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Personal Story: Next Up, the Journey to Financial Independence

Jun 1, 2018

Ashley Valentine, MD, PhD

I’m pretty excited. I’m three months away from starting as a board-certified attending anesthesiologist and junior faculty member. The interview process went smoothly and thanks to the work of several strong negotiating women in the department before me, I was offered the same starting salary as my male colleagues. For some reason, this is what I consider the first “real job” I’ve ever had. This is certainly arguable, being that I’m a nontraditional student and I’ve worked steadily since I was 15. Yet, I think it is the fact that this is the first job I will have that I view with permanence that makes it “count.” This is a job where I hope to grow and contribute for years to come. It feels really good.

As an undergraduate, my earliest financial goals were at least straightforward: make enough money to support myself independently and retire comfortably. Unfortunately, these goals lacked definition and only included myself. I didn’t consider having a partner or a child in my future. I didn’t think about when I might want to retire. Nor did I do much to educate myself about how to achieve these goals. I was attracted to jobs that were intellectually and socially interesting, but did not pay much. Working as a research assistant, volunteering for Peace Corps, and managing a restaurant were each great experiences, but they gave me little financial wiggle room. Since it was just me, it didn’t seem to matter much and as a result, my action toward my goals was minimal at best.

I read a few financial planning books and I tried to dialogue with my family members about their plans. Thankfully, they taught me some basics like not keeping a balance on a credit card, the power of compounding interest, and how to budget. Regarding retirement planning, however, the generational differences seemed so large that the conversations typically ended abruptly. “What do you mean you can’t count on Social Security?” “Why wouldn’t you just get a job with a good pension plan and use that for your retirement?” “IRAs? I don’t think they work.”

Several years before medical school (and despite the questionable functionality of an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) raised by a family member), I opened an IRA and started contributing to it as I could. However, once on the path to medicine, I took financial advice from the student loan officers at my medical school and essentially put all financial planning on hold for most of residency, thinking we were unable to do much more than spend what we had. These were probably two of my biggest financial mistakes so far. I’ve since learned one can save and invest in the future, even on a resident salary, even with debt, and especially with a kiddo and a husband.

Fortunately, my “attending anxiety” renewed my interest in becoming financially independent and what it really means. With the help of a diverse array of writers [1] and podcasters, I have thoroughly enjoyed educating myself on the various definitions of “financial independence” and the many paths to attain it.

However, through this self-education, I have internalized that women generally make less money for equivalent work and live longer than men. I hope to help my daughter have enough financial smarts to choose her path and be independent despite the potential uneven start compared to the boys. For me, this is motivation to not only understand our family’s financial plan, but also be an equal partner, if not the leader, in developing it.

While there is more to learn, I now feel confident that regardless of my income, I will be able to keep my family sheltered, clothed, fed, and safe. I also feel excited that with some thoughtful planning, we can likely create enough wealth to retire comfortably and independently, by our definition, despite the medical school debt and late career start.

This knowledge has been liberating. With the plan in place, I will spend more time focusing on the things I love, like my work and family. I’ll venture a guess that there are other women, moms, partners, and wives who have had similar concerns and there will be more to come. I think it’s reasonable to start out nervous, lacking knowledge and sophistication when it comes to finances. However, for me it was unreasonable to remain there. It didn’t take long to understand some of the basics and I encourage any women who haven’t taken time to learn about financial planning to do so. If I can do it, so can others.

Dr. Ashley Valentine, MD, Ph.D. is a fellow in pain medicine at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). She will be joining the faculty there as an Assistant Professor in Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine in August 2018.

References

[1] Some of my favorite financial blogs include “The White Coat Investor,” “Physician on FIRE,” and “Our Next Life.”

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