Thrifty.  Frugal.  Cheap.  Similar meanings with different connotations.  One, a lost virtue.  Another, an insult.  I find that I tend to swing rapidly between being ultra-frugal and being a spendthrift (although my wife would say I spend far more time on the left side of that pendulum).  I like to think of it as spending my money on those things I value most, but deep down I know there isn’t always that much logic behind what I decide to blow my cash on.  Some days I just feel more frugal than others I guess.

Doctors Can Buy Anything They Want, Right?

Since I started making the “big bucks“, I’ve noticed a strange and somewhat disturbing trend.  I feel much more obligated to spend around family, friends, and even acquaintances.  It might be the obligation I feel to pick up the bill at a restaurant, to spend more on gifts, to chip in more money when meals are ordered into work, or to simply have nicer stuff.  “I should have nicer clothes, I’m a doctor.”  “I should drive a better car, I’m a doctor.”  These aren’t necessarily always things I care much about (although occasionally they are), but it seems there is a bit of societal expectation weighing on all of us.  I think, on some subconscious level, it works about like this:

Doctors are rich and can buy anything they want.  I am a doctor.  Therefore I can buy anything I want.  Because I can buy anything I want, I should.  Or, since I make more than the person I am with, I should pay.

Finding a Balance Between Frugality and Spending

It’s very strange.  It’s not entirely logical (although not entirely illogical).  And it is often very uncomfortable, and not necessarily because I particularly mind spending the money.  I confess I have a difficult time finding balance with the issue.  You want to use your earning ability to provide a comfortable life for yourself and your family.  You want to help others.  You want to be generous with the fruits of years of hard work, good luck, and outright blessings.  But you don’t want to be taken advantage of, nor have others feel entitled or expectant of your largesse. And you certainly don’t want to be wasteful, no matter how little money is involved.

crumpled dollarIn some ways, it is a lot like being at work.  You don’t mind doing some charity care.  You really did go into medicine to help others.  But it really turns you off to have people describe Medicaid as “insurance” and to come in by ambulance for a sandwich.  I don’t think the solution is simply to hang out just with high-earners so you feel more comfortable socioeconomically, but I would just as soon hide the fact that I am a physician from people I meet socially until I know them a little better.

Friends and family don’t usually help with this.  They’re proud of us, and want to show us off or even offer a little praise by introducing us as, “my son, the doctor” or “this is my friend, the rich doctor.”  I suppose I feel the same way about them, and do similar things when I introduce them to others.  “This is my sister, the CEO” for example.  I guess I just prefer that expectations for me be set a little lower.

Staying Down to Earth

I enjoy the relative anonymity of going down to the local disc golf course for an hour or two before or after a shift.  Disc golf is the ultimate cheapo sport since you can get started for less than $10 and you can pretty much buy any equipment your heart desires for $200.

I might play a pick-up round with a plumber, a convenience store clerk, and a homeless guy who puts his tent up in the park every night after everyone goes home.  We might bet $5 on the game.  I’m glad they have no idea how long it takes me to make that $5 at work.  No expectations.  Just throwing plastic through the trees and hoping you don’t toss your favorite disc in the creek.  The only personal question anyone ever asks is, “Anybody here a cop?” just before they light up their bowl of wacky tobacky on the back nine.

Unfortunately in our society, one of the first questions people ask is, “What do you do?”  When I was in the military it took a lot more questioning to figure out exactly what I did for a living.  I could say, “I’m in the military.”  If they persisted, I could say, “I’m an officer at such and such military base.”  The really persistent would get, “a medical officer” or “I work in the ER” and usually end up figuring out I’m a doctor.  Maybe someday I’ll be more comfortable with that.  Moderation in all things, I suppose.

Comments?  How do you cope with the societal expectation that doctors spend more (whether or not they actually make more?)  Did you start acting differently at some point after residency?  How do you stay “down-to-earth?”  Or do you even try?