Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why Are You Thinking About Retiring So Early?

As I was reviewing the consult service list with my resident earlier this week, I started to feel strangely unwell.  Cold, clammy, nauseated, and dizzy to the point of almost passing out*.  The feeling passed quickly, so I did what any "good" physician would do and soldiered on through my day.  Unfortunately, the feeling came back twice while I was talking to a patient and his family, and I felt so sick that I thought I might black out in the middle of the hospital, so I finally conceded that I couldn't stay at work any longer.  Thankfully the service was slow, and I was otherwise just catching up on paperwork, so it was possible for me to make a quick exit and drive my sick self home.

My sick self was pretty darn sick, so I spent the rest of the day lying on the couch with two cats applied to my abdomen.  After exhausting my blogroll and all of the interesting television that I'm allowed to watch (I mostly watch shows on Netflix with M, who would not tolerate me getting ahead of her), I started reading through some of the old comments on my blog.  One of them in particular, from Zed at Mind the Medic, stuck out:

"I hope you don't mind me asking but why are you thinking about retiring so early?"

I was apparently too lazy to respond to the question at the time, but I feel like it deserves to be revisited, as it's something I think about often.  And the answer is pretty simple:

"Because I'm often happier when I'm not working than when I'm working."

This isn't something that physicians talk about all that often, because our careers are supposed to be our callings.  We're supposed to be happy to make all the sacrifices of time, energy, and stress that we do because they are more than made up for by The Great Privilege of Saving Lives.  And yes.  Some days my job is a great privilege, and some days I even get to save lives.  But a lot of days my job is exhausting and tedious and almost unbearably stressful.  And on those days, I sometimes dream of being retired, even though I'm only 40 and two years into my career.

Over the past 14 months, since I achieved the much coveted net worth of zero, I've managed to save up enough money to live off of for about 3 1/2 years.  At my current rate, I expect that I could retire in as little as seven years, although that would definitely be more a state of Financial Independence than Financial Freedom.  It gives me great comfort and a feeling of security to know that, if I want to or need to, I could walk away from working at that time.

Although, the reality is that I may choose not to walk away.  The more financially secure I become, the more freedom I have to do things that make me happy at work, like take time off.  Financial security also makes me feel much less stressed about work and and how much I'm earning, which in turn makes it easier to like my job.  My dream is to hit the point of being Financially Independent but to enjoy work enough that I have no desire to retire yet.

But if that isn't the case?  Then it will be really nice to have the option of retiring early.

*The eventual diagnosis:  possible early anaphylaxis to a medication that I've been taking for 18 years, complete with really spectacular urticaria.  I may need an Epi pen.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Monochromatic

Given that I took a week of vacation to go to a theatre festival, you won't be surprised to learn that I am a huge fan of theatre.  My love of theatre started at the age of 12, when I played the role of Weasel in "The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf"*, and it has grown over the following 28 years thanks to an impressive local theatre scene.  I have seasons tickets to the main theatre in my city, I can easily be convinced to see pretty much any play, and the annual theatre festival is my own personal Christmas.  Love it!

I also view theatre as something that's pretty important.  As a teenager, it took me a long time to understand and accept the fact that I am bisexual, and theatre made the entire process easier.  The plays that I went to often featured characters who were grappling with their sexuality, and when I watched them, I felt seen.  I may not have been able to tell my parents or even talk to my friends** about what was going on in my life, but I could go to the theatre and see myself reflected in the characters on stage.

Which is why I think it's important for a lot of stories to be told in the theatre, not just those of straight, white, cis-gendered, middle-class, heterosexual people.  But when I go to my theatre festival - my beloved, take-a-week-off, favourite-time-of-the-year theatre festival - those are the stories that are getting told.  And those are the people telling the stories.  Of the 25 plays I've seen to date, with over 50 actors in total, there have been only four non-white actors.  Four!  The population of my city is over 30% non-white, and yet virtually every actor at the festival is white.  And virtually every story is about white people.

I find this really sad, particularly because I view the theatre community as one of the most diverse and accepting groups of people anywhere.  If theatre isn't a space that welcomes and encourages the participation of everyone, then what space is?

*Because everything is available online, I found a video of a school performing "The Trial of the Big Bad Wolf", which brought back so many memories.  So many memories.  So many feels.

