It’s a really interesting experience being a professional with frugal tendencies. This is especially true for me as a freshly graduated medical doctor doing my first year of internship. From what you wear, to what you drive (or choose not to drive), to what you choose to spend your money on…almost everyone I’ve spoken to this year seems to be of the opinion that because I make a good salary, I should be living it up and spending it down every month. My colleagues don’t understand why it took me six months to buy a smart-phone, and why that eventual smart phone only cost me R500 total. They didn’t understand why, in the interim, I was still using a R99 Pep phone for calls and messages (Polyphonic ringtone where you at!). Oh, I explained it plenty whenever I was asked–I was focused on paying off massive amounts of student debt before the interest could chow me, I didn’t particularly miss much of the functionality of smartphones considering my phone could send and receive calls and messages perfectly well, I don’t care how much something costs as long as it does what I need it to do, and so on and so forth–but most people’s eyes glaze over whenever conversations around saving money and getting out of debt happen.
But Aren’t Doctors Rich?
One of the hardest stereotypes to fight has been the idea that all doctors are billionaires. This is simply not true. Yes, we get paid much more than a living wage straight out of University and we have relatively guaranteed job security since ours is a service that can scarcely be completely replaced by technological innovations. We certainly aren’t dealing with inhumane remuneration for the work we do (although the conditions can sometimes be questionable). Also, television tells us doctors should be rolling in the rands!
What a lot of people forget though, is the cost of medical education. Of course, there is no rule that you have to go into debt to get an education, but without the generational wealth that allows for a significant portion of studies to be subsidized by family, most full-time students do. Especially in South Africa, where most youths may be first or second generation University students benefiting from some of the social change around access to education (also known as the post-apartheid academics), often it’s a choice between social and educational stagnation or tertiary education accompanied by truckloads of debt.
Now take into account that your average doctor spends twice as long in university, accruing twice the amount of student debt at nearly twice the cost of your average degree, with less than half the scholarship opportunities, and it should be fairly obvious that what looks like a great future income starts out with a negative net worth in the hundreds of thousands for many.
We do get paid well out the gate to compensate for this, but if I’m spending all my money on trips to Dubai and new shoes before tackling the giant debt elephant in the room, I am doing myself and my family a disservice. I am also squandering an incredibly rare opportunity to reverse the damage in a relatively short time span with minimal compounding.
Debt burden aside, it’s actually quite hilarious how overblown many people’s perceptions of doctor incomes are. Most doctors are not specialists, and thus get paid significantly less than other non-specialist professionals in fields like Engineering and Finances. What’s interesting, though, is that with the exception of the former, those professionals aren’t heavily pressured into having outlandish lifestyles immediately after graduation. They build their lives slowly and carefully–unless they have familial help or wish to dig an even deeper debt hole–and society usually lets them get on with it. Not so for new doctors.
We are expected to get a new car the second we start our new jobs. We must rent out the trendiest apartments in the most expensive parts of town. We must stay posted up on social media about our latest travel and culinary exploits at five star facilities. We must have the latest smart phone and tablet and whatever other of-the-moment devices. And clothes? Well, being spotted in the same outfits we wore during our student internship simply won’t do! Aren’t we making megabucks now?
This is not a woe-is-me lament, mind you. I am supremely aware of how fortunate I am to make a living doing something I am both passionate about and good at. I’ve lived in what others may consider poverty (more on that later), and although I have mostly fond, content memories of those years in my childhood, I’m also keenly aware of how difficult it was sometimes to survive, and I will never take for granted that I am now eons ahead of the curve in that respect. I know I am privileged, and I never want to forget that.
But I’m not dancing in a pool of endless Mandelas. That’s just not an accurate representation of my income, and I won’t let others use it as a pressure point to force me to inflate my expenses unwisely and prematurely.
But Surely You Can Afford Not To Deprive Yourself?
This next question lies at the heart of why I think people find it so difficult to talk (and be honest) about money-related issues. I have a colleague who has been hounding me for the last two months to “Just go shopping man!” She is so vexed by the fact that I haven’t bought a whole new wardrobe for internship (despite the fact that she couldn’t tell until I let it slip after she complimented a coat I wore to work one day!) that she makes it a point, every conversation we have to make light fun of the fact that I’m so frugal. She keeps threatening to buy me stuff just so that she can get me slowly hooked on how awesome new is compared to old, and often jokes that my children will live, and I quote, “deprived lives”.
