Sunday, March 20, 2016

Why I Continue to Live the Frugal(ish) Life

One of the best people I met during my fellowship training was our Educational Coordinator, S*.  S is slightly older than I am** and married later in life, so she could empathize with me during both the single-career-woman-looking-for-love and the single-career-woman-falling-in-love stages of my training.  She was also a huge advocate for me and the other fellow, which was invaluable in dealing with a system that was often indifferent and occasionally blatantly hostile to its trainees.  When I finally finished my training, one of the few things that made me sad was no longer working with her on an almost daily basis.  (Everything else was bliss.)

While I liked S from the very beginning, I really bonded with her after I abandoned my spendy ways and started living more frugally.  She would stop at my desk to chat fairly regularly, and one day we got talking about money after she caught me binge reading the great Mr. Money Mustache.  It turned out that she had learned to be frugal while living as a single person, and she'd carried that approach into married life, such that she and her husband currently live off a single income and bank the second one for retirement.  Over the remaining months of my fellowship, we talked regularly about the freedom that comes from living well below your means and about all the sources of happiness that don't require money.  In a financial sense, she and I clicked.

Which is why I was surprised the other day when I ran into her in the hallway, and she asked me "Are you getting used to living like an attending now?"  Her assumption, like everyone else's, was that I had abandoned frugal living as soon as my first fee-for-service patient entered my clinic.  In reality, for anyone who is curious, I'm living on almost exactly the same budget as I did during fellowship***, and every additional dollar I earn is either getting saved or applied to my debt.  Which makes many people (my accountant, my financial advisor, my spendthrift physician friends) ask me "Why?"  They point out, quite legitimately, that I could afford to be more liberal with my spending and to buy a house and a car that doesn't have a giant chunk out of its rear end.  They simply don't get why I keep living like a fellow despite my attending's salary.

For me, the answer is easy:  choice.  As long as I am in debt, as long as I am spending most or all of the money that I earn, then I have to keep working long hours as a physician.  If I buy the big house and the fancy car, then I'm always compelled to earn a high income to pay for them.  Which isn't so bad now, when I'm fresh from training and still somewhat keen, but who knows how I'll feel in 10 or 20 years.  Maybe I'll want to stop working full time and take three-day weekends every week.  Maybe I'll be sick of my subspecialty and want to retrain in another field.  Maybe I'll burn out altogether and want to move to the West Coast to smoke pot.  Who knows?  All that I know is that saving money now, and living on less, means that I can practice medicine because I choose to, not because I have to. 

Even in the short-term, frugality makes life better.  I can work at an inner city clinic, where I earn slightly less ridiculous amounts of money than I would at a tertiary care centre, because I don't have to maximize my salary at the expense of my happiness.  I can say no to extra weekends of call, even though I usually don't****.  I can sleep better at night knowing that I'm within a few months (maybe as little as two?) of having a legitimately positive net worth, even without counting my car.  All of this is way better than a $30 bottle of wine or a $200 dinner out. 

And let's be honest:  I'm really just pretending to be frugal.  I'm not living a Frugalwoods life of 10-cent rice and bean lunches over here.  I'm living off of more than the average family in my city.  I'm traveling to the Middle East in May, and I'm going out for Korean food tonight, and I'm buying weekend passes to our local music festival instead of volunteering.  As my accountant said recently, I'm living a "relatively modest" life.  It's only in comparison to the crazy excesses of many doctors that my life is in any way frugal.  And for that, I'm very lucky. 

*I'm so creative with the names.  You're welcome.

**5 years?  10?  15?  I'm terrible at guessing ages.

***I added $200 per month to my travel budget, because we love to travel and have some big trips planned this year, and I threw a bit of money at my budget to make up for the Great November Debacle so that I wouldn't have to spend a year recovering.

****That will happen once I hit a positive net worth.


  1. A couple of years ago I saw a dentist who said my teeth are in horrible condition and I must have very frequent appointments with her and interventions to save them. Since nobody had ever told me that before, i didn't believe her ... especially when I asked for a copy of the xrays to take to an independent periodontist and I got a lot of pushback.

    So I went to a different dentist in another town to whom I told this and he said, "Wow. I'm sure glad I don't have a car note or a boat note so big that I would have to lie to patients like that."

    So while I know that you would never do such a thing, he's onto something. If a person is so horribly in debt, who knows what ethical boundaries they will cross? Or, maybe she's just greedy. Gambling problem. I'll never know.

    1. This is something I didn't even think about, but it could be a whole post in itself! I definitely think that frugality makes me a better doctor. I book fewer patients per clinic than my colleagues, and I spend more time talking to my patients than I would if I were always focused on maximizing my income. It's tempting at times to see more patients and make more money, but it's (thankfully) more important to do my job well.

    2. HA! I suspected this happens, because its happened to people I know so often, but even my dentist friends defend their dental brethren and deny that anyone would ever be so unscrupulous. You found yourself a good honest dentist!

    3. Yes, I think so. The first second opinion that I went to (and he had seen me sporadically for 16 years) said, "Well, I don't want to speak ill of a colleague, but I do not see anything of concern." It was the second second opinion who was so blunt, perhaps because in a completely different part of the country.

  2. Money definitely buys freedom! It sounds like you're doing great.

  3. Choice! Yes. So smart. It's worth it.
    Hope you do get some relief when you hit the positive net worth!

    I feel like burnout is so prevalent in medicine - you have to actively fight it, and having the option to work a little less really helps.

    1. I think options go a huge way towards preventing burnout in medicine. I can already see ways that I am tailoring my job to what I want to do, rather than what will earn me the most money.