Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017 - The Year in Review

I love the end of the year.  Partly that's because I have time off (10 days this year!), and partly because I love to reflect back on the year that was. 

2017 has been a pretty major year in my life.  I started it in a long-term relationship with plans to buy a home and eventually get married, and I ended it single with cats.  But in a very good way.  I can't remember a recent time in my life when I felt as happy or as deeply satisfied with life as I do at the end of 2017.

Here's a brief recap of the major events of 2017:

The Breakup:  M and I went through a breakup in 2016 but very quickly reconciled.  In retrospect, reconciling was a really unwise thing to do, as we were even less happy in round two of our relationship than we had been in round one.  We loved each other a lot, but we couldn't actually live happily together, which is somewhat essential for a committed romantic relationship.  For me, I started seriously considering breaking up again about a year ago, and from December 2016 until September 2017 breaking up was rarely far from my mind.  It was a really unhappy way of living.

And then, it was over.  After months of thinking and agonizing and building up to the moment, I finally ended it, and I felt like I could breathe again.  All of the emotional energy I had been investing in a relationship that wasn't working was suddenly available for more interesting and life-giving things.  Like joining Twitter.

I have not regretted the breakup for a single moment.  It has been an adjustment, of course, but everything about it feels right.  People comment regularly that I look happy and that they are glad to have "old me" back, and it is true that I am happier than I have been in a long time.  I have time to spend with my friends, instead of my social life being mostly dictated by M*.  My apartment is tidy and back to the semi-minimalist state that I love.  My cats have regained their rightful place next to me on the couch.  All is as it should be.

Work:  At the beginning of 2017, work wasn't going well.  I was feeling so overwhelmed by it that I declared 2017 "The Year of Saying No" and resolved to turn down as much extra work as I possibly could.  I knew at the time that I couldn't sustain my level of work unhappiness in the long-term, so I committed to doing whatever I could to improve my job.

Over the past year, I have made some major changes.  One of the most important ones has been going to a performance coach, whom I shall call B**, and whom I promise to write about in more detail in a dedicated post.  B is trained as a clinical psychologist and used to work with high-performance athletes, and over the years he has transitioned to working with high-performance professionals such as physicians.  He and I have worked on improving my thought patterns using a sort of cognitive behavioural therapy "light", which has been hugely helpful for dealing with my anxiety around work.  He's also given me some very practical advice about things that I can do on a daily basis to enjoy work more.

I have also committed to taking vacation every three months.  I cannot overemphasize how life changing this has been.  Vacation time is the only time that I can completely let go of the stress of work, and it is essential to recharging my easily depleted batteries.  It also gives me time to stock up at Costco and to replenish my freezer food stores.  And when I return from vacation, I no longer feel the dread of knowing that the next one is a long way away.  At most, it's another three months.

Lastly, I have been saying no.  When I was stressed about having to give a Grand Rounds presentation, I said no to a week of call so that I would have time to work on it.  When I got my 2018 call schedule and saw that I was scheduled for two more weeks than usual, I found other people to take those two weeks.  When I was asked by the trainees to develop two new teaching modules during a very busy work time, I agreed to do one but not both.  I am valuing my time and my mental health more than I ever have, and I am protecting both of them by setting my own limits for what I'm willing to do.

Finances:  When M and I were still together, we were planning to buy a home, as our one bedroom apartment was too crowded for the two of us.  For over a year, I saved all of the money that I didn't spend or invest for a down payment.  After the breakup, I underwent a major change of heart, realizing that I wasn't going to be comfortable taking on a mortgage until my debt was gone.  Since then, debt repayment has been my financial priority.  You can see the change in my line of credit here:

Until September 2017, my debt was gradually trending downwards thanks to my minimum monthly payments.  But in both September and December, I put large chunks of my down payment towards the debt.  What was once over $200,000 of debt is now $64,000.  And I anticipate that I will be able to get rid of it all before the end of 2018.

So those are the big parts of 2017.  There is much more than I had thought about saying, but this post is already long, and if I were reading it I would have started skimming it a long time ago.  So I will save my other thoughts for future blog posts.

I'm looking forward to sharing more in 2018.

*Not to falsely imply that she was controlling in any way, as she wasn't.  She is simply an extrovert with much higher social needs than introverted me, so I never had energy for social activities beyond the ones that she arranged.

