Although some might view a budget as unnecessarily restrictive, sticking to a spending plan can be a useful tool in enhancing the wealth of a practice. These authors emphasize keys to smart budgeting and how to track spending and savings in these tough economic times.
There is an aphorism that suggests, “Money cannot buy happiness.” Well, this may be true enough but there is also a corollary that states, “Having a little sure reduces the unhappiness.”
Unfortunately, today there is more than a little financial unhappiness in all medical specialties. The challenges range from the commoditization of medicine, aging demographics, Medicare reimbursement cutbacks and increased competition to floundering equity markets, the home mortgage crisis, the squeeze on credit and declines in the value of a practice. Few doctors seem immune to this “perfect storm” of economic woes.
Far too many podiatrists are hurting and it is not limited to above-average earning professionals. However, one can strive to reduce the pain by following some basic budgeting principles. By adhering to these principles, physicians can eliminate the “too many days at the end of the month” syndrome and instead develop a foundation for building real wealth and security, even in difficult economic climates like we face today.
There are three major budget types. A flexible budget is an expenditure cap that adjusts for changes in the volume of expense items. A fixed budget does not. Advancing to the next level of rigor, a zero-based budget starts with essential expenses and adds items until the money is gone. Regardless of type, budgets can be extremely effective if one uses them at home or the office in order to spot money troubles before they develop.
For the purpose of wealth building, podiatrists may think of this budget as a quantitative expression of an action plan. It is an integral part of the overall cost-control process for the individual, his or her family unit or one’s podiatry practice.1
How To Prepare A Personal Cash Flow Budget
Preparing a net income statement (lifestyle cash flow budget) is often difficult because many doctors perceive it as punitive. Most doctors do not live a disciplined spending lifestyle and they view a budget as a compromise to it. However, a cash flow budget is designed to provide comfort when there is surplus income that can be diverted for other future needs. For example, if you treat retirement savings as just another periodic bill, you are more likely to save for it.
You may construct a personal cash budget by recording each cash receipt and cash disbursement on a spreadsheet. Only the date, amount and a brief description of the transaction are necessary. The cash budget is a simple tool that even doctors who lack accounting acumen can use. Since it is possible to track the cash-in and cash-out in the same format used for a standard check register, most doctors find that the process takes very little time. Such a budget will provide a helpful look at how well you are staying within available resources for a given period.
We then continue with an analysis of your operating checkbook and a review of various source documents such as one’s tax return, credit card statements, pay stubs and insurance policies. A typical statement will show all cash transactions that occur within one year. It is helpful to establish a monthly equivalent to all items of income and expense. For the purposes of getting started, note items of income and expense by the frequency you are accustomed to receiving or spending them.
What You Should Know About The ‘Action Plan’ Cash Budget
For a podiatry office, the first operations budget item might be salary for the doctor and staff. Operating assets and other big ticket items come next. Some of our doctors/clients review their office P&L statements monthly, line by line, in an effort to reduce expenses. Then they add back those discretionary business expenses they have some control over.
Now, do you still run out of money before the end of the month? If so, you had better cut back on entertainment, eating dinner out or that fancy, new but unproven piece of medical equipment. This sounds draconian until you remind yourself that your choice is either: live frugally later or live a simpler lifestyle now and invest the difference.
As a young doctor, it may be a difficult trade-off. By mid-life, however, you are staring retirement in the face. That is why the action plan depends on your actions concerning monetary scarcity, a plan that one can implement and measure using simple benchmarks or budgeting ratios. By using these statistics, perhaps on an annual basis, the podiatrist can spot problems, correct them and continue planning actively toward stated goals like building long-term wealth.2
Useful Calculations To Assess Your Budgeting Success
In the past, generic budgeting ratios would emphasize not spending more than 15 to 20 percent of your net salary on food or 8 percent on medical care. Now these estimates have given way to more rigorous numbers. Personal budget ratios, much like medical practice financial ratios, represent comparable benchmarks for parameters such as debt, income growth and net worth. Although these ratios are still broad, the following represent some useful personal budgeting ratios for physicians.
• Basic liquidity ratio = liquid assets / average monthly expenses. Cash-on-hand should approach 12 to 24 months or more in the case of a doctor employed by a financially insecure HMO or fragile medical group practice. Yes, chances are you have heard of the standard notion of setting enough cash aside to cover three months in a rainy day scenario. However, we have decried this older laymen standard for many years in our textbooks, white papers and speaking engagements as being wholly insufficient for the competitively unstable environment of modern healthcare.
