Interviews with real women physicians – Stella

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 – Stella.

Tell us about yourself:

I am a gastroenterologist working for Kaiser Permanente in the Bay Area but originally from Dallas, TX. My husband is a facial plastic surgeon in private practice. We’ve been out of training for ~7 years and both turning 40 this year. We live in San Francisco and have a 4 year old daughter and a son on the way this November. We are both avid travelers and foodies. I often hear the advice to move out of a HCOL area but to us, we love the city and all it has to offer and feel it’s worth it.

Did you graduate with student loans? 

I had ~$120k in student loans following med school. I went to The University of Texas at Austin for undergrad and a public in-state med school. I’m the youngest of 6 kids and my family was not wealthy so I received grants and loans to get through my education, including Pell grants. I paid off the highest interest private loan (~$20k) when I worked as a hospitalist in between residency and fellowship but otherwise deferred my loans during training. I consolidated the loans with ACS. Luckily the interest on the remainder of my loans were relatively low at ~3%, and I paid them off in one fell swoop 5 years out of training. I would have done it sooner, but my then FA discouraged me from doing so stating it was “good debt” that helps my credit score and I’d be better off investing in the market w/ better returns. Glad I didn’t listen to that advice as it feels good to be almost debt free.

Financial aspects of kids 

When did you have them?

We had our daughter 3 years after becoming an attending.

Are you planning to fund their college expenses?

My husband and I had completely different experiences in this regard growing up. As I mentioned earlier, my parents didn’t have much so I got through school with loans and work study programs in college. Even though this made me independent and resilient, I did feel limited in the options of where to attend school. I didn’t bother applying out of state or to expensive private universities. I think in retrospect I did fine for myself, but it must be refreshing to not have finances hinder the “the sky’s the limit” mentality. My husband’s family in contrast paid for 4 years at Stanford undergrad and out of state medical school including living expenses. Not only that but they also set up a modest trust fund for him that matured in his late 20’s to get a jump start on life. Despite this, he is incredibly grounded and rational with money. In fact, between the 2 of us, I tend to be the spendthrift. I often have to convince him to loosen up the pursestrings. We plan on fully funding for 4 year private school and grad school if need be. Partly this is cultural and partly this stems from both of our experiences. I think the most important factor is that we try to instill in our children a sense of hard work and empathy for others. We are front loading $140k for each kid early on in the Utah 529 and leaving it alone to let compound interest work its magic. We’ll bankroll the rest if that isn’t enough to cover the costs by the time they’re in school. If we’ve overfunded then I’ll transfer the beneficiary to nieces/nephews or perhaps grandkids. After 5 years out from front loading the 529, I’m considering funding an irrevocable trust for our kids that matures around age 30 similar to what my husband had as a starter fund. I know this is controversial and may engender “economic outpatient care” per the millionaire next door, but it was such a huge benefit for us starting out. We can fund the annual gift limit of $28k per couple without running into estate tax issues.

What are your child care expenses?

Our nanny’s take home pay was $40k a year for the first 3 years, then our daughter went to preschool. We still have a part time nanny/housekeeper who picks her up after preschool, and does all the grocery shopping/cooking/cleaning around the house. Her take home pay is ~$30k. With both of our schedules it wasn’t feasible to do daycare since we are often running late and needed the flexibility of a nanny.

Are your kids in private or public school? 

My daughter is currently in a private pre K-8th grade school. It is ~$36k per year including aftercare and summer school which is pretty standard in SF. I would be lying if I said I didn’t have an existential crisis about this ALL the time. I grew up without means, a child of immigrant parents, went to public schools my whole life, and I think that really taught me resilience and how to relate to others. I’m concerned about my kids being around wealth and excess their whole lives, and I worry about how they will learn empathy for others. I’m fascinated by education policy and have read up on it quite a bit. I know all the studies and evidence that cites how diversity (socioeconomic and ethnic) is better for everyone, but when it came down to it I just couldn’t “experiment” with my child. Part of me feels like what is the point of working so hard to get where we are if we aren’t able to provide a better life than we had for our kids? I’m still working on getting clarity on this matter…we’ll see.

Financial aspects of marriage

We are legally married. I had no assets but my husband had a modest trust fund that really helped us get a jump start on life. Unfortunately it matured right after the crash in 2009, but it was still enough to pay for our wedding, start his practice without having to moonlight or take out loans, put a down payment on our home in a very HCOL area, and pay off my student loans. I recognize that I’ve lucked out in marrying someone without debt, and credit this “starter fund” with allowing us to get a headstart on our finances. We did not get a pre-nup. We are both very much of the mindset that what’s mine is yours and vice versa and trust each other inherently. This may sound naive or foolish but it’s worked for us thus far. Some couples have budgets for each other or have to ask permission to spend over a certain amount, but this is unheard of in our relationship. My husband and I agree on finances and speak openly about it–he trusts me to take care of the financial aspects for our family. I have more of an interest in personal finance and find it empowering to be knowledgeable about this stuff. Neither of us stay at home. I work 4 days a week instead of 5 which allows me some breathing room to run errands or self-care. I think the perception however is that I have much more free time so I’ve taken over the financial responsibilities for our household, which I’ve enjoyed anyways. We both are highly compensated, but he does earn more than me by a sizeable margin. However, I have the generous pension and provide our family’s health insurance through my employer. Together we earn >$1M a year. I think we both have mutual respect for each other that we both contribute equally to this relationship and not just in monetary terms.

General Finances

What’s your FI (financial independence) number? 

~$9 million. We will probably need ~$350k/year to cover expenses in retirement, and I multiplied this by 25. I do get a generous pension if I stick w/ my employer at least part time until I’m 60 which I’m not including in this calculation, but it would provide ~$250k/year at retirement until death–it’s hard to pass up that deal. We may get to our FI number in 10 years, but instead of retiring, will probably cut down to 3 days a week at some point until I officially retire at 60. In the meantime, I really need to cultivate some hobbies/interests so that I can look forward to retiring to something.

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

I’m in a transitional period after recently getting rid of our financial advisor and in between a DIY stage and robo-advising. Currently our taxables accounts are in 2 places: I’m investing on my own at Vanguard using a lazy 4 fund portfolio AND using a robo-advisor at Betterment which charges .25% of AUM. It’s my own little experiment and so far the Betterment account has outperformed my DIY account at Vanguard by a few percentage points even including their fee. Plus they tax loss harvest which I don’t have much interest in doing. I’ve easily spoken to an advisor when I’ve needed to and they gave great, unbiased advice. I haven’t quite decided which way I’ll go just yet when I do consolidate my accounts.

What is your net worth?  

$3.8 million including equity in our home. Without equity it’s ~$2.5M.

How are you saving for FI/retirement?

I contribute the max $18k to my 401k at work plus I get a >$20k match. In addition, I put in ~$15k in post tax money so I can do the mega backdoor Roth IRA conversion. We each do $5,500 in backdoor Roth IRAs every year. He maxes out his 401k + 3% match. I wish he had more tax advantaged space but is limited by his S-Corp safe harbor 401k plan. I have a defined benefit pension plan that will essentially provide half of my max income yearly at retirement until death if I stay with my employer until 60. I’m not including this in my FI number but it would provide the majority of my expenses in retirement. Beyond that we put the rest of our savings in taxable accounts. Our asset allocation is 90/10 stocks/bonds and rebalance by reinvesting dividends or contributing from our savings to the asset class that’s lagging behind about every quarter (as opposed to selling any funds). I place tax-inefficient funds in my Roth IRAs (REITs, emerging market, small cap value funds), and also use low ER target date funds (with the date beyond my expected retirement date to be more aggressive) in my 401k to avoid wash sale issues with my taxable accounts. We save 25-30% of our gross income a year. We basically live off my income and his income goes straight to our savings account so we don’t miss it, which I then transfer to our taxable accounts or other investments once it reaches a certain threshold.

Biggest financial regrets:

  1. Using a commissioned broker unknowingly as our first “financial planner” who charged a 6% front loading fee! I realized this when I looked at the paperwork from when he opened our 529 account. Opening a 529 account is super easy to do yourself and here he was skimming 6% off the top. It still makes my blood boil thinking about it, but you live and you learn. This was one of the main motivators I had to educating myself so I consider it a silver lining.
  2. Using the financial advisor at my banking institution to open up individual bond funds for me and charging me 0.8% AUM when he wasn’t managing anything–bonds manage themselves.

One thing you wish you knew:

It takes time and a lot of reading to feel really comfortable managing your own finances. I think it took me up to 2 years of extensive reading, and I’m still learning something new things all the time. So in the meantime, it’s okay to use a financial planner if you need one–just pick a fiduciary, fee-only, NOT fee-based FA. Also, target date funds with low expense ratios are okay to use while you’re learning the ropes.

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

I’ve always felt strongly about contributing to charities or organizations that empower other women or invest in women owned businesses. We give ~$20k a year (with goals to contribute more in the future) to a variety of charities including Women for Women International, Planned Parenthood, ACLU, and Amnesty International. A major goal for me this year is to set up a donor advised fund (DAF) for tax efficient charitable giving. Another one of my goals this year is to set up a small need based scholarship fund at my high school alma mater in honor of my father who passed away a few years ago that will be awarded to promising females who want to major in STEM fields. And while this isn’t charity, we are investors and hold equity in my sister’s startup tea company which has a social impact component helping female Kenyan tea workers establish financial independence and care for their families.

Any parting words of wisdom?

  • Money affords you the opportunity to invest in meaningful projects. Now that we have some expendable income, I’ve felt this burning desire to give back and do something bigger than just practicing medicine. I’m still working on exactly how best to do that, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to explore these options.
  • Outsource what you can afford if it gives you more time to spend with family or doing things that bring you joy (or maintain your sanity), and don’t feel guilty about it.
  • Focus on gratitude–I struggle with this every day. I know that I have many advantages and am so fortunate in so many ways, but it’s easy to lose sight of this.
  • Don’t marry a crazy person–I know that you can’t always control who you fall in love with but if there’s early warning signs that you aren’t going to be financially compatible or they seemed destined to live paycheck to paycheck, run the other way.
  • Mo’ money mo’ problems–making more money brings a whole host of other issues to consider like asset protection, estate tax planning, trust funds, buying more insurance, etc. Work as much as you need and consider cutting back when you have enough.

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

I hope you enjoyed reading about Stella and her family.]]>

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