So how much money do doctors make? Well, it depends. There are large discrepancies between different specialties and even the pay within a single specialty can vary widely.
It also depends on where you live. On average, pay is better in the middle of America where the cost of living is also lower, creating tremendous geographic arbitrage opportunities in medicine.
Nevertheless, a full-time physician in any specialty can earn multiple six figures per year. Granted, most doctors complete their education and training in their early-to-mid-thirties, but there is a strong salary awaiting newly minted physicians every summer.
Dr. James Turner shows us how much doctors can expect to make, and why it doesn’t matter as much as you think it would when it comes to wealth creation.
The post originally appeared on The Physician Philosopher.
How Much Money Do Doctors Make? (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)
One of the most common questions people often ask about doctors but are too afraid to say out loud is, “How much money do doctors make?” I always find this question interesting, because people are curious about how “rich” doctors must be.
Apparently, the disparity between wealth and income confuses more than just the physician community. In today’s post, I’m going to tell you how much doctors make, and then I am going to proceed to tell you why that number doesn’t really matter.
Let’s dig in as we discuss physician incomes, our debt burden, and the personal finance failures that often lead to a high-earning physician living paycheck to paycheck.
How Much Money Do Doctors Make?
In the 2020 Medscape Physician Compensation Survey, the average physician salary is $243,000 for primary care physicians and $346,000 for specialists. This is self-reported, which means it might be artificially inflated. However, it does give us a frame of reference:
If that link makes you log in, here is an image from the survey that shows each specialty’s income:
The reason for this very wide range is that some physicians (like a pediatrician or general internist) might earn $150,000 to $200,000. Yet, other specialties earn north of $500,000 (e.g. orthopedic surgery).
According to the same Medscape survey, U.S. Physicians earn more money than physicians in all other surveyed countries except Canada, which apparently leads the pack.
Other sources show comparable salaries to the Medscape data.
Wealth and Income
Despite those very large numbers, many physicians are not actually wealthy. (Note: Wealth = Assets – Debts). Many physicians live paycheck to paycheck despite their high income.
The problem in medicine is no different than the problem in the NFL or NBA. When the big checks start rolling in – like Shaq who spent $1million of his signing bonus in a single day – physicians are as inclined as a professional athlete to spend every single penny.
Let me state something obvious. Winning at personal finance is not complicated. Here are the steps:
- Earn a decent paycheck. (In theory, the more the better.)
- Spend less money than you make.
- Save the difference between what you earn and what you spend and invest it in the market so that your money can earn more money.
Don’t put words in my mouth, though. Despite the simplicity of the three steps outlined above, personal finance is NOT easy. In fact, it is really hard.
The reason isn’t the complex math, it is the behavioral finance behind it all that makes it difficult to do the right thing with our money. Even low income earning physicians can be wealthy, if they know how.
Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Easy
The problem for most physicians (and many other people) is that we feel that we deserve to spend every dime of the money we make. After all, we started behind the eight-ball by waiting to earn the first attending paycheck.
It starts with four years of undergrad. After four more years in medical school, we finish with an average of $200,000 in student loans. This debt gets to compound at 6-7% interest over three to eight more years spent in residency & fellowship.
By the time we finish all of our training, we have likely accumulated north of $300,000 in student loan and consumer debt. Even using student loan refinancing to get drastically lower interest rates, this amount of debt takes its toll.
With a net worth that is about $300,000 less than a newborn baby without a penny to her name, you’d think this group of people would go and pay down their debt.
Instead, we use that big paycheck you witnessed above to buy even more debt in a house, cars, private school for the kids, and designer gadgets.
It turns out that spending less money than you make is about as easy for most Americans as eating healthy and exercising. We all know that we should do these things, yet we don’t. It’s part of being human to know what we ought to do, and then to fail to do it.
Why Behavioral Finance Matters
This is why behavioral finance matters. We have to get the number one enemy – ourselves – out of the way. We can do this by playing mind games and setting ourselves up for success.
Here is a practical example of what I mean. Follow these three steps.
- Spend some time thinking and talking with loved ones about how you would design your ideal life. If you don’t know how, then use these three questions.
- Figure out how much money you need to save annually to live the life you designed in step (1) by the age you want to retire.
- Automatically set your paycheck to be dumped into savings accounts until you get to this number. Fill up your tax-advantaged space first (401K, 403B, governmental 457, HSA, and backdoor Roth IRA). Send any remaining money you need to save to get to your goal in a taxable account.
- Live your lifestyle based on what is left.
Following the four steps above will get you to your goals. And, if you automate your savings, then you will never see the paycheck in your bank account. There won’t be a temptation to spend it all because it’ll be broken into your savings account before you ever get to see it.
Not only does this get you out of your own way to save what needs to be saved, but it also makes you realize how much money you are allowed to currently live on.
You can’t spend a dime more unless you want to spend another day, week, month, or year away from that ideal life you designed in step 1.
Physicians earn a lot of money, but it is all for naught if we don’t use it to build wealth. If you know your “why,” or the reason behind your decision to save that money, then it becomes much easier to accomplish.
Personal finance isn’t complicated, but it sure is hard if you don’t get out of your own way. This is why behavioral finance matters (and why I’ve written a series of posts on behavioral finance topics).
We must realize that our income is not tied to our net worth if we do not use the money we earn to build wealth. This will only happen when we figure out the important things first (e.g. our savings rate) before we spend what is left.
Otherwise, we are left spending the money we make and hoping that we will have enough left in the end to retire someday when we realize we want out.
Is it easy for you to separate the ideas of income and wealth? What are some ways that you help yourself out financially? Do you automate your savings? Have you figured out how much you need to save each year to get to your goals?
3 thoughts on “How Much Money Do Doctors Make? (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)”
Hello! Thank you for such an informative article, I absolutely agree with you. In my opinion, I don’t think doctors get paid enough for the amount of time and effort they put into their jobs and the education leading up to their jobs (let’s keep in mind that their job is saving lives and making lives better). We have athletes making $100 million + and they score touchdowns and make 3 pointers for a living. Not fair. Doctors and nurses deserve more. If anybody thinks differently you can share your opinion
I couldn’t agree more. $400k income with $200k of debt isn’t enough for the 80+ hour weeks never ending in our 20s and early 30s. How many events with family and friends did I miss?
This is why physicians should unionize and collectively bargain like athletes do. WCI and PoF should help us unionize. WCI (Dr Dahle) is one of the most powerful voices in medicine.
It’s funny you think that self reported income is likely to be inflated. I expected that people would not want to be persecuted as the evil rich and would be more likely to under report their income.