Are Doctors or Professional Athletes Better Off Financially?

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I’ve always loved playing and watching sports of all kinds. So, it may make sense that I’m also interested in the financial lives of professional athletes. And the more I learned, the more I realized how similar they are to the financial lives of physicians. But we’ll get to that later.

How many times have you heard a high-income earner like a doctor marvel at the contract of a professional athlete? “Oh man, if I signed a contract for $10 million, I’d be set. I should’ve become a baseball player” or “Look at that guy (or girl) making $1 million to sit on the bench.”

I used to say the same things. Now I don’t.

Why I’d Rather Be a Doctor Than an Athlete (in Terms of Money)

Let’s get one thing straight: I was never really in danger of having to make this decision. I was pretty good at baseball, but I made the decision in college to stop playing and instead become a chemistry major and focus on academics. This led me to become a doctor.

But after most of my athletic skills passed me by, the idea of becoming a professional athlete remained a dream. Play a game for a living? Make stacks of money? Yes, please!

Maybe you thought or still think something similar? My advice is to pump the breaks! Be glad that you are a doctor and not a professional athlete. Let’s financially compare the average doctor to the average professional athlete.

The average physician

The average doctor in 2020 made about $250,000 (although sources vary). Let’s say, for example, the average length of a doctor’s career is 30 years and their salary remains the same (for ease of calculation). That equates to lifetime earnings of $7.5 million. Let’s even say that this example of an “average doc” pays $150,000 of interest on their average loans of $200,000 by paying them off slowly over 30 years instead of aggressively over 5 years. That’s still an excess of $7M in lifetime earnings.

The average professional athlete

The average professional athlete made $51,729 in 2021. The average career length of a professional athlete is 10 years. And that is generous, since it includes sports like golf. It’s much lower if you just count the big ones such as basketball or football. That’s a career earnings, on average, of $519,290.

(As I write this, I can’t help but think about the major disparities in gender compensation in both medicine and athletics. This is an important and all-together different conversation and argument. For the sake of this post, the “average” doctor and athlete includes both males and females being compensated equally, even though I sadly recognize this is not the current reality.)

The average doctor wins big time.

Still jealous? OK, fine, I know what you’re thinking: “But what about the financial lives of big-time athletes?”

Let’s talk about it. It’s tough to argue that even the highest paid doctor will compete financially with LeBron James or Pat Mahomes.

And honestly, I’m not sure that we as physicians should compete financially. People are compensated based on how many other people can do what you do. And the truth is that there are many more people who can perform a triple bypass than can throw 100 miles per hour.

So, let’s take this question a step further and compare my earnings to an “above average” professional athlete.

I’m not naive. As it comes to physicians, I am certainly an above average earner as a plastic surgeon. I signed a 3-year contract for about $1.5 million. Again, my career length can be listed at 30 years.

Let’s compare my yearly earnings to the average “big 4” athlete:

  • MLB: $4 million/year × 5.6 years = $22.4M career earnings
  • NFL: $3.26M/year × 3.5 years = $11.41M career earnings
  • NBA: $8.32M/year × 4.8 years = $39.9M career earnings
  • NHL: $2.69M/year × 5.5 year = $14.8M career earnings

Average composite big 4 athlete: $4.57M/year × 4.85 years = $22.1M career earnings

Me (average above-average physician earner): $0.5M/year × 30 years = $15M career earnings

The calculation assumes I will never get a pay raise. It also doesn’t account for the $650,000 I will pay in principal and interest in student loans. But that amount is really a dent when looking at my overall career earnings.

All in all, the total career earnings are fairly similar. Would I like $7M more, sure. But that surely wouldn’t make or break how I live or my happiness.

Are you surprised at how similar the “above average” earnings comparisons between doctors and professional athletes are?

I know I was. But what really unifies the financial lives of doctors and professional athletes? Money mismanagement.

This is the unifying force in the financial lives of both professional athletes and physicians. Many in both professions spend unwisely and fail to invest for the future. Why is this?

Professional athletes:

  • Start making huge amounts of money when they are very young and inexperienced with personal finance
  • Lack financial education
  • Have many people in their lives who have sacrificed for their success that they feel the need to care for financially
  • Are influenced by an image of what a professional athlete should “look like”; they spend to meet this image
  • Overestimate the length of their career and therefore their lifetime earnings
  • Are susceptible to career-ending injuries

Doctors:

  • Accrue huge debt when they are very young and inexperienced with personal finance
  • Lack financial education
  • Have many people in their lives who have sacrificed much for their success that they feel the need to care for financially
  • Are influenced by an image of what a doctor should “look like”; they spend to meet this image
  • Are susceptible to career-threatening burnout/moral injury that can abruptly limit their earnings

Not so different at all!

It’s fair to ask what the ultimate point of this post is. My point is that we, as doctors, can be thankful that many of us are compensated on a level similar to highly regarded professional athletes while also enjoying way more career stability. You and Steph Curry both will likely make a ton of money in your lives. And it’s up to both of you to learn enough about personal finance to put it to good use to change yours and others’ lives for the better.

Jordan Frey, MD, is a plastic surgeon at Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, New York, and founder of The Prudent Plastic Surgeon.

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