A Life Without Chains

By Leif Dahleen, MD
Physician on FIRE

Editor: What are the chains that are holding you back? What are the chains that are good for you? You’ll learn all about living life without chains in today’s Saturday Selection. Originally posted on the Physician on FIRE.

The tractor was stuck. Sitting kittywampus in a depression of dirt in the woods, it wasn’t going anywhere.

We tried a few tricks, broke a few boards, but the thing was simply stuck in the mud. If there was an easy way out, my Dad would have found it by now, but we were going to have to bust out a chain.

He had a chain handy in the back of the side-be-side ATV. We had used it a few times already that morning to raise and lower the back end of the first boat lift, hooking and unhooking in different places so the winch could help us out.

That chain was a good chain, but we weren’t sure it would hold up to a 4×4 truck pulling a decent-sized tractor out of a muddy hole. After hooking it up and thinking better of it — if it snapped under tension, it could become a deadly weapon — we unhooked it.

Dad disappeared into his 40 x 60 foot storage “shed” and came out with a seriously heavy duty chain. It wasn’t going to bust, but it wasn’t long enough, either. Off he went on the ATV to the garage, and he came back with an equally heavy duty chain to hook up to the first heavy duty chain, and we were ready to roll.

With me in the truck and him in the tractor, we hit our respective accelerators simultaneously, and wouldn’t you know it, the thing popped right out. I was impressed. Those chains really came in handy.

life without chains

A Life Without Chains

Personally, I don’t own a single chain. In my normal day-to-day life and even on the atypical days, I haven’t encountered a situation where I thought “Man, I could sure use a chain right about now.”

I don’t wear a gold chain around my neck, don’t forward chain emails, and 2 Chainz is not at the top of my Pandora playlist. I have hooked dogs up to “the chain” before, but it’s actually a wire cable enclosed in some sort of plastic. It’s not a chain at all.

While this chain-free existence may make me less of a manly man, as I pack up in preparation for a move across state lines, I’m relieved that I’m not packing any chains. Those things are heavy, they get rusty, and oh, does it hurt when you get that web of skin between your thumb and index finger pinched between links! Or so I’ve been told.

It’s Not About the Chains

The chains are simply symbolic, of course.

You’re familiar with the ball and chain. There’s the actual steel ball and chain that was attached to prisoner’s ankles in the 19th century to keep them from running away. Today, it’s used, usually in jest, to refer to a wife or husband that keeps you in line.

A ball and chain can be used to refer to anything that keeps you imprisoned somehow. For lead singer Mike Ness, it was the bottle.

“Well I’ll pass the bar on the way

To my dingy hotel room

I spent all my money

Been drinkin’ since a half past noon

I’ll wake there in the mornin’

Or maybe in the county jail

Times are hard getting harder

I’m born to lose and destined to fail

Take away, take away

Take away this ball and chain

I’m lonely and I’m tired

And I can’t take any more pain

Take away, take away

Never to return again

Take away, take away

Take away this ball and chain”

Social Distortion, Ball and Chain

Fun fact: Mrs. Frugalwoods’ a.k.a. Liz Thames’ brother Adam “Atom” Willard was a drummer for Social Distortion and several other awesome punk bands, and still rocks the sticks today.

While chains can be useful, as they tend to be when you’re putting in docks and boat lifts and freeing tractors that got stuck moving boats, they can also be a drag.

A chain can be anything that slows you down, that keep you from going places, and complicates your life unnecessarily.

My Chains

I own no physical chains, but I don’t know that I can say I live a life without chains.

My career has been a chain of sorts. Even working on a part-time basis kept my family and me from living the dream of traveling for months at a time. The pager I carried was an invisible tether that drew tight if I was approaching a distance 20 minutes away from the hospital.

As far as chains go, the job was a great one to have. After all, the 13 years of work as a physician post-residency are what afforded me the key that is financial independence, allowing us to break free of this particular chain.

Another chain that has taken center stage in my life are the objects we’ve accumulated over the years. I think we spend the first twenty-some years of your lives wishing we could have things, the next twenty years obtaining them, and the rest of our lives slowly getting rid of them.

It’s not quite like that, but as much as I want to embrace minimalism, I find it hard to get rid of stuff that I might want to use in the future, even if I don’t have a need for it right now.

Parting with things that have value is at odds with my frugal nature, and it’s definitely not how I was raised. That 40 x 60 foot pole barn on my parent’s property still has artifacts from my childhood that I haven’t touched in 30 years. If Marie Kondō walked through the place, she’d have PTSD for years.

The Good Kind of Chains

Not all chains are bad. The chains that pulled the tractor our served a purpose the other day, and they’ve probably served 100 other purposes in their lifetime.

The symbolic chains can be good, too. They keep you in line; they keep you grounded. Some of us need that from time to time.

