FIRE Starter 014: Two Highly Motivated MDs

Today’s FIRE Starter interviewee is a fellow physician financial blogger with a family of four–and sometimes another–early in their career.

They’re a dual-physician family, one in emergency medicine and the other in academia, and they have their sights set on achieving financial independence not necessarily for the work-optional benefit of being FIRE, but to regain control and autonomy over their lives.

And maybe to spend more time on a fishing boat?

If you’re interested in participating in one of three interview series, please download the most appropriate form for your life situation: FIRE Starter, FIRE Crossroads, or Post-FI Notes. To see other posts in the series, visit our Q&A archive.

 

 

Before we get going, I want to take a moment to thank the Physician on FIRE team.  The Motivated M.D. is a personal finance blog that I have been growing for over a year now. Collaboration with Physician on FIRE and other physician finance bloggers has been critical to my site’s success.  Though I still may be a little fish in a big pond, it has been humbling to see our traffic explode, as well as the outpouring of support in the FIRE community!

I have been honored to have a handful of featured posts on the PoF website over the past year, as well as features in many Sunday Bests.  However, I have always wanted a larger platform to share my story.  This FIRE Starter Interview series seemed like the next logical step.  

I hope the work that follows can further elaborate on my current work-life balance, my financial philosophies, as well as my FIRE journey.  If you like what you read, then please check us out at TheMotivatedMD.com and follow us on our Twitter and Instagram accounts!  Thank you again.

 

Getting to Know You

 

Where are you on your financial independence journey?  Have you reached a positive net worth?  It’s OK if you haven’t!  Most of us started out in the red.

Ahh, what a great way to break the ice!  For starters, I would say that I am still in the infancy of my financial independence journey.  Though I have only recently made substantial headway, I have been self-educating and executing my financial plan for years now.  Financial independence and what it can offer my family only started to take effect over the past two years (more on that later).  

Just as I advocate for frequently on The Motivated M.D., I think tracking your net worth is important.  My response to this question has two answers.  If you are not factoring in our home, then we would still have a negative net worth of approximately -$50,000.  If you factor in the equity in our home (which we purchased in July 2021) then our net worth would be slightly positive at $15,000.

To put that into perspective, when my wife and I exited medical school, we carried a combined educational debt of $670,000!  She is an emergency medicine physician and I am a pulmonary and critical care physician both practicing at an academic institution in the southeastern United States.  She completed all of her training in 2019.  I just recently graduated from fellowship in 2022.  I have been on faculty at the institution where I completed fellowship since that time.  Over the past few years, we have moonlit frequently and worked to pay off $100,000 annually towards our student loans.  As of the start of 2023, our combined debt is down to $390,000 and our net worth is essentially zero.  

I am currently enrolled in a student loan repayment program through my employer that will pay off $150,000 in 5 years ($30,000 annually).  Thus, we are on track to pay off my wife’s debt completely by the end of this calendar year, with the majority of what remains to be paid through my employer.  

 

Tell us about your household.  How many people?  Are you supporting anyone outside of your home?  Where do you live?

We are a household of 4.5 (I’ll answer the 0.5 in a moment).  My wife and I are both in our early thirties and both practice academic medicine at the same institution as I mentioned above.  We have a 16-month-old daughter and recently celebrated the birth of our son 5 weeks ago!  Our household is in a constant state of clutter, but full of love.  

My mother-in-law lives with us roughly half the year when she snowbirds down south.  As such, when she is with us, we primarily take care of her expenses.  She is an incredible help both around the home and with our children…a worthy tradeoff.  

The only other person that I would include as “supported” outside of our home would be our nanny.  With my wife in emergency medicine and me being intermittently in the ICU, weekend call, night call, our schedules are sporadic and difficult to accommodate.  This made daycare an impossibility.  Thus, we employ a nanny 40 hours a week.  

 

In what field are you working?  How is your career going?  What do you like best and least about your chosen profession?

I am a pulmonary and critical care physician.  As of January 2023, I have officially passed my third (and final) board certification (internal medicine, pulmonary medicine, and critical care medicine).  When I completed my combined fellowship in 2022, I was approached by my division to stay on as faculty.  With my wife already employed as a faculty member with her division, staying in place seemed like the best option for our family.  

We love where we live.  Having the opportunity to stay put and raise our family was all we ever wanted.  Further, both our families live in the state and my father recently completed cancer treatment while simultaneously struggling with progressive dementia.  We need to be here.  

