(This post might be a bit obnoxious, as I'm writing about finances from the perspective of a well-paid physician with no children living in a low cost-of-living area. Feel free to skip it! Please don't hate me. I do recognize the incredible privilege and good fortune in being able to write a post like this.)
November started out as a really good month financially. I was on call for nine days, which meant that I was earning an on-call stipend and consult fees on top of my usual clinic income. I had recently increased the number of patients I was seeing per clinic, so even my relatively constant clinic income had taken a jump. I felt flush. Money was coming in more quickly than it ever had, and so it seemed silly for me to be sticking to a budget and limiting my spending.
My change in spending habits started slowly, with a takeout meal on a night when the fridge was full of leftovers ("I work hard! I deserve sushi instead of spaghetti!), but it quickly escalated. Soon I was eating out in the fancy restaurants that had never seemed remotely worth the cost, and I was offering to pick up the tab for my friends.
And then I went to San Francisco.
The trip was a combined conference and brief vacation with my girlfriend, so I convinced myself that I could completely ignore my budget and classify most of my spending as business expenses*. $20 tequila sampler at the hotel restaurant? Business expense. $39 flight of port and $20 plate of cheese at a wine bar? Business expense. In just over a week, I spent more money on restaurants and new clothes and Trader Joe's chocolate than I had spent in months.
And I'm not going to lie - it felt amazing. It was fun to spend without thinking about money or entering expenses into my budget. $20 plates of cheese are tasty. And I felt strangely powerful sitting in Jardiniere, which was filled with the pre-opera crowd dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns**, eating fancy french fries and ordering overpriced wine from a sommelier. After 16 years of sacrifice, it felt like I had arrived.
Reality hit the day after our dinner at Jardiniere, when we had to pack to go home, and we didn't have room in our suitcases for all of our new things. Then, when we were preparing our forms for customs, we realized that we had spent almost to the very generous customs limit, something neither of us has ever done. The worst moment, however, was getting the credit card bill in December. The only time I've ever had such a ridiculously high credit card bill was when I paid my fees for my licensing exam. It was painful.
As a result of the overspending, I ended up in the red in December. This was a huge (and painful) contrast to previous months as an attending, during which I'd been paying back some of my student debt and making healthy contributions to my retirement savings. The whole month of December felt like a terrible hangover, as I watched all of my earnings go to MasterCard.
My initial take home lesson from November was "Stick to the budget! Keep living like a student!", and for a while that's precisely what I did. But as I look back at the month now, I wonder if that's the only lesson I should take from it. Because although the month was way beyond sustainable spending for me, there were also a lot of good things about it. While eating the flight of port and the cheese plate, my girlfriend and I had a wonderful conversation about our relationship and the future that makes me happy whenever I think about it. While having dinner at Jardiniere, we realized that we never want to become people who own ball gowns and think we're special because we're eating in an expensive restaurant. And we got to see Idina Menzel in a shitty musical, which was on my girlfriend's bucket list. (Seeing Idina Menzel, that is. Not the shitty musical.)
So...what to take from this experience? First and foremost is the recognition that it is easy to spend a lot of money in a very short time. And although I am earning more than I ever had, I can't afford to spend indiscriminately when I still have a six-figure debt. (Or probably ever.) Second is the reminder that people adapt to things very quickly. While the unrestricted spending felt exciting in the beginning, after only a month it was starting to feel very ordinary. And going back to my previously comfortable budget felt horrible.
Looking back at the month now, I think the overarching lesson I'm going to take is that splurging is fun, but it can't (and shouldn't) be an everyday thing. I'm going to keep sticking with my budget and dutifully saving my money, but I'm also going to make sure that I leave some money for the really self-indulgent expenses that are worth it (like going to wine bars with my girlfriend).
Balance. Once again, the lesson is balance.
*Please note that this was only from a budget perspective and not a tax perspective. Hi Revenue Canada! I'm not evading taxes by claiming booze as a business expense! Please don't audit me!
**I was in jeans, because I hadn't realized from the website just how fancy the restaurant was. Awkward!