This has been truly fascinating to me for several reasons:
First of all, “frugal” never had a negative connotation until I started working. When I was a student, one of my best friends and I often would high-five each other whenever we found a way to save money on things we wanted. We called each other frugalistas and meant it as a compliment. We would do our grocery shopping trips as a duo and gently encourage each other towards the more cost-effective, less spendthrift options. We felt, quite frankly, badass about it. We knew money didn’t grow on trees, so we sowed our cents accordingly. We would joke about how we’d splash out with our first paychecks on things we couldn’t afford as students, but for the most part we were really proud of ourselves for hacking money early. We spoke often and frankly about avoiding excessive lifestyle inflation when the checks started rolling in. We both had close family members, deep in debt despite being successful professionals, who served as a cautionary tale to our own financial decisions. We were content with what we had and often felt that we were living quite decadent lives. (As vegetarians, we ate significantly better than most students and put high value on health. But we did it cheaply, and cooked everything ourselves.)
My grandmother, who is my personal hero, managed to fill my childhood with so many memories that I am so grateful for to this day –on a meager state pension. That’s R1500 to support herself and two, sometimes three young grandchildren. When times were really rough for my mother, that was all my grandmother had a month. We lived in a township. We took public transport, specifically minibus taxis, everywhere or otherwise walked. We bought in bulk and shopped the specials. This was a badge of honour to me. What another person may have considered an impoverished, embittering experience, I considered some of the best years of my childhood. We were loved. We were fed. We were self-sufficient. We knew how to really get the value out of the things we owned. We learned how not to be wasteful or ungrateful. We had so much more than many people who lived in the same township, and yet so much less than many of the people we went to school with. But I was so content that it never occurred to me that optimising expenses and saving was somehow a form of deprivation.
Then I started working and everything was different. Nothing else changed, I just got a job. I was still me. I still liked all the same things I’d liked a month before. But for some reason, everyone expected me to be super eager to shed the skin of my old life. Suddenly my clothes weren’t supposed to be good enough, because I’d had them before. Suddenly my home-cooked meals weren’t good enough, because cooking my own food was something I’d done before. And let’s not even talk about how tongues wagged every time I used public transport to get around. Every habit I’d formed before earning a salary was suddenly subject to intense scrutiny, and subsequently considered this monumental sacrifice and inconvenience. Nobody seemed to understand why I wasn’t just throwing money at these old ‘problems’. I mean, there was supposedly so much of it! This was the first taste I got of the bizarre mindset that if you’re not inflating your lifestyle conspicuously, you must be depriving yourself. Never before this had it ever occurred to me that being a good steward of your resources could be considered as being cheap.
Secondly, deprivation is completely determined by what you value. This is hardly a controversial statement, but it’s gotten me more glares than I care to remember. Barring poverty, homelessness and food insecurity (as well as lack of access to basic resources like water, sanitation and education) there are precious few things that could lead to a universal diminishing of quality of life. It all depends on what you place a significant amount of value on.
For instance, I know someone who doesn’t read. Does. Not. Read. She’s well educated and will be a doctor in a few years. She’s intelligent and sweet. But she doesn’t get the fuss over books. We’ve all tried to convert her, but it simply isn’t something she sees any value in. While it blows my mind that anybody could survive without the awesomeness that is reading for leisure, she is perfectly content with never spending a second of her energy/time/money on non-academic literature. So although I would feel starved and likely lose my mind, this is not deprivation to her.
Does this mean my love of reading is meaningless and suddenly invalidated? Of course not! Once I realised this, I stopped trying to “show her the light”. I stopped making comments about how much I thought she was missing out. More importantly, I learned to respect the fact that other people don’t have to value the things I value in order for my values to be ‘right’. This doesn’t make theirs’wrong’. We’re both right, because we are focusing our energy and resources on the things that truly matter to each of us.
To parlay this into financial values, I realised that a big part of the pushback against me “depriving” myself by being frugal is that for a lot of people, if you don’t do what they do and want what they want, they genuinely want to rescue you and show you what you’re missing. When they realise that you know exactly what you’re missing and still don’t want it, they can become defensive. To them, it’s uncomfortable to think that there is another way to do things, simply because it brings up the possibility that the way they’ve been doing things may not be the best way. Instead of being happy that you’re happy doing you while they continue to do them, they think your values being perpendicular to theirs is a personal attack or a silent indictment of their way of living. So they push back even harder, instead of just accepting that different people need different things and that that’s okay. Personal finance is, after all, personal.
Thirdly, everything we don’t “deprive” ourselves of today, comes at the expense of depriving ourselves of something else later. This is especially true if you make very little, but it’s so painful to watch higher-income professionals struggle with this too. Why? Mo money mo problems, as Biggie & co once said.
