residency or fellowship are inundated with letters from financial advisors who want you to become their client. They will invite you to free financial planning seminars, they will take you out to nice dinners, they drive nice cars, and they have really nice offices. They make a living off of other people’s money. I will argue that physicians are smart enough to do their own investing, at least early in their careers and you are better off putting a little more money into your retirement account than into a financial advisor’s fees. But this is contingent on taking enough time to learn about investing and financial intelligence. 10 hours of homework can save you thousands of dollars in the long run.

7. Choose retirement investments strategically

Your choice of what type of retirement accounts to invest in today should be guided by what you believe your effective tax rate will be in retirement. In general, income tax rates will be lowest during residency and fellowship, will gradually increase over the course of a physician’s practice career, and then will fall again after retirement. The strategy is to pay income taxes at a time in your career when you have the lowest effective income tax rate. Therefore you need to know which taxes you pay in the distribution year (when you withdraw the money) versus the contribution year (when you earned the money).

When a physician is a resident or fellow (and thus having a relatively low income tax rate), a Roth IRA is the most tax-advantaged retirement investment. This can be as direct contribution to a Roth IRA if one’s income is below the Roth contribution threshold set by the IRS. Alternatively, it can be as a post-tax contribution to a traditional IRA that is then converted to a Roth IRA if one’s income exceeds the Roth contribution threshold (the “backdoor Roth”). The income tax-advantaged time to contribute pre-tax investments (403(b), 401(k), 457, and SEP) is during a physician’s practice years when their income tax rate is relatively high. During these earning years, the following is my recommendation for prioritizing retirement contributions:

  1. Matched 401(k) or matched 403(b). Never turn down free money and if your employer is going to match your contributions with free money, take it!
  2. 457. This type of retirement account is offered through government agencies/institutions. The advantage of the 457 over the 403(b) and 401(k) is that if you retire before age 59 1/2, you cannot take money out of the 403(b) or 401(k) but you can take money out of the 457.
  3. Non-matched 401(k) or 403(b). The 401(k) is offered by for-profit companies and the 403(b) is by non-profit companies.
  4. Simplified employee pension plan (SEP). Use this if you have self-employment income, for example, honoraria and expert witness income.
  5. “Backdoor” Roth IRA. Use this after you have maximized contributions to the above retirement options.
  6. Regular investments. You will pay regular income tax on the annual interest and dividends. You will pay capital gains tax when you sell stocks, bonds, or mutual funds on the accrued value of those investments (selling price minus purchase price). Most physicians will be in the same capital gains tax bracket when working and when retired (15%) So there is no tax advantage of selling these when working versus when retired.
  7. AVOID TRADITIONAL IRAs. Except during residency and fellowship, nearly all physicians will have a taxable income that will exceed the threshold set by the IRS for pre-tax contribution to a traditional IRA. Therefore, traditional IRA contributions will be post-tax contributions. The problem is that when you take money out of a traditional IRA in retirement, you will pay regular income tax and that tax rate will be higher than the capital gains rate that you would be paying if you had instead put that money in a regular investment.

8. Your first mutual fund should be a no-load index fund

Your most powerful tool in investing is the magic of compound interest. However, annual expenses of a mutual fund can erode those benefits of compound interest. For example, lets assume you invest $100,000 for 20 years with an 8% annual return. Fund A has an expense ratio of 0.21% and fund B has an expense ratio of 1.15%. At the end of those 20 years, the total cost of fund A will be $19,190 and the cost of fund B will be $96,260. That is a $77,070 difference! Index funds have annual expenses that average about one-eighth those of actively managed funds. In addition, if you have to pay a front-load (commission) when you purchase the mutual fund, then you not only pay the cost of that commission but you also lose all of the compound interest wealth that you could have obtained had that money stayed in your account. Some people would argue that it is acceptable to pay a commission or a higher annual expense for an actively managed mutual fund because the professional fund manager can pick stocks and bonds that are more likely to increase in value. The problem is that more often than not, this just is not true – index funds actually out-perform actively managed funds. The following graph shows the annual return over the past decade for U.S. index funds versus actively managed funds. The only area where actively managed funds out-performed index funds was in corporate bond funds. Data from the previous decade looked exactly the same.

9. Don’t buy individual stocks

If professional stock analysts who run actively managed mutual funds do not perform as well as the index, why would an amateur expect to pick stocks any better? In an analysis of the Russell 3000 index between 1983-2008, only 36% of individual stocks performed better than the Russell 3000. By purchasing an index fund, you are purchasing a small piece of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of individual stocks thus spreading out your risk. Only purchase individual stocks for entertainment purposes with money left over after you contribute to your investment accounts.

