Today I’m excited to bring you the second story in my new series on women seeking financial independence, whether they wish to retire early or make retirement elective (aka FIRE). Today I’m pleased to bring you the story of one of my friends from Twitter – over there she goes by Frugalish Physician, but she blogs under Solitary Diner. So you can easily find her, I’m going to call her Solitary Diner, the Frugalish Physician.
Her story is a fascinating one of living a normal life with some normal debt, albeit already good with money, and eventually realizing there was a way you could reach financial independence before the more traditional age of 65. Lets get to know her better, and hear about her financial independence journey!
Tell us about yourself!
Hi, and thanks for reading my story. I’m a Canadian physician who has been working in an internal medicine subspecialty for almost three years; prior to that I spent 16 years in training in order to become a licensed physician. I live in the medium-sized city where I was born and have lived most of my life, which is great for me, as it has allowed me to maintain long-term relationships with family and friends. I’ve known my longest standing friend since the first day of kindergarten!
Until a few months ago I was in a long-term relationship, but that came to an end in the fall, so I am now living alone with my two cats. Although there is a strong societal message that being alone is the worst thing that can ever happen to a person, I actually really like it. The abundance of solitary time appeals to my introverted self, and I love never having to argue over what type of dish soap to buy.
I am unapologetically nerdy, and I spend a lot of my free time reading, blogging, and taking in various cultural activities (theatre, museums, movies, etc.). I love languages, and I’ve recently started to take French lessons to build on my grade nine French. It’s simultaneously a lot of fun and really frustrating, but I’m slowly making progress. Which is good, because I also love to travel, and I just finished booking a three-week trip to France in the Spring for fun and for work.
I am also unapologetically left-leaning in most of my thinking. I am a feminist and a bisexual woman who supports all things LGBTQ*. I believe that government and the economy should work for the wellbeing of all people, not just the wealthy minority. I support the empowerment of all marginalized people, whether they be women, people of colour, individuals with disabilities, people living in poverty, etc. I sometimes lose Twitter followers when I post something particularly left-leaning, and I’m sure that there are some people who avoid my blog for the same reason, but I think it’s important to speak about the things that are important to me, even if it may cost me in terms of blog metrics.
How did you become interested in personal finance, and financial independence?
I was really lucky in that my Dad was in the financial services industry, first as an insurance salesman and then as a financial advisor. He was also raised on a farm by parents who had lived through the Depression, so he was somewhat of an expert on frugality and saving for a rainy day. My Dad started teaching me about finances from a very young age: I had an allowance from as far back as I can remember, I opened my first bank account as a very young kid, and I started saving part of my allowance for university at the age of five! From him, I learned how powerful slow and steady contributions can be if they are continued over many years. My Dad also loved to teach, and so he taught me about the stock market and insurance and mutual funds and RRSPs. CMO Note for US readers – this is the Canadian version of the 401k. My 18th birthday present from him was a copy of The Wealthy Barber and a $500 RRSP. CMO Note – I loved The Wealthy Barber – it was the first book about money that I read as a teen, and it started me down the financial path. I call it one of the four books that changed my financial life.)
Probably the best lesson I ever learned from my Dad was to be responsible for my own money. The first year I lived on my own, I rang up a big credit card bill (about $300!) throwing a post-exam party for my friends, and I didn’t have enough money to pay for it. When I called him up to ask him to help me out so that I wouldn’t have to pay the interest, he told me I needed to deal with it myself. It was hugely painful to have to pay credit card interest as a student with almost no disposable income, but it was a good lesson for me, and I have avoided carrying a balance on my credit card ever since.
Like many people, my current interest in personal finance and financial independence came from discovering the great Mr. Money Mustache. I saw a newspaper article about him at a time when I was really struggling in my training, and I was blown away by the idea that I might not have to work at a job I hated until I was 65. I immediately started tracking my expenses, cut out as many non-essentials as I felt I could, and put an end to using my line of credit to supplement my already generous income. My approach to financial independence has evolved with time and with reading many of the other good personal finance blogs, but MMM gets the credit for starting me on my current path.
Tell us about your FIRE journey – and motivation. What does FIRE mean to you?
Although I got off to a really good start financially thanks to my Dad, I got significantly derailed when I started my medical training. I didn’t have enough saved to finance four years of medical school, so my only option was to take out a line of credit. I unfortunately only knew how to budget when earning an income (spend less than you earn) and no idea how to budget using debt, so I sort of just stopped budgeting. I was also surrounded by students who came from really wealthy families, and so spending on spa days and expensive travel was normalized. Even though my finances were the worst they had ever been, I started spending more than I ever had before. And I continued the habit of using debt to pay for things even after starting residency, despite earning more than the average household in my city. By the time I discovered MMM, I was over $200,000 in debt.
