Plumber vs. Doctor: Who Generates More Wealth?

doctor or plumber salary
Portrait of smiling bearded young man in helmet with wrench over white background

If you want to have a nice house, a big, fat retirement fund, and a classy car to drive to and from work, a lot of people will tell you that becoming a doctor is the way to do it. However, you may have also heard that it actually makes more sense to just skip the whole college thing and go straight to being a plumber. 

Both doctors and plumbers are extremely important jobs that the world couldn’t live without, but being a doctor requires you to go to college for like half of your life, and allows you to put a fancy title in front of your name. But, plumbers come out of the gate strong and start making good money without having to go to college and racking up a bunch of student debt. 

So, which profession really generates more wealth over the course of a lifetime? It’s a bit more complicated than just comparing salaries. And the answer may surprise you. In this article, we’re going to talk about who really generates more wealth in their lives, plumbers or doctors?

How Much Do Plumbers Make? – Plumbing Paychecks

plumber salary

Let’s start off simply by looking at how much each of these professions can rake in per year, starting off with plumbers. The big advantage of becoming a plumber is that you can start making money (and pretty good money) as soon as you start your career. 

Most plumbers start out with an apprenticeship where they work under a master plumber for a few years. Apprentice plumbers typically make around $12 per hour and work a little over 40 hours a week. 

Once you’ve learned the ropes of the profession and finished your apprenticeship, you can move up to the journeyman plumber level. And then you’re looking at more like $18 per hour. Finally, after a few more years in the business, you can reach the level of master plumber and start making more like $30 per hour. 

That rate varies slightly from state to state. But, on a national average, a plumber’s pay is usually going to top out at $30 per hour after about 6 to 10 years in the industry. If we look at what plumbers are making yearly, you can expect to start your career at about $30,000 per year as an apprentice, then move up to $60,000 per year as a journeyman, assuming you work a little overtime, and then hit the $100,000-per-year mark once you reach the level of a master. 

Now, as you’ll see, peak pay for doctors is a whole lot more than that. But, you have to remember how plumbers can start working and making money immediately. And, as you’ll see, the path to becoming a doctor is a little different than that. 

How Much Do Doctors Make? – Doctor Dough

doctor salary

As you probably already know, becoming a doctor takes a really, really long time. I have some friends that are trying to become doctors, and it seems like they’ve been in school for a century. You have to get a four-year undergraduate degree, then take the MCAT and get a super high score (which a lot of people can’t get on their first try so you have to spend like a year of your life studying), then you apply to a bunch of medical schools. And, if you’re enough of a genius to get accepted, you have to spend four years there. 

Next, you get a residency, which can last anywhere from 3 to 7 years. And then you’re a doctor. But, wait! If you want to bump up your pay even more and become a specialist, you’re going to have to do a fellowship that lasts 2 to 3 years. 

So, while a plumber can reach their peak pay in about 6 to 10 years, hitting the top of your career arc as a doctor can take you anywhere from 13 to 19 years. Yeah, 19 years. That’s nearly two decades of your life training to become a medical specialist. But, with that being said, doctors and specialists, in particular, make a whole lot of cash. 

Most people in their residencies make around $50,000 to $70,000 per year. And the same thing goes, pretty much, when you’re doing a fellowship. Once you’re a specialist, the pay varies a whole lot based on what you chose to specialize in, but we can say that specialist doctors make around $200,000 to $300,000 yearly, unless you’re in one of the big-money specialties like neurology, cardiology, dermatology, or orthopedics. If that’s the case, you’re going to make a whole lot more than that. 

So, once you hit your stride as a doctor, you’re raking a ton of cash. However, there’s one complication we should address before you decide to be a doctor over a plumber, and that’s student debt. 

The Student Debt Issue – Starting in the Negative

student debt issues

When considering whether doctors or plumbers generate more wealth over their careers, we have to remember that pretty much anyone who’s been through medical school is not starting from net-zero, but rather under a mountain of debt from the high costs of student loans for med school. 

While a lot of med students get some help financially from their families, most med school grads will come out with about $200,000 of student debt. And, if those students still have debt from their undergraduate degrees, they’re looking at a whole lot of money that needs to be paid back before their careers can go net positive. 

So, with that being said, to really compare who generates more wealth over their careers, let’s do a super-simplified comparison of what doctors and plumbers will make year by year. 

Side-by-Side Comparison – Who Really Makes More?

large salary

Let’s assume that the plumber starts working at age 18 as an apprentice making $30,000 per year. And then, after 3 years, they become a journeyman making $60,000. And then, after 4 more years, they move up to the level of master, making $100,000 per year. 

The doctor, on the other hand, goes to undergrad at 18 years old, and then med school after that, and comes away with $200,000 in student debt. When they graduate, they’ll start making $60,000 yearly at their residency and fellowship for the next 7 years. And then, they’ll get a huge pay boost to $300,000 after they’ve chosen their specialization. 

So, as you can see by this extremely simplified model I’ve put together, when the doctor finally graduates from med school, the plumber will have already made around $430,000. And, until about the age of 38, the plumber will have generated more wealth on the whole than the doctor. 

After 38, though, the wealth generated by the doctor will exceed the plumber’s for the rest of their lives. And the gap will keep getting bigger and bigger since the doctor’s salary will always be higher from thereon out. 

However, as I said before, this model is extremely oversimplified, and there are some other things that I ignored that have a big bearing on which career will actually bank you the most money.

What We Ignored – The Whole Picture

student loan interest rates

So, yeah, the model I just gave you was anything but the whole picture. First off, we have to remember the whole interest thing. Student loans carry interest just like any other kind of loan. So, if that doctor took out $200,000 to pay for his or her school, they’re actually going to pay a whole lot more than $200,000 when you factor in interest. 

However, there’s also the question of a PSLF, or “Public Service Loan Forgiveness,” which basically helps some doctors pay less interest on their loans. And there’s also the question of whether the doctor chose to refinance at some point. So, overall, the individual choices that the doctor made about the loan can really influence how much they paid for their education.

We also have to remember that little thing called taxes. A doctor who’s making $300,000 or $400,000 per year is in a whole different tax bracket than a plumber making $100,000. And so they’re going to end up paying a lot more in taxes. 

Then there’s the fact that doctors on the whole usually have a much higher cost of living than plumbers. Plumbers don’t have to show up to work in a nice shirt and tie as doctors do. Plumbers don’t have high-society friends that expect them to drive a BMW. I’m not saying that all doctors are vain and constantly trying to impress but, in general, society expects doctors to have more of the “finer things” than plumbers. 

So, the question of whether doctors or plumbers have it better, in the long run, is a complicated one. In general, I’d say that if you want to make becoming a doctor worth it over becoming a plumber, you’d better be ready to work for a long time, put in some serious hours studying, and make sure that you eventually get into a high-paying specialization rather than becoming a pediatrician. 

And I’m not throwing shade on pediatricians; they perform a vital public service. But the money and time you have put down to become a doctor is just, well, a lot.

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