She exemplifies one of the more radical course corrections I’ve heard about in medicine. B.C. has kindly shared the unvarnished version of her origin story to let us see where she started, where she’s headed, and all of the fascinating detours on the way.
1. What is your specialty?
Hospice Palliative Medicine (HPM).
1a. How many years of residency/fellowship did you complete?
My husband and I both did 3 years of residency. I also did a 1-year HPM fellowship.
2. What did your parents do for their livelihood? Tell us about them.
My mother was a public school teacher, and later she became a principal of an elementary school. She has her Masters.
My dad was a supervisor at a tool and die shop. I think he got an AA. He and I became estranged when I was 18 and temporarily homeless (but that’s a whole nother story). When he died no one would claim his body. It took a week and a half for them to track me down. Out of pity and because he was a Veteran, I paid for his cremation. I didn’t want his remains though, so I had them sent to my step-family.
They told me they flushed his ashes down the toilet.
2a. Would you characterize your upbringing as financially secure or insecure?
Very much financially insecure. From when I was six through age 14, we lived in a single-wide trailer in a hay field in the sticks in Upstate NY. I helped build our family home while I was in 8th grade. I was electrocuted more times than I care to recall from that year, but I learned how to be a decent spackler (the benefits of a financially insecure childhood!)
2b. How did your upbringing affect the money blueprint you inherited – both positive and negative?
Have you got all day and are you a therapist? Just kidding.
At age 18, I felt like I didn’t know anything about money. It wasn’t something we were educated about, and it appeared to be a taboo subject. All I knew was it felt like we didn’t have enough money growing up and money appeared to be a constant source of tension for my parents.
A Rotary scholarship to spend a year in Germany changed my life. When I arrived there and was given a monthly allowance by my local club, I didn’t know how to manage the $100 Deutsch Marks I was given. So I did what I do now again: I wrote down every.single.pffenig I spent. At least I could track what was going on with my cash flow.
The good thing about growing up going to the Salvation Army for your clothes and being made fun of for wearing cast-off bell bottoms is that when you become an adult, you don’t care much about having brand new clothes. I still get the majority of my clothes from thrift stores.
Plus growing up in a teeny single-wide trailer makes you think a house that’s 2,300 square feet is a total mansion!
2c. Did you pay for schooling via loans/get family help, etc?
Mom took out loans to pay for half of my undergrad education. I took out loans to pay for all of my med school.
2d. Did money factor into your decision to become a physician?
When I was 18, my mom divorced my dad. Because it was a messy divorce with high lawyer bills, she struggled to put food on the table. Observing all this had a big impact on the decisions I was making at a formative time in my life.
Mom left me off at State University with the last $25 from her wallet. I saw how distressed she was to leave me with so little money. Watching her blue van drive away, I decided to become pre-med. One of the reasons why was the high likelihood of financial stability for my future. I wanted to make sure if my future marriage didn’t work out, I’d be able to feed my kids and send them to college.
3. How old were you when you began to cut back?
Since graduating from residency at age 31, I worked ¾ time as a hospitalist for almost three years. At that point we got pregnant, decided to sell our house, and moved across the country so I could do a fellowship. Since I was due 3 weeks after the start of fellowship, I made the difficult decision to defer fellowship a year (at the time it was a hard choice—now it’d be a no-brainer).
3a. How many years out after completing training was this?
See above. After I completed fellowship, I continued to cut back. I worked two years part-time (five half-days a week—not something I’d recommend because it was never a half-day!). Then I cut back to two five-hour days a week, then eventually combined those hours to be just one 10.5 hour day a week.
For the past four years, I’ve worked ¼ time.
4. What motivated you to cut back? [Family / burnout / relationship / divorce / lawsuit/ other?]
After living in Europe for a year, I realized Europeans do a lot of things right, one of them being “time is life.” I knew after I was done with all my schooling I didn’t want to work full-time.
Plus, I was burnt out after residency, and then even more so after running an inpatient hospice unit for two years where I was basically on call 24/7/365. That was not wise—I should have put limits on my availability.
Our sons keep getting older every day (they really need to stop doing that!) so I want to spend as much time with them now as I can. If I want to work full time in medicine after they leave the house, then I can choose to do that. But for now, I want to be home to chase and hug them and kiss their boo-boos.
Also, I’ve seen the detrimental mental and physical health effects when some of my friends and family went through lawsuits. The chance of being sued is a huge turn off for longevity in American medicine.
And right now, one of the nicest persons I know—who was supposed to ride off into the retirement sunset early next year—is dying of stage IV cancer. That pulls you up short and makes you stop and evaluate what you’re doing with your life on a daily basis.
Life is what you design for yourself.
4a. What were the financial implications of cutting back?
Even when we had the two-doctor-McMansion in New York, we still (somehow) managed to live off of only one income and sock the other one away. And while I was on maternity leave the first time we lived in a small apartment, so again, we put away as much as we could. During Fellowship my husband managed to stash all but $9 a week of my paycheck into various retirement options.
Now we still basically live off of one income as what I take home is not much after all the retirement/benefits/tax-deferred/etc. options are taken out of my paycheck.