10. Timing the market doesn’t work

There is an old adage that “Time in the market beats timing the market”. If the professional mutual fund managers do not have a crystal ball to predict when the stock market is going to rise and fall, then neither do you. Lets say you invested $10,000 in a broad stock index fund in 1990. If you did not touch that money and left it alone, by 2020, you would have $172,730. However, if you were taking money in and out of your investment trying to optimally time the market and you happened to miss out on the 10 single best days in the stock market over that 30-year period, you would only have $86,203. No one can predict that the next day is going to be one of the best (or worst) days of the stock market. Day trading is for entertainment but not for investment. That being said, I do have one character flaw when it comes to investing: when the stock market falls by 5%, I invest a little in stock index funds; when it falls by 10%, I invest a bit more; and when it falls by 20%, I invest as much as I can afford.

11. If you don’t understand it, don’t buy it

This applies to any type of investment. If you don’t know what a company manufactures, don’t buy stock in that company. If you can’t figure out how an annuity works, don’t buy it. And if you have heard of Bitcoin but don’t really understand how it works or how it is made, don’t buy it.

12. Know your investment horizon

Over time, stocks outperform bonds. However, in the short-run, stock prices are much more labile than bond prices. So, if you anticipate that you will need money in 3 years, say for a down payment on a house, don’t put that money in stocks. Instead put that money in a less volatile investment such as a bond fund or a certificate of deposit. On the other hand, you are saving for your planned retirement in 30 years, your money should be primarily in stocks because you can ride-out the year-to-year volatility of the stock market over a 30-year time period in order to achieve the higher long-term yields.

13. Diversify

Just like diversifying your stock portfolio by buying an index fund provides greater financial stability than buying individual stocks, diversifying your entire investment portfolio creates greater investment stability. Early in your career, this means having a retirement portfolio that is composed mostly of stock index funds and then later in your career, increasing the percentage of bond and real estate funds. In an ideal world, a diversified retirement portfolio would include a pension, a 401(k)/403(b)/457, a Roth IRA, and individual investments.

14. Pay off student loans strategically

The average U.S. medical student graduates owing $200,000 for medical school and an additional $25,000 from undergraduate college. The monthly loan repayment is around $350/month during residency and then balloons up to around $2,000/month after residency. So how should a newly trained physician approach having a staggering $225,000 debt on the first day of their career? First and foremost, always pay off monthly loan payments on time – the penalties for late payment are severe. However, if you have money left over at the end of the year, should you try to pay off the student loan early or put the money into a pre-tax retirement investment? Although it is laudable to strive to be debt-free, it is better to be debt-smart. The first $2,500 of student loan interest is tax-deductible which has the net effect of reducing the net interest rate that you actually pay each year. If you do the math, you come out ahead if you put that extra money in a 401(k)/403(b)/457/SEP rather than try to pay off the loan early. The bottom line is don’t postpone retirement investment by trying to pay off the student loan too quickly.

15. You are your finances best friend and worst enemy

When it comes to investment, a little knowledge is dangerous but a lot of knowledge provides security. I’ve seen many smart physicians who spent thousands of hours training to care for the health of their patients but less than 2 hours training to care for their own financial health. I’ve seen physicians put all of their retirement investments in money market funds rather than stock funds because they were afraid of risk, even when retirement was 25 years in the future. I’ve seen physicians invest heavily in an individual stock based on a “tip” from a golf buddy, stock broker, or family member. I’ve seen world famous physicians having to live frugally in retirement because they couldn’t conceive of a day that they would not be practicing medicine during their careers and so they never saved for retirement. I’ve seen physicians sell off most of their investments in 2009 when the great recession hit and then do it again in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit because they thought that the end of the financial world was coming.

Investment, and particularly investment for retirement, is a marathon and not a series of sprints. Develop a plan for the long-term and then stick with that plan during short-term rises and falls in the marketplaces. It is OK to periodically re-balance your portfolio and to modify your investment plan as you get older and as your financial situation changes but those modifications should be based on long-term goals and not short-term fears. There is a difference between gambling and investments. Gambling is a series of short-term expenditures but you know that over the long-term, the house is always going to beat you. Investment is a series of short-term expenditures but you know that over the long-term, you are always going to come out ahead.

March 11, 2021

By James Allen, MD

I am a Professor of Internal Medicine at the Ohio State University and the Medical Director of Ohio State University East Hospital