A common experience for many physicians is that despite earning significantly more than they did during their training years, they are still living paycheck to paycheck. Many physicians struggle financially through medical school, residency, and for some, a fellowship. Salaries are modest, cost of living can be high, and many are burdened with student loans. Then suddenly, as an attending physician, they are making more money than they ever have in their lives. They look at their account balance and projected wealth and think, “It’s time to start treating myself.” Physicians have certainly earned the right to increase their standard of living, but proceed with caution and watch out for a trap known as lifestyle creep, otherwise you could find yourself still struggling with monthly expenses.
It’s called lifestyle “creep” because it’s sneaky and happens to just about everybody whose earnings have increased significantly. It begins innocently enough – you survey your surroundings and decide it’s time to upgrade your home, your car, your furniture, your cuisine and so on and so on. Instead of purchasing your usual bottom shelf wine, you move up to more expensive brands. Soon, items that used to be a luxury become the norm. You’re spending more because you can, not because it’s truly necessary. You gradually make a complete shift regarding what’s “normal.” Over time, things that used to lie quietly in the want category, now call loudly from the need category. You hardly notice the lifestyle creep because it’s happened so slowly, like the tortoise catching up with the hare.
Unfortunately, we see physicians fall into this trap far too often. Eventually, when they realize they need to put more focus on their retirement savings, or they need to start saving for their children’s college educations, the money is no longer available because it has been consumed by this upgrade in lifestyle. Big decisions a physician may have made early in their career like buying an expensive house with a large mortgage or purchasing a luxury car with a sizeable loan, now prevents them from saving adequate amounts for other important goals.
Many physicians find it difficult to pull back once they have experienced a higher standard of living. As a result, many don’t, and they end up worrying about money on a monthly basis, worrying about their retirement, and worrying about their children’s futures despite earning a significant salary.
Nip lifestyle creep in the bud now! Once you creep forward, creeping back is tough.
Consider the long-term financial impact of your purchasing choices. Do you need to buy a big house with a hefty mortgage, or can you live comfortably in a more modest condo that you’ll pay off in few years or turn into an investment property? While the former may be a status symbol, the latter could be the better long-term financial decision. The less expensive condo ensures you are not strangled by mortgage debt and can free up cash for other important financial goals like traveling or saving for your children’s college education and your retirement.
Examples of these cost-cutting and cash flow-increasing decisions can be found in all areas of a physician’s financial life.
You may be asking yourself, “Why work hard to get ahead if I can’t enjoy my money?” You absolutely can and should! However, you should do it in a deliberate manner that fits your overall financial plan. Upgrade your life in such a way that you don’t wind up earning two, three, or even four times as much money only to find that finances are tighter than ever. You need to control the creep. Start by being truly honest with yourself about which aspects of your lifestyle are most important to you. Then construct a financial plan that will keep you dedicated to your most important financial goals. The financial plan will force you to be accountable to yourself and your family. Wealth can come in many forms, and the more committed you are to your financial plan, the greater chance you have of becoming truly wealthy.
Jeff Witz, CFP® welcomes readers’ questions. He can be reached at 800-883-8555 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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