With the doctor-level expenses, the lifestyle expected costs more than the income earned, and then one can get used to this new baseline level and feel that anything less would require too much sacrifice. An example is my colleague who really wants me to shop. (I wish I were exaggerating here folks. My apathy towards shopping is a serious thorn in her side!) She often bemoans the fact that having a child is so expensive, and that her childcare is her biggest expense. This may or may not be true, but when she rolls into work in her expensive car sporting her latest threads and bragging about her family’s latest luxury getaway, but then turns around and says she wishes she could spend more time with her son and work less, I have to struggle really hard not to draw what look like clear lines between the lifestyle she has and the lifestyle she wants. Maybe she doesn’t really want to work less, or maybe she doesn’t want it enough to make certain changes, but the trade-off is fairly obvious in this instance. Sometimes, of course, it can be more subtle.
The problem is, once you get used to a certain level of cosumption, everything else looks drab and miserly. Problems that can be easily solved feel like monumentous tasks because there’s just no money and life is so expensive these days! I understand why people struggle to align their spending to their true values–often we start earning before we know those values! For me, the secret has been identifying those values early and then building a satisfying life around what it will take to reach my goals. There is a statistic that gets thrown around that 80% of first year medical interns are (deeper) in debt by that first December. I can believe it. By starting low, I can go slow, and if I ever wake up one morning and decide that at my core I truly am a spendthrift, I can change course and liquidate all my investments and go crazy. More likely though, I’ll wake up that morning grateful that I stuck to my guns and didn’t cave to the pressure to sacrifice what I truly wanted for what everyone else told me I should want.
Okay, But You Can AFFORD Not To Be So Frugal All The Time And Still Stay Out Of Debt, Can’t You?!
Interestingly enough, this ties back into the question about deprivation. Yes, I can probably afford to shop at Woolworths to buy the same groceries that I buy at Checkers (for example). That, of course, depends on your definition of ‘affordability’, but that’s another post for another day. But sure, I’ll bite. I could probably spend double, maybe triple what I do on groceries and still break even. So why do I still stay frugal? Is it just because I’m content with what I have and it’s already an ingrained behaviour?
No; more than that, it’s because I’m grateful and mindful.
I’m grateful that I’m in the position that I am in. If I earned dramatically less, I would probably be more frugal. But that would primarily be out of necessity more than choice, and even then I may not be able to put away enough money to buy some modicum of control over my life and my time. The fact that I earn well puts me in a position that many other frugalistas are not in by virtue of their lower income; I can actually save and invest for my future while simultaneously being more than comfortable in my present. This is an immense opportunity and privilege, and I don’t want to throw it away. There is, of course, a balance to setting up one’s future and enjoying one’s present, but I’ve found that there’s plenty to enjoy about today based on the seeds I (and many others) planted in my past. Time, for me, is not linear. Everything is interconnected, and I try my best to live a full life now while also giving future me some options and not putting past-me’s efforts to waste.
I’m also mindful that although money may be infinite, our other resources aren’t. That includes time, of course, but also the resources of the planet we live on. Every bout of peer-pressured consumption that adds nothing to my life, adds to the burden that we as humans are to this beautiful home of ours. There is so much stuff already in existence, why should I add a further nudge towards the production of more. Am I perfect? No way. I don’t grow my own food. I don’t recycle nearly enough. I don’t optimise energy-efficiency as much as I should. But I’m mindful of my shortcomings, and try to put in as much effort as I can to play my role, however small the result of these efforts may be in the big picture. As for frugality? Well, that comes more natural to me, so I’m fortunate that it’s just one more way that I’m being kind to the environment without really trying.
So Frugal Living Is About More Than Just Saving A Few Rands Here And There?
Exactly. Frugal living, being a good steward of your money, time and resources is about so much more than counting coins. It’s not about hoarding money. It’s not about being a cheapskate. It’s about gratitude, mindfulness, generosity, simplicity, contentment, creativity, conscious living and…ultimately…freedom.
For many people who are not frugal out of principle but rather out of necessity, it can sometimes be understandably frustrating and restrictive. It’s not that they don’t want to spend more, it’s that they can’t. I get that that’s a different story, I’ve lived it. But even then, an attitude of positivity and openness to all the opportunities that it creates for innovation and creativity, as well as how it forces one to seek joy and satisfaction from meaningful activities as opposed to numbing dissatisfaction with money, can be invaluable. It can also become a gateway to imbibing the traits of frugality into a more principled approach so that when the season of scarcity ends, we aren’t inclined to drown our former sorrows in stuff.
And for those of us who don’t need to be frugal but rather choose to be, it can truly humble us and allow us to have more compassion for those less privileged, be more generous with our now abundant time and resources, and redirect our money towards the things that truly matter to us.