[Editor's Note: Today's WCI Network post comes from The Physician on FIRE and includes important factors that influence your ability to reach financial independence. There are obviously other important factors, such as debt level coming out of school, parental wealth, and the presence of children. Nevertheless, most doctors do have at least some ability to influence the factors below, so that is where effort is probably best applied. Enjoy the post.]
How easy or difficult will your quest to achieve financial independence be? The math doesn’t much vary from person to person. You’re going to want at least 25x your future expenses saved up or passive income that exceeds your spending.
If you don’t have either, or some combination of both capital and passive income, that can be expected to cover your future expenses indefinitely, you’d be hard-pressed to call yourself financially independent.
If you feel like financial independence is out of reach, perhaps you can tip the scales in your favor by understanding the factors that can make FI more easily attainable.
Some of these may be somewhat or completely out of your control, but there are likely changes you can make in several of these categories that will shave years off of your time to FI.
Top 5 Factors that Make Financial Independence Easier to Achieve
1. A High Income
If you said, “Thank you, Dr. Obvious,” I say “You’re welcome.”
The most important factor in reaching financial independence is your savings rate, the difference between how much you earn and how much you save and invest.
It’s tough to have a high savings rate without a high income. What goes into having a high income?
A big part is your career choice, but your job title isn’t everything. Within each career, there is a broad range of salaries. Learning to negotiate effectively for yourself has a huge return on investment. Have you read Never Split the Difference? If not, you should.
Promotions and the raises that come with them go to people who go the extra mile, or at least they should. Office politics aside, the more indispensable you become or appear to be, the more likely you are to be rewarded with a job promotion and a bigger paycheck.
In medicine, specifically, it’s no secret that some specialties pay better than others. The latest Medscape Compensation survey shows that orthopedic surgeons are making nearly $500,000 on average, whereas pediatricians, family medicine, and infectious disease specialists are at the other end of the spectrum with salaries just above $200,000.
As I implored in a post on How to Choose a Medical Specialty, money shouldn’t be the only factor, but it probably should be a factor. Interestingly, Infectious Disease doctors are also among the happiest, leading the specialties among those who would choose medicine again.
The salary range within a particular specialty is surprisingly broad. Some hospitals and groups can simply afford to pay quite a bit better than others. The difference between academic and private practice has become more narrow in terms of both job description and pay in recent years, but private practice still tends to pay better. The gap will vary by specialty and location, but be sure to look into that gap and what it means for your financial future when choosing a position.
2. A Second Income
The first would be a “side hustle” or side gig that may or may not be related to your primary career.
The side hustle is the subject of numerous sites and forums. You can see what other physicians are doing in Facebook Groups like Passive Income Docs. Non-physicians have places like Nick Loper’s Side Hustle Nation and others.
This website has become my source of a second income, but it’s not my first side hustle. I’ve worked extra shifts at my main jobs, spent vacations working for other organizations as a locum tenens physician, and I did nothing but locums work for two years out of residency. If I added up every pay stub from my traveling work, the sum would likely have a second comma.
It helps to have a job that pays well (see #1 A High Income) but even in such cases, a second income can dwarf the first. My friend Dr. Jim Dahle has seen his income from The White Coat Investor easily surpass that of his clinical work as an emergency medicine physician.
Of course, not everyone has time for a second job or an interest in finding one. I’ve got good news! You don’t necessarily need a second job to have a second income. You would, however, need someone to do the work.
A second household income can simply come from a second household partner. In this millennium, dual-income households are more the norm than an outlier, but if you’re trying to figure out how to fast-track your path to FI and you’re doing it with one income in a two-person partnership, it’s not tough to see where some additional income could come from. Whether or not that solution makes sense in your circumstances depends on many factors, but it’s best not to overlook what may be low-hanging fruit.
3. A Low Cost of Living Area
I’ve spent most of my life in relatively low-cost of living areas, at least in terms of the cost of housing and everyday items. In terms of state income taxes, I’ve spent most of my life in one of the most expensive places for a physician to live.
While a 9.85% marginal state income tax in Minnesota makes a damaging dent in the takehome pay, having affordable housing and neighbors who aren’t big spenders can be even more important in terms of building wealth.
In a lower cost of living area, the fact that you’ll pay less for a home, the things you put in it, the property taxes on it, and the gasoline for the car in the garage has obvious benefits. It’s also true that the car in the garage is less likely to be a luxury make because you just don’t see many around town and the temptation isn’t there. #stealthwealthou are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, it would make sense that your spending habits are likely to be closer to the average of the spending habits of the people you spend the most time with.
I’ve chosen to live in rural areas because my wife and I both grew up in small towns and wanted a similar experience when raising our own family. We weren’t trying to hasten our FI timeline, but that has been a wonderful side effect of our choices.
There’s plenty to love about the city and the coasts, too. I get that. I’ve spent at least a little time in most major cities in the U.S., and we’re adding to the list of international cities we’ve visited, as well. We love exploring new places, visiting museums, parks, libraries, and restaurants.