We aren’t like most of our two-physician peers. We don’t own a multi-million dollar house on the water and don’t have fancy cars. Our 11-year-old Prius is slowly starting to look like a beater. Our 6-year-old van is a bare bones, basic model. But all of that is okay because we have what’s more important to us now: control over our schedules and time.
4b. Did you downsize home or lifestyle?
Yeah, we got rid of our huge house in NY, but I was more than okay with that. I consider our current home spectacular because I renovated it extensively (not one of our smarter financial moves, but I digress).
I also have found cheaper, acceptable ways to have the same type of lifestyle that still makes me happy. So overall I don’t think we “downsized” our lifestyle since it’s still a rockingly-amazing life. For example, we participate in home exchange which I like a lot. Sure, it’s work, but it allows me to make friends with families all over the world, which brings me happiness.
4c. Slow your progress to retirement? Describe your thought process in making these tradeoffs.
If Dear Husband (DH) had stayed on as a partner for another year, we would hit our FAT FI number sooner. As it was, we were 8/9th of the way to FI by the time he turned in his partnership and then boom, all of a sudden, recently we arrived at our Lean FI number. We’re risk-averse people though, so we’d still like to pad that number up to FAT FI. We work now to cover our day-to-day expenses while putting money away in asset protected avenues.
Even when we eventually hit Fat FIRE, I don’t want to quit working. I want to contribute to society as I feel led to—you know, work that doesn’t make me want to claw my eyeballs out.
5. How did colleagues react to your decision?
Most colleagues can understand the reasons for our scaled back work schedule, but you can tell there’s sometimes jealousy beneath the polite veneer. Many ask how we did it. At the VA, docs have asked me to teach them about FIRE. This is how I ended up putting together the powerpoint that’s in the files section of the Physicians on FIRE Facebook group.
A word of caution though, one we’ve seen/heard from more than one physician who’s gone part-time in the private sector: Part-time doctors often are gradually pushed out by their former partners. Having a happy part-time doctor around reminds people they’ve somehow “lost” by making different choices—decisions that have put the part-timers where they are now.
But this isn’t about winning or losing. Everyone’s definition of success is different—it’s up to you to figure out what that is for yourself and your one, precious life. For some people, that means working full time and having a more lavish life style than we have. That’s just not us, it’s not who we are as people.
5a. How did you respond?
I was very relieved when DH went part-time. I felt we’d been living stretched for far too long. We both think our relationship would have suffered terribly had he continued to work as a full-time doctor.
Since DH quit his partnership this past May, we’ve had what I call an “ants-in-the-pants/can-request-more-than-seven-days-off-in-three-months-travel” reaction. It’s been a phenomenal second half of a year focused on relationship travel. I finally had the bandwidth to visit my sister in the UK. This past summer we did a three-week home exchange to southern Spain. My sister and her fiancé were able to fly down and visit us there. DH just got back from a tour of Poland with his dad, who wanted to go there to cross the trip off his bucket list before it was too late.
And since I’ve already told my boss, I will break the news here (you read it first on Crispy Doc’s blog): I am quitting my job and going fee basis in the Spring. I want more flexibility with my physician work schedule.
5b. Was your family supportive or critical? Partner? Parents? Children?
The kids were used to having boring-ole mommy around, but they missed DH when he was working so much. They’re much happier to have him around more (he’s a pretty fun guy).
My family was supportive, but we (my mom’s side) tend to live unconventional lives, so the support was expected. I have an amazingly thrifty aunt. After working twenty-five years as a public school teacher, she retired at age 47. Her husband joined her in retirement at age 55. My Grandparents also retired in their mid-50’s (both were also teachers). I’ll never forget asking my Grandma how they were able to afford that. She told me they lived off one income towards the end of their working years.
I think DH’s parents were a bit surprised, but understanding/supportive of our reasons to want to live a well-lived life per our definition—not the typical American consumer society definition. Besides, I think his parents have come to accept how much of an “odd couple” we are. That whole granola-cruncher thing…first the Prius, then the plant-based diet…next, we’ll be giving up deodorant…
6. What have been the main benefits of your decision to cut back?
You’re no longer in “survival mode” all the time. That’s been the best part. There’s time to stop and breathe— to participate in this wild, crazy thing called living. I don’t feel quite so stressed out anymore. I’m able to exercise more and be more present with my family.
One of my friends once said to me, “Imagine how different the world would be if each of us really got behind just one charity?” That thought stunned me. After that conversation, I decided to make my potlucks into charity fundraisers. I ask people to bring bottles of wine or like-new gifts/books they’d be comfortable re-gifting. Every year I put the gathered items into baskets for the Florida Writers Foundation Silent Auction whose proceeds help combat illiteracy.
And lastly, is this a G-rated post or am I allowed to say how much better sex is when you’re FI? 😉 (Relationships thrive when you have more time to devote to them.)
7. Main drawbacks?
There is this bit of weird uncertainty you feel for a while—like, you may ask yourself, well, How did I get here?… Am I right? Am I wrong? And you may say to yourself,… What have I done? 😉
But then you let the days go by, and you adjust pretty fast because life is so much more amazing when you have the mental space to live it.
