How I Found Financial Security in a Culture Obsessed with Consumerism

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As an anesthesiologist, I sometimes felt a certain pressure to drive a better car, live in the right neighborhood, or book luxurious accommodations when traveling.

For the most part, I resisted. Luxury’s just never really been my thing. I’m more of a stealth wealth kind of guy, and unnecessary expenditures fly in the face of the financial security I was after.

I have to admit that it was not that difficult blending in and avoiding consumerism culture living in smaller towns in the midwest where I spent most of my career. It’s not like I was a plastic surgeon in New York City!

Today’s guest author was, though. Dr. Jordan Frey, the Prudent Plastic Surgeon, describes how and why he overcame the urge to keep up with the Joneses of NYC.

 

How I Found Financial Security in a Culture Obsessed with Consumerism

 

I’m never quite sure how to answer when people ask what I do.

Usually, I say something vague enough that there are not too many follow-ups.

In reality, I’m a plastic surgeon specializing in microsurgery, particularly in breast reconstruction. I just completed 7 years of training and am starting my first job as an attending surgeon.  I love what I do and plan on doing it for a long time.

It’s just that when you tell people you are a plastic surgeon, they instantly have a picture in their mind. And I am just not that plastic surgeon.

The mental image that jumps to mind for most people when they hear, “I’m a plastic surgeon” is of an impeccably manicured woman or man in a designer dress or custom suit sitting in a luxurious Park Avenue office. Their look says, “Let’s make you beautiful.” Their dinners have at least 5 courses and their pocket squares or handbags have their own closets. They definitely have a flashy Instagram page.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any problem with those who choose to lead their lives and careers this way.

The problem was that during my training in New York City, this was also the picture that I had of what I should be striving to appear and be like. Even as a resident making an at best average salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Even with student loans in excess of $400,000.

I was ashamed to admit that I was nowhere near achieving this status and had no idea how I would. The problem was that I didn’t even know if I wanted it, but I do have to say that I felt for a long time like I needed it.

Even in training, working long hours and making less money, this standard that equates wealth with expensive things seemed to seep into all of us. This belief is pervasive for most, if not all, high income individuals.

But, think again of your mental picture of a plastic surgeon; now imagine a primary care physician. Fair or not, I bet those images looked very different despite both doctors providing important care to their patients at a high level. The thing is, these mental images look different even for people who are plastic surgeons, including me. I struggled to fit in.

To put it simply, I was falling for the illusion of consumerism.

 

Financial Security

 

Overcoming Consumerism Culture

 

Over-consumerism can be spotted millions of times each day, just flipping through TV or browsing the Internet. It espouses the principle that you are what you have. It’s what makes residents buy an expensive suit to go to weekly educational conferences instead of paying down their student loans.

The feeling of need to keep up with this perceived status as a trainee frustrated me. But what really led to a disconnect between the image of a “rich plastic surgeon” and my reality was that I did not see any viable pathway to achieving this image after 7 long and grueling years of training. This is what can and did lead to burnout.

I was in a residency, specialty, and city that was obsessed with consumerism. I had been sucked in and didn’t know what to do. I would become an attending and get a big increase in salary. But along with that would come a commensurate increase in expenses to pay for all of the fancy things I needed to prove that I was successful. Like B.I.G. said, mo’ money, mo’ problems.

So how did I overcome this consumerism consumption?

It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of soul searching. But to put it quite plainly, I decided to ignore the image (real or perceived) of success put out there by others.

I would instead focus on my passions and goals rather than excess consumerism. I would establish a plan for financial well-being, stability, and independence.

 

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

 

Financial Security as a Goal

 

Once I made financial security my goal and admitted that I knew absolutely nothing about it, the flood gates opened. I found a lot of power in this simple admission: that I did not know what I was doing. Finally, I could move on to the next step: figuring it out.

By facing my mistakes head on and dedicating myself to my financial education, they no longer held power because I knew that I could fix them and ultimately get to where I wanted to be.

Freed from outside expectations that I had internalized, I was focusing on the things that mattered to me and my family.

I learned that “rich” does not make you “wealthy.” Nowhere in any net worth calculator does it ask you what your annual salary is.

I discovered that I could optimize my spending by allocating it in an intentional manner to the things most likely to bring me continued happiness rather than purchases that brought short, intense highs that would dissipate and leave me wanting more.

 

Spending With Intention

 

I’ll give a prime example of this intentional spending.

I am not a car person. I really don’t derive any pleasure from how fast my car can potentially go or how it looks. Because I was lost in consumerism, I was planning to lease a luxury car for $450/month once I moved to start as an attending.

I figured this is just what one did. But then I realized that this would not bring me any real joy. In fact, this would have created stress for me because happiness I derived from the car would never justify the  money I was paying.

So, I instead bought a 2011 Toyota Avalon from a family member for $2,000. I am so much happier driving that car and knowing that the money I would have been spending on a lease is going to the things that truly bring me and my family happiness.

I am, however, very much still in the process of getting to where I want to be.