**I am very creative with names on the blog.  You're welcome.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

What I Will Be Doing Instead of Writing a Play

Remember when Christmas was still a month away and I was freaking out because I thought I wouldn't have enough to do?  And then I decided that I was going to use some of my spare holiday time to write a play?


Yeah.  About that.  As the holidays approached, my list of things to do slowly grew.  At the current time, I am absolutely committed to the following activities:

Dinner and a movie with my new friend tonight*
Christmas Eve dinner with family tomorrow night
Christmas Eve sleepover with my Mom
Christmas Day dinner with more family
Counseling session with my performance coach on Thursday**
French lesson on Thursday
Dinner and a show with friends at the Art Gallery on Friday

And this is with minimal effort actually put into making plans.  I still have a list of multiple other friends with whom I'm hoping to make plans in the next ten days.  I have made so many plans that I actually managed to double book myself for Friday night, and for the third year in a row I will not be attending my residency group's annual party.  (Is it surprising that an introvert would pick an intimate evening with friends over a big party?  Zero surprising.)

Until about a week ago, I was still thinking about writing a play.  But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a burden that I would resent, rather than a fun activity to keep me busy over the holidays.  And then I had an insanely busy week on call, which has left me with a desk covered in unfinished work, and I thought "nope".  No.  No play this year.  Rest.

Over the next ten days, I'm just going to recharge and get my life back on track.  I'm going to empty the dishwasher that has been clean since Monday and refill it with the week's worth of dishes that are on the counter.  I'm going to replenish my freezer stores so that I won't go hungry the next time I'm on call.  And I'm going to do a little (lot) of work stuff so that I will not feel too horribly overwhelmed when I go back to work.

And I'm going to do fun stuff!  I saved season two of Stranger Things, so there will be some serious binge watching.  And books.  And drinking peppermint hot chocolate.  And drinking all of the wine I couldn't drink while I was on call.  And sleep.  Glorious, glorious sleep.

It may not be the same as Christmas with my ex's family, but I think it's going to be lovely all the same.

*I made a new friend this year!  As an introvert who treats friends like precious heirlooms and keeps them forever, this is exciting.

**I need to write a post about this, because this has been life-changing.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Solitary Diner, Debt Slayer

When I was still in residency, my financial advisor recommended that I pay off my line of credit as slowly as possible so that I could maximize my investments.  From a numbers perspective, his advice made perfect sense:  I pay prime (currently 3.2%) on my LOC, and I can earn more than prime from investments, so investing wins.  When he made the recommendation, he followed it with the prescient caveat "Assuming that you aren't bothered by the debt".

"Why would I be bothered by the debt?", I wondered.  I had been in debt for almost a decade, and I was doing a great job of ignoring it, so why would it be any different when I was an attending?  I was a rational person who did not make financial decisions based on emotions.  This would be easy.

After finishing training, I initially stuck with the plan.  I took the one-year grace period before I had to start paying back my LOC, and I poured every extra penny I had into retirement savings.  Then when the repayments started, I paid the monthly minimum with the plan to pay it all off in the required ten years.  Everything was on auto-pilot, and everything was great.

Except...every time I logged into my banking account, I had to see the balance on my LOC.  And it was big.  And ugly.  And even though I had achieved a positive net worth, it didn't feel real, because I still had this horrible six-figure debt hanging over me. 

At the same time that I was not repaying my debt, I was saving cash in my savings account* for a future down payment on a home, meaning that I was basically throwing away interest on my LOC.  Which wasn't a big deal when the down payment was small, but got increasingly painful as the down payment grew.  I eventually moved the down payment into an online bank account to earn a bit of interest, but I was still losing money by not using that money to pay off the LOC.  And I hated it.

So...I started going against the plan.  When my ex and I separated earlier this year, I decided that I would defer buying a home for at least a year, and I took some of the down payment money and put it towards the LOC.  Then a few months later I put some more of the down payment money towards my LOC so that I could achieve this:

For about ten minutes, I was ecstatic about my debt being under six figures!  I would look at the balance and smile, realizing that I had cut my LOC by more than half from its highest level.

And then I got mad about the fact that I still owed $100,000 to the bank.

I have tried really hard to not hate my debt and to stick with the plan of maximizing my investments, but the reality is that I. Hate. My. Debt.  I hate paying almost as much towards my debt every month as I do for rent.  I hate that the debt represents bad financial decisions that I made during training.  I hate that my really lovely net worth feels meaningless to me when I still have this debt to repay.  And I hate that I am making big financial decisions like whether to buy a house based on the debt rather than based on what I most want to do.  (Although I would probably still not buy a house right now even if I didn't have the debt.)

