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Learning To Live On Less

In the US we have an economy that is thriving on technology and highly dependent on less developed nations to provide us with raw materials and even finished products. You can’t mine the earth for such rare minerals without destroying it and the US certainly isn’t gonna destroy its own soil in order to supply its people with technology. So the lobbying groups, paid for by large corporations, get laws passed that ensure that we get our overseas parts for absurdly cheap.

It’s odd that I can pay $5.99 for a locally-made organic loaf of bread while only having to pay $7.25 for a brand-new toaster.

Learning to live on less isn’t necessary but can give a physician a big leg up in this new healthcare environment where burnout is the norm.

Technology in Society

Technology is just another angle to get money from one person’s pocket into another’s. Loans and insurance products are another. Popular media has made these concepts appear almost essential to our western existence. The majority of us are drinking the Kool-Aid.

US corporations have also created an artificial quality of life for the people by decreasing the cost of things like milk, meat, gasoline, and electricity. The savvy ones reading this will know that the majority of the products we use have not kept up with inflation when it comes to the numeric cost. I won’t get into why because that should be obvious. Let’s just say the rest of the world doesn’t pay $2.29 per gallon of gas, nor $3.99 for a gallon of milk.

I guess the important question is how much longer can we enjoy such an artificial quality of life? The follow-up question is what do we do when this structure falls apart?

Unsustainable Economic Surplus

For the majority of families, it will be devastating and the economy will spiral down quickly. The media, as always, will have fun with it and create even more hysteria. I’m not trying to paint a picture of Armageddon but asserting the point of fragility.

Investors will sell low and anecdotally wait again to buy high.

Our lifestyles are dangerously and excessively correlated with technology, consumable products, media, and intangible services such as insurance, mortgages, loans, and even investment products.

But I’m a doctor so what do I have to worry about?

That’s a valid argument but you still live in a society where the services and goods you experience are made and provided to you by others whose incomes aren’t quite as high and reliable. The safety of your neighborhood and the civil interactions you are enjoying with those living near you are all maintained currently through a false sense of economic stability.

I’m sounding like a doomsday person here but that’s not at all the direction I’m taking. It is important to understand that the economic structure we have in the US is artificially maintained and bound to crumble, to be built up again of course, but the crumbling is our generation will likely have to deal with.

Losing Your Job as a Physician

Back in 2011, had I lost my job, I would have been fucked. I had about $1,000/mo in auto payments, $600/mo in student loan payments, $2,300 in mortgage payments, $200/mo for cable/internet dues, a $100/mo cell phone bill and a lifestyle that was highly dependent on externally derived pleasures almost all of which required me to spend money.

My fun and happiness came from everything I was spending money on. If I lost all that I would have been depressed, not knowing how to create happiness for myself without having all that shit.

What Defines Quality of Life?

It is absolutely false to believe that without all the above expenses you would be living a miserable life. And I assure you that 99% of those around me think that they need those things in order to be content and happy. They may say all sorts of things to make you feel otherwise about their views but throw a guy like me in front of them, living in a tiny box of a condo, without a car and no TV and no fancy expenses and you will quickly realize what their minimum lifestyle requirement is.

I am a doctor. I have normal friends, I do normal things, and if you met me there is no fucking way you could tell that I live a frugal lifestyle.

I have a Netflix subscription and I can get movies from the library for free. I read books that cost me almost nothing. The few I buy I could turn around and sell for close to what I paid for them and the rest I get from the library.

I don’t own a car which means I don’t have any car payments, insurance, repair costs, or expenses at the pump. I have bypassed an entire multi-billion dollar industry that can no longer advertise to me, control my life by controlling oil prices or create stress in my life should I get into a car accident.

I don’t pay for life insurance or disability insurance nor do I have any debt. Without debt, I cannot be controlled by the lending company and I will have decoupled myself from needing income to pay back the debt. I no longer give a shit about my credit report or whether some fucking bank thinks I’m credit-worthy or not.

Spending Less to Have Less Stress

I wrote the backbone of this article back in 2016 but a lot remains true now in 2023. I took the bus to work this morning, picking up a shift in nearby urgent care.

Taking a bus in Los Angeles for a physician is unheard of. But it’s the unconventional things you can do that allow you the opportunities others can imagine.

I make wonderful food at home, I take trips on Amtrak, I read great books almost daily and I have amazing friends whom I spend time with. We brew beer together, work on their homes or play Frisbee at the park.

I don’t have a lawn to take care of. I don’t spend too much on clothes because am perfectly comfortable going to thrift stores for them. I don’t buy meaningless gifts for people just to feign an interest in their lives.

