Physician Financial Wellness Matters

New course battles financial stress and physician burnout

By Christopher Rufus Sweeney

The survey says… wait, that’s wrong. Start again: 42 percent of all surveyed physicians say that they are burned out. And that number is steadily rising.

My research shows that financial anxiety is one of the primary drivers of physician depression, burnout, and suicide. When asked why, physicians say it’s because of their job. But, when asked what would reduce burnout, their first answer is increased compensation to avoid financial stress.

But, think about this: getting a higher salary is often not something you can directly control. On the other hand, you do have direct control of how you manage your salary. You can control what you have.

That’s the great news my colleague Emma Crawford and I are spreading through our new course being offered to students at the School of Medicine and Public Health at UW-Madison.

Funded by a grant from the Wisconsin Medial Society Foundation, our goal is to help med students make smart, well-thought-out, intentional financial decisions now so that you are able to enjoy your life with less financial stress later.

Medical students, residents and physicians are busy and have little financial training, which can result in suboptimal decision-making and being targeted by less than scrupulous “financial planners”. This can be scary, intimidating, and discouraging.

I am speaking from experience here. Before entering medical school, I was talked into a bad investment and quickly realized physicians represent a vulnerable combination of high income and poor investment skills. This makes us an ideal target for salesmen posing as financial planners. Since then, I’ve dedicated myself to helping others avoid the mistakes I made.

You can’t blindly luck into financial independence, even with a physician’s salary. No one is born good at managing finances! Financial decisions both large and small are more psychological than logical. The good news is that anyone can learn it. That’s why we’ve put together this course. From budgeting and living on a resident’s salary to figuring out whether you should rent or buy a house during residency, this course arms students with carefully distilled personal financial wisdom to better navigate their financial journey when they graduate from SMPH.

The Wisconsin Medical Society’s insurance agency, WisMed Assure, has asked me to share some of the course’s highlights over the coming months.

Here’s what you can expect:

  • Budgeting: The word budgeting sounds like a scolding… it’s a lot better to think of it as Goal Setting
  • Live Like a Resident: If you live and work like a resident, you can become financially independent in 10-12 years. That feels good.
  • Rent or Buy a House in Residency: In residency, most of the time, the answer is rent!
  • Different Kinds of Debt: Knowing helps you choose the best repayment method.
  • Types of Educational Loans: Don’t pay people to help you with student loan repayment. Don’t get bamboozled!
  • Compound Interest and Loan Basics: Compound interest is unfriendly when used against you… it’s quite nice if you use it to your advantage
  • Emergency Fund: Consider setting aside about $5k as a resident, and more as your resources and liabilities accumulate
  • Income Driven Repayment Plans: The many ins and outs of income-driven repayment options
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness: A great deal for many physicians, but you have to do it right
  • Insurance: Insurance works best when it is low probability, but high consequence
  • Taxation: Navigating safely through the sea of taxes and deductions
  • Retirement: Never, ever raid your retirement account

While there are a few pitfalls in personal finance, there are many more ways as to be successful. Most often, what works comes down to what is most important to you and you alone. That’s why we created this course to teach students how to make a plan for their finances based on their personal goals and individual situation. It will give them a scaffolding on which to build their futures.

Looking ahead, think about what James Dahle, MD, “The White Coat Investor” says: “If you are willing to live like no one else will early in life, then you can live like no one else can later in life.”

Next Blog: Budgeting: Goal Setting is all about giving your money a job… and it really is an empowering activity.

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