**Of course, my friends aren't idiots, and it didn't take too many times of me asking "Hey!  Wanna see this random lesbian play with me?" for them to figure it out.  

Monday, July 24, 2017

Happiness on the Path to FIRE

Back in February, I was at one of the lowest points emotionally that I've been at in a long time.  I was burnt out from work, but in a very different way from the burnout I had experienced in residency.  In residency, difficult times were made easier by the knowledge that I was only days to weeks away from a new rotation; as an attending, I could take no such comfort from the knowledge that I would be doing the same work for years to decades.

So I took a vacation.  In late January, M and I decided last minute to book a trip to Cuba, and it was a bit of a lifesaver.  For the first time in months, I had a prolonged break from the incessant stress of work.  I stopped waking in the middle of the night to ruminate about patient care decisions.  I stopped calculating how many more days I would have to work until I would be financially independent.  I started laughing again.  For the ten days that I was away from work, I felt like myself again.

And when I went back, everything felt easier.  Not always easy, and certainly not free from stress, but at the very least far more manageable than it had before the vacation.  The whole experience made it clear to me that, while some physicians can go for years without a vacation, I am not one of those physicians.  To be happy, and to be of much use to my patients, I need to take breaks.

So I've decided to aim for at least one week off every three months.  By three months my neck is starting to stiffen and my sleep is getting more interrupted, and time away from the office feels really, really good.  I could work longer without a vacation, but I don't want to.

As someone who is interested in financial independence/retire early, or FIRE, it's tempting at times to want to reach financial independence as early as possible.  I sometimes think about taking extra call weekends and not taking time off and never eating out again so that I can squirrel away every possible penny for retirement.  But the reality is that I'm at least seven years away from achieving financial independence, and probably ten years away from feeling comfortable enough to retire, which is a long time to be unhappy.  I don't want to white knuckle my way to retirement; I want to be happy in the process.  Heck, I would love it if I were so happy in the process that when I reach the point of being able to retire I won't want to.

So I will take vacations.  And sleep through the night.  And laugh.  And be happy in my pursuit of FIRE.

(At the moment, I'm happily taking a week off of work to participate in our local theatre festival.  And I am loving my life.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

It Wasn't About the Fireworks

As I was writing my most recent blog post, I was under no false illusion that my partner and I were in the right to be trespassing on private property.  I didn't even totally disagree with people's comments on the post, even though some of them seemed unnecessarily harsh to this delicate Canadian.  And yet, I was angry.  I was angry when I wrote the blog post, and angry when I reflected back on it.  Almost inexplicably so.

And then it finally occurred to me.  What I was feeling really had nothing to do with the woman who yelled at us.  Sure, it wasn't the nicest or most neighbourly of things for her to do, but she may have had her reasons for doing it.  Maybe her property gets destroyed by drunken yahoos every Canada Day and she's sick and tired of it.  What do I know?  The real reason that I was so upset about the whole incident was that, to me, it was reflective of a much greater greed that seems to be pervasive in our society.

I believe pretty strongly that personal wealth is partly the result of an individual's hard work, but it is also almost always the result of a tremendous amount of privilege.  In my own case, I had to work my ass off for years to become a physician, but I was helped a lot in the process by living in a safe country, by having access to a good public education system, by being born into a stable and supportive family, and by having the physical and intellectual ability to survive medical training*.  In other words, I was lucky.  And I believe that anyone who is as lucky as I have been should do what they can to share some of their good luck with others.

But unfortunately, a lot of wealthy people don't feel that way.  They feel that they're entitled to hoard their wealth, even when they have far more of it than they could use in many lifetimes over.  Republicans think it's okay to cut health care coverage for the poor as long as it lowers their own premiums.  The Walton family sits on many billions of dollars and gives almost nothing away.  And on and on.

It angers and saddens me to no end.  Because this "every man for himself" mentality doesn't make for good community or for a good world.  And it isn't the way that I want things to be.  So sometimes I get frustrated by it all and get mad at people for not wanting me to sit in their field.

(This is not as articulate a post as I would like it to be, but in the interest of getting something out there and getting past this event, I'm going to hit publish.  Please feel free to gently and kindly share your thoughts in the comments.  This is probably an idea that I'll revisit in the future, hopefully in a more completely thought out way.)

