[Editor’s Note: This is a lengthy guest post written by a long-time physician reader and his physician wife who wish to remain anonymous. We have no financial relationship.]
In August 2015, WCI published my guest post, Super Saving For An Early Retirement. When I first contacted the godfather of physician personal finance with my idea for that post, my motivation was to give something back to him and the blog community from which I’ve taken so much. For a “fluff piece” without much number-crunching meat, it seemed to strike a chord among readers as judged by the amount of interaction in the comments section. It wasn’t a death-metal power-chord like when WCI takes whole life insurance salesmen to task, but it was a chord nonetheless. In any case, the post-guest post outcome was unexpected: I gained way more than I gave.
I intended to show unsophisticated investors (like me) that a high savings rate can compensate for lack of knowledge; you don’t have to understand that much about the financial industry to do a credible job of preparing for early retirement. What I didn’t anticipate was the impact that your (WCI’s minions’) collective wisdom in the comments section would have on me. While there were plenty of comments about the topic of super-saving, readers also took the conversation in surprising directions that forced me to ask, “What the heck am I doing with my life?”
With that preamble, the lessons I have learned:
#1 Change Your Job Now
If you spend much of each day in low-level burnout, fantasizing about giving Admin the middle-finger salute while walking out the door for the last time, perhaps you should change something now.
My wife (also a physician, remember) and I were so laser-focused on an imaginary finish-line that we had come to accept the “suck” as part of our lives, as if we had no power to control it. As we learned to endure the suck, it continued to fuel our desire to leave it all behind. Sure, it seems obvious that disliking your job will be a powerful motivator for achieving early retirement. But when the onset of burnout is insidious, you don’t necessarily have an “a-ha” moment in which perspective is gained and the path to improving your current situation becomes clear. However, when one WCI commenter after another hammers away at your sense of powerlessness, suggesting that you can make changes, it helps jump start the process of introspection.
PsychMD was one of the first commenters to point out how I might work on my happiness now: “If I was in such a position, I’d tap into that young, naive, idealistic person I was before I started medical school, and try to make those dreams a reality…so I could have more of those rewarding moments.”
Then John hit me broadside with: “I am way behind you in terms of retirement but I can tell you I feel so much richer than you because I love coming to work everyday. I mean it is work sometimes but I love it.” He followed that up with a highly applicable anecdote: “I have a friend who was 41 when he looked at his portfolio and saw he had enough, so he reduced his patient time in half and started helping the hospital with the business/leadership side of things. He took a big pay cut but he slowed down and gets a lot out of his new job.”
This unleashed a torrent of similar comments that really resonated with me. Thinking about making some changes yourself? The Happy Philosopher has an entertaining, insightful blog dedicated to his journey in this realm.
#2: Pulling The Trigger Is Complicated
One of the frequent suggestions in the comments on my last post was to cut back my hours at work. With our accumulated assets, that would appear to be a no-brainer, right? Um, not so much. First, we had been obsessing for years over the concept of reaching the “finish line.” I used to play regularly with different online retirement calculators, getting a little endorphin rush every time one calculator’s projections for a successful, even earlier retirement (portfolio lasts 50+ years) were verified by another. Cutting back at work would mean either extending our careers or decreasing our projected yearly spend in retirement.
Let’s start with extending our careers. My wife was not, and still isn’t, burned out to the same extent as I. Nonetheless, she is quite looking forward to the day when she can pack it all in. To her, medicine is a job; her identity is not wrapped up in being a doctor. Most days, she doesn’t mind her job too much, but she would never say she loves it (although she does love getting paid a lot for what she considers a relatively easy specialty). If asked the age-old question of “What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow?” she’d probably say, “Quit my job.”
Now, my turn. The idea of extending my career was tough to wrap my mind around, because it was hard to imagine the job getting that much better after cutting back. My brain just couldn’t seem to process that working less might have a profound impact on my perception of work-life, and that I might appreciate greater career longevity. Which is funny, in retrospect, because my identity is wrapped up in being a physician, and I view medicine somewhere on the spectrum between “calling” and “job,” but closer to calling. So wouldn’t I derive more personal satisfaction from continuing to be engaged in my calling for a longer period of time, if I could make the job more enjoyable? Not only that, but there’s the practical consideration of a kid who has nine more years until graduation from high school, so it’s not like we have the option of taking off for parts unknown for more than 1-2 weeks at a time during the school year. If I’m going to be in town, then it would be lovely to fulfill my mission of helping people while being well-compensated and happier.
