Ten years ago this summer, I started a journey. I made a decision to climb a mountain. The path is well travelled and well marked, but supposedly so arduous few are allowed to start the journey.
Setting off to summit this peak, I first had to descend into the depths of a canyon. Others had told me of this canyon. They did not, however, explain its diabolical nature. They did not warn me the sides of the canyon are loose scree fields, easy to get down, very difficult to get up.
Going down wasn’t too bad, and everyone around said it would be worth it on top of the mountain. The scree seemed to let me almost surf the way down. However, the bottom of the canyon was dark, cold, and filled with sharp brush which abused the body.
“You’ll get through,” they told me. “You’ll survive.”
Finally, though, after I reached the bottom, I began the journey back up. I waded the cold creek. I took a brief rest. Then, I set out on a long hard climb up. I could see neither the canyon rim, nor the original peak I had envisioned climbing.
The loose scree gave way under me and sent backwards, 6-7% with every step. It seems as though every possible handhold belied some danger: thorns, scorpions, snakes, and the like.
Finally, after a long slog, I have reached to the canyon rim. From the rim I can now look up and see the mountain that had been my goal. I am tired, hot, sweaty, and forever changed from who I was before I descended into the dark of the canyon.
I gaze longingly up at the mountain, it is visible, yet still so far away. I turn around, and realize I am at the exact same elevation I started at, 10 years before, just a chasm of time away. I am closer to the mountain, yes, but no further away from my starting point.
This is what it feels like to reach Zero Net Worth after 10 years of medical training and working as a physician. So much has changed, and yet, financially, I am only back where I started.
10 Years Back to Zero
My net worth was barely above zero prior to medical school, but it was positive. That was the last time I had a positive net worth. The massive debt of medical school sent my net worth south of negative $300,000 at its lowest.
I recently calculated my net worth and, I have officially reached a positive net worth.
10 years later
Technically, somewhere in the last 6 months I reached Zero Net Worth. It took me a few months shy of a decade, but I have crawled back from the financial hole medical education put me in.
To be clear, I am not debt free. All of my assets just now officially outweigh my debt.
Getting back to zero is a necessary part of building wealth as a physician (assuming you took out loans for medical school). Nonetheless, the idea of 10 years of hard work, missed sleep, and sacrificing time with family and friends leading only getting me back to even is depressing.
Accounting for Life
Of course, money is a poor way to track life’s ups and downs. The value I place on different periods of my life over the last ten years correlates very poorly with their contributions to my net worth.
The most striking example of this is medical school. By far the most expensive part of my life up to this point. I feel, at best, neutral about my medical school experience. It was okay, but certainly not worth the money it cost (from an experience standpoint).
I learned a lot in medical school, relatively little of it has much bearing on the actual practice of medicine or my life today. In my opinion, medical school is merely the price of admission to medicine, not much more.
By far the most significant value add to my life that came out of medical school was my wife. Meeting her is the great redeeming factor of my time in medical school, and worth it all.
My financial footing in residency probably changed little overall. I saved some money in Roth and traditional IRA, so the cost of my interest on my loans was probably offset by this.
On the other hand, residency has been and likely will always remain my favorite time in medicine. I had a great group of co-residents and humane faculty who were most interested in teaching first and foremost.
I worked like a dog, but it seemed like it had purpose and I was doing something that mattered, with people I enjoyed. Sure, was I happy to give up the 80 hour weeks when I finished. Nonetheless, I would have traded a lot of money from my first job to keep the sense of camaraderie and joy in medicine which I knew in residency.
In contrast to medical school, marrying my wife in residency seems not redeeming, but complementary. The memory of getting married in my R2 year blends with the frenetic sense of energy, growth, and progress of my residency years. Altogether, it was a good time to be young, in love, and doing something which felt like it mattered.
Obviously, working as an attending has been the most financially valuable part of my time in medicine, however it has also had the most ups and downs. I was seriously looking for ways to quite medicine entirely 6 months into my first job.
I was making more money than I ever dreamed possible and I was miserable. Honestly, the work of seeing patient’s wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good enough to make up for the toxic culture, uninspired and vapid leadership, and burnt-out, greedy partners.
Having our first daughter and having to say good-bye in less than a month was a whirlwind of emotions. I would not trade anything the experience of knowing and loving her for anything. It was nonetheless a trying time.
My current job is entirely satisfactory. I have times where I get a good deal of satisfaction out of what I do, times when I am entirely fed up with it, and most of the time it just seems like a decent enough way to make a more than decent living.
The joy of having our second daughter grows exponentially with every day. It has been a relief to experience fatherhood with the joy and hope we are told to expect. Life keeps moving.
Life is Rich
I read a lot of physician blogs at times, and enjoy most of them. Many physicians correlate their discovery of financial literacy with improvement in their overall happiness and life.
I think this improvement actually comes more from simply moving to a more disciplined approach to life. Finance simply provides an easily accessible framework on a topic that matters. Money matters, it can be the source of great stress and anxiety. However, it will never bring happiness.
Looking through the last ten years through the lens of my net worth is actually really depressing. If life were about net worth, I probably should not have become a doctor. The jury might still be out on that decision anyway. Life is so much richer than numbers.
I have developed a much richer appreciation for the human condition and experience in medicine than I ever would have in almost any other profession.
This richness cannot be quantified nor repossessed. It does not earn me interest, yet pays me great dividends. The discipline to examine our finances opens the window to examining ourselves and our lives, if we follow the breadcrumbs.
Discipline is one of the great keys to a life well-lived. Financial literacy, not as a competitive sport of amassing net worth, but as a training ground for personal discipline, is a useful tool for honing the skills which actually lead to a rich life.
If the trail is only a means to peak-bagging, we are already lost. To gain the most important benefits from financial literacy and independence we must remember they are not the goals, but merely training grounds for the personal skills which can help us live a life worth reveling in.