How To Know If Your Number Is Big Enough

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Retire As A Physician Without Compromising Your Lifestyle

Do you know how much money will set you free? That is Your Number.  Make sure it is big enough.

Lee Eisenberg provided insight on this in his book, “The Number; What Do You Need for the Rest of Your Life, and What Will It Cost?” 

Here I present some of his thoughts on what it means to have “enough money.”

You have enough when you reach “Your Number.” You could then retire without compromising your lifestyle.

How do you determine it? How should you think about it? Does it matter?

1. Obsess all you want about Your Number, but don’t be a sicko.

Most Americans ignore personal finance and retirement planning. They get bored with financial topics and have no interest in learning even the most basic financial facts.

Apparently, they think it is fine to stick your head in the sand. If you don’t think about the future or about retirement, then it will never happen.

This is not a good approach. Even though it is common.

Which of You is the Numbers Nerd?

At the other end of the spectrum is the spreadsheet crowd. They read dozens of finance books and run Monte Carlo analyses on portfolios.

They go online and comment in forums. Sexy topics like sustainable withdrawal rates (SWR).

One can do well with a simple approach. Even a back-of-the-envelope calculation would do fine.

If you have a high savings rate and invest in a diversified, low-cost way, you will be fine.

Will Your Number Let You FIRE?

Do you plan to stop working at some point? Are you striving to become financially independent (FI)?

If so, you will need to pick a number or at least a range. Now make a plan to end in that zone.

Do you want to be “comfortable”, “rich” or somewhere in between?

Get that clear in your head early on. That will drive all your other money decisions.

2. Those who say that this is either (a) the Apocalypse or (b) the Golden Age are both wrong.

The talking heads are shouting. Some talk about the “generational storm” that may cause stocks to decline.

Others concern themselves with inflation, deflation, or stagflation. Books that predict a coming economic collapse are perennial bestsellers.

At the other end of the spectrum are the idealistic optimists. Optimists can point to economic and political trends. The slow arch of change points in the direction of progress.

But optimists often have a rosy short-term view. The stock market and the economy do not go upward forever.

3. Living in a college town is no panacea.

Every year or two popular magazines published a list of best places to retire. They tend to focus on smaller towns with a lower cost of living. College towns also rank high.

Although these towns can be fun to visit, realize they are not the best retirement place for everyone.

You may tire of fraternity houses, pizza, and 2 AM noisy parties after a college football win.

Don’t rely on lists such as “best cities to retire in” because there is no absolute list that works for everyone.

We all have our own preferences, values, likes, and dislikes. Lists that ignore these factors are silly.

4. Good financial advice rings true.

The best financial advisors are thoughtful and pragmatic. They are confident but do not take themselves too seriously.

Nor try to predict the future with certainty. Beware of “free” steak dinners or riverboat cruises in which you will be “educated.”

The conflicts of interest and lack of transparency are widespread. The push for fiduciary rules is great but doesn’t go far enough.

The Rules are Simple, But Not Easy

The basic rules of successful investing stand true. Diversify. Understand value investing. Be comfort with volatility. Keep fees at rock-bottom. Cut turnover and taxes.

5. Those who know better don’t always do better.

Ordinary investors need more knowledge. Those who read The Wall Street Journal, Money, and Kiplinger’s are not smarter with money. They just trade more.

Studies show people tend to have a poor sense of timing. Buying into stocks when they go higher and selling on the way down.

Others gain advice from the daily media and make frequent changes.

Invest At Least As Well as The Dead

A Fidelity study showed most successful investors made good choices early on. They “set it and forget it.”

Then continue to invest. They leave their portfolio alone.

Those who were hands-off or had forgotten about their portfolios did the best. They outperformed active traders.

Even those who had passed away had better-than-average results.

It’s a strange world, isn’t it? When it comes to investing skills, you may do better dead than alive!

6. Younger people always under-call Your Number.

I have experienced this. When I received a student loan check in college for several thousand dollars, I felt rich.

