Have you heard of the FIRE movement?
FIRE stands for financial independence, retire early. You can read about my motivation to FIRE here. Whether you’re on your way to FIRE or not, I hope you enjoy reading the story of others that are on this journey.
I’m excited to introduce a veterinarian who made the choice to pursue FIRE along with her husband, who blogs at Stop Ironing Shirts. In fact, he was the one that had contacted me via Twitter after seeing my interview on a different blog and stated that his wife was also a veterinarian. She is currently retired from veterinary medicine. Read on for her story!
1. Please introduce yourself! Give us a little of your background and how you got started in veterinary medicine.
I’m a retired/on sabbatical veterinarian who graduated in 2007. I worked in private practice for seven years before following my husband for a career move. (He also writes about financial independence at Stop Ironing Shirts.)
I always loved animals and started wanting to be either a veterinarian or horse breeder at 5-6 years old. I eventually realized breeding horses wasn’t a job, so I chose veterinarian.
I was an overachiever in school and knew vet schools were selective, so the two goals ran together, I now “had” to get good grades or I couldn’t be a veterinarian. I finished near the top of my high school class, finished undergraduate early, and was fortunate to be accepted into vet school on my first attempt.
2. How much debt did you have upon graduating from veterinary school?
I had 90k in student loan debt when I graduated. I went to the in-state school and also went to the same campus for undergraduate. I married my husband between my 1st and 2nd year and we lived together. He didn’t make much at the time because salaries were low in the rural college town, but it was enough to help with housing and food and help minimize just how much debt we took out. Interest was also in the high 2s to 4% in the mid 2000s, which kept the deferred interest down.
I graduated college in December instead of May and had a seven month gap between undergraduate and veterinary school, helping me land a job as a chemist. This let me go into vet school with a little more in savings and keep the amount I was borrowing down.
3. What was your level of financial literacy prior to veterinary school? Were you price sensitive when pursuing veterinary medicine?
I always liked saving money rather than spending and was naturally frugal. I had no idea what investing was and my parents called it gambling. Understanding what to do with savings came much later.
Price really didn’t come into play for vet school, I applied and was accepted to my only in-state veterinary school option.
4. Did your veterinary school provide personal finance education? If so, what did you think of the quality?
They were just starting to provide “something”. The school made everyone take a class called business development in the third year, it focused more on running your own business than personal finance. It did require me to make a budget. (Editor’s note: Vet schools, please include more personal finance courses. I know that running a business is important, but this knowledge will only apply to a certain number of students. Personal finance, on the other hand, is applicable to EVERYONE, especially students that are coming out of school with 6-figure debt.)
5. Describe what the FIRE (financial independence, retire early) movement means to you.
FIRE is all about control and not having to work a set schedule. My first practice had Saturday and Sunday hours as part of one of the national chains, then the second practice I worked at was only me and the owner. This meant I could only take time off if it didn’t interfere with the owner’s personal life.
6. What has motivated you to achieve FIRE?
I think the profile of the “normal” veterinary school student is not necessarily the best profile to be a veterinarian. You always want to be able to fix something, but sometimes you can’t. I would always take it personally when I couldn’t fix the animal and really struggled with clients who didn’t care as much as I did. That motivated me to want to have career options. (Editor’s note: Veterinary medicine is more than clinical practice. I think the profession needs to highlight all of the different career options open to a DVM outside of clinical practice.)
7. What specific steps are you taking to achieve FIRE?
Well, I technically “retired early” at 32 when we moved for my husband’s career. His earnings took off and I decided to renovate a home and did some contract work. We then moved states, it took a while to get re-licensed, and I wasn’t in a rush to find another job. We also realized our spending went down even further when I took up cooking and DIY house maintenance. He also didn’t mind me mowing the yard during the week and freeing up the weekends, now he’s close to calling it quits.
As to how we got there, we barely changed our spending levels for the first five plus years out of school, we earned just over $100,000 combined but were able to still live on $45,000 or so a year, which equated to a nice savings rate. I also was intentional in picking the second practice I worked for because it was close to my home. A short commute was both peaceful and the ability to leave work to let the dog out and eat lunch at home saved a lot of money. We chose to move to a big city in the southeast that had relatively good salaries and a low cost of living, that helped tremendously with our savings rate.
My husband and I both contributed the maximum to our retirement plans as soon as we could, even though my option was a Simple IRA with a low contribution limit and crummy investments. In hindsight, one of our best financial decisions was not paying down the student loan debt aggressively until after we maximized our retirement accounts and had a good cushion of cash savings. We started paying down the student loan debt quickly in my last two years of working and paid it off in full in 2015.
I credit my husband for knowing how to invest (low cost index funds), I’d probably just have a big bank account and zero debt with my frugal habits. I remember the financial adviser handling the practice’s Simple IRA was shocked my only question was “what is the maximum” I can put away and he was defending his fees (5% load, 2% expense ratio) and I didn’t know what to say back to him at the time. He may have been put back by a woman challenging him on the high fees. (Editor’s note: I have a feeling that most people don’t even consider the fees when working with a financial adviser because they don’t even know they exist unless the adviser points them out. Fees matter.)
