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Internist Switches Gears to Practice Financial Planning


When Joel Greenwald, MD, counsels physicians on how to manage their money, they listen. But not just because he’s a successful financial planner who works exclusively with dentists and physicians.

Practice Management, Profiles, Internist

When Joel Greenwald, MD, counsels physicians on how to manage their money, they listen. But not just because he’s a successful financial planner who works exclusively with dentists and physicians.

It’s because he truly has been there, done that.

Greenwald, a physician turned certified financial planner, walked away from an 11-year medical career in internal medicine at age 40. And having practiced for more than a decade in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota, he was known in the community and known by his colleagues.

“I have a great deal of insight into their lives, what they’re experiencing and what their goals are,” Greenwald says. “They don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining to me who there are and what they do.”

But that doesn’t mean the transition to financial planning was an easy one.

Tough Choices

Greenwald was surrounded by physicians while growing up. His grandfather was a public health doctor, his grandmother was a cardiologist, and his father an oncologist. But he found himself both attracted to medicine yet certain when he entered college that he was not going to become a physician.

“My father was a classic, dedicated physician who put his practice above all else,” Greenwald recalls. “He did not spend a lot of time with us as a family because he spent so much time with patients or writing journal articles or book chapters. He was devoted to medicine I think to some degree that he sacrificed his family life. I didn’t want to follow that route. In my mind, that’s what medicine meant. You had to be completely dedicated to it to the exclusion of everything else. So that was a turnoff.”

Regardless, Greenwald enrolled in pre-med at Amherst College, then received his MD at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He met his wife during his residency at the University of Minnesota. He thought they would be a two-physician household, but there were issues.

“We were both somewhat concerned about the direction medicine was taking,” Greenwald says. “And to have two incomes both in medicine seemed not diversified. And then we had three small children, and with the unpredictable hours of a physician, I started exploring other options.”

Greenwald began studying to become a certified financial planner. And the more he pursued the career change, the more he enjoyed it.

Rough Transition

At age 38, Greenwald began splitting his week — three days working as a physician, two days as a financial planner at Raymond James. But he knew that he could only do one of them successfully.

“Medicine is hard work, just keeping up is so difficult,” Greenwald says. “And financial planning, while not as hard a field, you also have to do a lot to keep up. You have to stay fresh and study on an on-going basis. So I knew I could not do those two fields that were so different with no overlap. It was either one or the other.”

Two years later he became a full-time financial planner — but the transition was fraught with challenges. Greenwald explains that when you study medicine, you learn the craft, open a practice, and are flooded with patients. He says many primary care physicians in Minnesota have closed practices because they can’t accommodate all the patients who want to see them.

That’s not the case when you become a financial planner. Greenwald took the six courses and exam to become a certified financial planner, but found nobody was banging down his door to see him.

“The first five years in this business is sales,” he explains. “You have to convince people to work with you. Without the clients, there’s nothing. It’s like having an MD without any patients. You’re not really practicing medicine.”

Respecting the Practice

Greenwald says he has more respect for physicians today than when he was one himself. He says physicians know the work is challenging, but they don’t necessarily realize that while they’re working at their craft. He equates it to some degree to being an NBA basketball player. It’s what you’re good at; what you’ve always been good at. And you likely don’t stop and realize you’re one of perhaps 300 people in the world who are that good.

“There’s a lot that goes into being a physician,” he says. “Maybe it has to do with the fact that’s what my father did. That’s what his parents did. That’s what people did, and I didn’t realize it was harder than most professions.”

As for working with physician clients, Greenwald says there are two kinds. Some do not want to be at all involved in the financial planning process. They don’t care to understand; they just want Greenwald to take care of things for them.

“I explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, but you can see they don’t care and would rather I didn’t talk about it,” he says. “They’re delegators. They want me to do this so they don’t have to.”

Then there are those who are naturally inquisitive; have an intellectual curiosity, which is part of what makes them good physicians. They want to look under the hood and see what’s going on, Greenwald says. But never in a negative fashion.

“It’s more, ‘Why are we doing this? Okay, that makes sense,’” he says.

Family Devotion

Greenwald says he has spent the last 18 years devoted to his children. He has two in college and a 13-year old at home. He’s the parent with the primary responsibility for much of the work that goes into raising the children, such as getting them to after-school activities and attending parent-teacher conferences.

In short, he has been the soccer mom.

“Absolutely,” Greenwald acknowledges. “And I’ve loved every bit of it. I’ve always felt that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s both parents or one. They get a lot of good things from their mother. But the fact that I’m able to do all that stuff and spend time with them has been important to me.”

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