When I began making money and passed the $30,000 per year mark, I was rolling in it.

I grew my savings and felt well-off.

Especially when my net worth reached a positive $300,000. And even more so when it crossed above $500,000.

What 4% Rule?

Later I studied math on sustainable withdrawal rates (SWR). I realized that even a million-dollars produces only about $40,000 per year.

Thanks to lifestyle inflation, I spend more than three times that.

Few of us feel financially secure. Surveys confirm this.

Surveys asked how much money people would need to feel secure.

The most common answer is “more.”

The call for "more money" boosts Your Number higher.
Mo’ Mo’ Money – Up Goes Your Number

Your Number Will Creep Higher

We want more. No matter how much we have. No matter how much we make. 20% more would be better?

You may find that if you calculate “your number” that once you reach that number, it is no longer enough.

This happens to all. Not only shopaholics.

7. The innocent get eaten.

It is amazing to see how financial “professionals” get clients. Hosting a steakhouse dinner meeting boosts their client list.

Others rely on word-of-mouth. Clients have no formal mechanism to assess the quality of the advice coming from their new “money guy.”

I know an orthopedic surgeon who is well past typical “retirement age.” Yet he cannot afford to quit. Investment losses eliminated his freedom.

Trust, but Verify

This surgeon’s “money guy” talked him into silly and complex investments. He relied on trust and did not understand or track his investments.

It is quite sad. Don’t let that be you.

8. It pays to play tricks on yourself.

Build in fudge factors. Plan on an extra 1% or 2% for lifestyle inflation or for extra price inflation.

Crash test financial scenarios. Such as a stock market crash at the worst time.

Run the numbers with a life expectancy of 95 or 100 years old. It is much better to err on the side of having too much late in life.

Better to have too much than worry about running out.

If you have too much you can splurge or give it away.

 

“It’s always possible to spend more money.”  – Burt Reynolds

Is Too Much Money Really a Problem?

The opposite scenario is quite a horror story. Recognize the importance of this asymmetry (having too much versus having too little).

Financial advisors tend to look at maximal accumulations or average returns.

Our focus should be on the unlucky or worst-case scenarios.

Those are what can destroy resources.

Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.

9. Tricks or no tricks, almost everybody suffers from reference anxiety.

Reference anxiety is alive and well among physicians. We talk to other physicians and compare notes about our lives.

Our peers influence our attitudes and spending habits. All-to-often we assume the “rich doctor” role.

When we look at others, we assume we can tell how much money they have.

All we can estimate is how much they spend.

Net worth is one of the more hidden financial numbers.

Keeping up With Dr. Jonses

We should feel sorry for those who overspend. Instead, we get jealous. This is human nature.

Doctors are most comfortable in upper-middle-class circles. Remind your self that you are in the economic stratosphere.

Spend time with people in the middle and lower classes. Those folks are all around you.

Get to know them at work or through volunteering.

It builds perspective. And helps us stay grateful.

Money Can Buy Some Happiness When You’re Broke

I felt the impact of monetary comparisons. When I was a destitute youth, even a little money increased my joy.

As my income grew, each extra dollar added little. I reached a plateau.

Beyond that point adding income or assets had no effect on my happiness.

Relative comparisons continued to alter this perception.

I’m Poor Compared to a Spine Surgeon

For example, I was at the lower end of income when in private practice. My comparison peers were partners who owned McMansions, planes, and even a hotel.

I felt much poorer than all these folks.

When working in academia I made two thirds less money than in my private practice. Still, I felt flush with resources.

Rich Compared to a Medical Student

In my day-to-day life, I spent time around patients from a lower socioeconomic status. Absent-minded professors never talked about money.

Neither did the struggling residents and “starving students.”

By comparison, I enjoyed my high salary. My assets produced cash too.

I felt grateful for all I had. Beware of your peer comparisons.

10. Practicing “financial correctness” is a huge waste of energy and time.

Try not to get too hung up on the current popular thinking. Some feel that only a sucker would continue working past “retirement age.”

