Financial Planning for Doctors

The other day I gave a talk to my residents on Investing 101.  Before I could talk about investing, we had to discuss some personal finance basics, including budgeting and preventing large lifestyle inflation after finishing training. One of the most important questions that we covered was answering the question, “how much should I be saving“?

Today’s post is bent towards answering this question. However, the slant on my site isn’t towards just numbers.  I want to specifically focus on how much of your income you should be using to build wealth when you are feeling stressed out by your personal finances.

In that situation, what’s the cause?  And how much should you be saving?

The Big Picture

Let’s keep this simple.  Money can dramatically impact most relationships.

The first time I witnessed this was when a couple – two of my best friend’s parents – had starkly different views on finances. The husband could not have been more frugal, and the wife enjoyed spending the money that they made without a second thought.

They were doing well financially by most standards, but they still experienced an enormous amount of financial stress because they had different views on expectations and reality as it related to finances.

We all know the feeling – when finances put a strain on our relationships with those that we love.  The question is whether this feeling of stress is caused by overspending or by being so frugal that we aren’t just trimming the fat, but have now sunk the knife deep to the marrow.

The 30% Rule can help us figure out what’s causing our issue.

WAR and the 30% Rule

I don’t talk about war much on this blog, but today it’ll be necessary as I introduce you to a different kind of WAR – your Wealth Accumulation Rate (WAR).

In simple terms, your WAR is the % of your gross income spent towards building wealth.

The amount of money you are putting towards building wealth involves both the amount of money you are using to aggressively accumulate assets (savings rate towards investments) and destroying debt.

To calculate your WAR: Add your percentage savings rate (hopefully at least 20%) and the amount of money you are putting towards debt (hopefully at least 10%).

Wealth Accumulation Rate (WAR) =
% Gross Income paying down debt** + % Gross Income savings rate

For example, if you were saving 20% of your gross income towards retirement and 20% of your income was going towards paying off student loans, this would result in a 40% WAR.

A Case Study 

For example, for someone making $250,000 gross per year, a 30% WAR would amount to $75,000 each year going towards paying off debt or investing.  For the physician on the traditional path, this kind of WAR will typically result in financial independence before the age of 60.

Here is an example of what that might look like for a married couple:

  • Maxing out your 403B/401K at 19,000 (any matching money goes towards your WAR, but it also increases your gross salary!)
  • $19,000 into your spouses 401K
  • A backdoor Roth annual contribution of $6,000 (per spouse, if married) = $12,000
  • Paying $25,000 in student loan debt each year

Of course, the higher the student loan debt burden that exists, the more likely it is that a person will need to shift their WAR percentage towards paying off debt.

Hopefully, this person is also applying The 10% Rule towards their bonuses and promotions to help increase their WAR, which will allow them get to their goals even faster!

**Edit: Debt being paid off when calculating your WAR should be “Good debt” such as a mortgage or student loan debt.  It has been pointed out that it should probably not include your consumer debt like that Tesla you are financing.  Increasing your WAR in this way prevents wealth accumulation. 

How Much Should I Be Saving?  The 30% Rule

Obviously, the higher your WAR the better – as long as your life is tolerating it.  A high WAR is how people achieve FIRE.

However, aggressively building wealth to the extent that it negatively impacts your wellness may not be worth it. A WAR that is too high can negatively impact your life and relationships.  On the other hand, if your WAR isn’t high enough, your wellness will also be impacted as you limit your future choices and fail to obtain financial independence.

How much you should be saving can be directly answered after you calculate your WAR.  And, if the thought of saving stresses you out, then you need to figure out if you have a spending problem or a frugality problem.

After you determine whether your WAR is above or below 30%, you put yourself into one of two camps.

Less than the 30% Wealth Accumulation Rate

You are putting less than 30% of your gross income waging WAR and yet you are still feeling financial stress.

This means you likely need to build something I like to call financial resilience.

Life can be full of tough decisions, but if you are suffering from financial stress (not related to other happenings in your life) and you are at a less than 30% WAR, as a physician, you likely need to find your frugal gene and express it.

Speaking of genes, are your other jeans all designer brands? Are you paying two brand new car payments? Did you buy the big house (or are you contemplating it)? Do you live in a high cost of living area?

Maybe, its time to make lifestyle changes if you are feeling financial stress with a WAR of less than 30%.

More than the 30% Wealth Accumulation Rate

If, however, you are feeling the tight constraints of your budget and you are saving over 30% of your Gross Income, you may need to question the extent of your frugality. Is it cutting too deeply?

For example, my friends parents mentioned in the introduction:

Their WAR was likely much >30%, but this was clearly negatively impacting their marriage. It simply isn’t worth it to pinch pennies with a high-income if it negatively impacts your marriage. Becoming Financially Independent and Retiring Early (FIRE) is important, but it should not be an all consuming goal that prevents you from living a life well lived.

Who cares how big your bank account is if you aren’t enjoy life?

Take Home

Calculating your WAR and using The 30% Rule should serve as a guideline for discussion and thought. You can either adjust your spending or adjust your WAR to improve your wealth and live the intentional life of your dreams.

I think a 30% WAR is a pretty reasonable goal, but I need to show some grace and recognize that not everyone’s situation is the same.

Regardless, this is one of tools I use to consider how I am doing in my mission to obtain both wealth and wellness.

Am I investing enough? I don’t know…
What is your WAR? Does it impact your lifestyle negatively? Are you feeling financial stress with a WAR more than or less than 30%? What do you think?


