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.