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A Life Without Chains


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.



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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.



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

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14 thoughts on “A Life Without Chains”

  1. Got here from WCI. Family is definitely a chain. Of course we love and cherish our kids and would not trade them. But think existentially, a la Star Trek “The Inner Light” where Picard lived a whole virtual life in a moment. Were our kids a different combination of genes and perhaps different name and behavior we would not miss the ones we have not. Or realistically and financially, as when my kid asked “Daddy why can’t you stay home all day with me and not work like Uncle Joe?” “Because I got married and had two kids, my dear!”

    I love chains and straps though I only have a few buckets full of them. I’ve owned my come-along for 3 decades and consider it as useful as, well, $ for $, my husband! No, actually, I think he is a lot pricier despite the benefits of having him. And the come-along never tells me no.

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  3. Nice work avoiding serious trouble with your wife, vis-a-vis that little ball and chain comment. Har!

    Good stuff, Doc. I tend to think my current job is exactly the CHAIN I need to break, and soon. Just need to figure out what comes after.

  4. A creative and relevant post! Love it!

    It’s been just over a year since I realized that I had (accidentally) achieved FI (also 13 years after residency), and about 7 months since I “FIRE”d into part time office only practice. This week, a series of events lead me to finally break the last chain that was linking me to the hospital- I decided to stop seeing office OB consults and now will be office Gyne only. I had been struggling with this decision, but now feel a total sense of relief and euphoria (almost as great a relief as when I resigned from the on call group). No more guilt about someone else delivering my patients. No more searching for someone to cover OB patients during my vacations. No more stacks of 20 different lab and ultrasound results to process for a single new consult.

    Since embracing FIRE, it is not surprising that we too have decided to downsize our house (and are facing the chain that is 20 years of furniture accumulation… why is it so hard to let go of some of these items?) Our new house is still too big (all of our “stuff” will actually still fit) but I guess one step at a time. At least we’ve seen the light and have stopped accumulating new stuff we don’t need.

    Congratulations on your new freedom this summer! Enjoy every moment, you have earned it!

  5. Congrats on breaking the various chains in your life!

    I am working on breaking different chains (job expectations) and will be working on the typical ones to follow.

    Here’s to incremental freedom!

  6. First, congratulations on freeing yourself from the biggest chain of all, the work chain. That pager that causes phantom vibration on my hip even when I don’t have it on. Unfortunately, I have only been practicing for less than a year, so my goal is to throw it into the ocean like Juego said on Twitter. Hopefully with the encouragement of the FIRE community and grit, will be able to write the same post in 13 years.

    One other chain, real bondage was student loans, and I am so glad to be free of that this early in my career. 300k debt does feel like a cannonball chained to your feet while trying to swim to the water surface.

    I have no experience pulling anything with chain however, would likely call someone to do it. I guess I am not that tough.

    This post is not like the others, awesome storytelling, also like a poem, can’t figure out exactly what made me read till the end. But I am glad I did.

    • Thank you DrBEF.

      The thought pieces like this are some of my favorite posts to write.

      I forgot to mention how I got 20-something degree water down my waters a few times until I was thoroughly soaked and freezing. One more reason not to DIY a project like this and it would have made for a good addition to the storytelling.

      I was just thinking that day how he had so many chains and I had no use for any, and chains are the perfect symbol for the freedom I’m seeking.

      Congrats on your student loan escape, and best of luck on your FI quest. 13 years did the trick for me — I’ll be 13 years out from residency and 25 years out from high school when I’m officially FIREd this summer.


  7. My brother-in-law bought me one of those big beefy chains when I bought a Jeep some 20 years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used them to pull people out of a ditch. Some chains are useful, some chains are death. Choose your chains wisely. Great post.

  8. Just curious in the Doctoring world, how long can you realistically be “out of the game” before getting back in becomes impossible? Having gone through the whole process you are going through 5 years ago now, the one thing I can say is that after a few years of unchained bliss, you might miss the good aspects of your job. I have a consulting gig in my previous career now and love it. I put in what I would guess is roughly 80-100 hours a month and it gives me all of the fun stuff you get from a cool job and none of the bullshit. Anyway, its nice to leave yourself options if you’d like to do something part time down the road other than the blog. I have to think based on the quality and the amount of content that you are putting in more the 20 hours a week into the blog. Great stuff!

  9. Yes! Our house was our biggest chain and we recently made the decision to sell and down size. We love it.. But it adds a lot of complexity to our lives. Once we made the decision the chain already feels less restrictive. Now, we just need to get it done….

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  11. I’ve decided that for items you will only use occasionally, like a tractor or pressure washer, renting is a much better ROI – and you don’t have to worry about storing, moving or maintaining it between the occasional times you actually use it.

    I didn’t know you were moving out of MN… the land of 10,000 lakes! I figured you’d found a lake house in MN, silly me…

    I still feel tightly bound by proverbial chains, since I still own and run a horse farm and work part time. I’m working towards that freedom as well, but I’m basically just getting started. Congrats on almost being there yourself.

    Oh, and I know a very frugal friend in MN who has no problem discarding items he no longer uses. He seems minimalist by nature and when he’s done with something, he’s really DONE with it and doesn’t want the hassle in his life anymore. I’ve been working to adopt more of that attitude instead of trying to squeeze every last dollar’s worth out of things.

  12. “Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself, is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar.”

    ― Friedrich Nietzsche

  13. For some reason when I was reading this post I couldn’t get the song by Erasure out of my head, “Chains of Love.”

    I have on more than one occasion got my walk behind mower stuck in soft ground (typically near my creek) and have had to bring my Land Rover out and use a tow rope to pull it. The tow rope is a great compromise as it is fairly lightweight, easy to store, and I believe rated to pull 5000 lbs (which is more than adequate for my walk behind).

    Every time I have moved I have noticed that I have required a larger and larger transport vehicle to contain all the stuff I have accumulated. I have also progressed to larger and larger homes with each move (my current and final home tops out at 3150 Sq feet). But you are right, there are some things that just get carried along for the ride and you don’t even touch it until the next move. Some sentimental, some just pure laziness to not get rid of.

    Congratulations on breaking the chain from work soon. That’s often the heaviest chain of all.

  14. Awesome sauce POF. And quotes from Social Distortion and Dokken, ya gotta love that. We used to cover Ball & Chain in the first cover band I was in, fun song to play! Sadly, I could not play any Dokken….

    And yes, sometimes the ‘stuff’ in our lives can indeed feel like it’s chained to you and dragging you down. Not good.


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