Others feel quitting a helping profession like medicine at an early age is unethical.

Some feel that having a goal of becoming a millionaire is unrealistic or greedy.

Who Wants to Become a Millionaire?

Others realize they must cut their standard of living to retire on anything less than $3 million.

We all must make these decisions for ourselves. I don’t know anyone who found their number to go down!

Just make sure you are in a green wealth zone.

Do you currently have “your number” in mind?

Has it changed over the years? Has it gone down or up?

 

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13 Comments

  1. Wealthy Doc,
    Thanks for the review. The idea of enough kept me from retiring when I actually had enough already, but wasn’t sure. Best to have more than you need.

    Dr. Cory S. Fawcett
    Prescription for Financial Success

    May 22, 2019
    Reply
    • Dr. Fawcett,
      My readers and I always savor your comments. It is so great to hear from someone who successfully “made it to the other side.” And is willing to turn around, reach out a helping hand, and be a guide on our journey.

      May 22, 2019
      Reply
  2. Crispy Doc said:

    So true, my friend. As risk averse people who routinely make life changing, catastrophic diagnoses, is far better to prepare for a worst case scenario financially.

    Your are right that my number has only increased over time, although this might reflect my desire for a larger buffer as much as moving goal posts.

    Enjoyed this one!

    Fondly,

    CD

    May 22, 2019
    Reply
    • Crispy Doc,

      My wife and I are frugal by nature. That helps a lot.

      But still, we spend more almost every year. Virtually every product and service comes with a higher price. Or is replaced with a newer, better, more expensive alternative. e.g. My first cell phone cost me $12 a month. That same phone may be less now, if available. But could I get by with a $12 a month phone? Heck no. I want apps, a light, a calculator, a calendar, etc. Bare minimum.

      I’ve given up on fixing my costs. I just slow the rate of annual increase. And I make sure my income streams go up faster than my spending does. So far, so good.

      May 22, 2019
      Reply
  3. Xrayvsn said:

    Love it WD.

    You touched on a lot of things that effect each and every one of us but most definitely physicians.

    When I first started learning about early retirement I came up with $5 million as a good goal to shoot for (just because it sounded good and no other reason).

    Then I readjusted downward after learning about the 4% rule. I figured I would have an amazing lifestyle in retirement on 125k/yr (given studies show that maximum happiness occurs around 90k I just gave me a bigger margin). This means that I would need 3.125M at 4% or a little more than 3.5M at my current more conservative 3.5% swr. This would be income producing assets outside of my residence.

    Because of an incredible return on investment (15x) from the sale of my office building this month I actually hit the 4% amount this month and should hit the next level sometime in a year or so. That puts me way ahead of schedule (I will be 49).

    I probably will pad it some more because I really had planned on retiring when my daughter goes off to college (I would be 53). As you said it is better to have too much than too little. But when I started out at age 42 or so in FIRE I wanted to be where I am currently today (just that I am 5 years ahead of schedule)

    May 22, 2019
    Reply
    • Xrayvsn,
      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. I hope a lot of people read it. You summarize a great perspective and experience.

      I started working at age 31. I made a lot of mistakes with investing and I was never focused primarily on maximizing income or wealth. I took two voluntary pay cuts, went into academia, and have worked as a salaried employee of a nonprofit for the last decade. Nevertheless, I achieved FI in 17 years by age 48. That is a great age to be FI. Experience, knowledge, and skills grow. But you realize your remaining able-bodied years ahead are fewer. I am slower and need more recovery. Having the option to cut back, drop call, or stop working entirely are priceless. Well done.

      This also demonstrates another point. Many of us in this community of bloggers and investors are the low-cost index investor types. But many of us benefitted a lot from selling a business, investing in real estate, or surgery center/imaging center ownership.

      Lastly, you will be in great shape financially. The more my spending goes up and interest rates and dividend yields linger at low levels, the more I think $4-$5M isn’t such a bad target for doctors. 3% of $5M is $150K and 4% of $5M is $200K. Not hard for a doctor to spend. Especially if that is pre-tax.

