Four Common Financial Blunders Physicians Make

November 3, 2014

Common types of financial trauma suffered by physicians, and my prescription for how to avoid them.

As a critical care physician, I have encountered patients with varying degrees of bodily injuries.  As a financial planner, I encounter clients with prior financial trauma.  Both bodily and financial trauma can often be avoided, and both can lead to long-term disability. 

Here are some common types of financial trauma, and my prescription for how physicians can avoid them:

1. The Trauma: Commissions.
A client recently used a bank-based brokerage to sell just over $1.5 million in stock.  He had no relationship with the broker and the money was in the account only for a couple of months.  His commission was almost $15,000 dollars, for transactions that would have taken either him or me about 10 minutes of time and perhaps $200 in fees at any large no-load brokerage company (Fidelity, Vanguard, Price, and others).  Upon protest, the brokerage coughed up about half of the fees, but this outrageous charge left some financial injury.
My prescription: Find out what you are paying in fees for your investments.  Ask about up-front fees, back-end loads, yearly expenses, and surrender fees.  Make sure you understand just how these fees can lead to injury.

2. The Trauma: Whole-life Insurance Commissions.
Another client was induced to purchase a large whole-life policy using almost all of his annual savings.  When we looked at the cash value after two years of premium payments, we realized that the broker “made” over $10,000 an hour for its “work.” Another client was talked into a $200,000 annuity with an 8 percent withdrawal penalty in a two-hour visit with a new “planner.”   These trauma will have long-lasting financial consequences.
My prescription: Get more than one quote on any life insurance or annuity you are considering.  Make sure that you have enough of a death benefit, as that is usually what the insurance is for.  Often, people are “sold” policies with high premiums that provide inadequate death benefit coverage, as these policies result in higher commissions.  Ask how much the broker is making on the transaction.  Look at the cash value of the policy at the end of the first two years as a rough gauge of what you are being charged. Best yet, get an opinion on the purchase from someone not making money on the sale.

3. The Trauma: Insurance Company Retirement Plans.
Many clients have been previously enrolled in work-based 401K type retirement plans.  Uniformly, I have found these plans to be very expensive and often limited to mutual funds that I suspect “pay” to be included on the platform of choices.  The funds usually have outrageous fees, some of which are kicked back at various levels, which allows the plan to be “free” to the employer. In addition, the funds have an insurance "wrapper,” which allows agents without security licenses or training to “sell” them.  It is not unusual to have fees of 3percent to 5 percent yearly aggregated at several levels in these plans, which is an injury that is hard to recover from in terms of retirement success.
My prescription: Ask your employer to explain the various fees and charges in your retirement plan.  Urge those with the plans as described above to look into lower cost, non-insurance based “unbundled” plans with transparent costs.

4. The Trauma: Brokerage-based Retirement Plans.
Many clients who have small businesses will approach a brokerage house for a retirement plan for them and their employees.  The brokerages usually offer a “prototype” plan for these companies.  Every plan I’ve seen has had expensive investment costs and is poorly designed in terms of employee costs.  As with insurance-based retirement plans, the injury caused by year after year of excessive fees and costs is a critical injury to your ability to retire with security.
My prescription: If you are an employer using a brokerage-based retirement plan (or insurance-based plan as noted above), you owe it to yourself and your employees to talk to an independent adviser and pension plan design company.  A custom plan design will almost always result in lower costs and better benefits.

The four types of financial trauma listed above are exceedingly common, almost the rule rather than the exception.   Each trauma is serious and can be avoided.  Physicians: Heal yourself by finding out your options.  A great place to start is with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors.