A Fifth Grader’s Guide to Becoming a Wealthy Dentist

By Reese Harper, CFP® , CEO of Dentist Advisors    |   Cash Management, Debt & Financing

Several years ago there was a popular game show called “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” You probably remember it. After six seasons, only two adults had correctly answered all eleven questions required to take home the million dollar prize. One of those was a state superintendent of schools and the other was a Nobel Prize-winning professor. The rest of the contestants flunked—and they were in good company as home viewers usually stumbled on at least one of the questions as well.

Teaching 3 Words to 5th Graders

I recently got to meet with some real 5th graders and test them to really see how smart they were. As a guest in my son’s 5th-grade class, my goal was to teach the kids three words. These three words are also quite applicable to adults—especially dentists.


The first word was trade. We talked about how many countries don’t have the resources or the capacity to produce everything they need or want. I told the kids how nations develop things unique to their region and then engage in trade with everyone else.  

We talked about things countries specialize in, like Chilean raspberries and aluminum from Australia. I explained how a country like Chile, by trading their surplus of raspberries, can then purchase aluminum cans from Australia instead of making aluminum cans themselves.

To make my point I gave the students different resources—cocoa beans from Columbia, batteries from South Africa, LCD screens from China. Then I told them to go around and match up with kids who represented other countries and trade what they had for the things they wanted.

You might not think about it, but as a dentist, it’s the same for you. You’re one of maybe 200,000 people in the U.S. that works on teeth. If you’re like most dentists, maximizing your financial utility means trying to improve your clinical skills. That’s your surplus. Don’t redirect effort into things you don’t specialize in (like bookkeeping, investments, real estate, tax strategies, I.T. services, or starting or investing in other non-dental businesses).  


Word number two was specialization. I talked to my 5th graders about what they wanted to do in the future. There were a couple of professional athletes, some engineers, doctors, nurses, and even one dentist (probably the child of a dentist!). I told them that what they concentrate on in school helps them develop specialized skills.

As a dentist, you’ve sacrificed a lot of money and time going to dental school. It’s a huge investment in the specialization. By diving deeper and deeper into an area of specialization (even GP’s can specialize!) you become much more resistant to commoditization.  Specialization is one of the fastest ways to increase your compensation and accelerate the growth of your net worth.

Opportunity Cost

Now the third word, opportunity cost (okay, two words), is a little more difficult to understand. But here’s how I explained it: If you had to hire a lawn mowing service to mow the school soccer field, who would you choose: 1) a lawn mowing service for houses AND schools; 2) a lawn mowing service that JUST mows lawns for schools?

The class was split on their responses. One half said “home AND schools” and the other half voted for the “ONLY schools.” I asked the first half of the class why they liked the combo lawn company? “Because they do a lot more lawns. They’re bigger.” Now, I might disagree, but that answer totally reflected human nature. They do a lot of lawns! Bigger is better! Right?

I went to the other half of the class that thought the service that just did schools would be better. One kid observed, “Don’t they have the really big lawn mowers?” Exactly! They have specialized tools that make their job more efficient. They also would cut lawns differently—not the same way people cut house lawns. You’d fertilize the large lawns differently; you’d use different equipment.

When you specialize, you always give something up, like mowing home lawns. But when you try and do too many things, there’s always an opportunity cost. And if you aren’t careful, you’ll carry an opportunity cost that can hold you back from building a more focused, efficient, and profitable practice.


The world needs more dentists. As the population grows and the options in the marketplace for dentistry become increasingly diverse, patients will naturally be attracted to the practitioners who develop the deepest specialization. 

Whether it’s literally becoming a specialist, developing specialized skills or procedures, or developing expertise in servicing niche customers, this is the key to building a defensible practice in a competitive landscape. Trade. Specialize. And minimize your opportunity cost!

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