Money Antiheroes

We often celebrate the money heroes in our lives –  The single mom who worked two jobs to send her kids to college.  The grandfather who came to this country with 20 bucks in his pocket and turned it into a business empire.  The older sibling who pulled us aside and gave us that tough-love money advice just when we needed it most.

This post isn’t about them.  Today we’re going to talk about money antiheroes.  These financial train wrecks have set such great examples of what NOT to do with money that they leave a lasting impact on your life.  Their financial lives are in shambles.  Their debts are crippling.  Their earning prospects are grim.  We couldn’t be more grateful for them.

Some people’s purpose is to serve as a warning to the rest of us.

Let’s take a look at a few of the money antiheroes who help shape our lives.

Student Loan Super-Borrowers

Doctors get a bad rap for taking out exorbitant loans, but at least we have the income to justify it. The AAMC estimates that the average medical student graduates with $183,000 in debt. That sounds like a lot until you factor in the fact that the average PCP makes $223,000/year and the average specialist makes $329,000/year.

Many of you know money antiheroes who have taken out 6 figure loans only to work jobs that pay $30,000/year. Ivy League degree in social work? Art history major making $10/hour at Starbucks? These friends and family may be great at their jobs, but their jobs aren’t great for paying off their debts. Learn from their mistakes.

person holding a chalk in front of the chalk board
Clearly your degree wasn’t in math.

House Poor High-Earners

The only thing sadder than an average earner living paycheck to paycheck is a high earner living paycheck to paycheck.

When I was an intern I went to a journal club at an attending’s house. I pulled up to a gorgeous 6 bedroom house with a meticulously manicured lawn and a fountain in the yard. I admired the BMW in the driveway before showing myself in.

The inside of this mansion looked like a frat house. His only furniture was folding chairs, a futon and a TV resting on a makeshift entertainment center made of cinder blocks. I asked him about it during a night shift the following week. It turns out he took out a zero down payment doctor mortgage when he graduated residency.  Between mortgage payments, student loan payments and car payments he was picking up extra shifts just to  keep the lights on.

architecture building castle daylight
I haven’t paid off my student loans yet, but I’m worth it.

When I was a new attending I worked with an emergency doc in his early 60s who wanted to retire but couldn’t. A few years earlier during the housing boom he decided to invest 2 million dollars (a significant portion of his nest egg) in a beach house. He figured it would be a quick way to turn his 2 mil into 4 mil. Unfortunately the market crashed and he turned his 2 mil into 1 mil. He spent the next 3 years working full-time just hoping that someone somewhere would buy this albatross from him and set him free. The day it finally sold is the day he gave his 90 day notice.

These stories both left lasting impressions on me. I may have bought a big dumb house, but my entire mortgage is only about 13 month’s salary and I waited until I could put 20% down. I would NEVER risk my nest egg on a real estate gamble in the last years of my career. I’m grateful for both of these antiheroes.

Serial Divorcers

Pat Benatar said it best – Love is a battlefield. What she failed to mention is that if love is a battlefield, divorce is an IED directly to the wallet.

Some people are just gluttons for punishment. I understand falling in love and wanting to make a commitment to someone, but if you are currently paying alimony and child support to multiple people maybe marriage isn’t for you. At least sign a prenup and invest heavily in birth control.

relationship failure problem sad
Apparently the third time isn’t the charm.

I know a cardiologist on his third marriage. He’s in his late 50s and just celebrated the birth of his 8th child. Between alimony, child support and college savings he’s going to be reading echocardiograms for a looooooong time.

Angel (of Death) Investors

As a general rule of thumb I try to never invest in something I don’t understand. I see a fair number of doctors getting talked into bankrolling all sorts of investments they have no business being involved with. It turns out that when you make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, someone will eventually pitch you a business idea that most banks would turn down.

close up of human hand
Never met a bad deal he didn’t like.

There are a group of doctors at my hospital opening an Indian restaurant. Guess how many of them are Indian. Now guess how many of them have ever ran a restaurant. If your guess was “zero” to both questions you are correct.

I selfishly hope they have wild success because one of the few things I miss about living in a city is access to good Indian food. I’m not going to get my hopes up just yet. If they lose their shirts on this deal I’ll cheer them up with some samosas.

I also know a doctor who got talked into investing in an alpaca farm. When he told me about it I wasn’t sure if I should congratulate him or apologize. Clearly, this guy got fleeced.

Senior Citizen Side Hustlers

Perhaps the most haunting money antihero I ever met was a nephrologist in his 70’s who was working his Monday-Friday job across town and was moonlighting as a hospitalist on the weekends at my hospital. I’m all for living life on your own terms. If you enjoy work and want to keep practicing in your 70’s, go for it. But this guy was clearly not working a second job on his days off because he had a burning passion. He had the worse case of acute 401(k) failure any of us had ever seen.

man in black and white hoodie
Maybe working doesn’t keep you young.

My only hope is that guy had at least one week off between working in the hospital and being a patient in one.

Don’t Be an Antihero

Money antiheroes play an important role in our lives.  Let the crumbling wreckage of their poor decisions be a shining beacon that prevents you from sinking your ship on the shoals.

It’s OK to learn from other people’s mistakes.  It’s even OK to thank them for pointing you in the right direction.  Just make sure you don’t follow in their footsteps.

What do you think?  Who are the most influential money antiheroes in your life?  Have you ever thanked someone for steering you clear of danger?  Share your thoughts and comments below.


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5 thoughts on “Money Antiheroes

  1. Like this post SHS a lot. Sometimes you need an anti-hero to give you a clearer picture of where you don’t want to be.

    I got you beat with an old physician practicing. I had a colleague who was a urologist join our practice when he was in his late 70’s and retired only when he was 82!

    I never did delve into whether he did it for love of work or was it a necessity. But if it was the latter it would not shock me and I can’t imagine the lifestyle that would force him to do that as urologist are definitely considered high earners.

    I am not a serial divorcee but my one and only divorce (knock on wood) certainly crushed my net worth to count for several normal divorces by other people.


    1. At 82 I would hope that he was doing it for the love of it. At that age he had been collecting Social Security for the last 17 years of his career. I guess one way to beat RMDs is just keep working until it kills you.


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