So this week, I said fuck it.  I am paying off this debt.  I am taking every penny I had set aside for a down payment and putting it towards the debt, because realistically I am not going to buy a house until the debt is gone.  I have a big end of the year payment coming up, because the university retains part of my income to control for variability in billing, and that is also going towards the debt.  In the new year, I am going to continue with my regularly scheduled monthly investments, but everything else is going onto my LOC. 

Fuck logic**.  I am done with debt. 

*This is a terrible idea.  Do not do this.  Get an online savings account that will at least pay you some interest.

**I apologize to anyone whom I ever silently judged for using the debt snowball method, which always seemed like a ridiculous waste of interest.  I totally get it now!

Sunday, December 10, 2017

You Should Buy A Home

At least once a week, someone will ask me when I'm going to buy a home.  It started in residency, and it has increased in frequency with every year that I continue to "throw my money away" on rent.  In residency, it was easy to justify not buying a home, because I had over $200,000 in debt and I had no time for home maintenance.  People could understand those reasons.  But as soon as I became an attending, paid off a lot of my debt, and stopped doing 28 hour-plus call shifts, those reasons disappeared.  And suddenly, my renting instead of owning became some sort of personal affront to people who own their homes.

These zealous home owners seem to have made it their personal mission to get me to buy a home too.  They will send me listings in my favourite areas, along with messages about how perfect the living room would be for a games night or how much I would love the granite counter tops.  Any time an article is published that extols the virtues of home ownership, I can expect at least two or three of these people to send it to me.  And if I dare say anything even remotely critical of my apartment, I am immediately subjected to a tirade about how much better owning is and how ridiculous it is that I'm still renting.

But you know what?  I like renting.  For a lot of reasons.

I am not throwing away my money:  I have used various calculators to compare the cost of renting and owning in my situation, and based on the home I would likely buy, renting comes out a few hundred dollars a month ahead of owning.  So contrary to popular belief, I am actually saving money by renting.  People immediately respond by saying "Well...paying a mortgage is forced savings.  No one actually has the discipline to invest the money they save by renting."  To which I just laugh.

I like putting almost zero effort into my home:  This summer, while we were out for dinner with friends, I got a phone call that my kitchen sink had overflowed and was flooding the apartment below it.  My (now ex-) partner had to run home to shop vac up the mess, but otherwise the building took care of everything, including paying a plumber premium rates to come out on a Friday evening.  The cost to us was zero, and the time involved to deal with it was minimal.  As has been the case for anything else that has gone wrong with the apartment.  The only maintenance I'm responsible for is replacing the light bulbs!  There is no snow to shovel, no leaves to rake, no grass to mow.  And I love it.

I love my location:  The ex and I started looking at homes earlier this year, and when we talked about where we wanted to live, we both decided that we were already living in the perfect neighbourhood.  It generally takes me 15 minutes or less to drive to and from work, which gives me so much more free time than the crazy people who drive 45 minutes or more to the suburbs.  My apartment is in mature area with old houses and lots of trees, so it's a beautiful place to walk when the weather is nice.  I'm within walking distance of two major restaurant areas, so I can have a drink or two without worrying about driving home.  I can even walk to the library!  Because it's a very desirable and popular neighbourhood, the housing prices here are high.  So I'd be paying even more than a few hundred dollars a month extra to have a nice house or condo in the area where I'm already happily living*.

My apartment is nearly perfect:  In addition to location, there are a lot of things I love about my apartment.  I have huge balconies (plural) to sit on; there are two washing machines and two dryers just down the hall; there is an exercise room that I use on occasion; there's an indoor hot tub; and I have heated indoor parking.  The size of my apartment is pretty perfect for a single person with minimalist tendencies.  My building is also filled with dogs who love to visit, which means I get the pleasure of enjoying other people's dogs without ever having to pick up their poop. 

I hate the idea of taking on more debt:  Although all the other reasons are valid, this is probably at the heart of why I am not looking to buy a home right now.  I still have a six-figure debt, and on my current repayment schedule I'm four years away from paying it off.  The idea of adding a six-figure mortgage to that makes me want to vomit.  "But it's good debt," people say.  Gaaaaahhhhh.  No.  It's still debt.  It's still money that I would owe to someone else, which would limit my choices and almost guarantee that I would have to stay at my current job until the debt is gone.

