Retire Early: How Can You Actually Make It Happen?

Dennis G. Murray, MA


April 13, 2012

In This Article


No one said it would be easy.

Late-night emergencies, stubborn patients, payers that slice reimbursements, sky-high malpractice insurance premiums, threats of lawsuits...all these and more can conspire to have you dreaming of early retirement. And who could blame you for wanting to get out while you still have plenty of time to enjoy life?

At the intersection of where desire meets reality, though, often come little roadblocks: in this case, the stock and housing markets. In recent years, prices of homes have dropped dramatically in most areas, seriously eroding doctors' net worth. In 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average sank nearly 34%, the Nasdaq Composite Index dropped more than 40%, and, for some physicians, retirement dreams became just that: dreams.

Yet, as Yogi Berra might have said, it's not too late to bail early. Several financial planners told how their clients weathered the market storms of a few years ago very well and were still able to retire on schedule.

How did they do it? And can you do it, too?

Facing Reality: Financial and Emotional

While it's fine to shoot for retiring early, first ask yourself if it's something you truly desire -- to be free of debt and a full workload as soon as possible -- or whether your goal is actually based on a deep unhappiness with your present situation.

If your current work arrangement is rocky for whatever reason, it's possible that improving the situation may give you a new perspective. Dreams of afternoon naps in a backyard chaise will recede into the background.

Let's assume that that's not the case, however. Things are going well enough; you just want to hop off the treadmill before it grinds you up. Maybe you're approaching 50 and early retirement has been a goal all along. Or you're just starting out and the thought of seeing the world while you're still healthy enough to get around it has an unquestionable appeal.

What Do You Really Want?

Where to begin? One financial planner says that you should picture what a day in retirement will look like: Will you be playing golf, doing volunteer work, or traveling? Will you ease out of medicine -- working part-time for a few years, perhaps -- or quit cold turkey? Those plans will determine how much you need to live on in retirement.

"The emotional side of retirement is just as important as the financial side," says Bill Cleveland, a principal with Preston & Cleveland Wealth Management in Augusta, Georgia. "A lot of doctors have a great sense of worth and accomplishment tied up in medicine, and letting go of that may not be easy."

Financial planner Joe Hearn, vice president of Techmeyer Financial Services in Omaha, Nebraska, adds, "Most doctors are 'high-capacity' people, with a lot of energy and drive. In my experience, if that type of person retires early and then just plans to sit on the beach or play golf all day, he'll be miserable after 6 months."

Setting clear priorities and goals for retirement -- and reviewing them once a year with your financial planner, tax preparer, or other trusted advisor -- is the key to making good decisions, Cleveland says. "Otherwise, you start to let life and circumstances dictate your path."


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