Sara and I got married in the late 90s. I was the marketing director for a local company and working on my bachelors in management, making $24,000 a year, and she was still in dental school living on student loans. Like a lot of couples today, we were young, ambitious, and broke.
We look back on those days fondly now, but, at the time, not so much. We believed someday we would be better off financially, but at the time, we had rent, car payments, tuition, insurance, gas, etc. Most months there was, as they say, too much month at the end of the money. We really didn’t know where we were going, but we were completely committed and in love with the idea of going there together.
Those were some lean times. In our town, there was a Mexican restaurant that had “2 for 1” Valpak entree coupons which we saved for our nights out. If we both had water our bill was $9 and change. If we had a soft drink the bill was $12 and change. This included an order of Queso which was one of our few indulgences. We also had a $1 movie theater in our town, so those became our date nights, when we could swing it.
Today we have been married 25 years, have two sons in college, have traveled extensively, and are both certified Porsche drivers. We have five locations, 70 employees, and growth plans that we never could have dreamed of. We are now empty nesters, so we live alone together, work together, have lunch at least once a week, and go out for breakfast nearly every Friday. It has been quite a ride!.
We have had many people ask us the secret. I wish there was only one that I could tell that blend a practicing dentist with a marriage, but the fact is, combining a healthy relationship and dental practice is hard, and takes a lot of work. But the good news is you know each other better than anyone and can trust each other more than anyone. That trust and knowledge, must be applied in all areas for the practice and marriage to grow together. The fact is we succeed and fail together, whether we want to or not.
When Sara passed her board exam in 1996, I checked the mail that day. I called her to tell her she passed and she started crying, which of course meant I got all choked up on the phone. As spouses, we take pleasure in our partner’s happiness and, in most cases, we are willing to go the end of the earth to help each other.
I work in the practice and Dr. Sara handles the clinic. When we opened our first practice, we were sacrificing Dr. Sara’s six figure salary and moving home after living away for a few years. We had many discussions about how we would make the transition and the phrase “we will be fine if we can just do x amount of income through the practice.” These were not discussions between two business partners, they were very intimate, very scary discussions between a young husband and wife. She was very comfortable in her clinical skills, but we had nothing to lean on when trying to determine how fast we could cover expenses, and we really had no safety net.
I could tell those discussions and the need for her to be able pay the bills weighed heavily on her. I was worried too, to be honest. But my role was to be positive and supportive, while being practical and conservative in the execution of our move. I knew she was going to be very concerned about paying the bills from day one, so we made a few important decisions about how we would handle things…
1. We would purchase space rather than lease. We felt like owning an asset gave us the most flexibility.
2. Any vendor who worked with us must give us start up terms, which is to say some nominal amount of time, interest free, to pay simple startup costs. Any vendor requiring payment up front or payment in full in 30 days just wasn’t part of our team.
3. The space we purchased had potential for six rooms, but we only built two. The other rooms were wired and plumbed, and could be added in four to six weeks, but this kept our monthly expenses to a minimum.
4. We recruited and identified employees, but we only hired the ones that were absolutely essential at each step.
5. We focused what capital we did have on what was critical to treating patients. We tried all the handpieces and she bought the ones she liked regardless of cost.
But we bought a used phone system and used lab equipment etc.
These were not purely economic or business decisions. They were decision made to reduce stress on her, which would translate to reduced stress in our marriage. My role was not just to help organize the business, but to balance the needs of the business while putting her first. Your spouse likes being the most important thing in your life.
The end result is we covered expenses the second month and added the other four rooms over the course of the next four years. Each time we added a room, we either paid for it out of cash flow, or with a one-year note. That was our first practice and we have since loosened up, but that is a product of having some success, and having a higher comfort level with some risk.
One of the first things I hear people say about working together is “don’t take it home.” That isn’t the way it has worked for us. We certainly prioritize the discussions and focused on our family first. But we love supporting each other, helping minimize stress, and helping celebrate successes. We find the use of this time to communicate and understand the issues we are both dealing with to be much more important than pretending the two worlds aren’t going to coexist no matter what we do. There have been a few times when this was a mistake, but by and large, we talk about work a lot in our personal time. And we find it helps us both in our work lives, and in our marriage. For us, the marriage comes first as without that we have nothing, but it is still a matter of trust and emotional support. Its just a little unique when you are married to a dentist.
We chose our path together. What we did with the practice was an extension of our marriage and vice versa. There is no way, in my experience, to separate them. There are, however, many keys to managing the two. In most cases, your marriage is at the center of both relationships, but they both require effort and attention. You can do this together. We did it, and you can too.