I may buy a home someday.  Once the debt is gone and I've saved a bigger nest egg for retirement, I can see myself being interested in buying a place.  Something with a bigger kitchen and more space to entertain and hardwood floors, because carpets are gross when you have cats.  But at the current moment, renting works for me.

Which ties into one of the most important (and cliché) things I've learned about personal finances:  it's personal.  Everyone has their own unique circumstances, preferences, and neuroses, so there is no one perfect formula for life happiness and financial success.  Lots of people want to buy a home, and it makes sense to them, so great!  Buy a home.

Just stop telling me that I should too.

*I looked at an apartment condo a few buildings down from where I'm living, and the condo was over half a million dollars with condo fees that were only slightly less than my rent.  It was a really nice condo, but OMG talk about throwing money away.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Living Now Instead of Ten Years From Now

I don't think I knew just how focused I was on my FIRE date until I started actively trying to not think about it.  Since adopting the "set it and forget it" approach to money, I have noticed that I think about FIRE all the time.

Waking up in the morning:  "In ten years, I won't have to set an alarm clock."
Seeing a difficult patient:  "After I FIRE, I won't have to see any patients at all."
Editing trainee dictations:  "I hate my life!  Woe is me!  This is the worst thing ever!"

(Also..."I will never have to edit another poorly written trainee dictation after I retire.")

It's...sad.  Here I am doing what I have trained most of my adult life to do, and I'm dreaming of what comes next.  And it isn't because I hate my job; it's because I have this idea that retirement is going to be so much better.  I've internalized the belief that work is just something you do to earn money before you can quit.

I'm trying really hard to stop.  Any time I catch myself thinking "I just earned enough to not have to work for three days", I am pausing, noticing the thought, and letting it go.  I'm trying to mentally be here, now, instead of when I retire in ten (or more) years.  Because constantly resenting the now and dreaming of later doesn't make anything better.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Set It And Forget It

I am really lucky to have had a Dad who was an insurance salesperson and later a financial advisor.  From the time I was a kid, we had long talks about money and economics and saving for the future.  I had a university savings account from the time I was five, and half of my $2 a week allowance got put into it.  When I turned 18, my Dad gave me a $500 RRSP and a copy of The Wealthy Barber for my birthday, complete with the advice to always put 10% of my earnings directly into savings.

"Even when I'm a university student and I can barely afford to pay my tuition", I asked?

Yes.  Even when I was a university student and I could barely afford to pay my tuition.  Always.

Along with the recommendation to save at least 10% of my earnings, my Dad advised me to "set it and forget it".  Pick a good investment vehicle (or vehicles), set up a monthly direct deposit, and then almost never look at it.  Check it every 3-6 months to make sure the investment strategy is still sound, adjust as necessary, and then ignore it.  Don't get caught up in the day to day fluctuations in the market, which cause people to make damaging emotional decisions, and just focus on long-term wealth building.

This strategy served me well.  I followed his advice through my 20s, and by the time I started medical school at 29 I had a nice chunk of savings, which I kept for retirement instead of putting towards school.  And I kept up the 10% rule through medical school and residency, so even though I became a wild spending machine, I was still building some savings.  (Although not nearly as rapidly as I was building debt, sadly.)  The best part of the "set it and forget it" advice was that I could do just that:  forget it.  I included savings in my budget, they came out automatically, and I could rest comfortable in the knowledge that I was preparing for the future.

All of that changed when I became an attending.  As a fee-for-service physician, I was no longer earning a regular paycheque.  The amount I took home fluctuated wildly depending on whether I was on call, how busy my clinics were, and whether I took vacation.  This year, for example, there was a four-fold difference between my best and my worst paid months.  I'm not complaining at all about how much I am paid - it's wonderful to earn enough to save over 2/3 of what I'm earning without having to adopt Frugalwoods-level frugality - but I have struggled a lot with the variability of my income.

In good months, when I am earning and savings lots, I feel great.  In months when I'm not on call or I lose a lucrative Monday clinic to a long weekend, I feel anxious.  What if I don't save as much as I normally do?  What if this is the beginning of a decline in my income, and I'm not going to be in a position to retire in 5-7 years?  What if I burn out and can't keep working until I FIRE?