32 thoughts on “How Much Should I Be Saving? The 30% Rule”

    • Thanks! I thought it was useful because I find in my conversations both in forums and in real life, people swing to both sides on the pendulum. I thought of this tool as a guide to a happy medium or at least a starting point for thoughtful discussion on the topic! Appreciate the comment!

  1. Interesting post TPP. I think folks might make their WAR % artificially inflated if they add paying down all debts to this. Perhaps it’s save, invest and paying down ‘good’ debt? Or debt that appreciates? Wouldn’t like them patting themselves on the back for buying that Tesla with 2.9% financing because $1200/mo going to paying down debt. Do I include extra mortgage payments in WAR? Or just payments to principal? IN worried I’m fudging my WAR%!

    • You know that is a really fair point!

      I suppose I should have specified “good debt” such as mortgage debt and student loan debt. Consumer debt certainly wasn’t the aim of calculating your WAR! Like all things, I guess it needs to be seen in the right light. I might go back and add a specification that it needs to be “good debt.”

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. The number 1 problem for retirees (really, all Americans) is that they haven’t saved enough, which is a tough problem to solve when you’re nearing retirement. WAR is a great way to think about it when you’re young and including debt service can be extremely motivating for those who have large student loan debts. I really like the idea of financial resilience. 🙂

  3. In general, I think it can serve most Americans to be more frugal. At least more mindful of their spending. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that more spending doesn’t necessarily lead to increased happiness. The best balance is to spend according to your values. That way you can freely spend on things that truly matter, and be frugal on things that don’t.

  4. I love your WAR acronym. It’s so clumsy to talk about savings rate plus paying down mortgage, etc… rate. WAR just rolls off the tongue.

    I’ll need to calculate my WAR, it’s probably close to 30%. My savings rate is just over 20% and I’m thinking that I’ve put at least another 10% towards extra mortgage payments.

    I like your 10% rule as well. I call the “best financial hack your not using.” For me, any “extra” money that comes along gets allocated three ways. First 1/3 for extra mortgage payments. Second 1/3 for college savings. Third 1/3 for spending. Same idea and it works very well.

    Nice article!

  5. Great post with discussion on WAR. I’d not heard the term before but understood the concept immediately.

    My wife and I are attempting to accumulate wealth while we’re young and our expenses are low. She’s in her final year of residency and will begin practicing this coming summer. We’d like to buy our first place together in the next two to theee years and understand that requires a healthy savings/WAR rate.

    In the meantime, we’re managing to max out our retirement accounts and allowing compounding interest to do the heavy lifting for our retirement needs.

    • The decision to buy a house is a really big deal. It’s the biggest decision that impacts most physicians’ financial situation the most. Using the first two to three years to get things in order before that decision is almost always a great idea. I don’t know anyone who regretted waiting to buy a house later, but do know a bunch who wish they had waited til farther out from training.

      Keep your WAR up, fill up the retirement accounts, and pay down your debt. You’ll thank yourself later.

  6. That is about right. I like your term WAR. 30%. I was doing 40% for many years, but I never made close to 250K. Probably would have had I not had to go on disability. Great post.

    • That’s awesome, Mark.

      If I did the math, I think our WAR for the first 15 months after finishing training was around the same (40%). We lived on about 20%, paid 30% in taxes, and tithed about 10%.

      It’s helped us accumulate our net worth rather quickly.

  7. I would say I’m just a shade under 30%, with a goal of being slightly higher. I think 30% is a great target.

    The Physician on Fire challenge of living on half of our take home pay isn’t possible because half our take home pay currently goes to daycare and mortgage payments.

  8. I love the WAR concept! We are putting extra money to work (after maxing all the typical withholdings) by splitting it between taxable accounts and paying off our mortgage more quickly. This is the balance we chose between the age old debate of pay down mortgage or invest. However, it was always felt slightly off to include the extra principal paydown in savings rate. WAR takes that ambiguity away. Now, I can confidently say our WAR is approaching 50% without feeling like I’m being a bit inaccurate!

  9. Why lump them together? It has been shown that 20% towards retirement is a good level for a physician starting in their 30s. That should hold true no matter what their income or debt is. However a newly minted physician with 1MM in debt vs one with no debt there is a huge difference in how much they need to put towards their loans. If you are that deep in debt and you only put 10% you might be servicing that debt your whole career depending on your salary. I like the idea of paying it off on a time table better. Mortgage is no longer then 15 years. Student loans gone by 5 years. This way you have to make a budget and stick to it.
    Anyways just my opinion.
    Welcome to the WCI network!

    • I love opinions!

      I’m actually a fan of timelines for paying off big ticket items, too.

      That doesn’t answer the question of how much of your income should be going towards wise financial decisions.

      I’d argue that it might be flipped, though. Maybe the new grad puts 20% towards debt and 10% towards retirement. Or, if they are really upside down, they may just contribute to matching in their 401k (say 5% of their salary) and put 25% towards the loans.

      When my wife and I finished, our WAR was around 50% until our loans were gone. And the vast majority ($10,000) was going towards loans.

      Thanks for the comment!

  10. Silly question, but when you calculate your WAR %, I assume the debt payment amount you calculate is on top of your regular monthly payment for mortgage, student loans, etc..

    • Hey Mark, ideally this would be money spent towards good debt. So, I certainly think money towards paying off student loans should count. When you first start out, you might realize to get to your goals it requires a WAR of 40% and 30% of it is going towards student loans.

      Mortgages are tougher. They can artificially raise your WAR even if it isn’t good for you.

      Things that should not count towards your WAR include bad debt like car loans, credit cards, etc.

  11. If I participate in profit sharing which is going towards maxing the 401k.. does this money get included in my gross?

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