The Importance of Community for Physician Spouses
Physician Spouses Thrive In Their Tribe
I’ve found from working with many new attending physicians and physician spouses that when it comes to finances, they usually feel very alone.
It comes from feeling like they have nobody to talk to about the growing complexity of their finances.
It also comes from feeling like their financial situation is unique.
A new attending physician has gone through the time and expense of gaining their education, surviving residency and then finally reaching the major milestone of achieving their new role.
However, along with the exhilaration of reaching their goal they have what feels like crushing student debt or maybe they have some consumer debt left over from training. After all their struggle during their residency—suddenly there is a huge rise in income.
They doubt many people would understand the dilemma their finances present to them. They don’t feel they can talk about this with anyone—least of all someone who is a non-physician.
Is there help for new attending physicians and physician spouses?
I recently had a roundtable discussion with Curtis Webster founder of the Dads Married to Doctors Community, Donna Rovito editor at Physician Family Magazine and an Administrator of Physician Family Community and Lara McElderry who hosts a podcast called Married to Doctors. I asked them if they found that new attending physicians and physician spouses often felt alone, or as if there wasn’t anyone, they could discuss their finances with?
Curtis answered that he and his physician spouse found it to be true for them. He said that as they were going through medical school and residency, the debt was accumulating “left and right”. They didn’t know how to deal with it back then.
Financial freedom for physicians? What was that about?
They didn’t know if they could trust family, friends or the financial professionals who offered them a free steak dinner! They are currently five years post-residency and feel as if they are just now digging out from it all. They are now making their way to the ideal life they’ve since realized suited their situation best.
Donna has noticed this in her group, as well. She encourages new attending physicians or physician spouses to find their “tribe”. That is to find the support of others that understand the unique issues they experience. She said others outside of a physician family don’t understand the issues.
Lara recently had the experiences of chatting with someone at a volunteer group who assumed that she should be out shopping with her husband’s money. She believed that physician spouses have the means to “just go shopping”. Lara indicated that this false perception is one reason physicians or physician spouses are reluctant to discuss finances, much less topics like positive financial habits, physician lifestyle creep, student loan forgiveness, why to pay off debt or invest, and/or achieving financial independence.
On the other end of the spectrum is the FIRE community, which can lead new attending physicians or physician spouses to feel overwhelmed when facing a group who are further along building their financial wealth and planning early retirement.
Lara’s podcast Married to Doctors is meant to be a safe space for physician spouses. As she commented to me “Where are my down-to-earth people?” It’s so true, people have the idea that every doctor is wealthy. They should drive a certain type of car or participate in certain activities. They don’t realize that it takes so much time and sacrifice it takes—as well as lots of debt.
Physician spouses don’t marry a prospective doctor to become rich. I love the awareness and support that my guests are giving to new attending physicians and physician spouses, but I wanted to ask each of them about some of their more personal financial challenges. I wondered if they were able to overcome them? What did they learn from their experience?
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Rising to the Challenge: Donna
Donna instantaneously had an important bit of advice for anyone: Don’t ever open a restaurant. She emphasized especially if you’ve never worked in one before! During her husband’s second year in private practice, they decided she should open a restaurant.
Their idea was to become the McDonald’s of salads and soups. This type of restaurant is in the 90th percentile of restaurants that don’t make it. The bank was enthusiastically willing to loan them the money. They never questioned the couple if they had any experience running a restaurant.
Donna said it was a terrible financial decision at that point in their lives (and would have been at any point), plus it strained their marriage. She doesn’t know exactly how much money they lost in the venture.
Donna didn’t pull any punches when she said that she is a great cook but a dismal failure as a restaurant manager. She further advised that if you are taking the financial resources that a spouse is working hard for—know what you’re doing. She reported that they know other physicians and physician spouses who have invested in restaurants—and everyone of them have failed, so beware of the culinary industry.
Next, we move on to Lara’s financial challenge.
Rising to the Challenge: Lara
Lara and her husband decided to start their family while her husband was attending medical school. During this crucial period of her husband’s training and his rotations, their four-year-old was in full-time speech therapy, and still struggling significantly. Their middle child was diagnosed with a serious brain tumor and they had a baby (less than a year old). Obviously, there was every type of stress on their family: emotional, physically and financially.
She said were living on student loans at the time. They were attempting to stretch them as far as they could go. They also qualified for Medicaid, which she credits for getting them through that very rough period in their lives. Now that they have a higher income bracket and pay the corresponding higher taxes, if she is ever tempted to complain, she reminds herself that her family benefitted from a tax funded program.
She said the children’s grandparents gave them physical help with the children, but financially it was very tight time. Reminding physicians and physicians spouses that we are not exempt from life’s trials—but having an understanding tribe can be a mitigating factor.
Now, we look at challenge Curtis had to face. Does a man need support?
Rising to the Challenge: Curtis
Curtis said men don’t like to think about needing support or joining a support group. He likes to say community. He agrees with me about communities teaching us things we didn’t know or overcome challenges. He and his wife benefitted from the podcast I did on going on a money date. It helped them with the big “C” word (communication)!
Curtis reported they had consumer debt, medical debt and daily living payments. He said at one point they had 20 different automatic payments going out to different companies. They decided to consolidate those with SOFI.
Consolidation made a huge difference. He emphasized getting the payments all in in one place, lowering the payment and interest rate was a huge help. Simplifying his finances was a relief.
Curtis often tells people what they don’t know about physician families is they are just broke at a higher level. That is true of many physicians and physician spouses.
Now that we have looked at each of my guests biggest financial hurdles. Let’s ask them who oversees the day-to-day financial details.
Household Finance CFO
Josh and Lara
I believe strongly in behavioral finance. When you put emotion behind money, it helps you meet your financial goals. It smooths the way—after you figure out what your triggers your reactions and you put those childhood ghosts (i.e. triggers) to rest.
When Lara was growing up, the only thing she remembers her parents fighting about was finances. So, when she got married, she knew she didn’t want to fight about finances. Since she married a math major, she had visions of him figuring all their finances out. Fast forward to when her husband was in medical school. It came as a surprise to her when he didn’t have time and it was left to her!
Handling their household finances was at times overwhelming for her, so she would procrastinate. She finally learned that she needed to educate herself. So, she figured out that she at least needed to know:
- Where is the money going?
- What do the numbers mean?
- What numbers are the most important?
Lara admits she still struggles with handling the finances and has tried different ways to handle them. She said she and her husband, Josh who have been married 17 years, sit down monthly to quarterly to go over their finances. Together they look at:
- The big picture (for them)
- Where they are in their big picture
- What are they doing in their big picture
I really believe that making the process simple is the key. Having one bank, one checking account for paying bills, maybe a couple of savings accounts and consolidating debt if the interest rate is right.
Now, as we talk to Donna, we will see how time and experience may smooth out communication between a physician and physician spouses.
Peter and Donna
Peter had a private solo medical practice for many years. During this time, he handled their household bills alongside the medical practice finances. He has been working for a health system for approximately a year, but still handles their household bills at the office.
They are both relieved that he no longer as to handle the finances for a private solo medical practice. Some of the details they no longer deal with include:
- Malpractice premiums
- Employee Health Insurance
They work on the big picture part of their finances together, jointly meeting with a financial advisor. However, Donna takes care of their two children’s graduate school finances.
Donna happily remarked to me that she and Peter are now able to communicate about their finances. They have been married 35 years, and she said their ability to communication about money wasn’t always so smooth!
Our last lesson comes from Curtis. Who handles the household finances at his house? Since Curtis mentioned the “C” word during our discussion of facing a challenging time—will it surface again in handling household bill paying?
Curtis and Anna
First off, I have to say that when Donna was recounting how she and her husband can talk about money without getting mad, Curtis was laughing!
Curtis and his wife have almost been married 13 years. His wife knew going in that he might not be the timeliest person to handle the bills. During their college years she saw the stack of bills sitting on his desk waiting for his attention.
They ultimately decided Curtis should handle the bills because of her buy schedule. He learned from the guys in his community to automate, automate, automate! Curtis who has recently been diagnosed as ADHD, knows to keep the bills off his brain. He learned that he has trouble focusing on minute details and things that don’t interest him.
Curtis and Anna sit down monthly to quarterly to go over their finances. Curtis said his wife loves to travel. Which he said is not conducive to staying out of debt!
Learning from Your Tribe
I like that Curtis told me that he learned to automate his bills from his community, so I asked Lara and Donna what they had learned from their communities. Lara learned to soak her feet to while dealing with the stressful business of paying bills and making calls. Donna, who has always been involved with a physician family community, she said she learned early the importance of having a community. The importance of having people who understand the physician family life.
Donna told me that there are hundreds of Facebook groups for physicians and physician spouses. She has concluded that physicians and physician spouses is they are looking for validation. They need to have a place to vent about the crazy physician life. She feels like having a tribe has benefitted her marriage.
The Tribes that Communities Built
There may be physicians or physician spouses in the Financial Residency group that have not heard of the communities that Curtis, Donna and Lara are involved in building. I asked them to tell me about their groups.
Donna indicates that The Physician Family community is a community inside of a community. Physician Family Magazine was created by the American Medical Association Alliance in 2013. The roots of the American Medical Association Alliance are a sister organization to the AMA started in 1924.
The magazine was created to reach more physicians and physician spouses. Then came the external publication that was made available free online. There is also a closed Facebook group that is called Physician Family Community, which provides resources for the members.
Lara said to go to the Apple Podcast Page and scroll through the reviews. Listeners to Lara’s podcast see the magic in the honesty. It is a safe place, where physicians or physician spouses will see a reflection of their lives in a (sometimes) humorous way. Lara attempts to address the challenges in a positive and helpful manner.
Curtis started looking for a community four years ago. He couldn’t find it. So, he started his Facebook group for men. His wife is in a group for physician moms. He partners with other groups like Financial Residency, to bring resources together. The goal is to strengthen physician friendships, families and marriages.
If there is one thing, I can say to comfort residents, new attending physicians, established physicians or physician spouses—you are not alone. Our communities are here to support you in enjoying your life and building your wealth.
Are you feeling alone? Are you interested in joining a likeminded community? Find the Financial Residency Community and tell us about your experience in finding your tribe.