In terms of my career… I feel like an intern again!  It is true that once you finally complete all of your training, it can be slightly unnerving to no longer have someone supervising you.  It has been an adjustment but it is nice to practice and teach the next generation.  Though my choice to stay in academics may have cost me some earning potential, it affords me the free time to pursue interests outside of medicine and a better work-life balance.  Thus, I plan to stay put if they will have me.  This is the best part of my profession.  

The greatest challenge with my career is likely the call as well as the patient care requirements.  It can be “death by a thousand cuts.” Being married to an emergency medicine physician, it has been eye-opening to see a medical profession that has actual shift work.  Though an occasional sick patient can delay sign-out, with her specialty, when she leaves for the day, her work is done.  That reality does not exist in most internal medicine subspecialities.  In the ICU, I can leave after a week, but there will still be ambulatory responsibilities for my pulmonary patients.  There are regular phone calls to make or test results to update.  I never truly get to be off.

 

What is the most challenging obstacle to making progress toward financial independence?

As John Bogle said ‘stay the course.’  I think the most challenging obstacle to making progress toward financial independence is just continuing to stick to your financial plan.  It is easy to get a bonus and put it all towards your loans.  Having a rush of dopamine as you watch your debt balance fall is invigorating. 

What is more difficult is the mundane, month-to-month grind of putting roughly $9,000 away.  Like so many other physicians, we too want to expand our lifestyle.  We do allow a small amount of lifestyle creep, but we keep it in check.  

As is human, we often fall prey to our emotions.  Comparing what we don’t have to what our colleagues do.  How come we don’t have a waterfront home?  Where is our Tesla?  

What’s more difficult is that we never understand the intricacies of another’s finances.  We just assume they are crushing it when they pull up to their two-million-dollar home in their Porsche, but they could be up to their eyeballs in debt!  Or potentially they actually are crushing it. Who knows?! 

That is not how most think though.  It has taken me a long time to find comfort in my personal financial choices and decisions…and to stay resolute in them.  

 

Investing

 

How is your money invested?  Approximately what percentage is allocated to stocks, bonds, real estate, and alternatives?

When it comes to finances, I tend to stick to the basics.  Here are the bullet points on how my money is saved and invested:

Banking Accounts:

  • My wife and I each keep our own checking accounts for which our pay is deposited into
  • We each keep roughly $1,000.00 in our respective savings accounts (just in case)
  • We share a Capital One account that has three “buckets”:
    • An emergency fund that houses three months’ livings expenses, roughly $30,000
    • A vacation savings fund
    • A holiday savings fund to which we each contribute $275.00 monthly (approximately $6,600 annually) to offset the expenses that primarily occur during the holiday season (i.e., gifting, bonus for the nanny, Christmas cards, and HOA dues)

Retirement accounts:

  • Across our family’s retirement accounts, we have roughly $300,000 saved.  The majority of that is saved in my wife’s 401(k) and my Thrift Savings Plan (TSP).  We have automatic contributions set up to max out these accounts annually, and to receive the employer match.  Each of those accounts is 100% invested in mutual funds that index the S&P 500.  
  • We do perform backdoor Roth IRAs (personal and spousal) but this was not started until we completed training.  Therefore, only a small portion of our retirement savings is housed in this vehicle.  
  • My employment offers an HSA which we use and max ($7,300) annually.  However, this only became available to me in July 2022 when my faculty position began.  This is also 100% invested to index the market.

Educational Savings:

  • We have opened a 529 plan for my daughter and I am in the process of opening a 529 for my newborn.  I will be honest and say that we do not consistently make contributions to this account yet as we are so fixated on eliminating our debt.  

Taxable Investment Savings:

  • Lastly, we have a taxable Vanguard account that houses $30,000 in VTSAX.  We contribute $500.00 monthly to this account. 

Currently, we have no real estate investments.  Until our debt is eliminated, we put all our excess income towards that.  

 

Are your investments primarily in tax-deferred, Roth, or ‘taxable’ post-tax accounts?

9% of our nest egg is housed in Roth accounts (including backdoor Roth IRA accounts).  The other 89% is kept in tax-deferred accounts (401(k)s, 403(b)s, 457(b)s, 401(a)s, etc.).  The remaining 1% is our HSA.

 

Do you have investments in an HSA?  How about 529 Plans?

Yes.  As I mentioned above, my employer offers an HSA through our high-deductible health plan (HDHP).  We max this out annually.  It is invested to index the market (100%).  We also have a 529 plan for my 16-month-old daughter and I am working to open one for my newborn son.  

 

What has been your best investment?

There are a few ways to approach this question.  Thinking big picture, my best investment would have to be my education.  I understand that is a cliché answer, but what medical education taught me was how to maintain drive and self-educate.  As I have reached the end of my formal medical education, I can now apply those skills to other aspects of my life, like my personal finance blog.  

