Money

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FIRE. Either you get the reference, or you don’t.

I’m an independent spirit.

Either that, or I’m just willful. Either way, I don’t like things to be dictated to me. I don’t like not having control over my own comings and goings. I don’t like not having a say in important life choices.

That being said, I’m not a toddler. (Although I have previously admitted that their lives are pretty awesome and I’m just a little jealous). I know that I can’t always have things my way. I know that there are others to consider, that my choices have wider reaching consequences. In fact, knowing this lights my fire even more. Imagine being able to make the best choice, as opposed to the least inconvenient or least painful? Imagine being dictated to by your conscience and your goals, and not some random entity that doesn’t know or respect you and your autonomy?

Now there’s a superpower worth having.

Sadly enough, many people will never experience it.

I don’t believe that money makes the world go round. Call me idealistic, but I think love, innovation and free thought do. (That, of course, and physics.) I don’t think money can make anyone happy. That being said, I do believe that money (or the lack of (control over) it) can make anyone’s world stop, and it can make one extremely unhappy.

Correction: I don’t believe that, I know it.

I had the incredible fortune (?misfortune) of growing up in pretty much every income category household imaginable. I’ve lived in what outsiders might have considered poverty. I’ve also lived what outsiders might have considered a luxurious life. Being from a non-nuclear family, having been raised at different times under different roofs with different relatives (and sometimes even family friends) I have had a myriad financial role models. All of them have made their fair share of mistakes and had their fair share of victories, and where I used to judge them when I was younger and not making my own money, I now understand (a little) the pressures and expectations that led some to making their more obvious moomishes. And because I understand, I can choose to make my own.

When I started my internship, I remember how quickly the general atmosphere after our first payday went from “we ballin’, ses’fikile!” to “Life is So Expensive!” I might have fallen prone to that temptation too, had I not been mentally preparing myself for what money does to the psyche.

Instead, I had my goals very clear from the beginning.

First and foremost, I want to get (and stay) out of debt. I had six figures of educational debt coming into internship. Six. Figures. I remember stressing about not being able to graduate because I owed the University money, and then stressing about not being able to get financial aid and not qualifying even for institutional loans. I did manage to graduate, but my university added insult to injury by refusing to give me my physical degree, instead making me walk the stage to collect a tube that contained a bill for fees owed and a reminder of their banking details. I was crushed, but I resolved then and there never to give anyone the power to withhold from me what was rightfully mine ever again. I’d worked so hard to graduate and graduate on time, but there was Money, taunting me and dangling my rewards so far out of reach just because it could. And I knew it never ended. My mother has been in debt my entire life, and the stress and strain of it has affected our entire family in untold ways. My uncle hasn’t been in debt since he paid off his mortgage when we were very little, and you can sense it on him. It’s not loud or pompous, but there’s a special calm in people that are not financially beholden to anyone. They have a quiet swag. I want some swag, and once I pay off my student debt (I’m over halfway there in less than six months!) I want to keep it.

