How Dentists Should – And Shouldn’t – Invest

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Sun, Apr 20, 2014

crashLast time we discussed the best ways to build a framework that allows you to invest in ways that will help you build wealth from your dental practice. But once you’ve done that, what should you actually do with the money that you invest?

The short answer is, “invest conservatively.” Chasing big returns can be a hard temptation to resist, though. There’s a direct correlation between increased risk and increased potential rate of return, and many dentists feel the pressure to make large sums quickly to try to build a floundering retirement plan. According to the ADA, the average dentist only saves about 10% of their income – around $21,000 – and at that rate, they won’t be able to hit their retirement goals. To try to make up for it, they get forced into investing aggressively to get the big returns, and many get bitten by risky investments that eventually turn south. Anyone remember 2008?

At Four Quadrants Advisory, we recommend a more conservative investment strategy that concentrates on savings first. You don’t need to chase that high rate of return when your practice finances are structured so that you can save $100,000 a year rather than $20,000. To get that kind of money from investing alone, you need a 500% rate of return.

Focus on what you can control – your savings, not stocks – and avoid extreme risk. In 2008’s financial crisis, those who were heavily invested in risky stocks lost between 30 and 40% of their value. Those who were more conservative in their investments lost much less.

Finally, as a dentist you really shouldn’t be investing your own money. You are trying to run a million-dollar dental practice, you’re seeing patients, you’re running a staff, you’re raising a family. You don’t have the time to give your accounts the attention they need to grow the way you need them to. Get a team of qualified advisors to help you, and your money will be in much better hands.

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Topics: dental advisor, Practice Transition, dental retirement, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning

Fee-only vs. Commission Investing: Which is Best?

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Fri, Apr 18, 2014

wallstreetIf you’re looking on advice for investing, and all you want is a few hot stock tips, you’ve come to the wrong place. What we will talk about is how to build a comprehensive investment plan that will build wealth in your dental practice and home accounts. There are two main things you need to keep in mind when building the framework of that plan.

The first is that you must do your best to invest in a fee-only environment, as opposed to one where your broker or manager is being paid on commission. The vast majority of people – up to 95% – use commissioned advisors. What’s the difference?

Look at the kinds of investments each type of advisor makes. A commissioned advisor will have you invest more in mutual funds that have commissions or “loads” attached to them. Do you have investments in mutual funds that end the description of the fund with “Class A”, “Class B”, or “Class C”? If so, you are in a commissioned investment. All make your advisor a commission in different places – class A will have a 3-5.75% charge at the front end, class B will have the same charge at the back end, and class C has a back end charge that’s a bit smaller. In other words, if you invest $100, only $95 will actually go into the market if it’s an A share. The rest goes to your advisor and the company they work for. And these fees pile up.

A fee-only advisor is much cheaper in the long run, and much of the time will also make you more money, since investment returns are eroded by these higher commissions. In a relationship like this the advisor is paid only on the value of your accounts rather than by the transaction, meaning that there’s a much closer correlation between the performance of your investments and the amount that you’re paying your advisor.

That’s all important because of the second thing to keep in mind when building an investment strategy – minimizing cost is crucial. There are a lot of hidden costs associated with investing, especially for a commissioned advisor. Administration fees, management fees, 12b-1 fees, the commissions themselves – again, they all add up. Together, they could eat up 5-6% of your return. You have to look at the net returns to see if your investments are really earning you what you need them to earn.

A difference in rate of return of only 3% can change your final values by up to 16% over ten years. In 20 years, the difference grows to 41%. By boosting your rate of return only slightly you can earn nearly twice as much over two decades. That’s a lot of money.

Any book on investing will tell you that a fee-only advisor is the way to go as soon as possible. But most fee-only advisors will only work with accounts that are already over $500,000 or more. That’s why you need to get your practice and personal finances in order generally, so you can take advantage of this and other useful wealth-building strategies.

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Topics: Practice Transition, dental retirement, dental tax, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning

INFOGRAPHIC: 4 Symptoms of a Sick Dental Practice

Posted by Jason Smith on Sun, Mar 30, 2014

You run a successful practice and you're making a good income - but you know things can be better. You've tried practice management and marketing with short-lived results. You're not willing to settle with the status quo, but you don't quite know where to look or what to do about them. You see the signs of problems under the surface, but you're out of ideas for how to deal with them.

Check out our new infographic, 4 Symptoms of a Sick Dental Practice, by clicking on the preview image below. It's designed to show you a few things that could be amiss in your practice's finances and help you determine whether the worries you have are minor - or the start to something serious.


