Interviews with real women physicians – Leah

Welcome to another installment of Interviews with Real Female Physicians. The goal of this series is to share their story so that you, the reader, may learn and be inspired from their experiences – good and bad. We all come from different backgrounds and have different situations. Some of you are married, some are not, some with kids, some with blended families. Let’s show other women that any of these can work financially!  So let's introduce our next woman physician rockstar – Leah.

Tell us about yourself:

People have a binary response to what I do, either “wow” or “eww”; there is no in between. Thankfully I have a wonderful partner in life who finds this binary response as funny as I do. I'm a forensic pathologist. What is not binary is that nearly everyone says that I am not what they had envisioned as a forensic pathologist, and that they would never have guessed what I do. I'm not weird, (by most standards), have a normal family life with my second husband, one girl, one boy, a dog, and a cat. Overall pretty balanced life. Of course, like nearly everybody else, it didn't start out that way. Most people consider me “Hispanic” although for me it wasn't a label I applied to myself, nor did I consider myself a “minority” until I moved to the “deep South”. It's all relative. I speak English and Spanish interchangeably, my baseball team was the Chicago Cubs before they were cool, and my favorite dessert is apple pie. Currently I live in a relatively expensive suburb to a coastal town thoughtfully referred by some locals as “Mount Plastic”. You get the idea. But when you are moving from the Caribbean to the mainland US and your only reference is the quality of the school zones as graded by the “internet”, that's where you end up. In an engineered neighborhood with cookie cutter homes and the best public school zones in town. No regrets, it was a great choice, and the neighbors are fantastic. I am absolutely certain I ended up in the right specialty, but it was entirely a happy accident thanks to not matching and the post match “scramble”, now “soap?”. I repeat, I did not plan to become a Forensic Pathologist (!), and it has been the best thing that could have happened to me. I was the happiest intern for the first 3 months of my pathology residency when I did my required autopsy rotations; I remember saying I could not believe they were paying me to do autopsies. They still are. I know I can do something else (PM &R and Gyn come to mind), but given the choice and knowing what I know now, I would never change my specialty. I love my work life balance, my open book specialty, being able to take time off whenever I want to participate in last minute school things, and all the interactions with amazing people that make up the law enforcement and death investigation systems, judges and juries. I honestly wish that more medical students knew about the fun side of pathology as a specialty, but if they were like me in medical school, it never has crossed their mind. Now, as an attending, 10 years out of residency, I make sure to reach out to as many medical students as I can to show them how fun Forensic Pathology can be.  

Did you graduate with student loans? How much & what are the interest rates?

Again, I was lucky to go to subsidized state school – I graduated with $60K in loans. But in reality I had no idea what to do with medical school loans and would have left them as is.  But my best friend told me right after med school (2003) I should consolidate and fix my interest rate because rates were historically low, so I did. It's good to listen to other people who are more financially savvy than us, even though she and I have vastly different financial habits and lifestyles. So my loans got converted to a 20 years fixed at 3.25% and I'm kicking myself because I possibly could have paid them off by now. The monthly payment is so low, that I have just been lazy I guess. Life happens and getting rid of a $200 payment is not high priority.

Financial aspects of kids 

When did you have them?  

I had my daughter during 3rd year of medical school. I had planned for 4th year, but oh well, first year anniversary celebration. I was trying to avoid infertility issues that plagued my mother by having at least 1 kid before 30. My daughter ‘s arrival caused a 1 year delay in my medical school graduation date and my ex-husbands true colors to flourish as a sucky dad and partner. Divorced when she was 4. Met my second husband immediately, and my second child was born 8 1/2 years after my first. He was 6 weeks old when we moved permanently to the mainland. Today they are 7 and almost 16 years old. When we relocated, we moved to the expensive part of town of mainland US so kids could go to good public schools- saved me the 10K/year I was paying before I moved (for 1 kid), and now I happily pay my taxes to the county in exchange for public schools that have caring teachers. Day care/school for my youngest was transitorily expensive at $1400/month for 1 kid, year round, starting at 2 1/2 years, but that was only 3 years and now he's in public school. We tried a nanny briefly when our son was a baby but she moved away after a couple of months and my husband just sucked it up big time until the baby went to preschool and took care of him, even taking him on business trips. The economic relief came when he graduated to kindergarten. But now I face the other end of the child expense spectrum. My eldest is 1 year away from an early high school graduation and college, and her college fund is woefully underfunded. I feel it's too late, much too late to fund anything significant for her at this point, so we will approach this with a prayer for a good scholarship and thankfulness for her 4.6 weighted GPA. Learning from my mistakes, and in a much better position financially than when my daughter was growing up, I will fund my son's 529 much better; he is 10 years away from high school graduation so I should have time to do better. Didn't have a third kid because we could not afford to give it what we want to give our children time wise. Sometimes I'm wistful because I would have loved another child for my second husband, but he's clear he didn't want any more of the responsibility associated to their social agendas. Because he is the primary caretaking parent due to his work from home flexibility, he got his wish. I had previously decided no kids after 40 due to genetic risks, so by now at almost 42 it's no longer an option.

Financial aspects of marriage

Are you married?