If anything that complicates your life and limits your freedom is a type of chain, what would you consider children to be?

They’re so much more than that, but they do fit the narrow definition. I wouldn’t trade mine for anything. They bring us much joy and pride, but I can’t deny that the trajectory of our lives over the next 10 years will largely be shaped by their needs.

Pets can limit your freedom, too, but most pet owners will tell you they’re well worth it. A cat or a dog can be that good type of chain that sometimes requires an actual chain and likes to wake you up at 3 a.m. just like that bad chain, the pager.

We don’t have a pet anymore, but we’ve been watching dogs via Rover (here’s $20 for you to try them out), and it’s kind of the best of both worlds. We get dogs for short stretches of time, helping families out with a better place for their dog than a kennel, and our boys have true earned income, which means we can justifiably fund a Roth IRA for each of them.

These animals (referring to the dogs, not the kids) are a pleasure to have around, and we don’t have to pay their vet bills, groom them beyond a good strong scratch, or worry about what to do with them when we’re not home. Our boys are also a pleasure to have around, but we are totally responsible for their bills, grooming, and all that jazz.

Regarding my wife, I would never refer to her as the old ball and chain. She’s more of a young ball and chain, and one that has been very good to me and very good for me.

Breaking the Chains

“Breaking the chains around you

Nobody else can bind you

Take a good look around you

Now you’re breaking the chains”

Dokken, Breaking the Chains

While I’m fully committed to my wife, children, and random animals we sometimes take in, I’m planning to continue living a life free of actual chains, and I’m doing my best to break the chains that are making my life more complicated than it needs to be.

For starters, I’m moving on from a career in medicine in the summer of 2019. It’s been good to me, but I no longer rely on that income, and I’m eager to experience a life without the limitations that come with the job.

In terms of material goods, we’re parting with furniture, tools, knick-knacks, and what-nots. There are so many things in this house that have moved from our first house to our next house to this one, and they don’t need to make the move again. If the only time I’ve handled it is to pack and unpack it, what’s the point in having it? If it’s still useful, I can donate it, and maybe someone will actually get some use out of it.

The fact that we downsized with a recent move makes it easier to break these chains. On the other hand, the fact that we’re looking for a lake home where we’ll have a dock and a boat lift could make life without real steel chains more difficult.

But if we’re going to get the chains to put these things in and out annually, we’d also need some kind of tractor, a winch, some more tools, and be willing to spend two days a year messing with these things. We’d also need to maintain and store them when not in use 363 days a year.

You know, I think that’s a job I’ll hire out. For a little bit of money, we can avoid a lot of chains.

I’ve got my 2 acres of non-leveraged, crop-producing, cashflowing farmland via AcreTrader. Get yours.

What are your chains? Have you broken free of any? I’d love to hear about your good chains and your bad chains, too.



  1. PrudentPlasticSurgeon

    Love the analogy.

    My biggest bad chain is my student debt which I ignored for too long as a trainee. But it’s also motivating me now as I work towards FI.

    Reading the post I also recognize some good chains, which is cool. I would say my family (wife and kids) are good chains keeping me focused on what’s important.

    A lot of people probably think of a budget as a bad chain but I think it’s a great chain. It’s the playbook for reaching our day to day financial goals which will lead to FI.

    The Prudent Plastic Surgeon

  2. S.A.C.

    “The best chain man can have in life isn’t money,houses,debt,or land,but rather being bound in faith,truth& righteousness,& bound by Jesus Christ,&
    having the Word of God,knowing He’s in charge,& faithful,merciful & enduring til the end of the world!”Search the scriptures,do His Will…..

  3. RN Lynn

    @SAC… Those chains you refer to, are Imaginary Chains. If you can neither touch them, see them, or hear them, then there is nothing, in REALITY, to get rid of. The Doctor is talking about physical items in one’s life … Not thoughts and images that ONLY that person can touch, see or hear. In the medical field, sir, we call those HALLUCINATIONS.

    But hey, if your imaginary friend keeps you in line, and gives you hope, then for God’s sake keep him around. But just like Santa Clause could not realisticly deliver presents to everyone in the world (some 7.8 Billion) all in 1 night, neither can 1 “GoD” watch over and keep tabs on 7.8 Billion people all at 1 time… It is just NOT feasible!!

    And next time a DOCTOR saves the life of 1 of your loved ones, instead of saying “Oh thank God, it’s a miracle” you should thank the well knowledgable Doctor, for busting his azz, who often neglects his own family, to save other’s family. If you give GOD the credit, then tell me, why bother taking a sick, injured, or dying person to the Doctor? If it’s in God’s hands, then so be it, then save yourself thousands of $$$, and stay at home.
    Let God be your guidance, for He is “in charge”… As you said above.

    I’m just saying….. Amen!! ?


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