[Editor's Note: For those who want to inspire the WCI community and teach the knowledge they’ve gained in the financial and/or wellness spaces, we are officially calling for WCICON25 speakers. We’re headed to San Antonio from February 26-March 1, 2025, and we want readers like you to teach attendees about investing, wellness, or something completely unique. All you have to do is apply at wcievents.com. If accepted, you’ll come to the conference for free and get paid a stipend! Even better, you’ll truly impact the entire WCI community. If you want to inspire at WCICON25, fill out the application by June 15. We’d love to hear your ideas!]

 

By Dr. Charles Patterson, WCI Columnist

Saving and investing are logical only insofar as they work toward a purpose. The concept may seem obvious, but any investor (especially those inclined to engage in finance blogging, podcasts, and continued education) can lose sight of the “why” when their decades-long focus is wealth creation. In our efforts to maximize yields and build bigger and safer nest eggs, we can forget that wealth is a tool, not an endpoint. As I have previously opined, money is but a [poor] surrogate for time, and how we pursue financial security—especially as professionals—comes at an insidious cost.

Most white coat investors have elected to trade a significant portion of their young adulthood for a stable career. This is socially acceptable and to be applauded, I’m told. In my case, I spent nearly two decades with my head in textbooks or in the hospital learning how to treat patients. Having a ponderous and maladroit mind, this took considerable time and effort. I watched as my friends enjoyed the more typical and formative experiences of their 20s: new careers, foreign travel on the cheap, road trips, and weekend get-togethers. Granted, my “sacrifice” was made enthusiastically and with gratitude for the opportunities it afforded. Only now in retrospect do I notice memories missed and experiences lacking. This isn’t the case for everyone (as an important aside, I was never one to be invited to the cool kid parties), but blessed are they who can rage hard and still pass medical school.

Most of us have a need to save and invest. But we have to be mindful that delayed gratification is only worthwhile if there is gratification at the end of the delay. There are experiences that are best enjoyed as youth, and some that can only be enjoyed at certain phases of life. We know this intuitively yet also commit to the habits of high-income professionals who don’t prioritize mental and physical health, personal growth, and experience-facilitated maturation. Financial independence is great, but how great is it to retire early enough to live five decades regretting how you spent the first four?

Striking a balance between purposeful spending and thoughtful savings is critical in achieving a financial life well lived.

 

Identifying Phase of Life Experiences

As WCI Founder Dr. Jim Dahle has reiterated, there are certain experiences that can only be had at specific times (they're the seasons of your life, so to speak). You can only tuck your kids into bed for so long. How many night shifts are you willing to take at the expense of snuggling your 4-year-old? How long are you willing to trade the vigor of your youth for the thrill of running bowel at 0200? Hiking the Appalachian Trail is more difficult with sciatica. And what about the wishes of your significant other? You can only experience your 30s in your 30s or your 40s in your 40s. How much of it do you want to experience together?

Yes, the knife cuts both ways. It's hard to pay for your daughter’s wedding if you prioritized over-snuggling to working enough to save for such things. Likewise, visiting grandkids is made more difficult if you are still subject to a call schedule. There is a balance, and taking the time to define it for yourself is a difficult-if understated-pillar of financial wellness.

Dr. Bill Bernstein is famous for saying (among other things) that “when you’ve won the game, stop playing.” Here he is mostly referring to risk exposure following financial independence. But extrapolating the concept to careerism and personal risk, I interpret his words through an additional lens. Once a career is stabilized and maturing, an onus should be placed on investing spare moments to fulfilling personal ventures. For me, having insured against catastrophe and with many years of practice ahead, each elective duty, project, or commitment is weighed against the cost of missed soccer practices, family dinners attended, or evening conversations with my wife. Prestigious work ventures are expensive, and my personal life can’t always afford them.

med school scholarship sponsor

When waxing philosophical about purposeful spending, we’re not talking about splurging on a new car or Audemars. The focus should be on dedicating time and resources to experiences that facilitate relationship-building or fulfilling a personal interest. Relationships take tending, and that tending takes time and its surrogate, money. How your significant other spends their time is reflective of the things they value. Conversely, taking on extra shifts or spending most of your free time recovering between them sends a message about priorities.

Thankfully, there are excellent resources for working through them. Stacy Taniguchi has written and spoken about his “thrive list,” or a list of experiences that lead to fulfillment and contentment. Incorporating Dr. Taniguchi’s teaching into my own life, I have found that identifying worthy experiences and weaving them into my financial planning has already paid mental health dividends.