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Topics: dental advisor, Practice Transition, dental retirement, dental tax, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning, business of dentistry, Tax Advisory

How Your Practice Can Survive a Few Slow Months

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Fri, Mar 28, 2014

tortoisePut simply, the secret to making it through slow times as a dentist is great planning. If you have a good idea of what’s coming, and you have a plan in place to deal with it, you’ll be able to get through short periods of low production with relatively low financial impact.

Your most potent weapon is thorough information on historical financial trends for your practice. Four years of data or more will get you the best results but use what you have. This will give you a good idea of when production drops tend to happen, and will help you determine why. For example, if your practice is located in a vacation area and you tend to have less production in the summer months, you can safely bet that’s going to be a trend. You’ll be able to plan for that drop occurring on a yearly basis.

There are a few ways you can use that information.

  1. Schedule vacations: If you know a specific month or season is your slow time, close the practice for a week. You and your staff can have a vacation, and then you can condense four weeks of work into three, and avoid spending on overhead when you don’t need to.
  2. Cut hours: You don’t need to schedule at full capacity if you know that you’re going to be light on work. Lighten the load of hours during slow periods – maybe only have one assistant work each day, for example – and then when production ramps up again, you can go back closer to capacity.
  3. Reactivation campaigns: Do you have patients who haven’t been in for a while, and have fallen through the cracks? Get in touch with them, and get them in for a cleaning and a checkup, or schedule them for the operative work they’ve been putting off or haven’t scheduled yet.
  4. Run promotions: Things like giveaways and discounted procedures can bring in patients who might otherwise have avoided a trip to the dentist.

More than anything else, you must have an adequate safety net in place. If you don’t, you’ll be tempted to cut your pay or adjust your cash flow to make up for slow times, and that’s not advisable. It’ll hurt your home finances and lead to stress. Instead you should have 1 to 1.5 times your typical practice monthly expenses in your accounts at all times. You should have access to a line of credit that can cover between ¾ and 1.5 times your monthly practice expenses as well.

You need to be proactive with your taxes and expenses as well. Use your practice’s trends to shape your tax payments and your purchases. You should be adjusting tax estimates on at least a quarterly basis. Not only will this account for the fluctuations that happen when a slow month does happen, but it protects you from a nasty tax surprise. And a five-figure tax bill will hurt a lot more if you’re fresh off a dip in production.

That goes for expenses as well. Boring cash flow is a lot better than “lumpy” cash flow – in other words, paying off a large expense all at once is not ideal. When lean times hit, you’re going to be a lot happier paying off four months of $10,000 checks rather than one for $40,000.

Proactive planning – in taxes, in expenses, in savings, and in reactions – goes a long way towards helping your practice get through a lean month or two without suffering too much.

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Topics: dental advisor, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning, business of dentistry

How Much Do You Need to Save for Your Retirement This Year?

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Fri, Mar 21, 2014

savingretirementCommon sense and logic tell us that the earlier you start saving for retirement, the better off you are. Interest compounds, so money saved at age 30 ends up worth more than what you save at 50. For example: a person who saves $20,000 a year for 25 years will, at the end, have $1.46 million saved. But to get that same amount in only 15 years, you’ll have to save $54,000 a year. In ten years, it’s $101,000 a year.

You probably don’t want to save $101,000 every year, so start now. But how much should you be saving?

That’s a loaded question, because the real answer is that it depends. Helpful, right? Beyond your age, there are several factors to consider. They include your retirement goals, how much you make, and how much (if anything) you’ve already saved.

At Four Quadrants, we plan for our clients to have the same income in retirement as they do while working, if not better (after adjusting for inflation). You’ve probably never been told this, but it is possible for a dentist to retire with between $8 million and $13 million in retirement savings. And we’ve had clients do even better.

Read the Guide: Financial Planning for Dentists

To determine what you’ll need in retirement, think about your current expenses. If you’re making around $400,000 a year, your personal expenses are likely to be around $20,000 a month right now. In five years, because of inflation, you’ll need $22,000 instead to meet that same value. In 15 years you’ll need $31,000 a month. In 25 years it’ll be $54,000 a month.

To plan for a thirty-year retirement (including inflation), that $400,000-a-year dentist must save about 27% of their gross income in order to hit their retirement goal. That amount doesn’t take into account any profit from selling the practice or any related real estate deals – but you can’t put all your eggs in that basket when it comes to the transition. Those sales won’t net you more than 60-75% of your revenue from the previous year and that’s not enough to maintain your lifestyle. Even if you take the above example and plan for a net $1 million to be invested around the retirement age, that only drops the savings percentage from 27% to 23%—hardly the game-changing difference that many dentists think it will be. One only should count on that inflow as supplementary income alongside years of savings.

