“I was sitting at my desk at home writing tuition checks the other day,” says Dr. Bill Walker. “It’s the same desk I’ve had for 22 years, during the financial ups and downs. It’s in the same neighborhood. My kids are still in private schools getting the education we’ve always planned for them even though I haven’t been able to work for three years. My house and cars aren’t for sale. My wife and I take the same trips. We haven’t missed a beat financially, and I’m just grateful for that.”

Walker’s career has taken him on a path and to places he never envisioned — including today when, at age 56, he can no longer work. Walker is permanently disabled.

“I have friends who will ask how I can quit working at 53 and still be doing what we’re doing, keeping our home and putting our kids through school,” says Walker. “I didn’t win the lottery. It’s simple. It’s the financial planning we did and the disability income insurance we purchased. We had savings and investments, but our advisor also helped us see the importance of protecting ourselves against risk. That turned out to be the best financial decision we’ve ever made.”

AN UNPREDICTABLE PATH

Walker attended medical school in the 1980s. It was a time when student loan forgiveness was unheard of, and double-digit interest rates meant doctors typically began their careers with crushing debt. To complicate matters, Walker was diagnosed with cancer a few months prior to his graduation. Treatment was successful, but the delay in education meant even more debt once he finished school, as interest had compounded for additional years before he started making an income.

Walker started work in a hospital’s intensive care unit in St. Louis, where he quickly began to realize that practicing medicine wasn’t just about treating patients. “Every day they’d throw a new piece of paper at me to fill out. It drove me crazy, but I would take the paper and note the regulation associated with it and go read it. If we needed to do it, I would explain to the group of doctors why. If we didn’t, I would go have a little talk with the bosses on the hospital side. I ended up developing a unique knowledge that most doctors don’t have.”

All of a sudden, Walker says, he became a hot commodity with hospital administrators because he understood both sides of the rules and regulations. Just like that, an idea was born for a consulting business.

GAINING THE CONFIDENCE TO STEP OUT ON HIS OWN

Walker was excited about the possibility of starting his business but wanted to make sure he was ready financially. He ran his concept past his Northwestern Mutual wealth management advisor, Jim Zara. Zara, Walker and Walker’s wife, Nancy, had been diligently doing financial planning for a few years. A trust had grown between them as the couple began to feel more secure financially.

Zara says, “Bill was basically looking for permission to start his medical coding business. To do this he was going to have to give up his financial guarantees. My advice was, ‘I don’t know many people who are smarter than you.’ And from a financial perspective, I told him we’d done a good job with his investment portfolio, his life and disability income insurance policies and the safety they provide, and a good job managing his debt. … He could take that risk. Bill did it, and Bill kicked butt. His net income basically tripled.”

As Walker enjoyed more financial success, his financial planning got more aggressive. Instead of spending all his additional income, Walker was careful to plan for the future, setting aside half of what he was making to chip away at debt and save for the future. He also increased his insurance coverage to protect the additional income he was bringing in.

HE NEEDED HIS BACKUP PLAN

“His business was killing it,” says Zara. “But as sometimes happens, with the stroke of a pen in Washington, D.C., the laws changed overnight, and his business went from killing it to killing him.”

Walker’s business began to dissolve. He was disappointed but not devastated. He knew he was prepared financially. Because of that, he didn’t have to take the first job offer he received. Walker was able to wait nearly two years before accepting an offer for a dream job as the chief quality and safety officer for a major health care company.

Not long after Walker took that new job, he was promoted again, this time to the level of senior vice president. He says it came with another big increase in salary and benefits, but, he jokes, “We didn’t go out and buy a Bentley. We just stuck with the plan Jim helped us create.”

We didn’t go out and buy a Bentley. We just stuck with the plan Jim helped us create.

ANOTHER CURVE BALL

Six months after his promotion, life threw Walker a curve ball. Something was changing. He couldn’t focus, he was tired, and he knew something was wrong. “I have chronic fatigue syndrome and some processing issues,” Walker says. His hunch is that his condition is somehow tied to his cancer treatments from three decades ago. Eventually, Walker was declared disabled. He could no longer work.

Zara adds that when someone becomes disabled, you can hear stories of his or her quality of life getting worse. But because of the financial planning the Walkers have done through the years, their story is just the opposite. “Their ability to save has continued. Their children have continued to attend the schools they always have, and they’ve also been able to continue their love of travel. If you would have told me their story 20 years ago, I would’ve believed it — because I have seen them succeed and impact others and live great lives. And the reason is because of their talents and the financial planning they’ve done.”

Walker boils his journey down to some simple advice for others: “It’s not what you make, it’s what you spend. We had a good plan and someone we trusted to help us continue to stay on track along the way. When all of the pieces of the puzzle are in place, it’s amazing to see what can happen in 20 short years.” Walker adds that he’s thankful for the chance to share his story in the hopes it will inspire someone else to create their own financial plan for success. He’s also grateful that he gets the chance to continue life on his own terms, living in the house he loves, watching the kids he loves achieve their dreams and living life with the woman he loves, dreaming together as they continue to thrive into the next chapter of their lives.

This article contains profiles of certain Northwestern Mutual clients, their personal financial needs and how Northwestern Mutual met their needs. The personal financial needs and results of the clients shown may not be representative of the experience of other clients. Also, working with a Northwestern Mutual financial representative or any other financial services provider is not a guarantee as to future investment success.

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