Today, I write about the golden handcuffs that keep physicians trapped in their day jobs, and what I’m doing to break free.
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I wrote previously about the “golden handcuffs” that keep me dependent on my day job as a surgeon. This was a post from late 2018, when I was still optimistic about the field of medicine and was just learning about the FIRE movement.
At the time, my income was high, but it was equally matched by high expenditures. In an eye opening post from about late 2018, I calculated that my family was spending $340,000 a year! Granted, this included optional expenditures like savings, private school, and money to help my parents with living costs. But seeing that cash outflow total was a scary sight. It suddenly made sense why the Darwinian Dr-ess and I felt such pressure to bring home our paychecks every two weeks.
This pressure made me feel trapped and dependent on my day job. Despite the 60 hour work weeks and 10 hours of commuting every week, I had no choice but to keep on going.
Physician handcuffs are heavy
Medical training in the US seems perfectly engineered to trap physicians with heavy golden handcuffs. Without family wealth to bankroll my higher education, I paid for medical school with student loans alone. Six years of residency training and one big mistake later, I was $300,000 in student debt.
My situation is far from unique. According to the AAMC, your average medical school graduate in 2019 had $201,490 of debt. This debt influences everything from choice of specialty to decisions about marriage and babies.
As a board certified surgeon, my paychecks quickly gave me a heady new sense of financial security. Within two years of graduating residency, I moved my family from our cozy two bedroom bungalow to a five bedroom “doctor house”. In the expensive real estate market of Los Angeles, this added a $1.3 million mortgage to our balance sheet. The payments on just the student debt plus the mortgage cost us $8,000 a month!
The “doctor house” has worked out well as an investment on paper, but this doesn’t change the paycheck pressure from the mortgage.
I’m fortunate that my wife, the Dr-ess, has worked and saved since graduating college. She had a big nest egg by the time we got married, and her parents helped us purchase our first house when I began residency training. Once I became an attending physician, we had a hard time resisting a big upgrade to our lifestyle. Soon after moving to the “doctor house,” I also bought a Tesla Model 3.
I justified these things with various lines of reasoning, like helping out my parents and Tesla’s autopilot. But all my lines of reasoning didn’t change the debt that accrued from these decisions. By the time I looked around and counted up our spending, the numbers were truly shocking.
Physicians are super specialized (and super trapped)
The super specialized skill set of physicians is another factor that contributes to the feeling of being handcuffed. As Robert Kiyosaki says in “Rich Dad Poor Dad:” “the more specialized you become, the more you are trapped and dependent on that specialty.”
After fourteen years of higher education, I’ve gained the skills and experience to perform surgery. This all comes with a big paycheck, but it also ties me tightly to my employer. Theoretically I could switch employers or set up shop on my own, but there’s a lot of risk to a career move like this.
The bottom line is that when you spend $28,000 a month, anything that might interrupt your paycheck can seem very scary.
My solution and reawakening
If you follow my blog, you know what’s changed since I first wrote about golden handcuffs in 2018. First, I mapped out a 15 year plan to morbidly obese financial independence (moFIRE) based on brute saving and investing. I later refined this plan when I realized the tax efficient nature of rental real estate investing.
Now about two years later, I have 10 rental units in my portfolio. My SMART goal is to grow my rental empire within 5 years to a cash flow goal of $100,000. (I secretly plan to be completely financially independent within 10 years, but don’t tell anyone that yet.)
These goals have focused my energies and made me happier, both at work and at home. Each new rental property lightens the golden handcuffs around my wrists. This allows me to enjoy the fun aspects of my day job, because I know that I’ll soon have the freedom to leave behind the unpleasant parts.
I hope this post resonated with you. Are you a high income professional that feels trapped in your lifestyle and paycheck? Despite the specialized nature of your work, know that there are options. You don’t have to do it exactly like me. But you can certainly take action and lay the groundwork to lighten and eventually break free from your golden handcuffs.
First you’ve got to realize the weight of the handcuffs. Next, take stock, make a plan, and take action.
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- My Why: family, friends, and freedom
- The real estate empire has grown! Anno Darwinii 1.0
- What is moFIRE (morbidly obese FIRE) and why do I want it?
- Why I’m investing in real estate over stocks – Part 1
- Rental houses vs. stocks: a 25 year portfolio projection
Related Doctor Life posts
- Switching residency programs from surgery to psychiatry
- How to survive intern year of residency: the basics
- Quitting residency after intern year (Life after residency series)
- A chat with an intern about life on the “other side” (Life after residency series)
- Handsfree Blog Post from behind the wheel!
- The Epidemic of Physician Burnout
- The Darwinian Doctor’s 13 Monthly Expenditures (with real numbers)
- Golden Handcuffs: Why I can’t quit my day job (for now)
- Why I chose medicine, and why this is still a good choice for your career