Many of you have previously seen the series of posts I did some time back for “high income” doctors, primarily well-paid specialists or dual-income families making $500K-$1M or more per year. This post addresses the opposite issue, “low-income” doctors.  The average physician makes something on the order of $200-225K, and polls show that the vast majority of doctors are in the $150-400K range. This post was triggered by an email from a long-time reader with this question/comment:

WCICon18

Q.

In a previous post you discussed savings percentages and you argued for 20% for physicians which I think is a great goal but really isn’t very realistic for primary care doctors.  In the US the average primary care physician made less than $220K last year.  If you remove hospitalists (which really isn’t primary care at all) from that equation the number drops to $175K. Primary care providers also work a lot more hours than many specialists and are often the least satisfied physicians as well.

I think many specialists don’t really understand how much of a difference in pay there is between themselves and their primary care brethren.  For instance:  The WCI can put away 20% of his income to retirement/savings and still have a take home pay that is higher than the GROSS income of most family doctors. It’s really not comparing apples to oranges.  You talk about living like a resident but honestly if most family doctors put away 20% their whole career they wouldn’t live much better than a resident their whole career. I chose my career because it’s what I like to do.  It’s my calling.  I understand I don’t get paid like an ER doctor.  However I do get tired of the population thinking I get paid like one.  I routinely have patients that make comments about our charges that have no clue that they make well more than I do.

A.

I sympathize with your plight and agree that family, friends, your patient population, and society at large assumes that because you have an MD after your name that you have a gold coin swimming pool at home a la Scrooge McDuck. However, I think you’re probably overstating the issue for most “low-income” physicians.

The Rant

Before launching into the rest of this post, let’s take a look at the WCI’s actual earnings record and savings rate (located in chapter two of my recently published book for anyone who really cares what I made from medical school graduation until the book was published.) As you may recall, I graduated from medical school in 2003 but never made more than $200,000 in a single year before 2012. That’s about a decade I spent as a “low-income” physician.  I’m quite familiar with what it is like, thank you very much. Yet somehow, apparently by magic to many physicians and other Americans, we managed to save somewhere between 5% and 63% of our gross income for those years.

In residency, making around $40,000, we saved 5-10% (46% in the year I graduated thanks to the huge boost in income that last 6 months). As a military attending (making about $120K per year), I saved 26-63% of my income per year. As a “pre-partner” in my current group (making less than $200,000 per year) I saved in the 25-35% range per year. I vehemently disagree that the ability to save a reasonable percentage of your income has anything to do with whether you are a “low-income” physician or a “high-income” physician and is really much more about your chosen lifestyle/spending level.

Now, as a partner in a well-run democratic emergency medicine group, I make more money. But that additional income isn’t the reason we’re in a comfortable financial position today.  That has much more to do with the way our family lived for the last decade and with the financial habits we have instilled in ourselves. Do we save a lot more money now than we did as a resident, a military physician, or an employee?  You betcha.  In fact, last year we saved more than my military attending gross income.

But you know what, the percentages aren’t any different. The lifestyle increased somewhat and I pay a lot more in taxes. I’ve gone from as little as 3% in federal income tax and 0% in state tax as a military doctor to 8% in federal income tax and 4% in state income tax as an employee to now 11% in federal income tax and nearly 5% in state income tax as a partner. [Update prior to publication: Total tax bill for 2013 was 21% of income.] But for the most part, we’re doing the same thing now on a “well-paid but not high-income” physician salary as we were doing on a single resident salary. We max out retirement accounts, minimize our taxes as much as possible, and spend our money on what we value most. We certainly don’t feel impoverished.  Our most recent vacation involved renting a house twice as expensive as the one we live in, Cirque du Soleil tickets for a 4 year old who slept through half of it, $55 basketball game tickets, and fancy meals. Am I still driving a cheap car?  Sure am, but it doesn’t look any worse in front of that fancy house in a gated golf community than in my own driveway at home.

I bet the average American household, living on $50K a year thinks it is pretty hilarious to see a doctor making 3 or 4 times their income who thinks he has it rough. They think you’re rich because, compared to them, you are! So no, I don’t think the fact that you only make $90K, or $120K, or $175K, or $200K is an excuse to not be saving 20% of your income for retirement.  Rant over, let’s move on.

Seven Financial Considerations For the “Low Income” Physician

1. Student Loan Issues

I don’t feel bad for doctors who have a relatively low income.  I know you can have a pretty great life on $150K a year, because I’ve done it. The ones I feel bad for are those with a high student loan burden. $400K at 8% on a 10 year plan requires payments of about $60,000 per year in after-tax dollars. Take a single doctor making $150,000 who pays $30K in taxes, puts $30K into retirement, and pays $60K in student loan payments and I can understand why that doctor might be feeling pretty pinched.

Several chapters of my book deal with this issue. The best solution is prevention.  If your dream in life is to be a pediatrician in rural America who makes $90K a year, you probably need to avoid going to a medical school with tuition of $82,000 per year and paying for it with 6-10% interest rate student loans. At a certain amount of debt, you simply cannot afford to be a primary care physician. I would submit that a reasonable upper limit for your total student loan burden would be something like two times your expected attending salary. The less the better of course, but at 2 times your salary, you’re starting to approach a burden that you will never escape from without some type of loan forgiveness program (whether PSLF after 10 years, if it still exists, or IBR after 20.)

