Sunday, June 18, 2017

One Year in the Black

It has been just over one year since I reached a net worth of zero.  After being in debt for almost ten years, it has been a welcome change to open the Excel file in which I track everything financial and see that my investments finally exceed the balance on my line of credit.

As a medical student and resident, I hadn't thought much about finances.  I was surrounded by people who came from wealthy families, and it didn't take me long to adopt their spendy habits and to accumulate a lot of debt.  I reassured myself that "everyone was doing it" and that the debt was okay, because it would be easily repayed once I became a physician and started getting paid in bags full of money.  I rarely looked at the balance of my line of credit, and whenever I did it was just a quick glance, followed by a nervous chuckle at the ridiculousness of owing the bank such an enormous sum.

It wasn't until my last year of fellowship that I actually woke up to the reality of how much money I owed and started doing something about it.  I went on a budget, and I actually started spending less than I was earning for the first time in eight years.  I didn't save a lot of money in that year, as it was a major adjustment just to start living within my means, but at the very least I laid some groundwork for financial responsibility as an attending.

And then I finished training!  And got an adult job!  And suddenly there was a lot of extra money to put towards savings and debt repayment.  Every day that I worked, I got a little bit closer to the longed for balance of zero.  And yet, my anxiety about money actually got worse.  When my line of credit was ridiculously big, I comforted myself by saying that I could declare bankruptcy if I ever lost my job*, because there was no way I could pay it back on anything other than a physician's salary.  As it got smaller, and my investments bigger, I suddenly entered territory where I would be expected to pay back my loans, regardless of whether I could continue to work as a physician.  And the idea of earning a non-physicians salary but still being $50,000 or $60,000 in debt was terrifying.

Thankfully, I have kept my job, and after ten months of working and saving I got myself back into the black.  I expected that the anxiety about money would resolve instantaneously after achieving that milestone, but oddly enough I didn't take a lot of comfort in being a 39-year old with a net worth of zero.  I still felt vulnerable to the possibility of becoming disabled** or burning out of my career and not having enough money to have good options.  So I kept saving and repaying debt and watching my net worth get healthier and healthier.

In the past year, I've increased my net worth by enough that I could live at my current standard of living for about three years.  While I hesitate to share actual numbers here, I will say that my net work growth breaks down roughly as follows:  10% from growth on investments; 10% line of credit repayment; 30% cash savings (for a down payment on our first home); and 50% long-term savings (RRSPs and a TFSA to minimize taxes). 

My savings vary a lot from month to month, due to a fluctuating call schedule and taking time off work for vacations and conferences, but the overall trajectory of my net worth has been pleasantly positive.  And finally...FINALLY...I am starting to relax a little.  It is comforting to know that I could become disabled and live comfortably off my disability insurance payments.  Or I could burn out from medicine and pursue a different career, and I would be absolutely fine.  For the first time in a decade, I feel like I have some real security and real options.  I'm still a long way from financial independence, but at least I'm sleeping more peacefully at night.

*I only had private student loans, so I think they would have been cancelled out by a bankruptcy.  But don't quote me on that.  And don't be an idiot like me and think that bankruptcy is a good financial strategy!

**Yes, I have disability insurance.  As should every physician.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Retiring To, Instead of From

One of the nurses I work with in my inner city clinic retired last week.  I'm in a bit of denial about the whole situation, as she takes with her over thirty years of relationships with patients and experience in the community, and it is going to be a terrible, horrible adjustment to run the clinic without her.  It's a bit like a body trying to function after a left main occlusion has knocked out most of the heart.  Still possible (hopefully), but irreversibly impaired.

I've known that her retirement was coming for most of this year, so there has been plenty of opportunity to prepare for the transition and to hire a replacement.  Fortunately, we've managed to poach a really excellent and experienced nurse from another physician who practices in the same field (sorry colleague!), so the new nurse will be about as good as possible for a replacement.  I've also had some time to mentally prepare myself for the change, although I haven't done as much as I probably should have (see above statement re: "bit of denial").

