By Sophia Bennett
By the time retirement comes around, every dentist wants to have enough money saved to make their dreams come true. What do you need to do between now and then to achieve that goal?
Jeff Griswold, CPWA, AIF, president of Merit Wealth Management in Bend, Oregon, says it begins and ends by developing a plan. “Without a plan you don’t know where you’re going,” he says. “Dentists early on—even while they’re in dental school—need to start formalizing and planning for their career path.”
That being said, it’s never too late to start crafting a plan for the future. Griswold uses a four-step process to help dentists build and protect wealth.
At his first meeting with clients, Griswold sits down with the dentist and their spouse and asks them to discuss their goals and values. “We insist that both people are present in that meeting,” he says. “Financial planning is so personal. People care much more about their lives than their finances, and getting both perspectives on what those lives should look like is really important.”
He runs through a long list of questions to elicit this information. What kind of practice does the dentist want to have? How long do they want to work? What do they envision retirement looking like? What kind of lifestyle do they want now and after they finish working? What keeps them up at night?
Once he’s extracted as many details as possible, Griswold uses software to create a visual depiction of what that family is working toward. This document guides all future discussions about wealth planning.
Student loans, investing in buying or starting a practice, home and car loans, and credit card debt can add up quickly. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of all these obligations.
“We do a debt analysis early on as part of cash flow planning,” says Griswold. “Then we put together a schedule on how to get them out of debt.”
That schedule varies depending on the client’s level of comfort with debt. Some people like to pay it off as quickly as possible so it isn’t hanging over their head. Others prefer to keep more cash on hand.
Griswold often recommends that clients pay off the smallest loan first so they feel like they’re making progress on eliminating debt. Another possibility is to make a list of all debts and their corresponding interest rates, and pay off those with the highest rates first.
No matter what the strategy, Griswold asks his clients to sign a debt policy statement. That keeps them accountable to their agreed-upon plan.
Make sure you’re protected
Making sure that personal and professional assets are protected is a multi-step process. Talk to an attorney to make sure the practice is incorporated correctly. Check that all financial accounts are appropriately titled so that those owned by the business and individual are clearly distinguishable. Get appropriate insurance, including a disability policy. “If you’re unable to use your hands for whatever reason, how are you going to support your practice and family?” Griswold asks.
Stick to the plan
Griswold works with clients continually to make sure they’re on track toward meeting their goals. “Some of my clients really enjoy dentistry, they just want to do it less,” he says. “Some want to do it but with a different type of patient base.” Others are delighted by the prospect of spending their days fishing, gardening or entertaining grandchildren.
One of Griswold’s goals is to help clients build a good team so they’re thinking about the other components of wealth management, including tax planning, estate planning and succession. In some ways that’s his fifth step in the wealth planning process. The sixth comes when each client meets their financial goals and moves on to the next exciting phase of life.