 

I Have Made Financial Mistakes

 

My list of financial mistakes is long. My mindset was unhealthy. I made just about every wrong financial move that you can make. I was ignorant and scared to learn, for fear of seeing just how badly I had screwed things up.

The thing is, I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of you out there who are in the same boat and are probably ashamed to admit it, like I was.

It is hard to be self-reflective in recognizing how big a part consumerism has become in our lives and how it is affecting us. Too often, we see others living according to the principles of consumerism and we think that is the only path. I assure you that it is not.

The concepts of saving 20-30% (or 50%!) of your salary, of investing in assets that make your money work for you (broadly diversified, low cost index funds, cash-flowing real estate, etc.), of minimizing your liabilities that take money out of your pocket rather than putting it in your pocket seem so simple now that I’m on the other side. But just a few months ago, these models were completely foreign to me.

Interestingly, while this mindset and financial revolution was happening, something amazing happened. I found myself rediscovering my passion for my work. I became a better physician.

 

Financial Well-Being and Personal Well-Being

 

Unfortunately, many physicians treat personal finance or its discussion as a dirty topic. We got into medicine to help others, not to make money. However, the pursuit of our best life is not mutually exclusive to our desire to help others.

Further, money plays a significant role in our lives just like everyone else, whether we like it or not. We may as well be educated to make our money work the hardest for ourselves, our loved ones, our patients, and the causes that we care about.

Following in the footsteps of giants like Physician on Fire, I created a blog as the Prudent Plastic Surgeon to share my story and resources focused on increasing financial well-being as an integral component of personal well-being. My perspective is unique in that I have not yet reached this goal but am rather on the road along with you.

If I can slip out of the grip of consumerism to see the light of financial security and emerge, dare I say, on FIRE, so can you!

It is never too late (or too early) to start!

 

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In honor of Financial Literacy Week, if you buy either the Fire Your Financial Advisor or the 2020 Continuing Financial Education course, you will not only receive 10% off, but also receive the Physician Wellness and Financial Literacy Conference - Park City course for free.


 

What have you done to overcome consumerism culture?

 

23 thoughts on “How I Found Financial Security in a Culture Obsessed with Consumerism”

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  2. It really is tough as a doctor not to have lifestyle inflation.

    The major jump in salary when becoming an attending is a dinner bell most people can’t help but answer.

    Then you have friends and family expecting you to “look the part” because that’s the only way they think you are successful. If you drive a beater and have an average home it conveys to them that you must not be doing well.

    So kudos on you bucking the trend. I myself was not that strong when I was young (I bought a new Mercedes a month before I finished my fellowship in IR).

    Fortunately our incomes allow us to make more than a few mistakes and still right the ship. But if I was on the perfect path from the beginning I could have retired probably 5 years ago.

    Reply
  3. Good article. I’m 7 years out. It is also interesting to see how you can go full circle. I used to be the same way and still am to a significant extent. But when these investments like index fund and “cash flowing” real estate go bust and stay that way for years it makes you rethink things. Sometimes its better to spend some of this money on something tangible that will make you happy. I recently lost 40k in two separate syndications secondary to sponsor fraud. I’m at risk of losing much more in hospitality and office space investments due to Coronavirus. My small value index investments were demolished and will likely stay that way for a while. All of this in less than one year. I am very frugal allowing me to withstand such loses without issue. But, I do wish I invested less aggressively and put that money into a car or other luxury item i could enjoy for years to come. I could have enjoyed a penthouse condo and a new 911S with money left over, enjoying both daily. You can end up being frugal and responsible to your own detriment. If you accumulate significant assets, buy the house you want and the car you want and go on any trip you want. Do not even second guess this decision. Find the balance. Ditch the Avalon.

    Reply
    • Nick,

      If you buy investment assets that go South you could make the conclusion you apparently did. Geez, I lost all that money. If I bought an expensive car I would have something to show for it.

      Or you could conclude: I’m on the right track but I obviously am not a sophisticated investor. Let me get some education and experience and learn from that so I can build my wealth over time.

      Either is fine.

      But the second one will allow you financial freedom later in life. You will be able to quit your job, see fewer patients. travel Europe, buy luxury cars or whatever floats your boat.

      Reply
      • Pain + reflection = progress ( Ray Dalio).

        But, even with what I know now I could not look at these investments and see the risk.
        All your investments, no matter how conservative, are laden with unknown unknowns. No level of sophistication is going to allow you to look at a PPM and say bad or good investment – outside of debt load ect. The things that go wrong are often nothing you could ever have predicted (coronavirus, individual fraud). Cash flowing real estate is very much over sold on these forums, mostly by people who are getting a piece of your investment. That also goes for turn keys – just don’t do it.

        I would say being cheap is a sure plan, but without a fine balance you’ll look back with regret. I am financially independent currently because of the former.

        Reply
        • Hey Nick,

          Thanks for reading the post!

          I’m sorry that happened but that manner of investing is not exactly what I believe in. I believe in mirroring the entire stock market with index funds. I have a small value tilt. I know that they are doing poorly now but I am not investing for now, I’m investing for later. And for me, I don’t like passive real estate investing in things like syndications. I am actively investing based on a set of well developed criteria and terms. I will not always win but I will win the majority of the time sticking with this. Passive RE investing can be done very successfully though…Passive Income MD in fact just opened his course teaching how to perform due diligence on these investments. Perhaps this could help in the future?