(sorry, I absolutely had to work those song lyrics in here somehow).
8. Did you fear your procedural or clinical skills might decline? How did you address this concern?
I worried about this when I left my job as a hospitalist, but then I realized that was a chapter in my life I was closing: leaving behind my general medical skill set to move on to become a Hospice Palliative Medicine physician. But that background has helped me a better HPM doctor, so I’m okay with that.
9. If you are honest, what percent of your identity resides in being a physician? How did cutting back affect your self-image, and how did you cope?
When I took my first break, I was four months pregnant and moved across the country to a city where I had only two female friends. That was a very socially isolated time that ended up being a 15- month maternity sabbatical. By the end, I was mentally climbing the walls.
During that leave, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of “not being a doctor.” But I wouldn’t give up that time spent with my first born for all the gold in the world. It was a fabulous time of bonding with him while also learning about writing. I somehow secured a spot in a writer’s workshop and took an online writing class while writing the first draft of a book (it was awful, trust me. That manuscript will never see the light of day.).
Since then, I’ve gradually realized being a doctor will always be a part of me—even when I’m no longer working as a physician.
Letting this layer of “I am defined by being an M.D.” peel away from me slowly over the past almost-decade now has been very liberating. This is why I chose not to have “MD” or “Doctor/Physician” in my blog title name (well that and I didn’t know what I was going to do with my blog back when I started it).
I know deep in my soul now that I am more than “just a doctor.” I am a wife, a mother, and a runner-who-is-really-a-jiggly-jogger. I’m also an author, a blogger, and an eater of too many German chocolates.
10. If you had not gone into medicine, what alternate career might you have pursued?
11. What activities have begun to fill your time since you cut back?
The maternity leaves allowed me to not only learn more about writing but to have time to read. During my second extended maternity leave, I read the entire Mr. Money Mustache blog—it took me three months.
I am working on a book for high-income female earners who are interested in learning how to be frugal so they can work part-time—or not at all.
This past spring, when I got sick of trying to find female physician finance bloggers from a physician couple’s perspective, I figured out what to do on my blog. I have DH guest blog for me there—the guy is brilliant.
I told Physician on Fire if he ever holds a Camp FI for Physicians I want to teach a class on how to write a book. I think doctors are inherently great storytellers as we listen to some incredible stories told to us by our patients/their families. After a while, all those narrations being spoken into our lives rub off.
This month I’m focused on finishing up edits on my Middle Grade Fantasy novel. It won first place for book-length unpublished Fantasy from the Florida Writers Association. Walking up for that award at the banquet was almost better than receiving my med school diploma—and that’s saying something.
Stay tuned for more news on what we’ll be up to next year when I give up our cheap government health insurance!
12. If approaching retirement, what activities have you begun to prioritize outside of medicine so that you retire to something?
As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m in a mid-life career transition to becoming an author while leaving half a toenail in medicine—this will allow me to keep my skills/license active should I change my mind.
13. Did you front-load your working and savings, or did you adopt a reduced clinical load early in your career? What was the advantage of the route you chose? What would you do differently if you were graduating residency today?
We’ve maxed out every.single.asset.protected avenue open to us since before we were married. With the various avenues of asset protection available, we’ve front loaded our savings so DH could cut back this year. His fear of having our assets taken away has put us in the spot where we are now.
If I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to NOT buy a house the first three years out of residency, but to pay off my student loans and sock as much money away as I could. The magic of compound interest is jaw-dropping astonishing. Plus the behavioral aspects of our frugal spending/saving (mega-saving at times) helped us out tremendously.
I’d also tell myself to not fight with DH about money—it all ends up okay in the end.
14. Any parting thoughts and how can we find you?
I wish your readers the best in their journey towards financial freedom and “letting the days go by (same as it ever was)” while creating a “once in a lifetime” life. 😉 (again, those song lyrics pop up!).
Some observations on B.C.’s replies:
- The negative aspects of your family’s money blueprint need not be your destiny.
- Witnessing her single mother’s financial struggles inspired her to pursue a career where she would not be dependent on a spouse for income. This is a powerful message. My wife advises stay-at-home parents to keep an oar in the water and work part-time as a means of preserving an on-ramp to your career later.
- The outsider identity she developed as a child empowered B.C. and her husband to chart an unconventional career course by ignoring the judgments of others. Add in a high-earning spouse and a family legacy of thrift and they were ideal candidates to achieve early FI.
- Diversification of her identity (writer, mother, wife, blogger, runner, epicurean) has allowed her to spend her newfound time outside of clinical medicine doing productive, meaningful work without the sense of loss it might otherwise entail had she identified mostly as a capital “D” Doctor. Gradually cutting back over years helped.
- Flexibility matters. Despite contracting the physician affliction known as compulsory house-buying after residency, B.C. course-corrected and sold her initial big doctor house. This reversed a financial liability, creating a position of strength where she and her husband could radically reduce clinical obligations while their children are young.
- Controlling your time can become habit-forming. Cutting back begets further cutting back.
- Thank you, B.C., for sharing your story. May you enjoy continued success on your upward financial and personal trajectory!