*To give but a few examples.  I could add in many more, such as the fact that I grew up middle class, that I'm not a visible minority, that women are more widely accepted in medicine than they were a generation or two ago, etc.  You get the idea.  Privilege

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Greedy Rich People

For the Canada Day long weekend, M and I left the city to camp in front of a lake for three nights.  It was an amazing escape, complete with star-filled skies, late evenings in front of the campfire, and tasty but not-so-healthy camping food.  I felt more relaxed than I have in months, and I constantly found myself saying that I didn't want to go home (and particularly not back to work).

We had planned to completely avoid the Canada Day celebrations, as we both had some reservations about celebrating 150 years of colonization and abuse of indigenous peoples, but while stopping for gas we heard about "the best small town fireworks show in the province" from the sales clerk, and we decided to go.  So on Saturday night, we left our refuge in the woods for the relative civilization of a town of 1,000 people.

When we arrived in town, there was a small area by the waterfront that had been designated the fireworks viewing area.  It seemed that all 1,000 townspeople had come out for the celebration, as there wasn't an inch of available space on which to sit or stand.  So we walked down the street until we found a lovely grassy area on which many people had set up blankets to watch the show.

Unfortunately, the area had been blocked off with orange plastic fencing; however, there was a steady stream of people walking under the fencing, so we followed suit.  We found a great spot on the grass with a clear view of the water, and we settled in to watch the show. 

And then, an angry woman came over and started yelling at us.

"This is private property!  What are you doing here?"

We were a bit surprised, as there were easily hundreds of other people lying on the ground, so we explained to her that we were looking for a place to watch the fireworks and had simply followed other people into the area.

"Well!  It's private property!  You can't stay here!  You have to leave!"

Now...I understand that no one wants their property trespassed on, and I do recognize that we were trespassing.  However...it was an enormous field that easily could have accommodated many more people than were sitting on it.  The woman who was yelling at us was part of a group having a large bonfire, and they were taking up only a very small portion of the grass closest to the fireworks, so the people watching the show were not impinging on their space in any way.  And the people who had come for the show were sitting quite peacefully, not appearing to be disruptive or damaging to anything.

And yet, this woman didn't want any of us there.  Because it was part of her property, and heaven forbid someone else enjoy something to which they aren't entitled.

Which I completely don't understand.  If I have something that I'm not using, such as a giant piece of land that is too large for myself and my small group of friends, I would happily let someone else use it.  This woman and her group could easily have let us all sit and watch the show, at no harm to them.  If they'd been concerned about crowd control, perhaps they could have negotiated with the town to block off a portion of the property for the public, so that the space could have been enjoyed by everyone while still "protecting" the group who owns it.

But no.  It was her property, and she didn't want anyone else to enjoy it.

Fitting metaphor for the celebration of 150 years of colonization.

Am I wrong about this?  I was and still am horrified by the way that this woman treated us (and many other people who had come to watch the fireworks).  The pure selfishness of it offends me so much.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

One Year in the Black


It has been just over one year since I reached a net worth of zero.  After being in debt for almost ten years, it has been a welcome change to open the Excel file in which I track everything financial and see that my investments finally exceed the balance on my line of credit.

As a medical student and resident, I hadn't thought much about finances.  I was surrounded by people who came from wealthy families, and it didn't take me long to adopt their spendy habits and to accumulate a lot of debt.  I reassured myself that "everyone was doing it" and that the debt was okay, because it would be easily repayed once I became a physician and started getting paid in bags full of money.  I rarely looked at the balance of my line of credit, and whenever I did it was just a quick glance, followed by a nervous chuckle at the ridiculousness of owing the bank such an enormous sum.

It wasn't until my last year of fellowship that I actually woke up to the reality of how much money I owed and started doing something about it.  I went on a budget, and I actually started spending less than I was earning for the first time in eight years.  I didn't save a lot of money in that year, as it was a major adjustment just to start living within my means, but at the very least I laid some groundwork for financial responsibility as an attending.

And then I finished training!  And got an adult job!  And suddenly there was a lot of extra money to put towards savings and debt repayment.  Every day that I worked, I got a little bit closer to the longed for balance of zero.  And yet, my anxiety about money actually got worse.  When my line of credit was ridiculously big, I comforted myself by saying that I could declare bankruptcy if I ever lost my job*, because there was no way I could pay it back on anything other than a physician's salary.  As it got smaller, and my investments bigger, I suddenly entered territory where I would be expected to pay back my loans, regardless of whether I could continue to work as a physician.  And the idea of earning a non-physicians salary but still being $50,000 or $60,000 in debt was terrifying.

