To the outside world, I’m a rich doctor who can buy what I want. In reality, I’m a sleep-deprived resident physician struggling to keep my head above water. No one told me life would be like this, at least not before I started taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans each semester, but I digress. The point is that even [future] high-income earners like myself need to have a budget. Without one, our money disappears faster than a post-call resident leaving the hospital.
Unfortunately, realizing I needed a budget and actually creating one were two different things. Like a diabetic struggling to shed those unwanted pounds, it takes time to actually move from one step to another. Coming to terms with the fact that I work super hard and still can’t afford all the things I crave is its own beast that has taken me several attempts to tackle. Just in case some of you are in the same boat, let me shed some light on my own come-to-Jesus moment.
Step 1: I had to let go of my pride and accept that I was spending too much money.
I’m almost ashamed to admit, but a few years ago I didn’t think a budget was necessary. I thought they were for poor people living paycheck to paycheck. Now that I’m a doctor living paycheck to paycheck I have a lot more sympathy (and humility too). It wasn’t until 6 months ago that I finally let go of my pride and began to accept that my habits needed to change. I was tired of running out of money at the end of each month. I was tired of relying on my credit cards for basic living expenses or holding my breath every time I had to pay for an oil change.
Step 2: I had to sit down and actually write down my budget.
Honestly, I think the only reason I finally sat down and tried to make a budget was because I had this incredible distaste for debt. I had heard horror stories of older doctors whose student loan burden was sapping all of the happiness they once had with their jobs. It’s as if their lack of financial independence had turned the job they once loved into one they despised. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I wanted to know that my bills were paid on time each month and that my credit card debt was getting smaller and smaller. I wanted to make sure all my bases were covered. Creating a budget was one of the first steps I took to get on the right track.
Step 3: I had to download a budget app to track my spending, and actually check it.
Sounds simple, but for me, this was not an easy feat. The anxiety I had even thinking about opening Mint.com is one I cannot even begin to describe. But...I got through it. Slowly but surely I began to look at the numbers. I saw how much money I was actually spending on food each week. How my impromptu trips to the mall resulted in unnecessary clothes and holes in my budget. How the Uber rides, overpriced drinks, and club fees from weekend shenanigans added up to much more than I anticipated. I finally opened the app, stared at the numbers on the screen, and faced the fact that my spending was out of control.
I was barely staying afloat and knew I had to do better. I couldn’t use the fact that I was a med student living on loans as an excuse. The spending habits I had wouldn’t magically change once I started getting paid as a resident physician or even as an attending physician. I needed to get rid of the bad behavior now, so that when I do experience an increase in pay in the future, I don’t just squander my wealth.
Step 4: I had to put boundaries in place and stick to them.
It wasn’t enough for me to track my spending each month. I needed to put some protections in place to “save me from myself.” I opened mint.com and set up budget notifications that send an alert to my phone whenever I’m nearing my weekly allotment for food or entertainment. For example, if I limit myself to $100 every two weeks for transportation, the app will send me an alert whenever my Uber rides approach the $80 mark. That way I know when I need to forgo that weekend party invitation and maybe host a game night at my place instead. I was well-intentioned before, but setting boundaries through budget apps and spending notifications has really challenged me to stick to my goals.
Full disclosure, I am still a work in progress. There are times I ignore those alerts only to face regret when I log into my bank account afterwards. Thankfully, those times happen a lot less frequently than they used to. When it comes to my spending habits, I am far from perfect. I still struggle, but by simply making these 4steps my spending habits have improved exponentially.
Tell me, what steps have you taken to improve your spending habits? What was it like when you first tried to make a budget?