For a younger dentist, somewhere from 20-30% of your gross income should be saved for retirement. If you’re older – say, within ten years or so of retirement – you should be saving closer to 30-40% of your gross. That way, your retirement won’t be filled with financial worry, and you’ll be able to continue in your current quality of life.

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Topics: dental advisor, dental retirement, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning

3 Things Every Dentist Needs to Keep Work Manageable

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Fri, Mar 7, 2014

clockA dentist is most productive and most profitable when they’re in the chair. But someone has to run the business side of the practice as well, and often that falls to the dentist. They’re out of their element, they’re not with patients, and they’re adding on more time spent at work – straining home and family life as well. But there’s a pretty simple solution – a team of three advisors to manage the various parts of the dental business.

A strong office manager

Your office manager is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the practice. That includes practice systems like collections, checkout, and patient communication – the manager ensures all parts of the process are running seamlessly, and improving them constantly. The manager also is in charge of human resources, dealing with internal staff issues like lateness, complaints about a specific employee from a patient, or in-fighting between staff members.

An excellent accountant

Your practice’s accounting needs to be in order, or else growth and success are impossible. There are two parts to an accountant’s duty:

  • The accountant needs to create and sustain a consistent income structure. The balance between income from the W-2 and income from distributions needs to be right. Take-home income has to be consistent and regular, to preserve a steady cash flow.
  • The accountant must be proactive when dealing with your tax responsibilities. The books should be looked at monthly. There should be regular contact between the dentist and accountant to review practice numbers and financial reports. Quarterly taxes should, based on all of that data, be handled actively rather than passively. If you’ve had a tax surprise in recent years, your accountant is not doing their job proactively.

An external CFO

Your practice’s chief financial officer has one primary duty – to monitor and manage your business and personal cash flow. Cash reserves can never drop too low, because that leaves your practice and home vulnerable to unexpected expenses. But you should never have too much cash, either – that’s money that isn’t working for you.

Debt plays a big role in healthy cash flow, and the CFO helps manage that as well. Existing debt is structured in such a way as to make the practice as strong as possible, and new debt is built into that structure so that it doesn’t weaken your financial foundations.

In terms of overall strategic planning, the CFO is an asset as well. When deciding whether to expand to another operatory, move locations, add or drop an insurance plan, hire or fire staff, give raises – the CFO helps pick the option and the timing that’s best for you. When these decisions are made hastily or without planning, they often go wrong, and if enough do, it can dramatically impact your finances.

The more these three work together, the better off your practice and home finances will be. The dentist will be spending more time in the chair, and less time worrying about finances. The practice’s resources will be allocated properly. And with reduced stress and more time available, the dentist will spend fewer evenings anxiously poring over QuickBooks and more with their family.

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Topics: dental advisor, dental tax, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning, Tax Advisory

Do You Have a Reactive Accountant?

Posted by Kathy Collins on Fri, Feb 28, 2014

accountingIt’s important to have a great – not just good – relationship with your accountant. They have a big role to play in running your practice, and helping you to build a financial foundation that will allow you to do the things you want to do in life. But if your accountant doesn’t work proactively for the health of your practice, that relationship is broken. Here are a few ways to tell if your accountant is more reactive than proactive – so you know whether you’re getting everything out of the relationship that you should be.

Tax surprises

Clearly, if you get to the end of the year and you have a bill from the government for $30,000, something has gone wrong in your accounting. But what?

More than likely what has happened is your accountant isn’t keeping regular tabs on your tax obligations. As the client, you have to be responsible for getting your monthly statements and other financial information to your accountant in a timely manner. If you don’t, they can’t help you. But if you do, and the tax surprise still pops up, then you have a problem.

Read the Guide: Financial Planning for Dentists

One way or the other, if your accountant is making decisions based on data from the previous year rather than your dental practice’s current and changing status, your tax bill is not going to be what you expect. Monthly bookkeeping and reporting is absolutely crucial, and if your relationship with your accountant is not a proactive one, you will get hurt.

Law changes

Anyone in the medical field knows that things are changing fast right now, with the introduction of new rules from the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare, if you prefer). But unless you’re an expert on law and finance in addition to dentistry, you probably have some confusion as to how your practice will be affected.

And if you don’t know how to deal with coming changes until they’ve already happened, you’re unlikely to be able to handle them properly. You need to know what’s coming as soon as possible, and how to position yourself to make the most of the new normal. If you can’t get out in front of changes in the law, you’re probably going to end up getting left behind.

