Retired at 34. How One Physician Quit Her Job to Live Her Dream.
Through a combination of creativity, budgeting, investing, and adopting a minimalist mindset, she is now in a place where work is optional and she can travel extensively with her children.
Although her husband chooses to continue working as a teacher, Eliza the dermatologist was clearly the main breadwinner of the family. Although she didn’t work more than a few years, the income she earned and the choices they made set them up for a sustainable lifestyle for many years to come.
Why I Left
You hear quite a bit about stress in medicine. I pushed myself quite hard to get into med school and then to match in a competitive specialty. I spent 100 plus hours a week at the hospital as a student. Then, I became pregnant three weeks into my intern year at Yale.
Somehow, I found joy through the sleep deprivation. One day I had to abruptly stop a patient presentation on rounds during a 30-hour call. I was vomiting in the bathroom when my pager went off again. I laughed even then at the absurdity of the situation.
The tipping point came in residency (not at Yale). I completed all of my program’s requirements, and then they arbitrarily added many more. I begged; I cried, and the part of me that loved medicine died that day.
I would have walked away then, but I was saddled with substantial debt. One resident at my institution killed himself that year. I just pressed on while feeling like an empty shell.
Choices Along the Way
When I finished training, I signed up to work just 2.5 days a week at a private practice because I knew that it was more sustainable than working full-time. I was still bound by my debt, but I needed breathing room.
I made lots of financial mistakes, like putting my 3-year old in a $9,000 a year half-day Montessori program, and living in a different state from my husband for 4.5 years. Handy hint: paying for two households is not the way to build wealth.
We survived, and then we watched the Dave Ramsey DVDs. My whole life, I thought being on a budget was just choosing to spend wisely on the “important” things. Oops. We got on track quickly after that (see tips below).
In 2017, after years of true financial discipline, I discovered that my retirement accounts were enough to cover my now minimalist habits; I was financially independent. A few months later, I went in to resign from my practice because my husband wanted to move to a new area.
Retiring early isn’t for everyone. My husband loves his job as a teacher and plans to continue for many more years. I incorporate this as income flow in our budget the same way I approach draws on our liquid assets.
Tip 1: Make a budget with your spouse.
Don’t decide in the moment if you can afford something. Write down your income for the month, subtract the essentials like rent/utilities, and then make a plan TOGETHER for every single dollar. Every. Single. One.
So when you pay down debt or save to invest, don’t take the leftover money at the end of the month. That was our mistake for years. Remove that money at the beginning along with your rent.
Cut up/hide the credit cards and pay cash. Do it. I have had to put items back on the shelves at the grocery store because I didn’t have enough cash, and that is how it should work. Otherwise, you will cheat. You. Will. Cheat.
Tip 2: Minimize expenses.
This is what will ultimately get you to financial independence and early retirement. It works by freeing your income to pay down debt. After finally making that budget, my husband and I paid down our debt aggressively. We paid off our home in 2016 and our student loans in early 2017.
I now own my cars and my house. I drive a Prius (really great for gas mileage) and live with my husband and two kids in a modest 3 bedroom, 2 bath house on 5 acres. The taxes/insurance on these are minimal. I don’t have cable tv, and when I want wifi at home, I use my phone as a hotspot.
As far as utilities go, I pay for electricity right now, but I plan to switch out for solar panels later this summer. I pay for trash pick up now but hope to eventually be zero waste. My focus is on reducing recurring payments to free up more of the budget for other things.
Minimizing expenses also works by reducing the amount of income and size of the nest egg you will need for retirement. I can’t draw $100,000 a year from my retirement accounts, but I don’t need to. I can withdraw at the 4% a year rate and fully support our minimalist lifestyle.
Tip 3: Prioritize retirement funding.
You need time for your investments to grow, so the early years are important. We were maxing out our Roth IRAs and my husband’s 403b even back in medical school. Start today, even if you still have student loans.
People often also want to fund the 529 plans. If you can do everything, that’s great, but if it comes down to it, I would rather make my kids take on student loans than make them support me later in life.
Tip 4: Make a plan to cover your expenses.
Your lifestyle will change when you retire. I pay more now for my cell phone bill each month but save a ton on disability premiums. You may save on parking fees, gas, or daycare expenses.
Make sure you can get health care coverage. If you are healthy, you can get medical and dental coverage through the AMA at excellent rates. We have also used the Christian health care sharing plans in the past to provide catastrophic coverage.
Tip 5: Give yourself flexibility.
After I quit my day job, I was invited to continue with some occasional consulting for a pharmaceutical company. I have logged 10-15 hours a week for them over the past year and loved every minute of it. I was also approached by an acquaintance to do some locum work averaging one to two days a month.
I would encourage any young retiree to keep an active license for the first few years. You may want to volunteer at a free clinic, teach residents, or do medical missions.
Keep your options open, and try lots of new things. I may start another degree this fall; I may move abroad for a few months to finally learn a language through immersion.
I get to live again and dream again, and it is perfect.
Have you ever felt like she did? Looking for a veer away from the career path you chose? Would a frugal, minimalist lifestyle appeal to your more if it meant never having to go to work again?