• Debt to assets ratio = total debt / total assets. This percentage is high initially but should decrease with age as the doctor approaches a debt-free existence
• Debt to gross income ratio = annual debt repayments / annual gross income. This represents the adequacy of current income for existing debt repayments. Doctors should try to keep this below 20 to 25 percent.
• Debt service ratio = annual debt repayment / annual take-home pay. Podiatrists should aim to keep this ratio below 25 to 30 percent or face difficulty paying down debt.
• Investment assets to net worth ratio = investment assets / net worth. This budget ratio should increase over time as retirement approaches.
• Savings to income ratio = savings / annual income. This ratio should also increase over time as one retires major obligations like medical school debt, a practice loan or a home mortgage.
• Real growth ratio = (income this year - income last year) / (income last year – inflation rate). This budget ratio should grow faster than the core rate of inflation.
• Growth of net worth ratio = (net worth this year - net worth last year) / net worth last year - inflation rate). Again, this budgeting ratio should stay ahead of inflation.
In other words, these ratios will help answer the question: “How am I doing?”
Pearls For Sticking To A Budget
Far from the burden that most doctors consider it to be, budgeting in one form or another is probably one of the greatest tools for building wealth. However, it is also one of the greatest weaknesses among physicians who tend to live a certain lifestyle.3
In fact, we have found that less than one in 10 medical professionals have a personal budget. Fear, or a lack of knowledge, is a major cause of procrastination. Fortunately, the following guidelines assist in reversing this microeconomic disaster.
1. Set reasonable goals and estimate annual income. Do not keep large amounts of cash at home or office. Deposit it in an FDIC insured money-market account for safety. Do not deposit it in a money market mutual fund with net asset value (NAV) that may “break the buck” and fall below the one-dollar level. The new limit is $250,000 but this is only until December 31, 2009. Track actual bills and expenses.
2. Do not pay bills early, do not have more taxes withheld from your salary than needed and develop spending estimates to pay fixed expenses first. Fixed expenses are usually contractual and usually include housing, utilities, food, Social Security, medical, debt repayments, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, auto, life and disability insurance, etc. Reduce fixed expenses when possible. Ultimately, all expenses get paid and become variable in the long run.
3. Make it a priority to reduce variable expenses. Variable expenses are not contractual and may include clothing, education, recreational, travel, vacation, gas, cable TV, entertainment, gifts, furnishings, savings, investments, etc. Trim variable expenses by 5 to 20 percent.
4. Use “carve-outs or “set-asides” for big ticket items and differentiate true wants from frivolous needs.
5. Calculate both income and expenses as a percentage of your total budget. Determine if there is a better way to allocate resources. Review the budget on a monthly basis to notice any variance. Determine if the variance was avoidable, unavoidable or a result of inaccurate assumptions. Take corrective action as needed.
6. Know the difference between saving and investing. Savers tend to be risk adverse while investors understand risk and take steps to mitigate it. Watch mutual fund commissions and investment advisory fees, which cut into return-rates. Keep investments simple and diversified (stocks, bonds, cash, index, no-load mutual and exchange traded funds, etc.).
How To Budget In The Midst Of A Crisis
Sooner or later, despite the best of budgeting intentions, something will go awry. A doctor will be terminated or may be the victim of a reduction-in-force (RIF) because of cost containment initiatives.4 A medical practice partnership may dissolve or a local hospital or surgery center may close, hurting your practice and livelihood. Someone may file a malpractice lawsuit against you, a working spouse may be laid off or you may get divorced. Regardless of the cause, budgeting crisis management encompasses two different perspectives: awareness and execution.
First, if you become aware that you may lose your job, the following proactive steps will be helpful to your budget and overall financial condition.
• Decrease retirement contributions to the required minimum for company/practice match.
• Place retirement contribution differences in an after-tax emergency fund.
• Eliminate unnecessary payroll deductions and deposit the difference to cash.
• Replace group term life insurance with personal term or universal life insurance.
• Take your old group term life insurance policy with you if possible.
• Establish a home equity line of credit to verify employment.