I have 1 type of detergent in the entire house which is biodegradable and cheap. I use it for my hair, body, hands, face, and clothes as well as for cleaning various surfaces. For any other cleaning I use vinegar and baking soda and so far I haven’t had any issues.

Reliance on Healthcare is a Major Expense

I have detached my need for doctors not just because I’m a physician myself but also because I’m taking steps to keep my health in check. I get enough sleep, I control my stress, I eat a plant-based diet and I get some sort of exercise nearly every day.

I don’t watch the news, I don’t watch TV advertisements and I don’t listen to ads on the radio or any other platform. I realize that as a human I’m impressionable and haven’t found a more effective way than this to prevent myself from feeling vulnerable or thinking of my life as not having enough.

I walk to places that are less than 3 miles away. I bike to places 3-15 miles away and take public transport when I am feeling lazy. I still have the option of renting a rental car or using a car-sharing service. It’s nice having options, but it’s more important to live a life where you’re not dependent on them.

A Decoupled Lifestyle

The reason I share the details of my lifestyle is that my method is just one way of decoupling from the system that was created to run your life. I’ve been working on this for years and I feel like I’ve done a decent job. I have less fear than I did before. There are many different levels and layers when it comes to being content with living on less but this is a good start.

Sure, I may come across as a bit too harsh and extreme but our economy runs on people spending money to the point that without it there would be a risk of people running into the streets and hurting each other, looting businesses and each other’s homes.

But don’t worry, the government has considered that there may be those like myself who will choose to not spend on the things that supposedly drive our economy. As a matter of fact, if citizens of the US stopped wasting their money on the shit that they are currently wasting it on then our present economy would suffer. The government would retaliate by raising taxes and making many ‘services’ mandatory; think auto insurance and health insurance.

Spending More to Enjoy more Comfort

The purpose of this post is to recognize that most of us spend because we are trying to create a comfortable life that we think will generate happiness. This is true for all of us. I spend money on a great cup of coffee because it relaxes me and makes me content. I eat out when I crave a meal that I don’t have to prepare at home. There is nothing wrong with deriving some pleasure from spending money. The key is enjoying it but not needing it. If you can get yourself and your family to that state then you will feel a whole new sense of independence, happiness, and freedom.

Most of our decisions to spend actually take us further away from happiness and decrease our satisfaction. Whatever gadget you decide to buy will eventually fail or will need to be maintained. Some things will need to be insured, others will simply require a lot of your attention in order to maintain them.

Spending more means we need more income, which makes us more reliant on our jobs, and more fearful of losing them therefore we get into this perpetual subtle competition with other human beings just to be able to maintain this lifestyle.

And that’s my point about this ‘lifestyle’, is it really something we wanted? If we didn’t have any input from advertisers or looked over our shoulders to see what our neighbors were doing would this be how we would design our lives?

Money Trumps Everything

I have to guard my lifestyle if I want it to be stress-free and enjoyable. The economy is entirely based on getting more money into the pockets of the rich. And the rich aren’t the doctors.

I had a medical board investigation in 2017 which resulted in a medical license suspension for 30 days. At the heart of it was that I saw a patient for free.

I certainly played my part and could have handled the situation better but there was no bad patient outcome. The license suspension was simply to show that those in power will force you to conform.

The Alternative isn’t Poverty

I’ve had this discussion with friends before and it’s sort of odd that when I say we shouldn’t spend so much on crap and become less reliant on the various insurance systems and digital services they assume that the solution is to crawl into a teepee and live without running water and electricity.

My hypothesis is that if you get rid of your TV and cable service and find yourself unhappy it’s either because you just haven’t had enough time to find something better to replace it with or because you are truly and deeply miserable and couldn’t imagine generating any happiness from yourself.

I think if people were willing to at least try getting rid of their unlimited cell plans, TV service, one of their cars, their gazillion chemical products in the house, their debt, Facebook and just try going to a coffee to spend time with other humans and sit among them carrying a conversation things would be different.

As doctors, we are at even higher risk for leading such lifestyles because we have crazy high incomes, a lot of attention and we are revered by society with a ton of expectations put on us. It’s easy for us to retreat onto pill hill with our families, enroll our kids in the fanciest private schools, attend the most expensive gyms and dine at the finest restaurants.

Creating a Unique Lifestyle

Perhaps it was luck or perhaps it was learning to live on less which allowed me to retire early at age 38.

After that, I switched my career from seeing patients to doing healthcare consulting and eventually circled back to running my own telemedicine practice.

I am able to be location independent as a digital nomad physician because I am not trying to own a 2 million dollar home or juggle a $1k a month auto payment.

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