Interestingly, from talking with the nurse who is leaving, it doesn't seem that she's done that much mental preparation for her retirement either.  She seems to be very financially prepared - house paid off, full defined pension from over 30 years of service, personal savings beyond the pension - but she seems to have very little idea of what she's going to do with herself after working her last shift.  When asked about her plans, she will say "Well....I have a lot of sewing I'd like to do".

She's not even 60!  And she's been working full-time in a busy, stressful, and emotionally challenging medical practice.  How does one transition from that to a life of doing "a lot of sewing"? 

I worry about her, a little bit, at the same time as I am insanely jealous of anyone who has managed to permanently free herself from the need for full-time employment.  I wonder if this incredible opportunity she has to explore new interests and do anything she wants to is going to feel like a disappointment, because she hasn't taken the time to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. 

If I continue at my current savings rate, and there are no major economic collapses in the near future, then I'm on track to be able to retire in about nine years.  And while I try not to focus on retirement and to live in the present moment as much as possible, you can bet there is part of me that is always dreaming about what I will be able to do in the post-employement stage of life.  There will, of course, be many books to read, and as many places to travel as we can afford.  But there will also be volunteer work, and community involvement, and learning to speak a second language, and writing, and so many other things.  I will probably be busier in retirement than I am in my working life, because I will be able to choose to do whatever excites me most instead of doing things I don't love out of necessity.  (Hint:  It will not include dictating clinic letters.)

When I retire, it won't be just because I've saved up enough money and that's what people do as soon as they can afford to.  It will be because whatever I have planned next is even better than the crazy but wonderful world of medicine.

On a completely unrelated note, if you like cats at all, then you should really find a way to see the documentary Kedi, which is about the street cats of Istanbul.  It is beautiful and touching and funny and filled with cats, which makes anything in life better.  M and I saw it yesterday, and even she, the intransigent dog lover, thought it was worth watching.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

How To Be Less Stabby While On Call

As a resident, I couldn't wait for the day that I would be an attending and would get to do fewer call shifts.  In my last two years of residency, I did 130 days of call per year, while as an attending I do about 70 days per year.  I anticipated that my attending schedule would feel positively luxurious by comparison, but of course, as with many things in life, that hasn't been the case.  Somehow doing less call makes me less accustomed to it and even more resentful of it when I'm in the midst of it.

Generally, I spend my weeks on call in a self-indulgent funk.  I whine about how busy I am and how long the days are; I neglect anything that isn't work-related (thank all that is holy for housekeepers); and I live off of all the foods that I tell my patients to never eat.  I'm about as miserable and self-pitying as an adult can acceptably be.  Possibly more so.
This call period, however, things seem to have shifted, if only the slightest bit.  I hate my life a little less than normal.  My smiles for patients and co-workers are a little more sincere.  I spread a little less misery everywhere I go.

Being caught up on everything at the start of the call period has probably been the biggest contributor to my slightly less horrible than usual mood.  My state of being on top of things lasted for all of one day after I started call, but at the very least I've only had to scramble to keep up with the additional work of call*, rather than struggling not to drown under call work and leftover work from the weeks before.  There is comfort in knowing that, at the absolute worst, I'm no more than two weeks behind on things.

The slight reduction in overwhelm at work has carried over into not feeling like I want to die when I get home, which in turn has led to me actually doing productive things in the evening.  Where normally I would binge watch Gilmore Girls with a peanut butter chocolate Drumstick** in my hand, I've actually gone for walks to enjoy the beautiful Spring weather.  I've done dishes.  I've paid bills.  I'm actually adulting!
Maybe forty will be the year that I actually grow up?

*Unsuccessfully, of course.

**Immediately after writing this I ate a peanut butter chocolate Drumstick.  Because I'm only human.  I would've turned on Gilmore Girls, but the girlfriend isn't home, and I think watching our show without her is probably grounds for divorce.