8. Is your spouse completely on board with FIRE? Do you both approach finances the same way?
He had to convince me some that it’s possible to leave work in our 30s and that we wouldn’t run out of money. I’m more of a saver where he still occasionally has a desire to spend money on stuff. He handles the investments, but I have a login and still look at the balances often 🙂
9. Have you faced any challenges that prevented you from reaching your financial goals?
We’ve been fortunate to meet our financial goals, but it hasn’t been without challenges.
Starting vet salaries are low, they were shockingly low and I didn’t feel like I knew what I was getting into in high school and in undergraduate. You don’t expect to put off making money until you’re 25, take on almost $100,000 in debt, then be making $50,000 or so and working Saturdays/Sunday’s as a Doctor.
As for professional development, its important to get into a larger practice for your first job with people willing to help and mentor you. I got some of this in my first practice, but probably not as much as a larger practice would have provided.
Some others might view this as “challenging”, but the three biggest expenses in life are housing, transportation, and food. We have kept our housing expense reasonably low, prefer to live within a short commute distance to where we work, and prefer to cook our own meals. I drive a 2002 vehicle and my husband’s truck has more than 200,000 miles on it. Those seem like easy choices for us, but others spend a lot more money on those three.
10. What are some financial mistakes that you’ve made?
We bought a townhouse during vet school which we did okay on, but then immediately put those proceeds in a house that was way too big. That caused us to lose a lot of money on our second home. The lesson was we didn’t need a 2800sqft house as a new graduate.
It’s not necessarily a “mistake”, but we sold a bunch of investments/savings in 2014 and 2015 as part of paying off my student loans. The market has returned another 35% since then and we would have been better to wait, but I enjoyed the freedom knowing those loans were done. (Editor’s note: Hindsight is always 20/20. I don’t think many people were predicting these kinds of market returns at that time, even the “experts.” Either way, those loans are paid for, which is the important part.)
11. What is your financial advice for other veterinarians?
Veterinary medicine is a mentally and physically demanding job. There’s a reason the suicide rate is high in this profession, we’re trained “This is how you deal with a problem you can’t fix.” Save half your earnings first so finances are never that “unfixable” problem. Live next to your practice, ride a bike to work, do whatever it takes to save half. Have some money outside of retirement accounts, along the lines of 6-12 months of living expenses, that’s your “go to hell” fund if you just can’t take where you’re working or need a break from the profession
Also consider disability income insurance until you have a nice savings, multiple classmates of mine are dealing with medical issues keeping them from working. It is terrible to have financial stress on top of dealing with a medical issue. (Editor’s note: No one ever imagines that they will need disability benefits, but it happens. It’s painful paying for insurance that you might not need, but even more painful if you actually do need it and it’s not there.)
12. Feel free to add any other information that people may find helpful!
If you’re considering veterinary school or currently in school, be conscious of how much debt you take on. If you’re just getting out of school, maximize your tax sheltered accounts, then attack the student loan debt as hard as you can. Don’t get discouraged about debt repayment early on, the math accelerates quickly in your favor because each month, more of your payment goes towards principal and you should also be getting increases in your pay as your productivity increases. Use that to your advantage and avoid letting your lifestyle expenses creep up. Remember that medical doctors have to do 3-7 years post graduation before they get any money in their pocket, live like a resident for your first 3-5 years and you will avoid a lot of financial stress that plagues the profession.
If you talk to anyone pursuing FIRE, one of the most common themes you’ll see is that financial independence is synonymous with choices. The more money you have, the more choices you have available to you.
In this case, this veterinarian decided she needed to retire from veterinary medicine at the moment. And she could, simply because she had the money to do so. If she was still in debt and struggling financially, I am willing to bet that she would still be working, regardless of whether or not she felt like she needed to take time off.
Achieving financial independence is simple: save a lot of money, don’t spend too much, and invest wisely. The following factors allowed her to achieve this sooner rather than later: 1) having a spouse on the same page about achieving financial independence, 2) being naturally frugal, and 3) living in a low cost of living area, which allows your dollar to go further. Not everyone can have a spouse who can help out financially and emotionally while on this journey. Not everyone is naturally frugal. Not everyone can live in a low cost of living area. But everyone can make some attempt at bettering their financial situation, whether it’s through creating a budget, learning how to invest, or finding ways to increase your income, just to give you a few examples.
For those Dave Ramsey fans, here is an example of someone who did not pay off her debt as early as possible. Instead, she took advantage of all the tax sheltered accounts available to her, then she went ahead and paid down her loan aggressively. This method may have delayed her getting to debt-free status, but it has also allowed her retirement accounts to grow and compound while she was paying off her debt. In addition, she was able to take advantage of the tax breaks from contributing to retirement.
Thank you for this guest post, Dr. Shirts! We wish you and your husband the best of luck in the future!
Are you interested in submitting your own Vet Success Story? I’m currently accepting submissions for student loan debt payoff, FIRE, and Entrepreneurs. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.