Read our guide: Dental Accounting 101

Mass emails or newsletters

Another way this can manifest itself is through communications that aren’t tailored for you. For example, when the Affordable Care Act changes go into effect, your accountant might send an email to all of their clients with information on changes and how they affect dentists. But rather than telling you how your practice is affected, and how you should deal with it, all you get is a generic cookie-cutter response.

You need to know what you need to do, not what Bob the Generic Dentist needs to do. You need counsel that’s specifically geared toward the situation your practice is in, and the goals that you have for the future. Otherwise, you may get off track.

One way or the other, if you aren’t getting what you need out of your relationship with your accountant, you need to either work to sort the relationship out, or find a new accountant. Too much depends on that relationship to allow a dysfunctional one to fester.

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Topics: dental tax, dental accounting, Financial Planning, Tax Advisory

When Should I Pay Off My Debt?

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Fri, Feb 21, 2014

debtFor someone without a lot of financial expertise, it may seem obvious that if you’re in debt, you should pay it off as soon as possible. And that assumption can get your dental practice in a lot of trouble.

People hate being in debt, and dentists tend to hate it even more than the general population because they have so much of it. So when they have money available, they’ll tend to put it towards paying it down as quickly as they can. There’s a battle between emotion and logic a lot of the time – the emotional decision is to accelerate debt, while the logical decision is to hold off and invest the money.

Read the Guide: Financial Planning for Dentists

It’s a hard decision to make. Debt can be frightening, and the emotional side of it is powerful. Add in the fact that retirement savings is more abstract – retirement is a lot farther away, while debt is here now – and without guidance, the decision can be pretty hard to make.

One of the first things to think about is what kind of debt you have. There’s actually good and bad debt. Good debt is something like taking out a loan to buy a new piece of equipment for your practice, or your mortgage. An example of bad debt is a high-interest credit card. If you have a lot of bad debt, that should be eliminated – but good debt can be managed more gradually. In terms of taking on new debt this comes into play again: why are you putting yourself in debt? If it’s for something that will help your practice be more productive, that’s fine. But if you’re just living outside your means, well, stop doing that.

When deciding whether to invest or pay down debt, think about the opportunity cost. If you use money on something, you obviously can’t use it on something else – so think carefully about what you’re losing when you’re gaining something else. The simple answer is that you should strike a balance between debt and savings, but the current situation leans a little bit more in one direction than the other.

Interest rates today are the lowest they’ve ever been, and probably the lowest that they will ever be. Now is actually the best time in the history of money to be in debt. So why would you be in such a hurry to get out of it? Low rates mean that your practice debt compounds less than it would with higher rates, and the interest is tax deductible anyway.

On the other hand, if you fail to invest now in your retirement, you will miss out on returns for every day your money’s not in the market. An intelligent capital preservation strategy is critical as well – to focus on saving more and taking less risk with that money in the market. If you don’t invest in your future now, you’ll have a lot of catching up to do in the future.

You can’t make up for age. The idea of compounding of interest over time makes this very clear. There’s too much to be lost by failing to invest now, too much money to lose by failing to get returns for years while you concentrate on paying off debts that aren’t hurting you that much.

So what should you be doing? Pay off bad debt first. Then concentrate more on saving money and investing it in your retirement now, putting yourself on the prudent path. Once you’re on your way towards a healthy retirement, then you can start building a strategy to pay down your good debt as long as you are also making what you want from the practice. Make your decisions based on numbers and logic, not on emotion. Debt might not be fun, but it’s a lot more fun than realizing you can’t retire until you’re 80.

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Topics: dental advisor, dental retirement, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning

How To Be Sure You Avoid Tax Surprises

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Fri, Feb 7, 2014

screamIf you’re already tight on cash, the last thing you want is a large expense that comes out of nowhere. And when a dental practice isn’t prepared to handle its tax obligations properly, your tax bill could end up a lot heftier than you planned for. It may seem like an inevitability if you’ve been hit again and again with tax surprises, but it doesn’t have to be – with the right planning, your practice can be safe.

Fix your practice structure

If the foundation upon which your practice’s finances are built is shaky, there’s a far greater chance of tax disaster. The corporate and income structures of the practice need to be right. Establish an S-corporation, not a sole proprietorship. Maximize the amount of money you take in W2s, rather than distributions. Without taking these steps first, anything else you try to do will be a waste of time.

Put the proper systems in place

Once your foundation is sound, you can build processes on top of it to further enhance your protection against tax issues. First you need a system to forecast financial expectations for the practice. The forecast should be centered around historical trends including changes expected on a yearly basis from season to season, and anticipated changes from improvements in logistics and practice management. If your practice slows down every year when school starts, or if you expect to grow from more efficient scheduling, plan for that in your tax payments.