Next, I’ll address the idea of decreasing our projected yearly spend in retirement. Total nonstarter. As I’ve said before, we were fairly frugal for a very long time, – living like medical students for years – not upgrading to living like residents until several years after completion of our fellowships. For us, an important component of retirement will be reaping the benefit of all that saving done early in our careers, and this will lead to spending a bunch of money. Just like WCI has inflated his lifestyle to include a killer wakeboat and what seems like q.o.week canyoneering/mountaineering/camping excursions, we have become accustomed to frequent vacations at beautiful VRBO rental homes in exotic locales. Although we do much of our own cooking on vacation, we also enjoy dining out at (sometimes) expensive restaurants.
In retirement, we expect to travel even more frequently and for longer periods of time. While some of this will surely involve camping, which we love, I would guess that 80% of our yearly travel won’t include sleeping under the stars or staying at hostels. For the past two years, our per-year spend has been just over 100k. Figuring in extra spending for more travel plus taxes, we’d like to have 150-200k/year in retirement. Physician on FIRE, who projects needing 1/3 that amount, just had a heart attack, folks. Does anyone in the room know CPR?
#3: Luck Is Not A Strategy
Around the time I was ruminating over some of these issues, a buyout of our group practice started to morph from a possibility into a reality. By late 2015, we were presented with an offer that, if consummated, would result in a high six-figure payout to each partner. As my wife and I were both partners, this was very good news. After months of mental constipation, I started to lay the groundwork for cutting back at work.
Astute readers may argue that I hadn’t internalized any valuable lesson, seeing how it took the prospect of a massive infusion of cash (that we arguably didn’t need to achieve our goals) to mobilize my cutback effort. I agree that I’d have a more credible claim to enlightenment if I had taken concrete steps prior to the buyout news. I like to think that I would have eventually gotten to the same place without the buyout, but I admit the possibility I wouldn’t have. Hopefully, my thought process about cutting back and my experience with it since implementation will resonate with others on the fence, motivating you to take action more expeditiously. So luck is not a strategy, but it can motivate you to make the changes you should have made anyway.
#4: Cutting Back Changed My Life…And Ticked Off My Wife
Him: I’ll attempt to present this as balanced of a way as I can, ceding editorial power to my better half so you can rest assured that both sides of the story are told fairly. To put this in context, yes, the buyout deal happened, leading to obliteration of our outstanding student loan and mortgage debt, as well as a very large infusion of cash into our investment portfolio. I had identified my greatest pain point at work, which was the last few hours of each day. Not only was I mentally drained by that point, but after work I had a long drive to get our child and get home. We would often beat my wife home, so I would start cooking dinner as well. The cumulative effect of doing this for years was wearing on me, and it got worse when my daughter was districted to a school that was even farther away.
After negotiating with my bosses, I was able to shave off the last couple of hours of office time each day. This addressed the mental exhaustion issue and allowed me to get out with enough time to pick my daughter up from our local bus stop, which is just a few minutes drive from home. I felt the effects of this change immediately. It was light outside when I got off work. I no longer felt beat up by the end of my day. Though I’ve always been good at making time for exercise, I could now exercise and do more stuff with my kid – it wasn’t one or the other. We enrolled our daughter in more after-school activities, to which I could now drive her and watch. On hot days over the summer, we might go stand-up paddle boarding in the late afternoon. I would cook a nutritious meal which would be on the table the moment my wife walked in the door. Homework was done. Kid was happy. Dad was happy. Everything is awesome! #Winning, right?
Wrong. After a few months of this new schedule, I started to sense a subtle hostility emanating off my wife. It wasn’t really overt, and I had no clue what was wrong, but I was certainly feeling under-valued and under-appreciated. In my clumsy, male way, I began to lobby for an “Atta boy!” from my wife, hoping that if I pointed out how great it was that I was taking care of our kid and home, she’d show me the love to which I’d become accustomed. Not only didn’t that have the intended effect, but it led to our first “come to Jesus talk” about our new situation.
