Live like a medical student, invest like a professional

If money is the root of all evil, what does that make debt? Evil’s ugly big brother.

A report by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) revealed that over 86 percent of medical graduates carry an educational debt principal of over $160,000, with a significant number of graduates reporting debt totaling over $350,000. In addition to massive student debt, personal financial challenges include the loss of nearly a decade of income and investing opportunities.

On the second-to-last day of medical school, we listened to a presentation about debt and loan repayment. Sitting in the back of the lecture hall, I felt the room grow grim as the lecture proceeded. The classroom of energized new doctors became intimidated and overwhelmed. After the meeting, I was surprised to learn that, for many students, this was the first time they had truly understood the reality of their medical school debt burden and repayment options.

My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression. Like others who lived during that time, he was raised in extreme poverty with almost no resources. During my childhood, he was an amazing example in every aspect of life. Later in his life, he was financially successful due to his hard work, financial knowledge, and consistency. I will never forget one particular life lesson he taught me. One day, while he was visiting my family, we found ourselves outside together cleaning the garage. While I swept the garage floor, my grandfather noticed a nickel in the pile of garbage I was sweeping. He asked if I was going to pick it up. I declined and continued sweeping so that I could quickly complete my task. He approached the pile, bent over, plucked the dirty nickel from it, inserted the coin into his pocket and said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” At that moment, I started to understand one of the secrets to financial wellness. I’m confident that smart saving is a financial principle that is vital to successful debt management and financial prosperity as a physician.

Depending on their debt amount and terms, medical students will pay back approximately $2 for every $1 borrowed. This concept is important to understand early in medical education. Each year, medical students determine the amount they will borrow for the academic year. The best investment a student can make is in themselves, including education — specifically, tuition and living expenses. However, because students do not earn an income during their education, all pleasure expenses will eventually cost double the initial amount borrowed. Even when purchasing a soda, medical students are essentially paying double because they are using loan money. Two key personal finance principles that would greatly benefit early medical trainees are saving and investing.

I love the term “live like a student.” No matter what your financial future holds, undergraduate, graduate and medical school provide a wonderful opportunity to sacrifice and live by humble means. When most people reflect on a period of life that involved sacrifice and humble living, they recall pleasant memories and unique opportunities. Students and residents can financially benefit by looking for cheaper housing, creating opportunities to save on living expenses, and consistently budgeting for non-housing expenses such as food, vacations, and cars. The rising generation of trainees, in particular, has a difficult time living humbly due to the social media version of “keeping up with the Joneses.” Facebook constantly reminds us that our friends and family members are enjoying lavish vacations, new homes, and expensive restaurants. This is particularly difficult when you are overworked, over-studied and underpaid. Overall, medical students will benefit from the mentality of “a penny saved is two pennies earned.”

Another effective saving strategy as a student is to avoid justifying any form of spending. It is natural for people to spend more after they save more. For example, you may choose to live 15 minutes farther from campus so that you can save $200 a month, but because of this, you justify eating out more often for convenience. Saving money should never justify spending that saved money later on a different unplanned or unnecessary purchase. Changing one’s spending and saving habits may be as difficult as changing a patient’s eating or exercise habits.

Another important concept for financial success for physicians is investing. If you are like most physicians, investing is likely not your strong point. The topic of investing may intimidate and overwhelm many readers. However, I invite you to jump fearlessly into this topic. I firmly believe that financial investing leads to security, which in turn will improve one’s long-term quality of life. Although physicians are generally high-income earners, this does not always result in net worth or financial security.

Physicians are commonly known to be less than savvy when it comes to personal and professional finance. Often, the only major investment a physician will ever make is in his or her own education. However, physicians are intelligent human beings. The concepts of financial investing are learnable. If a physician can learn the Kreb Cycle, he or she can learn financial investing concepts. Several online learning resources, books, and blogs will give entry to advanced-level information about 401(k)s, Roth IRAs, stocks, angel investing and real estate investing, to name a few. If one can look at a 12 lead ECG and identify a pathologic pattern, one can certainly identify a successful stock pattern for investing.

The great news is that you do not have to wait until you earn a high income before you begin taking care of your financial health. Start small and learn about the process of personal finance and investing. As with medical training, we learn in low-risk environments. As we grow in knowledge and skill, the stakes and risks increase but so does our success and reward. Focusing on financial wellness early in your career will allow the concept of compounding to work for you.

Although a high barrier of entry exists for newer physicians and trainees, it has been my experience — and research agrees — that knowledge of personal finance creates significant long-term benefits. The point of this article is not to suggest a method of “getting rich” as a physician, but rather to spark interest in acquiring personal finance knowledge early in your career. Financial knowledge can lead to a decrease in financial burden and to an increase in personal financial security and opportunities.

Tyson Schwab is a resident physician and can be reached on Twitter @tysonschwab.

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