What COVID-19 taught this physician about money

COVID has taught me many things in and outside of medicine.  Most importantly, it has taught me that the medical field is a family.  There is nothing that drives a family together like a crisis.  For those of us on the front lines, I’m raising a pint of the finest for you!  That “front line” not only includes the doctors, nurses, and staff caring for patients sick with COVID.  It also includes all of the family members that help support us so that we can fight against this disease that rages against humanity.

While I’ve battled COVID inside the hospital, I’ve also been battling the struggles COVID has caused for my students, readers, and listeners.  This virus has had widespread impacts on both the medical world and the economy.

In replying to emails, text messages, and dealing with my own personal struggles, here is what COVID has taught me about money.

1. Emergency funds are important

Over the bull market of the last decade, people’s risk tolerance went through the roof.  We all felt like we could withstand anything, including the bear market that we all knew would eventually come.  It wasn’t long ago that many people were talking about not needing an emergency fund at all.  Why not just put it into the market?

That’s until COVID taught its first money lesson. An emergency fund is for emergencies.

An emergency fund serves several purposes, and COVID helped highlight many of them:

  • Unemployment. Your emergency fund can bridge the gap in periods where you lose your main source of income.  If you are between jobs, your emergency fund can help bridge your gap.
  • Disability. Most disability policies don’t kick in for 60-90 days after you become disabled.  If you were struck by COVID and couldn’t work, it highlights the need to have an emergency fund that bridges the gap to your long-term disability kicking in.
  • Emergency expenses. Like needing to stock up during a pandemic. Or when your AC unit goes out.

Don’t skimp on this important basic financial need.  Keep 3 to 6 months around at all times in a high-yield savings account.  Don’t invest it. That’s not the purpose of an emergency fund.  An emergency fund is for security and easy access.

2. Additional sources of income are worth the work

When COVID hit, many people lost major sources of income for their families.  Yet, if you had other sources of income, you could buoy your wild ride through these rough seas.

Your side-gig income can come from a variety of places.  It might be medical-legal work.  It could be a product like a great book on personal finances or an online course.  Maybe it is real estate.

I blogged for 18 months before I even broke even despite putting in 10 to 20 hours per week on the blog.  Creating these streams of income can require a lot of work.  Yet, the second that our paycheck was threatened, having additional sources of income made all of that hard work worth it.

Our hard work has put us in a fortunate position.  Many have lost all of their sources of income during this pandemic, which leads me to my next point.

3. Give to those in need

If you are financially stable during this pandemic, that is great!  I am happy for you.

That said, I hope COVID has reminded you to give to others who aren’t in your situation.  If you have hourly staff at risk of losing their paychecks, remember that they have family they need food on the table, too. Sometimes this might require creativity.  At my workplace, I’ve suggested siphoning book/travel funds from faculty who won’t be able to use it to those who are most at risk – like our nursing staff, anesthesia techs, and ancillary staff in the OR.

Financial freedom has many benefits, but the greatest might be the ability to give to others who need it.  Whether that means donating time, money, or your services, let’s not forget those who need our help most.

4. Sometimes being employed is great

In good economic times, being a partner in a private practice group can serve as a big boon to financial success.  It can provide more money and more autonomy.

Yet, I’ve been very happy to be an employed physician during the COVID outbreak.  My department and employer have protected my paycheck during this time, even if we aren’t able to operate at full-capacity in anesthesia as elective cases were kicked to the curbside to protect our patients and staff.

I like to give credit where credit is due, and it has been nice to work for an employer that has protected me.  Particularly in a world where many leaders eat first – not last.

5. Staying the course is important

Many of us have been warning our readers and listeners for a while that a bear market is coming, though I cringe looking at that post now.

A drop in the market of 10 percent happens every 1.5 years on average.  A bear market happens every 3 to 5 years.  They are an inevitable part of the stock market.

Like many areas of life, we must make our decisions during times where we have a level had, and not in moments of heated passion.

What you planned to do during a bear market should have been decided long before COVID ever caused the economic beat down we have experienced.  If you started figuring that out after COVID, you likely have had a hard time not selling your investments.

Long-term investing is not for the faint of heart.  It is for the gladiators in the arena who know that they’ll take a beating from time to time, but – in the end – will enjoy a glorious victory if they can just stay the course.

Take home

COVID has taught us a lot.

I hope that most reading this blog were prepared for the financial ramifications of COVID.  Hopefully, you had a 3 to 6-month emergency fund in place, have multiple sources of income, and have been able to give to those who are in need.

Money – in and of itself – is not that important.  But the freedom that money can provide both in good and bad times is very real.

James Turner, also known as “The Physician Philosopher,” is an anesthesiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, The Physician Philosopher. He is the author of The Physician Philosopher’s Guide to Personal Finance: The 20% of Personal Finance Doctors Need to Know to Get 80% of the Results.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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