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The typical dentist earns more than three times the average American—so why do they retire later? Read dentists' stories and advice for not delaying retirement.

Why dentists retire later: Real stories behind the numbers

Sept. 12, 2023
The typical dentist earns more than three times the average American—so why do dentists retire later? Certified financial planner Tess Zigo shares their stories, and their advice for not delaying retirement.

It's fascinating to me that the younger generation of dentists, those 30 to 40 years old (and younger), is dead set on having their money create time, freedom, and the option to retire earlier than the average American. Yet the statistics still paint a different picture of the current reality—the average dentist works until they are almost 68, compared with the average American who retires at age 62.

I posed the question to a group of dentists to hear the real stories behind the statistics of why dentists retire later. Here are their stories.

A series of difficulties

At age 65, Ken gave up his disability insurance only to break and crush his finger in a door frame. He was unable to work and had to sell his dental practice to cash out and sustain his lifestyle. Because he didn’t have enough money saved and invested, he was forced to continue working for the buyer. At the same time, he was going through a divorce, which wreaked further havoc on his finances.

Ken offers this advice to his younger peers: “Be careful who you marry and start saving and investing early on. Don’t count on the sale of your practice for your retirement; it might not sell for the price you had hoped and needed in order to sustain your retirement.”

Also by Tess Zigo: Student loan payments resume. Now what?

A family legacy

Kelly is a third-generation dentist (not uncommon) who has spent nearly every day of her life in a dental office from as far back as she can remember. Her family legacy and dentist identity run very deep. It’s been a struggle for her to figure out who she is outside of dentistry.

Kelly mentioned that owning her practice was an all-consuming endeavor. She didn’t have enough time to develop hobbies and participate in activities outside of the office. Between having a family and running a practice, dentists often feel there isn’t enough time in the day for anything else.

Such dental identity runs deep with many of the dentists I spoke with. Many asked “If you’re not a dentist, who are you?”

Kelly’s advice: try to find time for yourself and to feed your passions outside of dentistry. Coaching around identity can help, too. While many of us love dentistry, it can be difficult to retire to the unknown, so it helps to have other hobbies to look forward to.”

Maintaining the lifestyle

Julie mentioned that her father, also a dentist, was addicted to the cash flow from the practice and the luxury lifestyle it afforded him. He loved collecting cars and boats and couldn’t walk away from it. Downsizing his toy collection and lifestyle wasn’t a tradeoff he was willing to make. He also enjoys the active intellectual stimulation, and it’s understandable after investing decades into your education and skills to master your craft.

Cash is king! Many dentists get used to the luxury lifestyle their education and skill-set affords them, and even if they have a lot of money saved and invested, the psychological block of “enough” is all too real. Many of the clients I work with feel that their savings aren’t adequate even though we crunch the numbers and realize that based on their spending habits, they could retire comfortably.

Hard work is second nature

Catherine Johnson Mincy, DDS, shared a heartfelt story. Her dad was born on a farm in a severely economically depressed part of Mississippi. He worked the cotton fields to help pay for dental school and opened his dental practice in 1963. He only retired in 2015 at the age of 78 after his vision began to fail him.

Unfortunately, within two years after retiring he had a stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to speak clearly. In conversations with his daughter, he said he wished he had retired sooner, traveled more, and most of all spent more time with his family. In his case, he had enough money to retire much sooner but chose to work because hard work was what he knew based on his life circumstances. He was born in difficult times and survival required hard work.

As Dr. Mincy reflects on her father's life and legacy, she shares this important lesson: “I am managing my finances so I can be in a position to retire by 60. I may want to continue managing my practice with associate dentists OR I may want to practice in a limited capacity. But I intend to make that choice not have it dictated by finances.” And that, in a nutshell, is why planning is key.

Hearing her story specifically was personally gut-wrenching. It reminds me of my own grandfather, an architect by trade, who was also born in economically challenging times in Bulgaria in the 1930s, who worked until the very end of his life. His last letter to us grandkids said, “I’m at the end of the road and I realize now that the only thing that matters is family.”

As I reflect on all the stories from the dentists who reached out, I realize that everyone’s reason and story is unique but one aspect holds true: Managing your finances and planning ahead early is key. As many of the families I work with tell me, more money gives them more options: to take time away from the practice and reflect on what’s important, to travel, to help those in need, to spend time with family, or to buy the luxury toys. You have the privilege to do it all if you wish! But at least that way, you’ll have the option to retire sooner if you decide and not be forced to work because you have to.

About the Author

Tess Zigo, MAS, BS, CFP®, CPA

Tess Zigo, MAS, BS, CFP®, CPA, is a financial advisor. Her older sister graduated from dental school with six figures of student loans, and Tess was determined to help her pay off the loans, make the most of her new income, and catch up on her investing. This inspired her to work with dentists as a financial advisor. Learn more at truwealthy.com.