Sunday, September 13, 2020

Return of the Budget


My relationship with budgets has varied a lot over the course of my adult life.  When I was an undergraduate and then graduate student, I sort of had a budget, but it wasn't a very detailed one:  my approach to spending was essentially "OMG I have no money, don't buy anything that isn't food or shelter".  Once I started working, I had a basic budget for my regular expenses and savings, but I was also doing a lot of contract work, which allowed me to spend on luxuries without having to carefully track my spending.

And then I became a medical student, and any frugal habit I had ever developed was abandoned in an LOC-fueled spending frenzy.  It was absolutely delightful in many ways, but it left me with a $200,000+ debt hangover at the end of nine years of training.  So I put myself back on a budget during my last year of fellowship, and I mostly stuck with it to about the end of my first year as an attending.

It's been five years since I started working, and for the past four I've abandoned the budget.  I've still tried to be mindful of my spending, but I've definitely let a lot of small and not-so-small expenditures creep back into my life.  I hadn't been worrying about this lifestyle creep at all, because as a single physician still living in my apartment from residency (10 years and counting), it wasn't having a huge impact on my ability to save.

And then COVID hit.

Before I talk about the impact of COVID on my finances, I will say that I am incredibly grateful to be someone who still has a secure and well-paying job.  I am thankful that I don't have to worry about my ability to put a roof over my head or food on my table.  And living in a country with universal healthcare - praise Tommy Douglas.  I know I am very fortunate...but COVID has still hurt.

To protect myself, my patients, and my community, I mostly "see" patients over the phone right now.  I do have some in-person clinics, which allow me to actually see the sickest patients, but close to 90% of my work is virtual.  Which is great!  Reduce the spread of COVID while wearing sweatpants and avoiding a daily commute?  I'm in!  Except...the government is paying me about 40% less for phone visits*.  So I'm working just as much, with the added stress of WORLDWIDE PANDEMIC THAT COULD KILL YOU AND EVERYONE YOU CARE ABOUT, while getting paid significantly less.

(Again, I will pause for a moment of gratitude that I am alive, thus-far COVID-free, and still earning more than I need.)

In the beginning, I lived in this lovely delusion that COVID was a temporary thing and that we would resume our regularly scheduled programming within a few months.  Within that delusion, even a significant decrease in my earnings felt okay, because it was finite.  I even ramped up my charitable giving, because I recognized that there were a lot of people and organizations who were much more seriously impacted by the pandemic than I was.  I didn't feel worried, because I fully anticipated that I would be back to generously feeding my retirement accounts before the end of the year.


Apparently COVID isn't going away.  And apparently the pay cut is going to be a long-term thing.

And while I am thankful to have enough, I am also a whole host of negative emotions about the impact the pandemic is having on my earnings and the vision I had for my future.  Where I previously thought I might be able to retire in as little as six years, now retirement is waaaay farther away.  (How far?  I don't really even want to think about it.  Nor do I totally know.  Just much farther than six years.)  I feel a huge sense of loss, but also an emotion I haven't felt about money in a long time:  fear.

As a single person, there is no backup plan.  If I don't earn money**, eventually my savings run out and I don't eat or have a safe place to live.  And while I know that this is unlikely, and far off even if I were to lose my job, I have an anxiety disorder that is quite happy to turn the remotest of possibilities into a reason not to sleep at night.  

So what to do?

I could work more, and I am considering trying to pick up some extra call shifts, but I also recognize that working more will make me more stressed and anxious, which I'm trying to avoid.  Buy lottery tickets?  Marry rich?


I sat down this week and took a serious look at how much I've been earning and spending since COVID started.  And then I cried.  And then I made a budget for myself.  It isn't actually all that strict, particularly given that I only have to care for myself and one geriatric cat, but it is a definite reigning in of my spending.  There is some anxiety associated even with this, as the mere act of putting limits on my spending creates a further sense of scarcity for me.  But I'm hoping that this will fade over time and that the bump in my savings rate will help to make me feel (and objectively be) more secure.

It's worth a try.

*Why, you ask?  Me too.

**Yes, I have disability insurance.


  1. I'm very sorry, friend. You've had quite a bit of change occur in a short period, and now this as a step to care for yourself.
    I understand the scarcity stuff, which is why I've never been able to be on a set budget. But I try to flip that into an abundance mindset by feeling grateful that my fixed expenses are so low that I'm still able to save and enjoy some of my money without running short.

    I hope something like that can work for you, too.

    1. Thanks, friend. In the grand scheme of things, my complaints are small - it's just an adjustment. It's funny how budgeting changes one's feelings about money. I have the same amount as I did before I went on a budget, and I'm actually using it more wisely/saving more; however, I am more stressed about money! Seems ridiculous.

      My budget is thankfully more than enough, and it has huge flexibility (I give myself a daily "allowance" for most expenses and a bi-weekly fund for larger purchases), so I'm hoping this will help to minimize my stress/anxiety about it.