It turns out that I had completely misjudged the depth of my wife’s feelings about this next phase of our lives. Our marriage had always been 50-50 in just about every way, splitting almost all responsibilities down the middle. This wasn’t really a conscious choice; rather, it just kind of evolved that way. While I was aware of this balance, my wife expected this balance. I had naively assumed that picking up child and household duties would more than cover for her spending more time than me at the office. Apparently I was wrong. But the next part is what really shocked me. She was so jealous of my new schedule that, not only did she resent it, she felt that if anyone in this relationship should be enjoying a semi-retired lifestyle, it should be her!
Her: I’m not sure why this really “shocked” my husband. I was the one who always wanted to be a Mom (ask him if he even wanted children before I forced the issue!). I was the one who felt like medicine is merely a paycheck, not a “calling.” So of course I was bitter that he was the one to cut his hours, not me!
Some of the hostility was also fueled by times when I came home from a long day of work, saw the two of them looking all happy and relaxed, and then realizing after dinner that I still had to help with my daughter’s homework. Hey, if you’re going to cut your hours at work, then at least compensate by taking care of home-life! (To be fair, he has been doing a better job of this since we had our talk.)
Him: It pains me to say that, for the first time, I felt like a better person than my wife (if you knew her, you’d probably assume that she’s nicer and more evolved than I – it’s ok, everyone else does). If our situations were reversed and she had cut back at work, I knew that I would be unconditionally happy for her. After discussing this with a couple of my male friends, I was convinced that on the scale of rightness, I scored at least 99%. Then I discussed this with a couple of my female friends (both married doctors) and I gained some perspective. While acknowledging that it’s not totally rational, my female friends counseled me that they don’t really want to feel like they’re doing the lion’s share of “bringing home the bacon.” Without wading too deep into old gender-role stereotypes, they could see how my wife wanted to feel taken care of by her man, in a more traditional sense.
Her: This is true. When both of us worked full-time, I was making 25-30% more, which never really bothered me. But then he cut his hours, and that number went up another 5-10%. While his current salary is nothing to sneeze at, I view it as a big hit to our income.
Him: I still thought this was a little crazy – despite understanding my wife a bit better – given the facts. One: the hit to my income was small in the grand scheme of things, as my hours weren’t cut as much as I had hoped. Two: we had just received a bolus of cash that had advanced our timeline to early retirement by several years. Three: we had previously discussed her cutting back at work and she had declined.
Number three led to further emotionally charged discussions, in which she now stated that the only way she could manage her jealousy was to finally cut back her schedule, so we’d be “even.” I urged her to do so, as it was clear that the health of our relationship required it. Plus, we were on track to practically retire at-will, regardless of whether her salary was 10%, 20%, or even 50% less. Well, time has passed and she hasn’t made any changes to her schedule. She seems to have accepted our current situation for what it is, and she’s now batting around the idea of retiring at the end of her contract with our new parent company, in two years. But, if she’s still not that burned out, she may continue working, full or part time.
Why the change of heart? Various reasons. She’s not that burned out. It’s logistically difficult to cut back in her department. Fear of “getting off the train” and not being able to get back on, should circumstances require it. Wanting to feel like she pushed hard to the end so she can feel good about quitting cold turkey while I continue to work. Anyway, her jealousy is currently manageable and the marriage is solid.
Her: One more reason: fear of not having enough money in retirement, despite what he tells me.
#5: Working Less Makes me a Better Person
Working less has made me a more engaged physician, a better father/husband, and a more introspective person. Jeff left an inspirational comment on my original guest post that turned out to be unbelievably prescient, as it sums up almost exactly what’s happened in my life:
“…let’s focus on the beauty of working part time…You get to live a better lifestyle TODAY…Work 3 days a week, or shorter hours, or see less patients. Take less call. Think of what you could do with that time! …Whatever you want!!! You’d have time to make dinner, maybe not every night but much more than you do now. Likely you would find work to be less offensive and perhaps you rediscover that enjoyable, rewarding aspect again…life is too tragically short to be overly conservative. Don’t keep putting off your happiness just so you can “guarantee” you’ll have enough in retirement. Lots of adjustments can be made along the way if needed. Start to enjoy the freedoms you’ve definitely earned TODAY!”