• Borrow against your pension plan only as a last resort.
If you have lost your job or your salary has been depressed, negotiate your departure and get an attorney if you believe you lost your position through breach of contract or discrimination. Then execute the following steps to recalculate your budget and boost your wealth rebuilding activities.
• Prioritize fixed monthly bills in the following order: rent or mortgage; car payments; utility bills; minimum credit card payments; and restructured long-term debt.
• Consider liquidating assets to pay off debts in this order: emergency fund, checking accounts, investment accounts or assets held in your children’s names.
• Review insurance coverage and increase deductibles on homeowner’s and automobile insurance for needed cash.
• Then sell appreciated stocks or mutual funds; personal valuables such as furnishings, jewelry and real estate; and finally, assets not in pension or annuities if necessary.
• Keep or rollover any lump sum pension or savings plan distribution directly to a similar savings plan at your new employer, if possible, when you get rehired.
• Apply for unemployment insurance.
• Review your medical insurance and COBRA coverage after a “qualifying event” such as job loss, firing or even after quitting. It is a bit expensive due to a 2 percent administrative fee surcharge but this may be well worth it for those with preexisting conditions or who are otherwise difficult to insure. One may continue COBRA for up to 18 months.
• Consider a high deductible Health Savings Account (HSA), which allows tax-deferred dollars like a medical IRA, for a variety of costs not normally covered under traditional heath insurance plans. Self-employed doctors deduct both the cost of the premiums and the amount contributed to the HSA. Unused funds roll over until the age of 59½, when one can use the money as a supplemental retirement benefit.
• Eliminate unnecessary variable, charitable and/or discretionary expenses, and become very frugal.
The behavioral psychologist, Gene Schmuckler, PhD, MBA, sometimes asks exasperated doctors to recall the story of the old man who spent a day watching his physician son treating HMO patients in the office. The doctor had been working at his usual feverish pace all morning. Although he was working hard, he bitterly complained to his dad that he was not making as much money as he used to make. Finally, the old man interrupted him and said, “Son, why don't you just treat the sick patients?” The doctor-son looked at his father with an annoyed expression and responded, “Dad, can't you see, I do not have time to treat just the sick ones.”
Always remember to add a bit of emotional sanity into your budgeting and economic endeavors.5
Regardless of one’s age or lifestyle, the insightful doctor realizes that it is never too late to take control of a lost financial destiny through prudent wealth building activities. Personal and practice budgeting is always a good way to start the journey.6
Dr. Marcinko is a Certified Financial Planner and has been a medical management advisor for more than a decade. He is the CEO of www.MedicalBusinessAdvisors.com, a health economics consulting firm. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the two-volume premium institutional print journal Healthcare Organizations (Financial Management Strategies) with the companion interactive blog www.HealthcareFinancials.com.
Ms. Hetico is a Distinguished Assistant Professor of Healthcare Administration for the University of Phoenix-Graduate School of Business and Management. She is a Certified Medical Planner and the Managing Editor of www.ePodiatryConsentForms.com and www.HealthDictionarySeries.com. She is also an educational consultant for www.PodiatryPrep.com, an independent board-certification preparation service.
The authors acknowledge the assistance of Mackenzie H. Marcinko in the preparation of this article.
1. Marcinko DE (Ed). The Business of Medical Practice (Advanced Profit Maximizing Techniques for Savvy Doctors). Springer Publishers, New York, NY, 2000 and 2004 2. Marcinko DE (Ed). Financial Planning for Physicians and Advisors, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, MA, 2005 3. Marcinko DE (Ed). Risk Management and Insurance Panning for Physicians and Advisors, Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Sudbury, MA, 2006. 4. Marcinko DE, Hetico HR. The Dictionary of Health Insurance and Managed Care. Springer Publishing, New York, 2007. 5. Marcinko DE, Hetico HR. The Dictionary of Health Economics and Finance. Springer Publishing, New York, 2008. 6. Marcinko DE, Hetico HR. Healthcare Organizations (Financial Management Strategies). Standard Technical Publishers, Blaine, WA, 2009. Additional Reference 7. Schmuckler E. Bridging Financial Planning and Human and Human Psychology. In, Marcinko DE (Ed): Financial Planning for Physicians and Healthcare Professionals. Aspen Publications, New York, NY, 2001, 2002 and 2003.