      May 23, 2019
      Reply
  4. Mike Drak said:

    WD, your article reminded me of two things I’ve always been embarrassed about peer envy , and excessive lifestyle inflation. Now that I’m no longer working (depends on how you define work) I’m happy to report that both are no longer an issue. Creating a retirement lifestyle that delivered on my values vs being able to buy more things was the cure I was looking for.

    May 23, 2019
    Reply
    • Mike,
      I’m so glad you feel less of that peer comparison pressure now. It is always great to hear from someone who “made it.” Leaving the work world and living your values is possible. And you are doing it.
      Yes, the words “retire” “retirement” and even “work” are vague descriptors that mean something different to almost everyone.
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

      May 23, 2019
      Reply
  5. Gasem said:

    FIRE is largely about how to accumulate and there is all kind of lore surrounding accumulation. Retirement however is about spending and not so much is known about that. Common accumulation lore suggest “max out your pretax” and grow tax free. The problem is pre tax is tax deferred money not tax free. Those taxes will be paid in a predictable but not necessarily palatable way. Let’s say you have 3M and are expecting to spend 3%. If your money is pretax, when you hit RMD the government requires you to pull 3.5% the first year, 5% the 10th year and 8% the 20th year. That is your spend down by law. In addition to a greater spend down you generate greater taxes than you may have anticipated so extra growth you anticipated my just go extra taxes. The government turns your pile into their money machine by law. They do let you keep some of their money however. That’s what you bargained for when you chose IRA’s You can mitigate some of that by Roth conversion of the TIRA but that can be tricky as well because there are cliffs in the tax code that increase the rate. The tax code does soak the rich despite all the rhetoric.

    You also need an actual budget not just some pie in the sky “number”. My post age 72 to 92 retirement will cost me 2.6M on an inflation adjusted income of 110K/yr including the SS contribution. I know precisely the taxes I will owe based on the tax structure of my portfolio out to age 92 . I moved 1M out of TIRA to a Roth and have brokerage money to boot which gives me considerable tax flexibility and I can stay in a WR format since only part of my beyond SS income comes out on a RMD schedule. By knowing my actual budget I was able to create an actual numeric schedule of payments including taxes. Fun is paid for from the Roth as you can extract from a Roth without messing up the tax picture. That’s how you spend down, a very different reality than accumulation. The Roth also acts as self insurance in case of an expensive LTC scenario. More maybe better but enough is enough if you plan carefully , have an accurate budget, and understand the real moving parts like how RMD actually works. There are no surprises

    May 27, 2019
    Reply
    • Gasem,
      Thanks for the insightful comment.
      I share your concern about taxes in retirement. I’m a big fan of tax-free options like HSA, Roth, etc.
      See this post about avoiding taxes in retirement.

      May 27, 2019
      Reply
  6. ScopeMonkey said:

    When everyone talks about post-Retirement income (I.e. to get 100k income with 4% rule, néed 2.5 million), is that 100k PRE tax or post? If pretax will then need more than 2.5m. Appreciate clarification here. Thanks!

    November 2, 2019
    Reply
    • ScopeMonkey,

      You raise a critically important issue that too many overlook.

      Many who write about the 4% rule or estimate their needs don’t consider the tax. After-tax and a 3% safe withdrawal would need more like $5M to support a doctor’s spending.

      401K, 457b, traditional IRA are tax-deferred, not tax-free. Uncle Sam wants his share sooner or later.

      If you need 100K per year from one of those retirement funds, you need to cash out 143K. That assumes 24% federal and 6% state tax. That is much more than you might think.

      Even when I mention a 30% tax rate, I hear doctors say “oh, then I would need $130K pre-tax.” Nope. Do the math my friend.

      Better yet, pay your tax now: https://wealthydoc.org/avoid-retirement-taxes/

      November 3, 2019
      Reply

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