I feel we’ve had the best of both worlds. I’ve had a career working in places where rush hour doesn’t exist, parking is free and easy, and locking home and car doors is optional. What may be lacking in local culture can be made up for with frequent trips around the country and throughout the world.
There’s also this awesome phenomenon for people who are happy to live in “flyover country” — we get paid more. Geographic arbitrage is real and somewhat unique to medicine. Not only does Middle America cost less, but it also tends to come with better physician salaries, on average.
4. A Low Cost of Living Lifestyle
Small pond living won’t get you very far in terms of growing wealth if you’re only there because you want to be the biggest fish. I’ve definitely met others who also prefer small-town life but for a different reason than me. They find it much easier to stand out.
I’ll admit to being afflicted when I landed my first permanent job. We built a big, beautiful, blue behemoth of a house that was surrounded by more modest ranch homes. I was a young doctor, I stood out, and that was just fine by me.
I no longer feel any need to scratch that itch. We spent less than half on our next home compared to that first one, and our current home was another intentional downgrade, at least in terms of size and price, from both that first home and subsequent homes.
It’s not that I don’t know what I’m missing. I’ve sampled luxury. I’ve used travel rewards points, CME money, and even my own dough to stay in some really nice places. I’ve sipped ridiculously expensive wine and champagne. I’ve spent big bucks on a good steak dinner or three.
To me, the value just usually isn’t there. Yes, a 5-Star resort is nicer than your average Hyatt or Hilton, and Manny’s can prepare a fine filet mignon. But I can sear a scrumptious sirloin on the grill, and all I really want at the end of the day is a comfortable bed. I’m equally as comfortable, if not more so, at a 3-star or 4-star hotel.
A good way to find your sweet spot for spending is to cut out all but the necessities, figure out what you miss the most, and add conveniences and subscriptions back one at a time as you see fit. See the Frugalwoods for a more detailed explanation of the approach.
5. Minimal Debt
student loan debt, or mortgage debt, will count against you in the net worth department.
The smaller your debts, the easier it will be to achieve financial independence. It’s best if you understand this before you accumulate crippling debt levels, but it’s never too late to make progress. Every dollar you use to pay off debt improves your net worth by a dollar and it’s one dollar you’ll never pay interest on again.
If you’re going to use credit cards, use them responsibly and always pay off the balance in full every month. Try not to take out loans for vehicles and other depreciating assets. If you can’t pay cash for a boat, RV, or
donorcycle motorcycle, you should probably wait until you can afford it outright.
Regarding student loans, prevention means applying for copious amounts of scholarship money and considering in-state public schools. No matter your anticipated future profession, live like a student when you are a student. The same goes for medical trainees. Live like a resident as a trainee and afterward so you can quickly pay down that balance.
If you’re not pursuing loan forgiveness and have high-interest loans, you should refinance them yesterday. [Update: This is NOT true for federal loans in the time of COVID, as student loan payments have been suspended in 2020. It remains true for those who have private loans and/or have refinanced with a private lender previously.]
Refi rates can be under 2% if you meet all the right criteria and most people with halfway decent credit can currently refinance to around 5% or less. There’s no excuse to be paying 6.8% or more on any of your loans if you’re not planning on PSLF.
In terms of mortgage debt, the best thing you can do is avoid a huge mortgage. I like a 15-year mortgage, as it forces you to make larger payments and typically comes with a lower interest rate. It also pairs well with the live on half challenge. In about the time it takes to go from broke to financially independent, you could also own your home completely.
In some locations, it’s impossible to avoid high housing costs whether you’re buying or renting. Think long and hard before choosing to make such a place your home.
Should you pay off a mortgage early? The math usually favors investing more while keeping the mortgage, but that depends on investment returns, of course. I chose the sure thing and opted to be debt free by forty. We’re preparing to purchase our next home with cash. Doing so also keeps your budget reasonable.
How I Achieved FI More Easily
I benefitted from most of these. I reached FI at age 39 largely because I had a high income in low cost of living areas, working that geoarbitrage.
I also had a relatively low cost of living lifestyle for a physician, although I will admit to living a bit larger than the average American.
In terms of debt, I once took out a $500,000 construction loan (and spent every last penny), but I was able to overcome that choice, eventually selling that home to become debt-free about eight years later.
I had manageable student loan debt at a level 30% to 40% lower than the average graduating medical student at the time that I finished in 2002. A combination of family help, generous scholarships, in-state tuition, and eight years of college apartment living kept that balance in check.
The one that I cannot claim is #2. At least 99.9% of our household income came from one source: my clinical work as an anesthesiologist. I can now claim a second source of income, but I didn’t think to start a blog until after we were comfortably FI.
Finally, I must acknowledge the privilege I had growing up in a two-parent household that valued education and respected money. As a white male, I’ve been given opportunities and the benefit of the doubt that others might not get so easily. I don’t apologize for these things, but I do recognize the role they can play in giving one a sizable head start.
Which of these factors has been the biggest factor in your path to financial independence? In what areas do you think you could improve?