As has been written here before, there is a huge learning curve to the business of blogging.  Though the internet is helpful, you still have to discover most things on your own.  The grit that helped me in medical school is working again as I build my side gig.  

Speaking of material goods, the home we bought in 2021 has turned out to be a much better investment than I originally realized.  Our home-buying process was a nightmare.  We bought at (what we thought) was the peak of the COVID housing boom.  Surprisingly, that was not the case.  After closing on our home in July of 2021, the market continued to boom.  The value of our home has increased by roughly $250,000 over the past 18 months. 

 

Your worst investment?

So, I have never shared this before, but my worst investment, by far, is a boat.  Now, to preface, we live in a coastal area and my wife and I absolutely love being on the water. But boats are money pits.  Plain and simple.  It is a funny story, really.

In 2020, we had completely paid for a two-week vacation out to the United Kingdom.  We had plans to spend roughly four days in London, four in Scotland, and four in Ireland.  We were all set to go, but then the COVID pandemic lockdowns started.  Our flights got canceled and our vacation was upended.  We were devastated.  We had been planning this vacation for (what seemed like) forever.  

As our vacation dates approached, we pondered what to do with our staycation now that the pandemic was in full swing.  With our travel expenses fully refunded, we were sitting on a small pile of cash.  Knowing that one of our financial goals was to afford a boat, it felt like as good a time as ever.  

There was a widow who was selling a small 20-foot, center console fishing boat that had been maintained impeccably.  She shared that the boat was her husband’s mistress and he would often venture out to fish and clear his head.  With him gone, she didn’t know how to operate the boat.  All she wanted was it off of her lot.  To be honest, it was a steal.  We used the cash from our trip to pay for it in full. We were proud boat owners.  

However, as the years have gone by, with our family growing, it has been harder and harder to find the time for our watercraft.  First, our clinical schedules were too busy with COVID.  Then we had an infant that was too young to be on a boat.  Then we had another. Time keeps passing, we keep paying our marina fees, and our boat sits infrequently used.  I feel like each month I am throwing $350 down the drain.  

When I am on the water, it is a feeling unlike any other.  But that happens so seldom that the expense is hardly worth it.  My wife loves the boat, and I love her.  Sometimes in life, there are financial decisions that you know are impractical, but you do them anyway because they bring someone joy.  Given that our boating expense isn’t jeopardizing our finances, it is a necessary evil. 

 

 

FIRE Kindling

 

What attracts you to the FIRE movement?  Do you think you’ll retire early when you’re in a position to do so?

I think about this far too often.  Ever since I started my faculty position, with my wife and I both making attending income, the idea of FIRE is incredibly appealing. 

I am attracted to the idea of having enough.  I want to reach a point in my life where I work because I want to, not because I have to. 

Building a large enough nest egg that allows me to live off the interest, or creating a side gig or business that supplements my income is not just enticing, it feels necessary.

I understand that there are physicians currently practicing who feel differently.  These individuals love getting up and going to work and would do so indefinitely if they could.  My father, who was a dentist in his working life, had a similar passion for his career. 

Look, I absolutely love what I do.  The practice of medicine challenges me intellectually, allows me to interact with many individuals, allows me to teach, and offers a great income.  

There was a point, likely when my first child was born, that medicine became a means to an end for me.  I stopped romanticizing medicine and saw it for what it was.

It was a lucrative career that helped me reach my financial goals but demanded more of my life than I was comfortable with.  My faculty position has improved my work-life balance some, but not to the degree I want long-term.  

It was the inner turmoil of these struggles that led me to write and subsequently start a blog.  I thought that if I felt this way, surely I was not alone. 

Further, I realized that you can love medicine and still want to reach FIRE.  These two things are not mutually exclusive.  What I have found is that the post-pandemic healthcare community wants this far more than any of us realized.  Unfortunately, we are seeing this manifest as more and more healthcare providers leave the profession in droves.  

 

How do you anticipate your life changing post-FI?

When I think about my life after reaching financial independence, I hope not too much has changed, to be honest.  When I reach FIRE, I am open to continuing to practice medicine, but there would have to be changes that support a better quality of life.  

For starters, I would want my wife and me to work part-time.  In the time this would free up, I would hope to travel more.  Given that I am primarily employed by a government entity, I am eligible for a pension at roughly the age of 52 (in 19 years).  I would think long and hard about working until I am able to receive my pension v. retiring early.  