I hate it.  I hate that I'm earning way more than I need to live and yet I'm just as anxious about money as ever.  I've tried not looking at my net worth, and it did help to reduce my anxiety, but I'm not very good at ignoring my net worth on an ongoing basis.  I'm good enough at mental math that I can generally estimate my net worth even if I'm not looking at my spreadsheet.

I've been thinking a lot about this anxiety, and I realized that a lot of it stems from having set a very aggressive FIRE target for myself.  Based on the amounts I've been saving to date, I could retire on a reduced budget in about 5 years and retire more comfortably in about 7 years.  So January 1, 2025 has become my tentative FIRE date.  But that FIRE date requires that things stay essentially the same.  It doesn't allow me to buy a house, nor does it account for the very real possibility that physician payments may be cut, or at the very least will not increase at the rate of inflation.   It's an anxiety-provoking FIRE date, rather than a liberating FIRE date.

So this weekend, I came up with a plan.  I've figured out how much I would need to save to FIRE in 10 years, when I will be 50, and it is about 2/3 of what I've been saving to date.  I'm going to take that amount and put 75% of it into investments and 25% of it towards repayment of my line of credit, thereby reducing my remaining time to pay off the LOC to another 4 years.  (Initially it was supposed to take 10 years, but thanks to a lump-sum payment this year and increasing my repayment rate, I've cut that by almost half.)  In the past year, I achieved this level of savings in all but two months (both big travel months), so it is a comfortable amount to set aside.  And I know that it is enough, so hopefully I can relax more knowing that I am meeting good savings targets.

The funny thing is, it won't really change much on a practical level.  I'm not going to go out and blow the 1/3 that I had previously been saving, as I am pretty happy with my current lifestyle.  Any extra money will simply go into a high-interest savings account, where it will act as a bit of a cushion for the months when I'm spending more or earning less than usual.  When it gets too big, I can either put it towards more investments or use it to pay down the debt more aggressively.  I'm not really changing how much I'm spending and saving, but I'm hoping that a bit of financial hocus-pocus will allow me to stop thinking about it so much and just focus on enjoying life.

Friday, December 1, 2017

I Made it Through NaBloPoMo!

30 days!  I started a day late, so I decided to post today to make it the full 30 days.  While not technically following the rules, it totally counts in my book.  Yay me!

I started NaBloPoMo on a total whim, and there were a few times I considered stopping.  Like after I wrote this totally uninspired post.  But I hate failing at anything, so I kept going even though I didn't always want to.

There have been lots of good things about the challenge.  For one, I am really darn proud of myself for sticking with it for 30 days, particularly given that I've not been feeling at my emotional best this month.  It's nice to know that I have the discipline to stick to something, even when the consequences for not doing so are essentially nil.  Second, I've loved all the comments I've been getting!  NaBloPoMo happened just after I joined Twitter, so the volume of comments has increased both from having more posts and from having more traffic.  I love that people will visit my blog, even though I'm just some random person somewhere in Canada, and I love even more that people are affected enough by what I write to leave a comment.  Thank you!  And I am sorry that I have been negligent at replying lately.  I blame Stranger Things.  I am still reading and appreciating every comment.

Lastly, I love that NaBloPoMo has gotten me thinking more creatively.  My work is very rote and routine most of the time, and it's easy for me to fall into boring life patterns.  I've appreciated being challenged to look at life differently and to come up with interesting things to say.  In a tiny way, it makes me feel a little bit more alive.  And the comments on this post have inspired me to take on another challenge at Christmas:  I'm going to write a play.  I've had an idea for a Fringe play bouncing around in my head for months, and I think 10 days will be enough for me to get a very rough draft written.  (Maybe?  Creampuff?  I feel like Creampuff, who is a professional playwright, is just laughing hysterically at this.  But worst case scenario I get something on paper.  Right?)  I don't have any intention of ever presenting the play at the Fringe (I have zero acting experience.  And just barely more than zero playwriting experience.), but I think the experience could be fun.

(Also, Judith Thompson told me to write a play.  I got to talk to her one-on-one for 45 amazing minutes at a local women's theatre festival, and she encouraged me to write a play.  And what else can you do when JUDITH THOMPSON TELLS YOU TO WRITE A PLAY?)

So this is the end of NaBloPoMo.  Huge thanks to Creampuff and OMDG and ana for keeping me company with their own NaBloPoMo writing.  Although I won't be writing every day anymore, I am committing to a minimum of one blog post per week going forward.  NaBloPoMo reminded me of how much I value this space, and I don't want to wait another year to write here regularly.