Stefan Turkula is in his five-year residency for orthopedic surgery. At 32, his ability to Live Fully and Invest Wisely despite 80-hour work weeks and a daunting debt burden is impressive. My hope is that you can pull a few nuggets of inspiration from his interview. I know I did.
What drove you to medicine in general, and specifically to orthopedics?
Medicine was something that was always on my radar as a career. My grandfather was a family physician in a rural town in North Dakota, and I have an Aunt who is a plastic surgeon. So, I sort of had them to look up to for a while. That being said, I never thought of medicine as a career until I started thinking of ways to apply myself in things I was passionate about; using science, technology, and physical skill to care for and treat people in their time of greatest need. Medicine affords me that privilege and I’m thankful every day that I get to do my job (some days more than others, however).
Orthopedic surgery, as it would turn out, was essentially my destiny. For me it is the perfect symphony of medicine, science, and technology being used to make people more functional and feel better than before they met me. Which is sort of a mantra of mine, I want to leave every patient feeling at least a little better than they did when they first met me.
Typically, if someone is seeing me in the emergency room they’re having one of the worst days of their life. Being able to take someone from that point, to being able to enjoy life in a meaningful way for him or her is a pretty cool feeling.
Additionally, having been an orthopedic patient many times myself, I find myself easily identifying with many people musculoskeletal problems and appreciating their desire to get back to functioning at a high level again. I love being able to help them achieve their goals.
Now, it’s no secret that becoming a doctor isn’t cheap. How are you dealing with the debt burden of medical school?
Ah, the debt burden. It’s substantial. I funded 100% of my medical school and graduate program with student loans, and I graduated with about $400,000 of debt (which includes my $20k from undergrad). Now, what is my plan to pay it off? Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). The amount of debt I have and my salary as a resident ($52,000 this year) are so mismatched that repaying anything substantial while I’m still in training is essentially impossible.
Luckily there are some very reasonable programs. The Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Pay as You Earn (PYE) options are the only reasonable choices for me, but in the long run I’m relying on the PSLF program. PSLF is a godsend for those in medicine with a lot of debt. With the criteria being that you must work for a non-profit (99% of teaching hospitals are non-profits) and make the minimum IBR or PYE payments for 10 years, it’s a no-brainer to start that as soon as possible.
When I’m finished with residency and fellowship, 6 years, I will have 4 years of payments left if I continue to work at a non-profit hospital until the remainder of my loans will be forgiven. Now with the crushing interest rates given to student loans (I think my average over all loans is like 7%), my total amount forgiven, which accounts for future interest and minimum payments for 20 years, will be close to $900,000. That’s just an insane number that’s hard to comprehend now, much less when I was student taking out those loans. So, I’m pretty much reliant on the PSLF program.
What is the best piece of financial advice you ever received?
“Save money for what you hate, spend money on what you love.” I have no idea where I heard/read that, I guess I could just take credit for making it up, but it’s been a good mindset for my money management. I take it to mean that make sure you’ve covered everything that is a burden (rent, car payment, utilities, etc) so they’re no longer burdens and just out of your mind. Whatever you have left over, do with as you please.
I don’t go crazy, and tend save a small amount each month, but there are things that are important for me, like travel, and I’m more than happy to spend a lot of my income on that rather than squirrel it all away. Let’s be honest, I’m a 32 year-old single guy and I work 80+ hours a week. I don’t have much time to spend money, and I don’t make a large enough salary to realistically save much for my retirement or future at the moment.
So, my current philosophy is that I’m going to invest in my happiness rather than an investment portfolio. That will change quite a bit once I finish training and start making a real orthopaedic surgeon salary in a few years, but in the meantime I’m happy just being happy.
At Merriman, we focus on helping our clients live fully. It sounds like you do this part well!
I skied competitively in freestyle skiing from the age of 10 on, and eventually won the Junior Olympics when I was 17. Skiing gave me an incredible amount of freedom and appreciation for travel and seeing new places. I got to see and do a great number of things that I wouldn’t have been able to without skiing. Just because I was a good skier I was able to be exposed to the outdoors and love being there. As a teenager you barely realize these things, but all those experiences are what have shaped me to be an adventure seeking, outdoors loving person.
Like I said before, at the moment, I invest in my happiness. My schedule is such that when I take vacation, it has to be for an entire week at a time. We get 4 weeks a year in my program and that usually means 1 week every 3-4 months. No random 3-day weekends or anything like that. So, I’ve committed myself to making the most each vacation. Each week is an opportunity for a new adventure, and so far it’s worked out for me.
I have the privilege of having lived all over the country and can find a place to crash in almost any city if need be. That being said, I did take a solo trip to Canada last winter that was astounding affordable. I flew into Calgary on a cheap ticket, rented the cheapest car I could find, and spent a week sleeping in youth hostels with crazy 20 year old Australian and German students on holiday while skiing and exploring the Canadian Rockies, making some pretty interesting friends along the way. The strength of the US dollar vs the Canadian made the trip so much cheaper than I had expected. So by sacrificing any semblance of luxury, I was able to have a pretty amazing adventure on the cheap.
I’m always on the lookout for what might be a good, inexpensive trip. Such as camping in Zion national park for 4 days, which was another vacation I took last year. I took a super cheap flight to Las Vegas, got a car for $20/day and went backcountry camping in Zion, which is pretty much free, and you get see some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. Those sorts of trips are what I’m always on the lookout for. Fairly simple to plan, and the major expense is the plane ticket.
Clearly, Stefan is doing things right. His ability to live a full and meaningful life in the face of limited time and economic resources is inspiring. If you are resident or young physician reading this, my hope is that it inspires you to work within your means financially, enjoy life and make wise decisions about your debt management.
Stefan Turkula is not a current or former client of Merriman, nor is he an employee of the firm. Stefan authorized Merriman to share his personal story in the interview and subsequent blog post for illustrative purposes only. Merriman did not pay Stefan to participate in the interview.