Personal finance can be complicated. We have safe withdrawal rates, safe harbor rules, stealth and stretch IRAs, tax loss harvesting, investing on the efficient frontier, and low-expense ratio passive index fund investing. Odds are that most people we work with do not understand what these words mean, though if you are reading this site you possibly might.
Regardless of how complicated we make this stuff, financial success boils down to just one solitary concept: Contentment.
Now, don’t scroll to the top and leave this post. Hear me out. It’ll be worth your time.
After all, I am the Physician Philosopher. Philosophical principles can teach us a lot – even in personal finance.
Consumed by Consumerism
Those that are not able to save money often fail for many reasons, but the most common – at least for medical professionals – is that we have a spending problem.
Imagine that we are all runners in the same race. Then, imagine that some wear weighted metal balls chained to their ankles of various sizes. Others have cut themselves free from these weights.
Those that are free of the weights run the fastest and finish the race quickly. The next group are those with small weights that limit their movement, but do not prohibit it. At the starting line, some are not able to move at all, because the weights are insurmountable.
Others refer to this as the hedonic treadmill – the faster you run, the more tired you get without actually going anywhere. You are stuck on the treadmill. In order to make real progress, you need to sidestep the treadmill and land on solid ground where steps mean progress.
This is what sparked the minimalism movement. People finally started realizing that maybe less was more, because more didn’t seem to make us happier. And the less we lived on, the faster we could shed debt.
What makes you happy?
Some people believe their is a direct correlation between salary and happiness. The accompanying thought is that the more you buy, the happier you are, right?
A higher salary might actually make people happier to some extent, but after some number (between $75,000-$105,000) happiness simply does not increase.
Hopefully, the irony is not lost on you that purchasing “things” usually sends us in the opposite direction of financial independence – increasing the weight of the metal balls that ensnare us through debt.
At the very least, they keep us stuck in place on the hedonic treadmill.
Money Without Contentment
Many people who write about money will point out at some point that money is not the real object. Ultimately, we are trying to earn and save enough to be able to spend our days how we choose. This is the ultimate form of freedom.
What we are really trying to earn and save is “time.” Time to do the things we enjoy and get rid of the things we don’t.
Of course, this is a waste if we never figure out what makes us happy and what doesn’t. It’s really important to figure this out.
Otherwise, we spend our money buying things that are meant to make us content, but prove to provide the exact opposite – weighted metal shackles.
If my words don’t sum it up, this might:
Discontentment makes rich people poor while contentment makes poor people rich. ~Unknown
Times of Contentment
The place where I have found this to be the most true is in purchasing the “attending house” after finishing training. People are often surprised (shocked maybe?) when they see my house. It’s a quaint 1100 square foot house filled with five humans and two dogs.
The carpets don’t match, but this house is full of love, laughter, and passion.
People often point out that “most people wouldn’t be happy living in the same house they lived in as a resident” once they become an attending. To these people, I’d say five words: You are missing the point.
The point is that we don’t need the next house. It’s a want. We are content where we are.
We may be outgrowing this house by the day, but it provides everything we need. A front door, a yard for the dogs, a bed to lay our heads on, and a kitchen that is full of food. The shower even makes hot water, and the toilets flush. What else do we need?
We have learned the art of being content with what we have. That doesn’t mean that we don’t look forward to the next house. It simply means that we are content with what we have while we pay down our debt in anticipation of taking the next step thereafter.
So, when you find yourself in a time of transition (undergrad to medical school; medical school to residency; residency to practice)… just remember the art of contentment. That, and The 10% Rule.
Many Christians love quoting Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
What they often miss is the wisdom presented by Paul in the preceding verses. Christian or not, this is pure gold:
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
After all, it’s not the stuff itself that makes you poor. It’s the discontentment with your possessions that possesses you.
Learn to be happy, and let enough be enough. That’s how you become wealthy in this world and the next.
Have you ever experienced true contentment? Or are you always wanting more to try and find that happiness that has alluded you?