Get your retirement plans back on track

October 9, 2009

The decision about when to retire varies considerably from physician to physician and hinges on numerous factors, from age, health, and lifestyle to available assets, debt, and responsibilities.

Key Points

After 40 years of practicing medicine, Bohn D. Allen, MD, retired in 2003. At the time, his malpractice premiums exceeded his salary, he paid his nurse out of his own savings account, and he had stopped funding his own pension plan six years earlier.

Today, he believes he got out too soon.

"I retired before I was ready to retire because the economic model wasn't functioning properly," Allen says of his former practice in Arlington, Texas. "I was simply taking the money I was earning and paying my bills. I refused to go into my pension plan just to keep my office open."

The decision about when to retire varies considerably from physician to physician and hinges on numerous factors, from age, health, and lifestyle to available assets, debt, and responsibilities. Over the past 15 years, the average age of physician retirement has dropped, according to financial advisers contacted for this article. But the economic downturn has forced many to reconsider their walk-away date.

"My clients feel like they are never going to retire," says David E. Hunt, CHBC, principal in the Doctors Management Services division of Parrish Moody & Fikes of Waco, Texas, a financial services firm. "We jokingly say our 401(k) is a 201(k)-and if you're lucky, it's a 301(k). If they start drawing on their investments anytime soon, there is not going to be enough there."

"Most physicians understand it's a long-term investment," says Michael DeVries, CFP, CHBC, EA, of VanderLugt, Mulder, DeVries & Elders in Grandville, Michigan. "They understand that the [stock] market is historically the place to invest. It doesn't feel good now, but they need to keep investing."

Your own ability to ride out those bad feelings may determine your future investing success. Following is a collection of advice from top financial advisers who consult regularly with physician-clients. Whether your retirement is a vague blip on the horizon or a date circled later this year, there is reason to find optimism even amid recession.

RETIREMENT: STILL A DISTANT VISION

Physicians who are least 20 years away from retirement should determine the personal rate of return required to achieve their life goals, recommends Michael J. Sicuranza, CFP, of Milestone Wealth Advisors Inc. in Greenville, Delaware. Next, create an investment strategy that's flexible enough to meet current and future market conditions, and one that goes beyond just asset allocation, diversification, and product choice.

"Review your practice retirement plans, because these will be your primary savings and wealth-creation vehicles outside the growth of your practice," Sicuranza says. "Retirement plans, like your practice, can be a source of liability if not properly vetted, reviewed, and maintained."

That reassessment should include strict attention to changing U.S. demographics, which is affecting not only healthcare, but the investment climate, says Joe Clark, CFP, RFC, managing partner of Financial Enhancement Group in Anderson, Indiana. "There will be new products, new research, and you will need to discern the best path for yourself," he says.

It's important to remember that investment portfolios can be built during bad economic times as well as good ones, says Bryan M. Place, CLU, ChFC, CFP, of Place Financial Advisors in Manlius, New York. For doctors just beginning to accumulate their retirement funds, the market of the past 18 months may turn out to be the greatest opportunity of their lifetime. "When markets are weak, true wealth can be made," he says.

Clark warns that complacency cannot be part of the strategy. "Your length of time before retirement does not give you the go-ahead to bury your head in the sand and assume long-term averages will play out positively."