How doctors can plan for early retirement

How doctors can plan for early retirement

As someone married to a physician and surrounded by many friends in the medical field, I know that early retirement is on the minds of many physicians. If you are reading this article, you have probably put some serious thoughts about it as well.

Retiring early is a very personal decision. And it is not an easy decision to make. It would be best if you considered many financial and personal factors before you make the final call. Retirement will change your lifestyle dramatically. Your salary and healthcare benefits will be different. You might experience an unexpected change of pace. You may lose touch with colleagues and friends. On the bright side, you can travel and do things that matter most to you. Your stress level will go down, and you will spend more time with your family and loved ones.

Burnout

Many physicians decide to leave the profession due to physical and emotional stress. A 2019 study by the AMA, the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University School of Medicine found that 44% of U.S. physicians presented at least one symptom of burnout. For comparison, the overall burnout among US workers is 28%.

Among the specialties with the highest burnout rate are Urology (54%), Neurology (53%), Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (52%), Internal Medicine (49%), and Emergency Medicine (48%).

The peer pressure for early retirement

Be prepared to encounter some resistance from colleagues and patients when you announce your early retirement. There is this unspoken public “belief” that doctors owe the society their skills and knowledge. Many patients don’t want to look for another doctor. And some of your colleagues may feel that you are abandoning the profession. You need to ignore the noise and focus on your personal goals.

I compiled a list of suggestions that will help you prepare on your journey to early retirement. Don’t wait until the last moment. Get ahead of the curve so that you can take the financial stress out of your retirement plans.

Study your benefits

The first step to early retirement is to know your employee benefits in full detail. Most public and private healthcare systems offer competitive benefits packages with a wide range of perks including pension, 401k match, profit sharing, healthcare coverage, life insurance, disability insurance, and loan repayment. Many employers even offer an early retirement option at 55.

These benefit packages vary significantly from one employer to the next. Take some time to learn and understand your options. If your goal is to retire early, consider an employer that will give you the highest chance to achieve this goal.

Become debt-free

The US student debt has skyrocketed to $1.6 trillion. Seventy-five percent of medical students graduated in their class of 2018 with student debt. The average loan per student is $196,520. Furthermore, many medical students graduate with more than $300,000 in debt. It’s not uncommon that some physician couples owe over half a million dollars in student debt.

A crucial step in your journey to early retirement is paying off ALL YOUR DEBT including student loans, credit cards, and mortgage. It might seem like an uphill battle, but it’s not impossible.

There are several options you can consider when tackling your student loans – loan forgiveness, refinancing with low-interest rates and income-driven repayment.

Maximize your retirement savings

When you retire early, assuming before the age of 66, you will not have full access to your social security benefits, pension, and Medicare benefits. In many cases, you may want to delay taking your pension and social security to maximize the amount you will receive annually.

One way to cover the gap while you are waiting is through your personal retirement savings. Most employers nowadays offer either a 401k, a 403b, or a 457-retirement plan. When you join your employer retirement plan, you can save up to $19,000 per year as of 2019. If you are 50 or older, you can save an additional $6,000 for a total of $25,000 per year. An additional benefit to you is that these contributions are tax-deductible and will lower your tax bill. Many employers also offer a match that can further boost your retirement savings. For more information about how to increase your 401k savings, read my article about “The Secret to becoming a 401k millionaire.

Save outside your retirement plan

if you plan to retire early, you need to make additional savings outside of your retirement plan.

First, you need an emergency fund. It would help if you had at least six months’ worth of living expenses in cash or a savings account. This emergency fund will serve you as a buffer in case of sudden and unexpected expenses.

Second, save in a taxable investment account. The main benefit of using an investment account is liquidity. You can access these funds at any point in time without any restrictions.

If you retire in your 40s or 50s, you may not be able to access your retirement accounts before reaching 59 ½. There are some legal exemptions, including poor health, disability and economic hardship that allow withdrawing your retirement savings without a penalty. However, these exceptions may not apply to you. And ideally, you should let your tax-deferred retirement savings grow for as long as possible.

Investing outside of your retirement accounts does not provide immediate tax benefits. All investments will be after-taxes. You may also incur taxes on dividends and capital gains. To make the most out of your investment account, make sure to use low cost, tax-efficient ETFs, and index funds.

Have an exit strategy if you own a medical practice

If you own a medical practice and want to retire early, you will need a sound exit and succession plan. You will have to find a suitable buyer or someone who will manage the day-to-operations on your behalf. Many business owners have a significant portion of their wealth, locked-in their business. If selling your practice is the primary source of your retirement income, then you will need to consider tax implications from any potential realized capital gains.

Consider moving to a low-cost location

If you currently work and live in an expensive area like San Francisco or New York City, you may want to consider retiring in a different state or even another country. The cost of living differential between Mississippi or Arkansas versus New York and California could make a big difference in your retirement lifestyle, especially if you are working on a tight budget.

Look for healthcare coverage

One of the main challenges, when you plan for early retirement, will be healthcare coverage. Depending on your employer, some doctors have excellent medical and dental benefits. In some cases, these benefits are completely free or heavily subsidized by your employer.  Some hospitals that offer an early retirement option could have healthcare benefits included. In other cases, when you retire early, you could lose these perks. Since you won’t have access to Medicare until you reach 65, you will need to find a reasonably priced healthcare insurance policy.

Do not underestimate healthcare costs. According to Fidelity, a 65-year old couple retiring in 2019 can expect to spend $285,000 in health care and medical expenses throughout retirement. For single retirees, the health care cost could reach $150,000 for women and $135,000 for men.

Consider working per diem

If you are short of retirement savings or bored of staying at home, you may consider working per diem or locum tenens. You can work on an hourly basis at your own pace. The extra work will boost your early retirement income and will keep your knowledge up to date.

Stick to a budget

You must adhere to a budget before and after your retirement. Before retirement, you need to pay off your debt and save for retirement aggressively. Depending on your income, these payments can cut through your family budget. You may have to make some tough choices to avoid or delay large purchases and curb discretionary spending.

Once you retire, your income may go down. True, you don’t have to drive to work, but some of your expenses might still be the same.

Here are some ideas about how to save money. Cook instead of going to a restaurant. Make your own coffee. Drive your old car instead of buying a new one. Travel off-season.

Have a plan

A happy retirement comes with a good plan. It may require some self-discovery but ultimately will lead to finding a purpose and fulfilling your life dreams. You can travel and volunteer. Write a book. Teach. Learn a new hobby or language. Find out what makes you happy outside of your daily routine and make the most out of your free time.

The bottom line on early retirement

Early retirement is not an illusion. It’s an achievable mission that requires a great deal of planning and some personal sacrifice. If you want to retire early, you need to start planning now. Some hospital systems offer early retirement packages. Unfortunately, your guaranteed retirement income or pension will be a lot less than what you would get if you retire ten years later.

Your family can be a big influencer for or against your decision to retire early.  You might have a partner who wants to stay active. Perhaps, you have children who are going to college soon. Every family is different, and every situation is unique. Do the number crunching and see what makes the most sense to you.