We speak frequently about the written investment plan. As well we should! It's vital to staying the course and finding success as a white coat investor. Similarly, perhaps we should consider welding our thrive list into a written spending plan. This plan would serve to identify and facilitate our experiential priorities and help us to save for them accordingly. Is it important to take your family to Disney in two years? Write it down and start saving (a lot . . .). That 20-year wedding anniversary trip to New Zealand? Write it down and start saving now. Want to attend each of your kids' track meets next spring? Write it down and front-load your work schedule. And if experiences are to be missed, reconcile them with reasons that you can live with later. But be wary that these reasons are not conflated with a false sense of professional obligation.

More information here:

The Moderate-Income Physician

The Semantics of Finance and How to Tune Out All the Noise

 

Are You Lying to Yourself?

The habits of saving and investing are best tempered passively. Some of us may have an unrecognized tendency to oversave and underinvest in enriching experiences. We talk (reasonably) about the burden of student loans and the mountain yet to be climbed to achieve financial freedom. As a default, that is better than the alternative of getting to age 73 and still working to maintain your lifestyle. But the pitfall with this mentality is unnecessary “delayed gratification.” How you cage your savings plans may save you years of worry and missed opportunities.

phase of life spending

So with that, for what are you saving and investing? Financial independence, sure. To a large degree, your living costs after your working years are predictable. Your goals for legacy giving are knowable, as is a reasonable buffer for extra lived years. While it's beyond the scope of this column to discuss strategies for safe withdrawal rates or the utility of a SPIA, this is a great time to discuss the flight path of portfolio growth. If you know how much you need and want to save, you can project how much you need to save annually to get there. A passive approach to this growth can alleviate the stress of continuous monitoring and thus reduce the risk of undue change.

Once savings rates and growth trajectories are set to your written goals, what you do with your time needs to be scrutinized. Perhaps, like me, your phase of life and stated goals require an intensive work schedule and maybe even a side gig. But it won’t always. When is the earliest you can pare back? Mindfulness of what your time is buying—and the opportunity cost of its use—serves to keep career and personal priorities in equal focus. I need to work a fair amount of nights (for now), but taking any more time than necessary represents neither wisdom nor altruism. It's madness.

At the risk of hypocrisy, I will confess (and those who know me will attest) that I work a lot. And when I am not in the hospital, I am often chipping away at projects related to it. Military-related trainings and deployments are a thing, as are those ancillary career commitments referenced earlier. It's easy to stand proud upon this soapbox and proselytize the millennial “you do you, boo” gospel. But for me and many like me, there is an underexposure to life experience and an overexposure to the productivity high. That is exactly why a thrive list and spending plan are so helpful.

More information here:

It’s a Lifestyle, Not a Vacation

How to Add Adventure to Your Life

 

The Bottom Line

For what are you exchanging your time? For what would you exchange your time? If you would be subjectively more fulfilled by balancing relationships and experiences at the expense of five extra years of work, would you do it? Alternatively, if you won the lottery and money was no longer a consideration, would you quit your job? These are important questions in so far as they gauge your career satisfaction and burnout risk. The personal cost of your professional commitments is too high to leave unconsidered in the grand scheme of your life.

I recognize that these platitudes are interpreted differently by our diverse readership. Some carry a tremendous student loan burden. Others are far beyond financial independence. And there are many more in between. But we all share a limited amount of time. Of the things that frighten me, fear of squandered time occupies the top of the list. My daughter’s first day of kindergarten only happens once. My son is only small enough to be pummeled by his older sisters for so long, before he is too big to be pushed around.

I have the opportunity to partake in piano recitals, basketball games, dances, and even the banal struggles of domestic life only once. I want and need to participate in these things, lest I get to the end with a full bank account and an empty memory. Time is precious, and the investment of time into relationships is far more important than an overflowing taxable brokerage account.

 

Physicians train for years to learn about medicine. But financial literacy was not part of the curriculum. That’s where The White Coat Investor comes in—by offering tons of entry-level information to get you started on the right path. We have a FREE email series called WCI 101 that reviews the basics in bite-sized chunks. You can check out our Start Here page to learn all about personal finance for doctors. And you can peruse our Frequently Asked Questions to get even more info. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when learning about finance. WCI is here to help!

 

How do you balance your time, trying to make money while trying to spend time with loved ones? What other phase-of-life advice do you have? Comment below!