Big Decisions Demand Family Input: Your Guide to Starting the Conversation

An illustration of a woman with a balanced mindset

Now is a great time to have some important conversations with your family about how your career affects your collective future. Most of you have never been allowed this kind of focused time to evaluate your true priorities as a family.

After all, your career is just one element of family harmony. Your partner’s career is another. If you have children, their needs require consideration as well. Keeping everyone happy means balancing both careers with your family’s needs and preferred lifestyle.

How is your current work-life balance? Are you satisfied with how you currently prioritize your time? Is your family content?

Even if everyone is currently happy, what if your perfect opportunity arises three states away? Would your partner be willing to relocate – or might they do so resentfully?

That’s why it is so important to have the conversations now, before you are faced with tough decisions. Take some time to discuss your goals and dreams with your family – and set priorities together. Revisit these conversations periodically so you stay in sync. After all, your priorities and ideal work-life balance will change with time. What seems vital in your 20s might seem trivial in your 40s.

Even if you have no plans to make an immediate change, there are key things you should discuss with your family at each phase of your career. Use the following as a guide for your conversations. Be open and honest and you may be surprised at where you land!

Early-career: Start strong

You will make many decisions in the first decade of your career – and so will your partner. You are both “trying on” jobs and workstyles to see what feels right. Even if you take a job that does not work out, it can help you learn what type of job is right for you.

If you have been with your partner for a while, they can be an excellent sounding board as you evaluate potential paths and opportunities. They may offer insight into what makes you tick – insight that can help you stride confidently into a job or turn down one that is not a great fit. For example, if you are considering purchasing a large, bustling practice, your partner may remind you that you seem to prefer focused one-on-one patient interactions and you come home drained on extra-busy days.

Your partner can offer insight into what makes you tick.

The early-career phase is filled with uncertainty – and that is ok! Embrace the uncertainty and use this time to expand your options to include things you may have never considered. If you have always been curious about living in a small town, for example, now is the time to try it. Making smart decisions, like renting rather than buying, can help you keep your options open.

Make sure to discuss:

Your career: Do you eventually want to buy a practice, or would you prefer to be an associate? What kind of hours would you prefer to work? Would you be willing to work nights or weekends – and would your partner be on board?

Your partner’s career: Do they want to pursue additional education? Do they need to be in a particular region to find work? How much travel might their job require? What kind of hours does their job demand? If you purchase a practice, are they interested in working with you? In what role?

Family: Do you want to start a family, and if so, when? Do you want or need to be near parents or other family members with health concerns?

Finances: What are your financial priorities: paying down student debt, buying a practice, paying for your children’s education, traveling? A financial advisor can guide the conversation and help build a plan that gets you there.

Priorities: What is most important right now? How might that change in a few years?

Mid-career: Maximizing your time

By mid-career, you may be well established with a healthy patient load and a comfortable income. Your partner may be an integral part of your practice, a stay-at-home parent, or have their own career completely separate from yours.

Your family is probably pretty established in their own routines. If your partner works outside the practice, their career may now include greater responsibility that brings more stress. Your kids may be active in school, sports, and other activities.

You have had many years to refine your idea of the perfect practice, so changes at this point can be very rewarding if they help you achieve that ideal. However, those same changes can upset the family dynamic, so it is important to talk them through together.

Make sure to discuss:

Your career: Are you happy with your current situation? Are you finally confident enough in your finances to buy a practice? If you already own, is it time to expand the practice and hire an associate? Do you want to start volunteering or mentoring?

Your partner: How satisfied is your partner? If they work in the practice, do they like the work or do they want to take on new responsibilities – or offload some tasks and spend more time with the family? If they work elsewhere, are they pursuing a big promotion or a change of their own? If you are both considering changes, should you “take turns” to ease the transition – and if so, who gets to go first?

Family: How are your children? Do you want to be home with them more and attend all their soccer games? How long until they leave for college? Are your elderly parents facing health challenges?

Finances: Are you paying off debt? Do you want to pay for your children’s education? Are you saving enough for the retirement of your dreams? Again, a financial advisor can help you plan for the future.

Priorities: What is most important right now? How might that change in a few years? What happens if someone develops a health issue that forces one of you to stop working?

Late-career: Moving on

Congratulations on achieving financial security! Now what?

You can end a career in many ways. If you are an associate, you can turn in your notice and throw your retirement party. Things get a bit more complicated if you must navigate a practice sale, too.

If you own a practice, you must decide whether you want to spend the next few years building up your practice OR slowing down. What is most important right now: time with your family or maximizing the value of your practice? (Learn how to think through this decision.) Many dentists choose to reduce their hours, only to discover that doing so has cut the practice’s value. One option is to pursue an associate-to-owner transition in which you hire an associate who agrees to buy the practice after a set period (say, two or three years). As the associate gains speed and confidence, you can cut back your hours while the practice stays busy.

What's most important: free time or maximizing the value of your practice?

Your retirement will greatly affect how you – and your partner – spend your days. It is time to get in sync on when to retire and build consensus on how you choose to spend your time.

Make sure to discuss:

Your retirement: When do you want to retire? Do you want to gradually ease away from work? And when you are retired, how do you want to spend your time: traveling, volunteering, mentoring younger dentists? Do you want to work part time while addressing access to care issues?

Your partner’s retirement: What is their timing? Do they need to wait for a certain age or milestone? How do they want to spend their time in retirement? Have you talked about pursuing shared interests?

Family: Do you want to spend more time with your children and/or grandchildren? If you are considering relocating, where do you want to live? Would you split time between two residences?

Finances: How will you access health insurance during retirement? Will you need to adjust your lifestyle to ensure your long-term financial stability? As always, consult your financial advisor!

Priorities: What is most important right now? How might that change in a few years? Be sure to have a frank discussion regarding your health and your partner’s health.