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Can Even Physicians Suffer from Financial Impotence?


One might assume that physicians, largely considered “well-compensated,†would be immune from feelings of financial impotence. Not so.

personal finance, stress

A recent article in the fine publication The Atlantic, “The Secret Shame of Middle Class Americans,” just about stopped me in my tracks. Consider the following passage, from a professional writer who has experienced a significant degree of success throughout his career:

“Financial impotence casts a pall of misery. It keeps you up at night and makes you not want to get up in the morning. It forces you to recede from the world. It eats at your sense of self-worth, your confidence, your energy, and, worst of all, your hope. It is ruinous to relationships, turning spouses against each other in tirades of calumny and recrimination, and even children against parents…To fail—which, by many economic standards, a very large number of Americans do—may constitute our great secret national pain, one that is deep and abiding. We are impotent.”

The author goes on to posit that this festering, simmering unrest is driving the negativity in political discourse and the astonishing finding of a 2014 New York Times survey that “only 64 percent of Americans said they believed in the American dream—the lowest figure in nearly two decades.”

One might assume that physicians, largely considered “well-compensated,” would be immune from this feeling of financial impotence. But no so fast. The writer of the Atlantic article, Neal Gabler, has at times in his career averaged an income similar to that of a primary care physician, and yet finds himself struggling with debt and scrambling to pay bills on time. Gabler returns often to the point of shame about his financial predicament—a feeling that would be potentially more pronounced for physicians in a similar situation.

How a Physician Might Get Here

Doctors are always looking not just for a condition’s diagnosis, but for its root cause. For financial impotence, there can be several for a physician:

High student loan debt. It’s not unheard of for a young physician to come out of residency with as much as a quarter million dollars of debt.

Spending more than you earn. Spending beyond your means can be hard to resist, particularly with credit so easily and readily available. But it’s a short path to financial ruin if you get over-extended and find yourself with high-interest-rate debts over many years. This could put off saving and will certainly hamper your ability to set aside a contingency fund.

Poorly conceived financial plan, or unwise investments. With a relatively high income and a high savings rate, any reasonable investment plan should get the physician investor to his or her goal. But there are many obstacles in the way, such as investing contrary to your financial goals, trying to time the market, not diversifying your investments, or having the wrong relationship between risk and return.

What can you do?

There are no easy answers, of course. If you have faced financial difficulty, digging out is often easier said than done. And while there are hundreds of variables that may be unique to you, the first step in addressing this problem should be an accurate, honest assessment of your current financial situation and a clear-headed look at what adjustments you can make. Steer clear of the financial pitfalls in the bullets above if possible.

And if you do find yourself in financial difficulty, don’t panic. You aren’t alone, and the tribulations don’t have to be lasting. Keep your chin up, refine your economic plan, try to avoid the situations above, and take it easy on yourself. No one is immune to financial difficulty.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice