Surgeon on Laptop
The Female Surgeon's Guide to Financial Planning

While women worry more than men when it comes to retirement, fewer women are maxing out on their retirement contributions. This may be due to challenges women are likely to face in their careers, such as taking time off to have children and earning 24% less per hour than male surgeons.

Sadly, a Fidelity Investments study found that 45% of male physicians and 58% of their female counterparts are not maxing out their contributions to a workplace retirement plan, such as a 403(b). This is particularly concerning because on average women live longer than men and take time off for caregiving. Also, they face issues common to all surgeons — high debt, late career entry and the dangers of disability.

Women Tend to Outlive Men

The World Economic Research Forum estimates that women outlive men by 4 ½ years. That’s the good news. But living longer also raises retirement risks, including:

  • Higher Risk of Outliving Your Assets: If you plan for the same future as men, you could come up short. If you are widowed, you also risk that a spouse’s medical costs could deplete much of the family’s financial assets.
  • Higher Risk of Becoming Disabled: The longer you live, the higher the chance that you will become physically or mentally impaired and require assisted living or long-term care. Women can expect, on average, to spend six years with some degree of disability, which is about twice as many years as men.
  • Higher Risk of Out-of-Pocket Medical Expenses: After the age of 70, retirees can expect an average of $122,000 in medical costs. While Medicare will cover some costs, you will have better protection with supplemental coverage.

At the same time, living longer means that you face the prospect that inflation could have a significant impact on your savings.

Finally, because more women outlive their spouses, the ultimate decisions regarding wealth transfer and estate planning will fall to them. According to an RBC Wealth Management study, although an estimated $3.2 trillion will pass through to heirs, only 22% of women have a wealth-transfer plan.

Women can protect themselves by taking a long-range perspective toward their financial planning, their medical and long-term care and estate planning.

Surgeon’s School Debt and Delayed Entry into the Workforce

As a surgeon, you’re well aware of the cost, both in years and dollars, to achieve your goal. Using College Board’s 2018 figures, depending on school and area of specialization, the cost of a surgeon’s education can be as high as $500,000 and require 16 years of education and training before entering practice. On top of that, you are starting your career later and with more debt than most college graduates.

Women Are More Likely to Take Time Off

Another challenge for women is that they represent 70% of caregivers. If you take time out for children or caring for an elderly parent, you lose even more of your prime earning years. For the average career woman, caregiving can result in almost $150,000 in lost wages. That number is undoubtedly higher for the female surgeon.

Surgeon’s Retirement and/or Disability

Although there is no official retirement age, many surgeons will make their retirement decisions based on their health. When an impairment or decline could put a patient at risk, a surgeon either retires or takes a consultative or assisting role.

Temporary disability is also a danger: As many as 30% of Americans experience a physical or mental disability during their careers. Surgeons—whose work is physically demanding, requiring dexterity, visual acuity and excellent reflexes—are at a higher risk of being unable to perform even with a mild disability.

Because of these risks, you may want to consider disability insurance. It will help you meet your financial obligations if you can’t work. With adequate preparations for the potential of either early retirement or temporary leave due to disability, you can manage your future on your terms.

Issues to Consider

If you feel that there are omissions in your financial plan, here are some topics to think about.

  • Stay Involved: You’ll likely feel more comfortable if you understand your financial situation and participate in the planning process. If you’re married, you can ensure that you make provisions for outliving your partner or spouse. As a part of a couple, you will want a retirement plan that covers you individually as well as collectively.
  • Think Through the Caregiver Role: In the event of someone needing to take on the role of caregiver for children or elderly parents, evaluate the cost before assuming the position. Consider how it will affect taxes, retirement plan contributions and your earning ability. Of course, it’s fine to decide your loved ones are more important than money, and you’re the natural choice to be the caregiver.
  • Divorce Discussions: If you are planning a divorce, there’s a lot to think about. But remember, all financial planning up to this point has included you and your partner’s retirement needs. You might want to ask your financial advisor how to address retirement as a single person.
  • Be Comprehensive: Remember that financial planning needs to be all-encompassing. In addition to reducing debt and protecting yourself in the event of disability, you need a plan to help you save for retirement and long-term care. And expect the unexpected; save for an emergency.
  • Maximize Contributions if Possible: Take as much advantage of any employer-, hospital-sponsored or self-employment retirement plans as possible. If you work part-time to care for children or parents, you may not qualify for workplace retirement plans and, therefore, will probably want to discuss other options with your financial advisor.

As a surgeon, you have the same financial considerations as your male counterparts. At the same time, as a woman, you have some additional challenges that require you to make longer-term plans for your financial needs, medical and long-term care and estate and wealth transfer.