By Dr. Bryan Jepson, Guest Writer

I’ve been listening to a lot of the WCI podcasts lately on my three-hour commute to a rural hospital where I do some locums shifts. What a great resource WCI is for physicians. Founder Dr. Jim Dahle does a great job of dispensing accurate information and answering complicated individual finance questions. Mixed in with these financial education topics are success stories of physicians who have achieved great milestones on their pathway to becoming millionaires.

Most of the stories have a fairly similar theme: graduate from residency with several hundred thousand dollars in debt, live like a resident for a few years, make $400,000-$500,000 per year (sometimes >$750,000 if you have a dual-doctor income), focus on paying off student loans, maximize your retirement account contributions, and celebrate how quickly you reach your financial goals. It is a great model and is honestly one that most doctors and other high-income professionals can reach with relative ease using the kind of financial discipline taught by WCI. Congratulations to those folks who have stayed on that path and have reached early career financial independence. It is inspiring.

But that is not everyone’s story. On several of the recent Milestone to Millionaire podcasts, Dr. Dahle acknowledges that some listeners have complained that the picture painted by these accounts is too rosy and that it may not be the reality for everyone for a variety of reasons. I found myself thinking the same thing as I reflected on my own story. Bear with me as I share some of it.


Becoming Financially Literate

Like many WCI readers, I became interested in personal finance shortly after I graduated from my Emergency Medicine residency program way back in 1998. At that time, there was no WCI blog to learn from. I didn’t even know what a blog post was for a decade or more. But there were bookstores (for you younger folks, that is a place where people used to go and hold bound copies of written material in their hand, flip through the pages, and decide if they wanted to purchase it).

I started reading a lot of personal finance books. The internet was young, but some websites taught about personal finance as well (I guess that is the early version of a blog site). That is how I learned these principles that stand the test of time: the importance of investing early and regularly, the safety of diversification, the power of compounding interest, the leveraging power of real estate, the value of multiple streams of income, the importance of protecting your assets, etc. I was raised in a frugal household, and I did not have problematic spending habits. I had a reasonable amount of student loan debt (relatively minimal in today’s dollars) that I was paying off ahead of schedule. I found a good Emergency Medicine job with a two-year buy-in with a decent salary and high growth potential. I purchased a modest home and bought an investment property.

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I felt like I was on a great path to early financial success.

More information here:

The Risk of Retirement


Adjusting Our Financial Priorities

Then, everything changed. In 2001, my second son, age 2 at the time, began showing signs of developmental delay. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Almost overnight, my priorities changed. My wife and I poured everything that we had into understanding his disorder and helping him get better. This was still quite early in the rising wave of autism diagnoses and before there was much help in terms of therapies. None of it was covered by insurance, and everything that we did for him we paid out of pocket—which represented at least the equivalent of the cost of graduating from Harvard.

As I learned more about the biological abnormalities associated with the disorder, I felt internally compelled to use my degree to help others who found themselves on the same path. This led to me decreasing shifts in the ER and starting a nonprofit clinic to assist other families with what I was learning—it wasn't the wisest of decisions from a financial perspective but an important decision for other reasons. Ultimately, that decision led us down a far different path than what I had anticipated coming out of residency.

In mid-career, I left emergency medicine entirely for about six years while I treated kids with autism full-time using the things that I had learned in the functional medicine space. We sold our rental property to help pay for therapies and ended up moving to a different state to be part of a new multidisciplinary clinic to treat kids on the spectrum. The story is longer, but suffice it to say that my wife and I made decisions for our child and others that were not focused on how much money I could make and how quickly I could become financially independent.

And that set us back.


Returning to Emergency Medicine

life derails plans

We still lived frugally and invested whatever we had left over, but the rate was significantly lower than it would have been in our original circumstances. I eventually went back to emergency medicine so that I could catch up on finances and be sure that my family was taken care of in the long term. Eventually, we got there, although we are certainly far behind where we would have been had life carried us on a less complicated path, especially during those all-important prime early years of investing and saving.

I share this story not for sympathy or even kudos, but because I think that there are a lot of readers who may have experienced or are experiencing something similar. Life has a way of throwing us curveballs. It might be from a special-needs child. Or it could be your own disability or health concern where you can’t work as much as you need or want. It could be from a divorce where you suddenly find your family income and assets cut in half. It could be from the needs of a family member who you may need to support financially or emotionally. There is a myriad of other possibilities. I write with the desire that those of you whose circumstances have derailed your plans—either temporarily or permanently—not get discouraged or give up hope.

More information here:

Financial Lessons Learned from a Doctor Turned Patient

How My Recent Brain Tumor Diagnosis Made Me Reevaluate My Finances


Roadmap to Financial Freedom

It might take you longer to get there, but if you continue to live by sound financial principles, you can still achieve a successful outcome. The roadmap to financial freedom that I review with my planning clients includes the following mileposts:

  1. Earn more than you spend
  2. Spend on what you value
  3. Eliminate bad debt
  4. Create multiple streams of income
  5. Protect your assets
  6. Invest smartly and continuously
  7. Don’t pay more for taxes than you must
  8. Provide for your family’s future
  9. Plan your retirement wisely
  10. Find what will fulfill you during your retirement years
  11. Control your own estate
  12. Be charitable

Always remember that sometimes living a rich life has nothing to do with money. Rather, it has everything to do with relationships, family, experiences, receiving help when you need it, and giving back when you can. Your net worth as a parent, a spouse, a friend, or a neighbor is not reflected by the net worth on your personal financial statement.

I am a physician and a financial advisor. It is my goal that all my clients achieve financial independence. But more importantly, I hope that my clients will live a broadly wealthy and emotionally healthy life—a life where they are happy and fulfilled, a balanced life that is focused on more than the balance sheet. Although I applaud those who have found financial success at an early age, I truly respect those who have discovered that life is a marathon where the finish line keeps changing and where all their energy is focused on just taking the next step.

My heroes don’t just live in fancy houses or drive expensive cars. They have learned that money is useful and that it can certainly make life more comfortable. But true wealth involves so much more.

Have you had to radically change your financial plans because you were forced to take a different path? What happened? How did you adjust? Comment below!

[Editor's Note: Dr. Bryan Jepson is a board-certified emergency medicine physician and a licensed financial advisor. He has a master's degree in Finance and Risk Management, and he is a CFP candidate. He works for Targeted Wealth Solutions, an independent financial advisory and planning firm with a focus on healthcare professionals. He lives in Monument, Colorado, and he is married with three adult sons (two of whom have autism). He enjoys hiking, running, fishing, playing the guitar, and helping his disabled sons communicate through writing. Targeted Wealth Solutions is a paid advertiser and a WCI Recommended Financial Advisor partner. However, this is not a sponsored post. This article was submitted and approved according to our Guest Post Policy.]