I started to pursue FIRE when I realized that there was an alternative to working forever. This was a particularly powerful discovery for me, as I was feeling really burnt out by medicine at the time, and I wasn’t certain whether I would even be able to last as a physician for 25 years or more. In the beginning, I was really focused on the early retirement aspect of FIRE, and I would count down the years (and months and days) until I could quit my job. Over time, however, I’ve realized that it’s really kind of awful to be deferring one’s happiness so far into the future, and I’ve also realized that I actually kind of like this job that I’ve spent 16 years in training for. So while I’m still focused on achieving financial independence, I am mostly focused on how living a “semi-frugal” or “frugalish” life can help me to be happier right now.
Which it does. I currently save about 2/3 of my earnings, so I have a big cushion between my income and my spending. This allows me to take holidays every 3 months (about 6 weeks per year), which gives me a chance to rest regularly and will hopefully enable me to avoid burnout in the long term. It also lets me turn down work, especially time on-call, because I want the time off more than I want the money. I still work long and hard hours, but I am able to say no to working longer and harder just for the income.
What’s unique about pursuing financial independence as a woman?
One of the hard things financially for women is the wage gap – we know that women get paid less for the same work, even when time off to raise a family is taken into account. In my university group, female physicians earn an average of $50,000 per year less than male physicians, even adjusting for maternity leave (which is paid in Canada). I recognize that I am hugely privileged to be able to do really well financially despite the wage gap, but that isn’t the case for many women. For a lot of women, the wage gap isn’t the difference between retiring in 15 years or 17, but rather the difference between being able to feed your children or not.
Another thing I’ve experienced more personally is the expectation that women are bad at finances. When I met with my accountant for the first time, he gave me a hand-waving talk about how “incorporation is good for physicians”, but he was really resistant to actually explaining the numbers to me, even though I’m quite knowledgeable about finances and taxation. I would love to find another accountant who doesn’t treat me like I’m ignorant, but there are only a few (all male) accountants in my city who specialize in physician taxation, and my female physician friends say that the others are just as bad. CMO note – I’ve had the same thing happen to me. Men in real life are usually surprised to find a woman as knowledgeable – or more so – at money as they are.
This is a tough question, partly because there is so much good advice out there, but also because every person’s situation is different. What works for a single woman with a six-figure income and no dependents (or at least only furry dependents) isn’t going to be applicable to a single woman earning minimum wage who has three kids. But I’ll give it a try!
For anyone who is beginning on the FIRE path, or just beginning to improve her finances, my advice would be to start by figuring out where exactly you are financially. What are your assets and your debts? What are your income sources and your expenses? It was really painful for me to realize that I was over $200,000 in debt and that I was spending more than I was earning, but it was essential to know where I was before I started working on where I wanted to go.
Which would be step number two: figure out your personal financial goals. Everyone wants different things out of life, so this isn’t the place to cut and paste someone else’s goals, but rather to figure out what is most important to you. You might want to work until you’re 65, spending at a reasonable level as you go, or you might want to get out of your job as soon as humanely possible and be willing to ruthlessly cut your budget to do so. It’s about what works for you and for whomever you share your life with. There is no right answer.
My last piece of advice, as a person who has struggled with anxiety my whole life, is to take your mental health into account when making financial decisions. Financial decisions that look “right” from a numbers perspective may not actually make you feel good. For me, I had planned to pay off my line of credit really slowly so that I could focus on investing, but over time I developed a passionate hatred towards my line of credit. So even though it makes more sense to invest my money, I have started to direct a lot of my money towards paying off my debt in the hope of getting rid of it before the end of the year. As long as you’re making good financial decisions that work for you, they don’t have to be “perfect”.
Where can readers find you?
I look forward to comments and tweets from readers of your site! Thanks for sharing my story.
CMO Here Again
Thanks so much to my friend Solitary Diner, the Frugalish Physician, for stopping by to share her FIRE story! I love how she’s tempering her frugality with living for today, and her advice about how everyone’s personal finance – and financial independence – journey is their own. We’re obviously going to have very different journeys than one another. There’s no one answer to this puzzle. Seeking financial independence as a breadwinning mom of a family of five, a single doctor, a low-income single mom – all those journeys will be different. Part of the role of the personal finance community is to encourage and support each other on our individual paths.
If you missed the first post in this series with my friend Laurie, be sure to check out how she’s seeking location independence by doubling her income in the next few years!
Interested in more stories on women seeking financial freedom? Find the full list here.
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