Your system for accounting must be proactive, not reactive. Reconciliations should be done monthly by your accountant, with the smallest number possible of uncertain or uncategorized transactions. Regular tax estimates should be provided, based on changes in things like the financial forecast and the practice’s overhead. And there has to be thought behind large expenditures, like new equipment and new hires. A purchase can be written off from that year’s taxes, but we’ve seen practices that forget they did that in one year and not compensate for it appropriately, then suffer a tax surprise of up to $60,000 unexpectedly.

Finally, your business management and accounting advice need to have cohesion. In a vacuum, neither side can make decisions that are right for your practice. They don’t have the whole picture. To build an intelligent strategy, you have to look at your finances from both sides. To make the right decisions about your taxes, your accountant needs information about your whole financial picture (both business & personal) as well as retirement savings strategies.

This synergy will help you make more prudent decisions regarding hiring, purchases, your handling of debt, changing fees – pretty much any decision that’s paralyzed you in the past. And putting these structures and systems in place will vastly reduce your chances of landing a $75,000 tax bill at the end of the year.

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Topics: dental tax, dental accounting, Tax Advisory

3 Corporate Structures Explained - and the One That's Right for Your Practice

Posted by Brogan Baxter on Fri, Jan 17, 2014

paycheckWhen forming a business, there are important decisions that have to be made, decisions that will end up impacting you for years to come. If you’re starting a new dental practice, one such decision is the corporate structure. Should you start an S-corporation? A sole proprietorship? The chances are good that you won’t know the answer. In fact, you probably won’t even know the options. There are three primary structures that most dental practices look at.

The C-corporation

To be blunt, do not start a C-corp, unless you’re reading this blog in 1986. Decades ago there were tax loopholes that made C-corps beneficial to dentists. Those loopholes are now closed, and the corporate structure that was so popular in the 1980s has now basically died out. There’s no benefit to a C-corp today.

The sole proprietorship

If you’re an accountant, you likely see the sole proprietorship as the simplest choice. Unlike some other options, there’s only one source of taxed income, which means only one tax return. That’s good news for an accountant.

But for a dentist, it’s bad news. Why is that? A sole proprietorship doesn’t allow for you to be paid in W-2 income. That’s the kind of paycheck you might give your employees, one where state and federal taxes are automatically withheld. Instead, all of your income comes from “distributions,” which are basically payments the business makes to the proprietor when deemed necessary. That can lead to problems.

Read the Guide: Financial Planning for Dentists

One is that if things aren’t going well, a dentist may not feel that he can afford to pay himself. That leads to dentists taking big chunks of money at irregular intervals, and possibly going months without getting paid. That’s really bad for home cash flow and causes a lot of stress around the house. Additionally, the fact that no taxes are withheld can hurt practice cash flow. Instead of paying a little every two weeks or so, a sole proprietor pays taxes all at once or on a quarterly basis. It’s extremely hard to plan for.

If there’s as little as a 3-4% change in income or overhead, the tax owed can change drastically. Quarterly payment figures change rapidly and erratically, and if you (and your accountant) are not on top of it tax costs can balloon, up to $80,000 more than you expected.

The S-corporation

In the long run, this is the better choice for the dentist. In an S-corp, you still have the ability to take some of your income in the form of distributions, and that money is taxed the same as in a sole proprietorship. But you also take a frequent paycheck like a regular employee, and taxes can be withheld from that normally. It also gives the ability to invest in a 401k, rather than being restricted to a Simple IRA.

All of this builds a base level of stability in your practice. Rather than 100% of your income fluctuating with changes in your practice, only a fraction of that volatility crosses over into your home. Rather than your whole tax bill being uncertain, only a fraction is paid on a quarterly basis, and the same amounts of fluctuation in income or overhead have less of an effect.

On the other hand, an S-corporation does have one negative that the sole proprietorship lacks. An S-corp must suspend any losses for tax consideration until profits are recorded. The tax floor for an S-corp is $0; a sole proprietor has none. That means that if you have $80k in income but a $10k loss on the practice, an S-corp would be taxed for the full $80k where the sole proprietorship would be taxed only for the net of $70k. That money comes back later, but when you’re first starting out, sometimes that’s not what you want.

But overall, Four Quadrants tends to advise our clients to form S-corporations. The benefits of stability in cash flow and home income outweigh any concerns about covering losses. And stability is a crucial part of the health of your finances, in the practice and at home.

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Topics: dental tax, dental financial planning, dental accounting, Financial Planning, Tax Advisory