          And lastly, I agree that balance is needed. But for me, I really don’t care about cars so why would I spend a lot of money on mine? I spend on the things that bring me joy!

          Keep at it, invest for the long term and definitely also enjoy your life!

    • That is a shame. My total stock market index fund is about where it was before the COVID crash. I don’t have any small value funds or real estate syndication deals. Just boring old 3 fund portfolio.

      No, I do not wish I had wasted money on an expensive car. If you do 3 fund, you can reasonably expect it to grow over time. Yes, the stock part is volatile. Yes it could go down and stay down for a long time. But long term, you expect it to grow. If you buy some toy, you can expect the high transaction costs and depreciation to reduce the value substantially as soon as you drive it off the lot. Not to mention the high ownership costs- insurance, maintenance and gas.

      An Avalon is a luxury car. I would never buy one. Maybe a used Camry…

      Reply
  4. Thank you for reminding us about the difference between being wealthy and rich. As a doctor who has achieved FIRE, I was hoping you could share your thoughts on health insurance options for folks planning to achieve FIRE specially since most of us, have usually been covered by our employers health ins. and have little knowledge of the best way to approach this important aspect.

    Reply
    • Hey Vijay, thanks for reading the post and big props for achieving FIRE!

      Honestly, I am not the best resource on the topic of private health insurance. It is expensive when bought on the market but is necessary. All advice I have read on the topic basically suggests sucking it up, budgeting for the high cost, and buying a good plan on the market, even when you qualify for Medicare which will not cover everything.

      Maybe PoF can weigh in since he is already in the FIRE camp with you?

      Thanks!

      TPPS

      Reply
        • My husband and I agonized over the health insurance aspect of early retirement, until I discovered the Health Insurance Marketplace, which provides a government subsidy in the form of a tax credit for those within a certain income range, currently around $25K-$68K annually. I realize that these rules could change at any time, but for now, our plan is to keep our “1040 income” under $68K in order to qualify for the subsidized insurance. Since our expenses exceed this amount, we have been saving post-tax dollars to supplement the other income for several years until we hit age 65 and get on Medicare. We are currently 54 and 57, planning to retire in 2021.

  5. Thank you for reminding us about the difference between being wealthy and rich. As a doctor who has achieved FIRE, I was hoping you could share your thoughts on health insurance options for folks planning to achieve FIRE specially since most of us, have usually been covered by our employers health ins. and have little knowledge of the best way to approach this important aspect.

    Reply
  6. Stick with index funds, agree. Easy, takes no time and total control. Get growth of world economy and can focus on being best doctor.

    One fraud was on same investment as the white coat investor. Another on an investment many experienced local investors participated in, some might call them “sophisticated.”

    I doubt that course will help anyone outside of avoiding the horrible deals from the outset that have way too much debt and with inexperienced sponsors. My point is you can read PPM all day like financial news all day. You aren’t going to find the problem that actually sinks your investment. Corona virus won’t be in your hotel PPM.

    I’m becoming more of a fan of three fund portfolio for 90%, anything else 10%. Any real estate direct ownership down the street.

    Reply
    • Hey Nick, you are right. No one has the crystal ball and anyone who pretends they do is lying. All we can do is our due diligence and realize that failure is part of the game. In any endeavor, everyone who has been successful has also failed many many times. If we never get off the sidelines though, we will never succeed. I’m glad these experiences haven’t diminished this for you and also helped you get to the right balance for you!

      TPPS

      Reply
  7. This is a really thought provoking post!

    I’m definitely aware that minimalism (or more specifically, lack of crap cluttering my life) is a mindset which brings me happiness.

    I’m also lucky in that I find it fun to invest + discuss my investments privately with a close family member – that itself is a great pastime for me and there’s nothing better than enjoying putting your money away for years to come!

    I also find that removing myself from the competitive consumerism of social media by not partaking + sharing these big expenses I’ve been able to pretty much cut a lot of desire & waste from my shopping habits.

    Reply
    • The All Around Investor, thanks for reading!

      I’ve found similar things in my life. It’s often those who lack financial education that don’t like to talk about finances and think it’s taboo…that’s how I was at least. But now that I have some knowledge it is a lot of fun to talk about and learn from others.

      Social media definitely promotes consumerism and unfortunately too many fall for it.

      Congrats on your success!

      TPPS

      Reply
  8. TPPS,
    Glad to see that you’re starting off practicing on the “right” financial foot.

    I especially liked your comment that there are no annual salary numbers in net worth calculators.

    Best of luck and would love to have you submit a guest post on my blog, Debtfreedr.com.

    Reply
  9. “ I would instead focus on my passions and goals rather than excess consumerism. I would establish a plan for financial well-being, stability, and independence.”

    LOVED this. Great post. Keep writing and keep learning (I hope you visit the Bogleheads).

    Reply

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