I touched on some of this earlier, but it goes deeper than just having more time at the end of the day. The downstream effects on my psyche from having this time have been myriad. I am happier to sit and chat with my patients, as I no longer feel like I have to ration my listening-energy to make it last all day. My fellow introverts know what I’m talking about – prolonged interpersonal engagement saps us of all available energy and empathy.
Things that used to rile me up at work still bother me, but usually not to the same extent. I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m zen about all the nonsense in my organization, but I’m learning how to approach it more constructively.
One thing about this new life that has surprised me is my focus on self-improvement. Many years ago, before I had a real job and a family, I remember being philosophical and way more introspective. For at least the last decade, I’ve just been busy. I’ve gotten really, really good at checking stuff off my to-do list. Unfortunately, the stuff that made it to my list was just what had to get done for daily life. The rest of me has been on autopilot for a long time. What would happen if you did almost no routine maintenance on your car for ten years? Maybe a Toyota would still seem to be running pretty well, but once you looked under the hood, you’d find some parts were about to break. I’m that Toyota.
How I’ve gone about working on myself and changing the things I don’t like would take at least one more blog post, and I’m not sure anyone but me would be interested. Suffice it to say that, if you’re looking for personal improvement inspiration, I highly recommend subscribing to and combing through the archives of Tim Ferriss’ podcast and listening to whatever catches your eye. The collective wisdom there is brain-expanding and cannot be overstated. If you’re like my wife, however, and you just can’t sit through a 2-hour interview for a mere few brilliant nuggets, pick up a copy of his latest book, Tools of Titans, which is a high-yield compilation of all the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers.
#6 Controlling Lifestyle Inflation Requires Constant Vigilance
Sure, we have enough assets to retire whenever we’re ready. But not if our next ten years of spending follow the trajectory of the last ten, in which we’ve roughly doubled our yearly spend. There have been many great posts about this issue in the financial blogosphere, so I’ll simply share what I’ve found to be useful for reining it in.
I now practice gratitude on a regular basis – a simple tool that helps me appreciate everything in my life. It also helps me couch things in terms of “I get to do this,” as opposed to “I have to do this.” I know it may sound like mental jiu-jitsu, but it does help shift perspective. The corollary to this is learning to want what you already have.
When evaluating a potential purchase or other outlay of money, if I find myself saying, “We can afford it,” I pause and reflect. As WCI likes to say, high-income physicians can have anything they want, but not everything they want. I was shopping for a new jacket the other day and found two choices at the mall: a leather one for $250 ($500 before my 50% off Banana Republic coupon) or a faux-leather one for less than half that. They looked equally nice, and I’m not enough of a leather connoisseur to feel the difference. Call me a troglodyte, but I bought the fake one.
#7 Other Things I Can Do With My Life
Having more time has allowed me to think about other things I can do with my life.
Until I came up for air, I hadn’t thought much about what I’d do with the luxury of time. Now I’m working on launching a blog (in a genre unrelated to personal finance) of all things. If it turns into something substantial, I’ll monetize it. The point is, I never would have had the inspiration nor bandwidth prior to creating more time in my schedule.
I have always enjoyed teaching, but having residents rotate through my private practice is challenging because productivity is valued over education. I’ve hosted them anyway, but it’s exhausting to give them a great experience while still churning through patients and closing charts. With a shorter day, I handle it much better, which has reinvigorated my love of teaching. In early retirement, I can see myself volunteering to staff the fellows’ clinic at our local academic institution.
I took on a couple of malpractice cases as an expert witness this year and learned that I have an aptitude for it. I enjoyed working with the attorneys and teaching them, simultaneously feeling good about aiding in the defense of doctors who didn’t deserve to be sued. Oh, and the money was awesome.
If I can leave you with one message, it is: don’t keep waiting for tomorrow to change your life – do it now.
What do you think? Have you considered working part-time? What thoughts have you had about life change as you approach financial independence? Comment below!