Secondly, I never want my boss to own me. Of course, I’m not talking about indentured servitude (although a case has been made that the working conditions of interns are akin to slavery…I’m more inclined to compare it to a form of torture) and I never want to make light of that because it’s not a thing of the past. But I’ve always had a very specific problem with the idea of asking for permission to be human. If you get ill, or lose someone you love, or become so thoroughly drained that you need a day to yourself, I can understand informing your employer that you’ll be out of commission for a while. If you feel something about your work is ethically or morally not in your wheelhouse, I can understand discussing that with the powers that be. But having to beg and plead and prove you’re not lying at every turn? Having to concoct elaborate tales so that you don’t lose valuable income for standing up for what you believe in, or for (gasp!) prioritizing other aspects of your life before work? That disgusts me. The idea of it makes me angry. We are more than the work we do, but for as long as we are reliant on a salary to sustain us from month to month, we aren’t really free to make the choices that are most in line with our priorities. This is especially true in medicine where there is a very real conflict between what is best for the doctor and what is best for the patient. If you’re an intern trying to pass your rotations drama-free, you will see patients after working straight through the night whether that’s the best for them or not–because you have to. Your livelihood (and your qualification) depend on you playing by the rules, and those rules are made by people who haven’t worked a compulsory nonstop overnight shift in years and don’t remember or realise how damaging it was to their bodies and to their clinical judgement. This is all just a long winded way for me to say that another financial priority of mine going into internship was financial freedom. I knew I wouldn’t really have that during internship but I knew I could work towards it using either of two methods: increasing my income so that I could increase my means (doable, but the easiest way to do so (locum tenens work) is actually illegal, and the next best option (buying calls) requires a level of masochism that I can’t muster) or living below my means while saving up whatever I wasn’t throwing at my debt (both for eventual retirement and for more short to medium term goals). The latter really appealed to me because I knew from experience that I don’t really need much to be happy, and some of the bigger intern money drains (like sports cars on credit, or weekly spa appointments) were never things I valued to begin with. That’s not to say I don’t spend any money, but I prioritize the things that matter to me over the doctor status symbols. With this mindset, I hope to never have to compromise my principles just because I need the money–I want to structure things so that the money makes itself, while I get to focus on living my life. Speaking of which…

Thirdly, I want to be able to persue my other passions. I love medicine, but it doesn’t define me. Before I was a doctor, I was an artist who just so happened to be on a grueling treadmill of stressful exams and exciting rotations. Outside of medicine, I was a ball of creative energy just waiting to explode. I was part of a few songwriting collaboratives with lifelong friends. I was daydreaming about being able to afford my own equipment so that I could record at home. I was writing (and never finishing) countless novels and thinkpieces. I was the girl in the corner slyly angling her lens towards the carefree children laughing irreverently during a distant relative’s funeral. I’ve always known that as much as I love and am dedicated to the art and science of medicine, it’s not all there is for me. My other passions probably won’t be able to fuel each other monetarily, but medicine can fuel them. I can create without fear of hunger or destitution. That’s a really special position to be in, and I intend to take full advantage of it. Maybe that means I’ll never be an Anaesthetist or a Psychiatrist or an Emergency Physician, because I’ll choose to instead invest that time and money into having the time and resources to, for example, record an album with some friends. Maybe it means I’ll never be “rich” in material possessions, but my savings and investments will provide enough passive income to allow me to take a hiatus or two to write and travel. Maybe I’ll wake up one day and decide that I’m over this fanciful proselytizing and in fact all I want is more stuff! We’ll see. For now, I want to give future me some options.

What this all translates to is choice. I save more than half my take-home salary (about two thirds, at this point), most of those savings so far being directed at debt repayment and retirement savings. What I do spend, I spend mindfully. In the beginning of the year, my focus was helping out my family and eating well. I didn’t buy a lot of “stuff” (I might have only bought a pair of tekkies for nights on call in casualty) but I never felt deprived. I felt satisfied because I was making progress on my subzero net worth (Mortal Kombat!) and being generous to the people that I loved. I eventually started to step down on how much I was sending home, so that I could build up my own Emergency Savings, but having the money available to me doesn’t tempt me to spend it because I still want the same things.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with (or even understand) my choices. Especially other young professionals who slogged through years of training to earn decent incomes, especially those without any debt–it’s crazy talk to try to police their spending.  Not everyone who spends money on “stuff” is necessarily financially unwise, and some new graduates are in the position where they are starting from a clean slate or maybe gave have familial help. There’s nothing wrong with them wanting to spoil themselves if they can afford to do so and save. But I do feel like we’re an Instagram-generation that prides itself on flashy displays of nonexistent (or leveraged) wealth and there aren’t many counterpoints to the message that one must spend all the monies. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that although money can’t buy happiness, it can buy options.

For me, at least, that’s infinitely more valuable than any other function it serves.

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