I ONLY WOKE UP TO the notion of financial independence at age 50. I’d been asleep at the financial wheel and almost crashed. It had been a 20-year Rip Van Winkle slumber. I realized suddenly that I had an irresponsible, unconscious and unintentional money mindset.
I could offer plenty of excuses, but they don’t make me feel better. Shame, grief and disbelief overcame me initially. At times, regret still haunts me. We had lost so much time without taking care of our future.
An acute financial depression ensued. I felt panicked and lost. Our financial realization arrived simultaneously with family health issues, transitional job stress, downsizing and a growing awareness that I had a conflicted relationship with money.
The weight of all this nearly led to a mental breakdown. Yet my tale is an optimistic story of recovery, thanks to a dramatic change in our financial attention and direction.
My wife and I are reasonably high-income physicians, in emergency medicine and psychiatry. We’re empty-nesters now, in our late 50s and living in Tennessee after a long chapter in Chicago.
As is often the case, our relationship with money was forged in childhood. I grew up in a middle-class patriarchal household. My mother was a nurse and then a stay-at-home mom. My father was a state-employed physician and sole breadwinner. Money was a taboo topic when I was growing up, yet also a source of perpetual argument. My parents divorced for many reasons—money among them. We had enough, yet were led to feel like we lived in constant scarcity.
Neither my wife nor I had any constructive money behaviors to model. There was also an utter lack of formal personal finance education. We learned to care for others without learning how to care for our financial selves. Somehow, it always seemed there would be time to take care of this “later on.”
We exited medical school in our early 30s. We had no idea how to allocate the money from our first real paychecks. I now know the recipe for financial independence: Start early. Insure your human capital. Increase your income. Spend less than you earn. Save the difference. Avoid consumer debt. Invest in a simple portfolio of low-cost index funds. Let compounding work for you.
It’s simple, but not easy—and we didn’t know any of it at the start. Immediately out of our residencies, we started a family. We were blessed and overwhelmed with fraternal twin boys. One of them had significant developmental challenges requiring years of intense focus. Happily, in the end, our concerted efforts paid off.
We bought a big doctor’s house and new cars. We hired high-cost financial “advisors,” among them insurance salesmen. We established an inflationary lifestyle that led to a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. We spent first and saved the leftovers.
Who knew what dollar-cost averaging was? There was a never-ending litany of distractions from our money managers. It’s scary for me to think how common our story is, especially among late starters to the financial independence movement.
Our biggest mistakes happened during the Great Recession. We completely renovated our “forever” home in 2007. Housing money was cheap and plentiful then. By 2008, we were suddenly underwater on the mortgage and house-poor.
In addition to our paltry savings rate, we panicked and sold stocks. Committing a cardinal financial sin, we “de-risked” our portfolio at the worst possible time. We missed out on a significant portion of the subsequent bull market recovery. Our non-fiduciary advisor just let us do it. We had no idea what we were doing.
In the end, we emerged from a 20-year wind tunnel of spending with less than $1 million in savings. It was 2016, and we realized that our retirements loomed ahead. At age 50, ignorance was no longer bliss.
I went down the investment book, blogging and podcast rabbit hole. Analysis paralysis set in for a time. I wished someone had created a personal-finance education platform just for physicians. Then I discovered it’d been done. Driven by his passion for giving doctors and other high-income professionals a “fair shake on Wall Street,” Jim Dahle had already created The White Coat Investor.
With this knowledge now in hand, the race was on to take over our financial lives. We fired our financial advisor from the big private bank. We moved our investments from actively managed mutual funds to passive index funds at Fidelity Investments and Vanguard Group.
We left only our checking accounts at the bank. We opened a high-yield savings account at Ally for our emergency fund, and created various savings funds for the intentional needs and wants that we’d identified as still worthwhile.
Our gains were still punctuated by mistakes. Fortunately, we had exited a whole-life insurance policy and purchased term-life insurance. Unfortunately, we had used the proceeds of the whole-life policy to pay cost overruns on our home renovations. Fortunately, we moved from Chicago to lower-cost Tennessee. Unfortunately, we’d built our own house there.
Mistakes are best made when you’re young and have time on your side to recover. We certainly made mistakes, but now our time to recover was dwindling. We finally realized how leveraged our lives had become. To get out of debt and reverse the tide, we shoved our savings rate from the single digits to 35% to 40% of income. We saved as much as we could without eating rice and beans. Painfully, in 2019, we downsized from our costly custom home.
We kept shedding our materialistic weight, including selling our pleasure boat. Appropriately named YOLO—you only live once—it described our old way of living. Lifestyle inflation was insidious and easy. Lifestyle deflation is much, much harder. Yet, amazingly, our overall quality of life isn’t much different than before.
Today, we’re well on the way to financial independence. The goalposts still move a bit, but right now 63 to 65 is our target retirement age. Critical to achieving this goal are following our formal investment policy statement and an intentional life plan. Even with all our progress, our current phase of mindful living can still feel like the hardest part.
Why? The problem lies with our late start. It’s hard to stay on the straight and narrow when we’re surrounded by a community of early starters and early retirees. We have some ground to make up, while our peers can be more relaxed with money now.
Our net worth is up roughly 3.5 times since 2016. Our home’s value makes up 20% of this total. College for our twins is paid off. Thanks to a modest windfall, we paid off the last of our debt a few years ago—and treated ourselves to a hot tub.
A debt-free life has brought extraordinary peace of mind. The hot tub is good for our aching backs. Our nest egg still needs to grow quite a bit to meet our anticipated retirement spending. We are works in progress, but now it feels like we can get there in time.
Can you wake up too late to catch up? Sadly, I think the answer is yes. It’s never too late, however, to take control of your financial life. If the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the next best time is now.
We just don’t let money slip away any longer on the mindless consumption promoted by our culture. Those dopamine hits are short-lived. The Joneses may appear rich, but they probably aren’t wealthy.
We’ve chosen to enjoy the present, but not sacrifice our future to it. I know that’s not assured, however. From my work in the ER, I know that planning on those future golden years can be an illusion.
What’s next? Stay the course. Stick to the plan. Which is easier said than done. We have less time to recover from mistakes, and yet we still make them. The question I often ask is this: While late-starters like us are probably the predominant demographic in society, why do we make up such a small part of the voices in the financial independence community? We’re the silent majority and should speak out to help others that come after us. There’s no better time than now.
Bill Yount, age 57, is an emergency room physician in Tennessee. He wants to help others wake up and join him on the journey to escape the rat race, live a balanced life and enjoy generous time freedom. You can find him at Catching Up to FI and Financial Literacy Project.