When my father retired from dentistry, two things became very apparent.  First, he retired to nothing.  He had always defined himself as a dentist, never taking up another hobby, interest, or side hustle. 

As such, he lost his sense of identity in retirement.  No matter what we proposed he try, he was unwilling as it was not dental-related.  

Second, his dementia seemed to progress faster.  Potentially, in his retirement, we just noticed the symptoms more, the availability heuristic.  In my heart, however, I think his condition spiraled out of control as he lost his sense of purpose. 

As I have watched him deteriorate, I have felt driven to cultivate my extracurriculars now.  If I do reach FIRE earlier than expected, I will be eager to pursue non-medical endeavors as well (hopefully still growing The Motivated M.D. enterprise!)  

 

What steps have you taken to hasten your time to FI?

There are a few steps I have implemented to expedite financial independence.  For starters, we are working diligently to eliminate our debt. 

As I write about often, we pay 6 figures towards our debt annually.  If you want to know more details on how we achieve this, check out How We Paid Off $209,000 of Debt in 2 Years and Graphing Our Loan Repayment Progress.  

I have made it abundantly clear how debt-averse I am.  I think the biggest barrier to FIRE right now is my educational debt, but we are on track to be rid of it in roughly two and a half more years, with a large portion of that being reimbursed through my employer.  Maybe I’ll write my FIRE Crossroads then?!

Secondly, we are working to live on far less than we make after taxes.  Our household makes approximately $360,000 after taxes and after our retirement contributions and other deductions are removed.  We subsequently save another $6,600 for the holiday season, put $100,000 towards debt, and put another $19,000 towards Vanguard investments ($6,500 backdoor Roth IRA, $6,500 spousal backdoor Roth IRA, and $6,000 into our ‘taxable’ investment account).  

With all of this factored in, after taxes, we live on 65% of our take-home pay.  In other words, we max out our retirement contributions and our HSA, pay six figures towards our debt, perform our backdoor Roths and still save 35%.  In total, we are saving closer to 40% if you factor in retirement accounts.  

Lastly, and potentially most importantly, I am building my business.  As I have already highlighted multiple times in this post, I am working to grow The Motivated M.D.  I have written previously on what it takes for physicians to actually reach generational wealth.  

Yes, high-income professions coupled with a frugal lifestyle and wise investment vehicles are the simple path toward wealth.  However, for those looking to expedite FIRE and create something bigger than their 9-to-5, often you have to own a successful business. 

For me, I have chosen blogging.  The intersection between writing and finance constantly captivates me.  Building a platform that offers value to the viewership while simultaneously creating avenues for monetization can be a tremendous business.  You are no stranger to this.  It is not the ‘passive’ income I naively thought, but a great business structure nonetheless. 

 I work tirelessly after I put my children to sleep, nights, weekends, and mornings to create worthwhile content for my readers.  I aspire to grow this business exponentially.  From shortening my time to financial independence to cultivating another stream of revenue, the business has many benefits.  I hope many of you will join me on this journey.

 

Are your friends, family, or coworkers aware of your interest in financial independence?

If you navigate over to the My Story portion of my website, you will find a lengthy description of my financial journey…but you will not find my name (yet).  I honestly have enjoyed writing and interacting from a place of anonymity.  Given that I started blogging while still a trainee, I didn’t want anyone to know who I was.  

Now that my business is formally an LLC and I have completed my medical education, I am more open to acknowledging my real identity, but that time has not presented itself organically.  As I continue to write and interact with the personal finance community, there will come a time when I think it beneficial to speak from a place of identity.  To be honest, I am still working to shake the imposter syndrome I still carry.  

With that said, the only person who truly knows and understands my passion for financial independence is my wife.  My children are too young to comprehend and I have not told my family.  My father’s dementia is too far progressed for him to understand. 

The remainder of my family are all in healthcare professions and handle their finances very differently than I do.  With so many opinions at the dinner table, I have found it best to keep my personal finance opinions to myself, at least for now.  

 

What advice do you have for others beginning their own FIRE journey?

