Many high earners, including doctors, dentists and other medical professionals, could be taking the wrong approach to retirement planning. Of course, they’re not alone – 71% of Americans say they do not have enough retirement savings, according to a national survey commissioned by Experian in collaboration with Get Rich Slowly.
Yet physicians face a unique dilemma when it comes to planning for retirement. Because medical professionals spend many years completing medical school and residency, most don’t start earning any actual income until their mid-30s or even later. To make matters worse, doctors come out of med school saddled with loads of student loan debt. Dentists carry an average student loan debt of $261,000, while doctors have around $183,000, according to the American Dental Education Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges, respectively. (For guidance on paying off student loans, see: All About Student Loans.) By the time they enter the workforce, many of these professionals are also facing mortgage payments and childcare expenses, making it even more challenging to contribute to a retirement plan.
Thanks to all these obstacles, most medical professionals are unfashionably late to the retirement savings party. Perhaps this is why the typical doctor is unable to save 15% or more of his or her annual income until after the age of 50, according to a Fidelity Investments study. The study also found that the average doctor will only be able to replace 56% of his or her income in retirement – way lower than the 71% the financial services company recommends for high-earning professionals.
To further complicate matters, many high earners are splitting their saving efforts between retirement and college for their children. According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, high-earning investors may be better off focusing exclusively on retirement savings – and skip saving for college altogether.
In the article, author Ryan O’Donnell uses an example of an investor who has $43,000 to put away for retirement or college each year. Based on traditional savings strategies, a financial advisor would likely tell this professional to sock away $7,500 in a 529 college savings plan and contribute $35,500 to retirement each year. After 18 years, the investor should have enough in savings to cover his kid’s college expenses. At that point, he can start contributing the total $43,000 to his nest egg.
Yet, O’Donnell reveals a flaw with this conventional strategy. By investing $7,500 in a college savings plan each year, the high earner is missing out on nearly 20 years of compounding interest. “The money put in the 529 could have been working harder in a retirement account,” points out O’Donnell. “Assuming an average 7.4% rate of return in the retirement account (based on returns in a moderate-lifestyle portfolio), that amounts to an additional $350,000 after those 18 years.”
On the other hand, let’s say the investor decides to put all of his money into retirement savings. When it’s time for his kid to go to college, he can take a break from retirement contributions and allocate the $43,000 for college expenses. Once his kid graduates from college, he can pick back up with contributing to his retirement savings. Assuming the investor continues to receive a 7.4% rate of return, O’Donnell says he would have $550,000 more in retirement than an investor who spent years contributing part of his savings to a college savings fund. (See also: Pay for a College Education with Retirement Funds.)
Smart Strategy or Financially Flawed?
At first glance, this approach seems like a no-brainer for a physician, dentist or any other high earner who is late to start saving for retirement. While it is definitely a clever strategy, there are obviously risks associated with this plan. For one, what if the high earner loses her job or decides to take a few years off to raise her kids? Suddenly, she isn't earning an income, which means she is unable to contribute that $43,000 to retirement. (If she's married, she could have a spousal IRA, of course, but you can save less in one of those than in a 401(k).)
Speaking of kids, what if the physician has three, four, five or more kids, all of whom expect Mom and Dad to pay for college? That adds up to quite a few years when the physician is paying for college tuition instead of contributing to retirement.
To top it off, some advisors argue that when you don’t invest in a 529 college plan, you’re turning down free money – particularly if you live in one of the 30-plus states that offer tax benefits for college savings. In fact, a Morningstar analysis found that the average college savings state tax benefit adds up to $87 for every $1,000 invested – or an extra 8.7 percentage points in return in the year you make the contribution.
So, what’s the best approach for a high-earning professional? The answer: It depends on your unique situation. No matter which strategy you choose, one thing is certain: Everyone needs to be saving somewhere.
“The key is not where the money is going,” explains Joe Orsolini, certified financial planner, national authority on college planning and president of College Aid Planners, Inc. “Whether you’re putting it toward retirement or college, if you’re saving $43,000 a year, that’s a big chunk of money. Most people don’t save that much – so all of a sudden, when they have to come up with $1,500 a month to send their kids to college, they don’t have it.”
Orsolini says he tells his clients to focus on three things: Save for retirement, pay off your mortgage and save for your kids’ college. “Ideally, you’re doing two of those three things pretty heavily as you’re going through life,” he says. “If you save for retirement heavily, you can turn that off when your kids go to college and use that cash flow to pay for college. How you want to do it most efficiently, that depends on each person’s individual situation. But you’ve got to be saving for one of those items.”
The Bottom Line
If you’re a medical professional who didn't start earning income until your mid-30s, it may make sense to focus on retirement savings in lieu of college savings. When the time comes, you can always tap into your cash flow to pay for your child’s tuition. However, it’s important to consider your unique situation and evaluate potential risks. No matter which route you choose, as long as you are saving money somewhere, you’re already on the right track. (You may also want to read: When Saving for College Is a Bad Idea and 5 Ways to Save and Pay for College.)