To marry or not to marry, that is the question. Most people do not know my second husband and I are not technically married, and this includes my youngest son. Socially we are. Legally, somewhere in the gray zone because this state recognizes common law marriage and it’s been 11 years, but if you get down to details, not technically married. Why? Taxes. Different tax habits (he files late, I file early), different tax bases (mainland US for me vs. back home for him), and the marriage penalty of higher taxes if we do. We have a few assets from before marriage that we keep separate and legally we would have to write a simple prenup for the old assets. Plus, having been really married before, divorce can be expensive, even when you share nothing but debt. My second husband and I do not have the same financial views or habits, and it took some balancing and compromise to get to a household budget. I'm a saver, he's a spender so he now gets to release his spending beast at the supermarket and costco instead of home depot and best buy. I splurge once a year during the back to school. I defer money (the maximum allowed contributions) into the retirement plans so we don't see that money; like it never existed. We make do with what's left over of the paycheck even if its a bit tight.

Are you the breadwinner?

I'm the primary breadwinner. My husband makes enough to pay for dinner once in a while and pay for his IT business things back home. We have access to each other's personal accounts, but what is his is his, and what is mine is ours; honestly I don't have the time to do all the household things he does. He controls his IT business account and I have a personal account back home for receiving (or not) theoretical child support. That being said I monitor the spending closely for things that might not belong to us. I've seen horrific financial issues with identity theft so we are extremely vigilant that every single transaction is ours.

Have you experienced a financial catastrophe?

Financial catastrophes are divorce, illness, or loss of a job (when your field is so specific that you aren't cross marketable locally). The more you have, the more expensive the catastrophe is, because of the higher holding costs associated to simply keeping a home, cars, boats, kids in private schools, insurance. The lower you live below your means, the easier it is to weather the unforeseen. Public school is free, no job no problem. Paid off cars only have registration/property tax: example my 1999 Lexus SUV with high mileage has a $6.00 yearly registration. I'm pretty sure I can scrounge this up from the change bucket. My newest “splurge” in a vehicle is a 2005 Lexus SUV, 12 years old, $56 yearly registration. Of course I can afford a new one, but why? This one takes me from point A to B exactly the same as a new one, and it still has all the bells and whistles. Having a safety net is important, the best one is the “emergency fund” and the second one is “enough insurance”. Rich family member works too. Keep your house payment affordable, your car payments paid off or affordable, and don't spend to keep up with the Joneses because the Joneses aren't going to pay your bills when TSHT Fan. That being said, I am not “loan averse” or debt averse. Long term holdings – house, car and education- are best paid off in the long run with future earnings that have less value. Loans are leverage, protect your credit and this will help you weather minor unforeseens and help you get ahead.  

General Finances

What’s your FI (financial independence) number? 

Our financial independence number is a moving target and will end up being when we both “had enough” of full time work –  as long as primary house and vehicles are paid off and kids are out of college (around 2030). I will be 55 and hubby 58. We are thrifty to the extreme. Sale and clearance are our favorite words, along with consignment and second hand. We take used toys and kids clothes to second hand stores for purchase, sell used things on craigslist, save all the spare change into the emergency fund and have taught the kids to save their money.

Who handles the finances in your relationship? Are you DIY or do you have a financial advisor? 

We have a financial advisor that we like on a personal level. He did get us the fixed rate term life insurance we needed, advised us to open our own self managed 529 accounts (instead of advisor led), and uses computer software to model where we are at the time and what the projections will be. He sees us for free. I had to beg him to open a small IRA for me that I contribute to yearly, and don't mind paying him advisor fees on that amount since he is so available to us for answering all sorts of questions for free. Going with my husband was eye opening for the both of us, turned out we were much better off than we thought but still a long way from where we want to be.

What is your net worth?  

It may seem crazy but I don't want to know my net worth. Market value of assets fluctuates, as does retirement account values. My FA calculates it periodically but we don't pay attention to it much because it will be different in 6 months. We have grown it exponentially and not linearly as expected, mostly with self discipline and luck in real estate investments.

How are you saving for FI/retirement?

We started late and have to catch up. We save a lot into retirement – basically every penny that we don't spend on basic living, because I'm saving for my husband and I, and you can technically finance the kids education better than your own retirement.

One thing you wish you knew:

I don't really have financial failures or regrets other than getting roped into inheriting my grandparents timeshare. Say no to timeshares! We used it a few times and but bottom line it ends up being 10 times more expensive than paying for it per use. Right now I'm paying an agency thousands of dollars to get rid of it. Once I'm done it will be filed under “learning experience”.

What does FI/retirement mean to you? What does it look like?

We are not “do nothing in retirement” people, so even in retirement we would both work to keep busy, just not out of financial necessity. We both have marketable skills for easy sideline jobs.

Do you give to charity? If so, where and why?

What we can't sell, we donate. We are possibly the odd ones out in the “Joneses” club around here, on one hand living in a house worth now over half a million dollars yet quietly picking up what our neighbors toss out on the curb and donating it. There is no reason for a bike to end up in the landfill when a child somewhere else can use it. We also donate directly to the schools and to animal rescue programs, because what goes around comes around. We are truly blessed.

Any parting words of wisdom?

To summarize, some debt is good (house in good neighborhood/school zone), some debt is bad (credit cards), safeguard your credit, live well below your means to be able to survive whatever life throws at you, have safety nets in place, prioritize retirement over education savings, don't be wasteful, and don't forget to count your blessings and be thankful. As Lennon said, Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans.

And … that's a wrap! If you're interested in doing this please send me an email – I'd love to hear from you!

I loved reading Leah's story and I hope you did too.]]>

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