If you’re like many who find their way to this blog, you’re beyond the point where preventing the student loan issue, choosing a more lucrative specialty, or enrolling in a forgiveness program can be part of the solution. At this point, your only options are to refinance your loans (variable rate loans as low as 3% available through DRB and Sofi) and carve out a portion  of your spending (hopefully prospectively, but if necessary retrospectively) to pay them off. As Dave Ramsey likes to say, live like no one else now so you can live like no one else later.

2. You’re Not a Back Surgeon, Deal With It

Pediatricians look at hospitalists enviously, family doctors look at emergency doctors enviously, emergency docs look enviously at ophthalmologist salaries, ophthalmologists covet the boats of back surgeons and spine surgeons look at the hedge fund manager on their street and wonder why they can’t get their own jet too. There will always be someone who makes more than you and has more than you. If you would instead spend your time looking at the 99.9% of those who have ever lived who make LESS than you, you would probably be a lot happier. Although spending money doesn’t increase proportionally as your income increases (due to higher tax bills and the need to save more to maintain lifestyle in retirement), a doc making $600K is always going to be able to buy more house, drive fancier cars, and take more exotic vacations than a doctor making $200K. However, having had the benefit of a more gradually increasing income than most doctors, I can assure you that a gross income of $300K doesn’t make you twice as happy as $150K, if it makes you happier at all.

3. Avoiding Portfolio Complexity

A doctor making $150K doesn’t need very many retirement accounts, and may never need a taxable account at all. If he wants to save 20% for retirement ($30K), he can just about get that out of a run of the mill employer-provided 401(k) and a couple of Roth IRAs. No need to deal with tax-loss harvesting, donating appreciated shares, tax-efficient investments, muni bonds, I bonds, complicated estate planning or asset protection strategies, defined benefit plans, profit-sharing plans, SEP-IRAs, individual 401(k)s, whole life insurance, variable annuities, stealth IRAs. Heck, he doesn’t even have to learn how to make his Roth IRA contributions via the backdoor.

4. Disability insurance

My high-income series had an entire post on getting adequate disability insurance for a high-income physician.  That’s really easy for a “low-income” physician. You can do it with a single policy. In fact, you may not ever need to do anything but exercise the FPO option on the one you bought in residency.

5. Social Security- Plus/Minus

One downside of being a “low-income” physician is that Social Security tax will be assessed on a much higher percentage of your income, especially if you’re self-employed, than a doctor making $400K or more. However, this is countered by the upside of having Social Security provide a much higher percentage of your retirement income than for a highly paid doctor. Your Social Security payments will be essentially the same.  Plus you get the same Medicare benefits as a highly paid doctor, despite the fact that he might have paid 2 or 3 times as much for them.

6. Taxes – All Plus

Our highly progressive tax system is very favorable for the “low-income” doctor. I almost made it into the 10% tax bracket one year as an attending in the military. A family of four living on $150K can relatively easily get their federal tax burden down to 5-10% of their gross income. Surprised?  Don’t be.  Just run the numbers. Let’s assume the family puts $30K into some combination of retirement accounts, HSAs, or other pre-tax accounts. That leaves $120K. Now subtract out $20K worth of deductions (pretty easy to get there with state tax, mortgage interest, property tax, and charitable donation deductions) and you’re left with $100K. Now take out $3900 each for your exemptions ($15,600) and you’re down to $84,400. Now apply the progressive tax brackets. You pay 10% of the first $18,150 ($1,815), 15% of the next $55,650 ($8,348), and 25% of the next $10,600 ($2,650) for a grand total of $12,813, or 8.5% of your gross income. And forget about AMT, since you probably don’t make enough to get caught by it.  A doctor making twice as much might be paying 4-6 times as much in federal income tax, and that isn’t counting additional state, local, or payroll tax.

7. Professional Benefits “Low-Income” Specialties Enjoy

Sometimes, when coveting the salary of a CT surgeon, we forget that we only did a three year residency, as compared to a five year residency and a two year fellowship. We may also forget about those Neurosurgery malpractice premiums, that General Surgery call schedule, or the time, effort, and talent required to match into Dermatology. When those poor sucks were cramming for two extra days trying to raise their board scores from 250 to 260, I was in the student lounge playing foosball or skiing. Family medicine or pediatric physicians had a relatively easy match, enjoyed a short residency, and may work 95%+ of their career between 9 and 6 on non-holiday Monday through Fridays. That might not be worth $200K to you, but surely it is worth something. Aside from avoiding the pain of a longer residency, they also got into the game of serious retirement savings/attending salary sooner. Now, before you post hate comments due to this paragraph, I am well aware that many specialties with long training periods have relatively low income, that some FP residencies are quite competitive and require lots of call, and many pediatricians do inpatient work. I’m just generalizing, so take it for what it is worth.

I think the most important thing for a “low income” doctor to realize is that his financial situation is much more similar to an engineer, a small business owner, an attorney, pharmacist, or mid-level than it is to a plastic surgeon raking in $750K a year. Family, friends, and society at large won’t ever understand, but as long as you do, you can still have a very comfortable financial life.

What did I miss? Any other financial advice that is particularly important for doctors making less than $200K to know about? Comment below!