  2. Maybe this won't help, but this is my perspective. I am always reassured by being a single person in terms of finances. I'm educated and earn okay in various office jobs, not spectacular money by any means, and I wished I'd tried harder when I was younger to get the really impressive jobs in the impressive corporate companies. But I'm better off than many friends who do shift work and never expect to have enough money for a mortgage. I'm better off than my mother who worked minimum wage jobs to buy her own house when she finally retired. I know I'll always be employable in some form, even if I rarely earn beyond 45K (and that's me in a really good year, pre-taxes, with a lot of additional freelance work). I have no dependents, all I have to do is make sure I'll be okay in the future. I paid off my student loans. I live in a country with free healthcare. I've paid into national insurance, I know I will receive a pension. I rent a small, perfectly affordable flat, I'm reassured to find property prices here aren't crazy if I want to buy a place (pretty much the dream in the UK - people see property as their retirement nest egg to sell, or use for rental income). I don't expect to inherit from my estranged parents, but then I don't expect to inherit debt either. If I marry a partner, we'd have to move elsewhere and then that will bring a financial headache. If I ever reproduce, I will certainly be lying awake at night fretting about paying for another human being and freaking out about the fragility of my health. Until then... I'm fine.

    I'm not immune to envy for the rich and famous. I fantasise about somehow getting a lottery windfall and knowing I suddenly have a fat private pension. But I can't beat myself up about not having that. I sit with friends who are pretty much living payday to payday, listen to them make plans for starting their own businesses or even floating ideas of online sex work. I've got nothing to complain about other than wanting 'more' than I already have.

    What does security look like to you? What has you afraid at night?

    1. I appreciate your perspective, and it's true that I have more than enough and more than most people do. And I am mostly grateful for that. With a bit of anxious thrown in.

      What has me afraid is a long list! Mostly I'm afraid of being unable to work for some reason (stress, illness, lawsuit) before I have enough saved for retirement.

  3. We have a complicated relationship with the *eight year* budget spreadsheet that's been tabulating our monthly spending, saving, and investments for the better part of a decade.

    For what it's worth, I've accepted the fact that I'm someone who needs boundaries in my life, even as I dislike them. I don't want to feel restricted: I kind of hate it. But, then, I also hate what happens when I operate without any guardrails, too. In the end, a boundary is the medicine I need, even if it's the medicine I don't want to take.

    1. Yeah, as much as I hate having limits, they are good for me. I've already cancelled my Crave and my Netflix subscriptions, both of which I almost never watched ("But it's only $14 a month" I would say). I've paused before buying a few things to ask if I really want them or not (usually not). I've forced myself to eat the food in the fridge instead of ordering in. So it's helpful...but there's also anxiety with it!

  4. Yesh on the 40% pay for phone visits... as an NP doing phone visits majority of the time, I feel like for a lot of things they are actually way more work! Trying to figure out a patient's medications over the phone through an interpreter, having to ask more questions than you might in a visit where much is obvious when the patient is in front of you, and at least in our office a lot more back and forth on stuff like booking appts etc. Anyways...
    I know you are super financially knowledgable and have totally made budgets work for you, but have you considered YNAB? Honestly I previously found budgets really stressful and restrictive, and for me I felt like I was still missing the piece of the expenses that "probably should be expected" but I never did (annual licensing fees, Christmas time, random bills that are like every 3 months etc) and would often get so frustrated with being over budget. I have found YNAB super satisfying and freeing. The method makes sense to me (I found the book helpful, minus his kind of annoying anti-debt part) and I love that it's so easy to adjust the budget as you go while still keeping the focus on your goals. It has definitely helped me feel more in control during this time of so much uncertainty. The charts are very satisfying too :)
    Anyways, maybe it is not for you and you're all set with the budget, but thought I'd mention.
    Whatever way, you will get through this. Hang in there.

    1. OMG...I've had patients spell their medications to me over the phone, which makes me want to lose my mind! Sometimes the phone visits are fine, but other times they are so much harder than in-person.

      Thanks for the YNAB suggestion. I have been using an app called "Virtual Budget", which I like because it's very simple to use, and I'm really only trying to track my variable expenses. (I've gone through my fixed expenses and cut out the few things I could already, so this is my main area to work on). I have it set up so that it "deposits" a certain amount daily into my "account" (or bi-weekly into my large purchase account), and then I record my expenditures. So far I've been under budget (it's been a whole week!), but I'm on vacation next week, so I imagine it will be harder.

  5. I bet you’re happy you didn’t buy a too-expensive house! This sucks though. I know covid is never going away, I just wonder when (if?) they will ever be better.

    1. I totally am! I was actually looking at a place in my neighbourhood a few weeks ago, and it would've totally killed my budget. It would be nice to have a bigger/better space for the winter, but I am happy to not be spending the extra money.

      So hard to know what the future holds. I feel like this is one big exercise in mindfulness...which I really don't want right now!