Thankfully, I have kept my job, and after ten months of working and saving I got myself back into the black.  I expected that the anxiety about money would resolve instantaneously after achieving that milestone, but oddly enough I didn't take a lot of comfort in being a 39-year old with a net worth of zero.  I still felt vulnerable to the possibility of becoming disabled** or burning out of my career and not having enough money to have good options.  So I kept saving and repaying debt and watching my net worth get healthier and healthier.

In the past year, I've increased my net worth by enough that I could live at my current standard of living for about three years.  While I hesitate to share actual numbers here, I will say that my net work growth breaks down roughly as follows:  10% from growth on investments; 10% line of credit repayment; 30% cash savings (for a down payment on our first home); and 50% long-term savings (RRSPs and a TFSA to minimize taxes). 

My savings vary a lot from month to month, due to a fluctuating call schedule and taking time off work for vacations and conferences, but the overall trajectory of my net worth has been pleasantly positive.  And finally...FINALLY...I am starting to relax a little.  It is comforting to know that I could become disabled and live comfortably off my disability insurance payments.  Or I could burn out from medicine and pursue a different career, and I would be absolutely fine.  For the first time in a decade, I feel like I have some real security and real options.  I'm still a long way from financial independence, but at least I'm sleeping more peacefully at night.

*I only had private student loans, so I think they would have been cancelled out by a bankruptcy.  But don't quote me on that.  And don't be an idiot like me and think that bankruptcy is a good financial strategy!

**Yes, I have disability insurance.  As should every physician.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Retiring To, Instead of From

One of the nurses I work with in my inner city clinic retired last week.  I'm in a bit of denial about the whole situation, as she takes with her over thirty years of relationships with patients and experience in the community, and it is going to be a terrible, horrible adjustment to run the clinic without her.  It's a bit like a body trying to function after a left main occlusion has knocked out most of the heart.  Still possible (hopefully), but irreversibly impaired.

I've known that her retirement was coming for most of this year, so there has been plenty of opportunity to prepare for the transition and to hire a replacement.  Fortunately, we've managed to poach a really excellent and experienced nurse from another physician who practices in the same field (sorry colleague!), so the new nurse will be about as good as possible for a replacement.  I've also had some time to mentally prepare myself for the change, although I haven't done as much as I probably should have (see above statement re: "bit of denial").

Interestingly, from talking with the nurse who is leaving, it doesn't seem that she's done that much mental preparation for her retirement either.  She seems to be very financially prepared - house paid off, full defined pension from over 30 years of service, personal savings beyond the pension - but she seems to have very little idea of what she's going to do with herself after working her last shift.  When asked about her plans, she will say "Well....I have a lot of sewing I'd like to do".

She's not even 60!  And she's been working full-time in a busy, stressful, and emotionally challenging medical practice.  How does one transition from that to a life of doing "a lot of sewing"? 

I worry about her, a little bit, at the same time as I am insanely jealous of anyone who has managed to permanently free herself from the need for full-time employment.  I wonder if this incredible opportunity she has to explore new interests and do anything she wants to is going to feel like a disappointment, because she hasn't taken the time to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. 

If I continue at my current savings rate, and there are no major economic collapses in the near future, then I'm on track to be able to retire in about nine years.  And while I try not to focus on retirement and to live in the present moment as much as possible, you can bet there is part of me that is always dreaming about what I will be able to do in the post-employement stage of life.  There will, of course, be many books to read, and as many places to travel as we can afford.  But there will also be volunteer work, and community involvement, and learning to speak a second language, and writing, and so many other things.  I will probably be busier in retirement than I am in my working life, because I will be able to choose to do whatever excites me most instead of doing things I don't love out of necessity.  (Hint:  It will not include dictating clinic letters.)

When I retire, it won't be just because I've saved up enough money and that's what people do as soon as they can afford to.  It will be because whatever I have planned next is even better than the crazy but wonderful world of medicine.

---
On a completely unrelated note, if you like cats at all, then you should really find a way to see the documentary Kedi, which is about the street cats of Istanbul.  It is beautiful and touching and funny and filled with cats, which makes anything in life better.  M and I saw it yesterday, and even she, the intransigent dog lover, thought it was worth watching.