To be honest, I have a lot of financial recommendations, tips, and life lessons shared on my blog.  However, there are a few rules that I live by:

  • Avoid comparison when starting your FIRE journey.  Each and every person’s personal finances are complex and unique.  None of us can begin to reasonably understand someone else’s financial situation, so don’t bother.  All you will do is waste time and energy comparing yourself to them.  Instead, focus on you and you alone
  • Before you do anything, make an honest and transparent budget.  I mean physically sit down and go through your past three months of expenses (or more) individually.  Make sure you know where each and every dollar is going. Only through mastering your budget can you begin to tackle your finances
  • After you make a budget, then save an emergency fund.  There are many articles out there arguing for or against housing a pot of money that large. An emergency fund will bring you peace of mind more than anything.  However, when your HVAC dies suddenly, or you total your car, or a tree falls through your roof, you will want it.  
  • You will not be successful if you and your significant other are not on the same page.  Your relationship (marriage) is your most important asset.  Work to protect this at all costs.  Go on dinner dates.  Allow yourself a portion of your monthly income to spend on each other.  You work too hard to not occasionally treat yourself. Just do it within reason.
  • Lastly, don’t look at FIRE as a number; look at it as a mindset.  Just because there is a number that would allow you to quit your job doesn’t mean you have to quit.  What FIRE affords you is more than regular withdrawals.  FIRE buys you the time to explore life outside of medicine.  No one is saying you have to retire immediately and start to travel the world.  FIRE is a strategy employed to allow you to take control of your life, even if that means you don’t change a thing.  

 

Finally, is there anything under the sun that you’d like some help with?  The hive mind would be happy to weigh in.

I really appreciate anyone and everyone who took the time to read this interview.  I only ask one remaining question.  If you share a sentiment with my story, or found this work entertaining or informative, would you please check out The Motivated M.D.? 

Every single person who visits the website, drives traffic, likes and follows my social media accounts, or gains an iota of information is helping me reach my vision.  

Thank you all for your influence over the years.  I have been a fan of Physician on Fire and the White Coat Investor Network for many years now.  It is always an honor and privilege to be featured here.  Cheers, everyone!  

 

PoF: Catch all the future interviews from those just getting started, at a crossroads, or at the end of their FI journey with a free subscription to Physician on FIRE.

 

 

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I thank today’s interviewee for sharing their story, and I’ve shared my feedback privately with them. I wouldn’t want my opinions to influence yours. Please give your take and answer any questions they have had in the space below!

Again, if you’d like to partake in a future Q&A, please download a FIRE Starter, FIRE Crossroads, or Post-FI Notes interview form.

 

7 thoughts on “FIRE Starter 014: Two Highly Motivated MDs”

  1. dude well done with you and wifie killin it! you are definitely going to maximize happiness in your life with the financial plan that you guys have laid out.

    and don’t worry about not getting out on the boat too much! Frame it this way- it’s not a waste of money, but hedonic adaptation prevention when you pay the few hundred bucks a month yet don’t use the thing.

    At least this is what I am going to tell myself when I blow $300,000 on a pool and backyard project this summer despite living in New Jersey and you only get to use said pool 3 months out of the year.

    Here’s to hedonic adaptation prevention!

    Reply
  2. Subscribe to get more great content like this, an awesome spreadsheet, and more!
  3. Congrats on finishing three specialties and hammering your debt. Both those things plus your aggressive savings give you great options that you will appreciate later. I have the same specialties and practice in an academic center in Canada, but I am about 15 years downstream. One of the best things for my sanity was when I closed my outpatient pulmonology practice. It is hard to close doors, but that made a cleaner line for time off. That is needed when the ICU drains your emotional tank and you can recharge it with pursuits outside medicine (like hobbies and family for example). It is great that you are thinking about pursuits within medicine and outside. Most intensivists are pretty driven and focused, but having multiple foci keeps it fresh and motivating.
    -LD

    Reply
    • Thank you for your kind words and it is always refreshing to hear from someone on a similar path, just a few paces ahead! I wish you all the best as you continue your career and I hope to mimic some of your successes too! Cheers!
      -The Motivated M.D.

      Reply
  4. I’m a little confused – why pay down the loans instead of try for PSLF? It seems like the employers qualify and the last couple years have been 0% with “0 dollar payments” still counting?

    Reply
    • Yeah great question Jack. Early after my wife completed training before taking her current academic EM position she signed to join a private practice that did not qualify for PSLF. I was in training but my federal loans were multiple 6 figures with an average of 7-8% interest. Given that my wife’s job would not qualify for PSLF and my debts interest was crushing us, we decided to refinance! Of course refinancing made us ineligible for future PSLF. Since that time we have refinanced multiple times, especially during the student loan moratorium that occurred during COVID. Now we each average 3% on our loans. If you want to know more, I have a full article on this decision and how it transpired! Check it out here:
      https://themotivatedmd.com/choosing-refinancing-over-pslf/

      Reply
      • Interesting, that makes more sense. Upon first read I didn’t see the impetus for refinancing since it seemed like you never left a non-qualifying employer. Btw, I think you portrayed the interest rates a little worse than they really were – under REPAYE half of your unpaid interest was waived right?

        Reply

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