Locum Lessons: Every Dollar You Don’t Spend is a Dollar You Save

I realize this is mostly common sense, but I guess with watching how many people get themselves into trouble… Uhhhh, maybe common sense isn’t common… Or just read this: https://www.regions.com/insights/personal/personal-finances/budgeting-and-saving/10-best-ways-to-save-money

I thought this would be a fun one. Working exclusive locum tenens has allowed me to shrink my spendings TREMENDOUSLY and I attribute my success in paying off my medical school loans so rapidly purely to the perks that come from being a locum tenens worker. People often ask me what is paid for by *most* of the hospitals/agencies I work for and how i navigate the remainder of my expenses. In short:

– Paid For: Rental + Gas, Airfare + Luggage, Lodging, State Licensure Fees, Malpractice Insurance
– NOT Paid For: Health Insurance, Disability Insurance, Car Insurance, Loans, Food, Fun!

In addition to this, with the following Frugal Tips, I spend only about 10% of my adjusted gross (pre-tax) income while the remainder goes towards paying off estimated taxes (30%), my student loans (40%) and retirement (40%).

In 2020 i started life with $320,000 in medical student loans. In 2021 February of 2021 i had finally saved enough of an emergency fund to become more aggressive. And, by 2023, i plan on being down to $0... I did this for peace of mind, it’s a much longer conversation on if this was worth it versus investing. However, as COVID-19 hit right around the same time, I overall think i’ve come out OK….

Frugal At It’s Finest
  1. Drink more water! I travel too much to have a reasonable way for filtering water given my careful attention to weight of my suitcase, but even bottled or hospital purified water is cheaper than any sort of other drinks. It’s a simple thing, but also health wise is great for you in so many ways.
  2. Dollar tree habits and generics. I have a routine of going to the dollar tree when i start each new job or stint of a job. Usually it’s to get things like cleaning wipes, maybe tupperware and other supplies. It’s hard to have reusable things when you move from place to place unless I hide things at the hospital, which I do… So, the dollar tree gives me an easy way to restock without breaking the bank. Buying $20 worth of cleaning supplies every two weeks adds up you know.
  3. Reuse everything. Speaking of that, whenever I get things from one place or another, I’m pretty savvy with reusing it. Since i’m often forced to order takeout when I don’t have a kitchen, I’ll often reuse good tupperware for soups or rice or something. Plastic bags can double as ways to reorganize travel nicknacks and clothes. Now my Chinese grandmother was a little extreme and would reuse Cup of Noodle cups…… I’m not saying do that, personally…
  4. Meal planning and prepping. I have always been focused on this aspect! I think in college i started focusing on cooking, in medical school we focused on nutrition (www.CulinaryMedicine.org – Someone laughed when they read this in my ‘About Me’ in another post, but it was a real focus of study for me…), and I spent a very short but exhilarating month at Johnson and Wales Culinary Institute in Providence, RI. If you plan ahead, you save so much money on top of being healthier. Some tangible things: Plan multiple different meals at a time or get things that can fit into more than one meal (eg: eggs, rice, greens). Add some variety. I’ve always wanted to get into those Mason Jar single meals, but been lazy… But, that’s a great thing to do too. Super easy.
  5. Stick to a strict budget. My nurses in Maine gave me a hard time about the fact that I would eat lobster once a week. BUT, as i emphasized, I actually maintained the same budget throughout the last few years as a locum as I did as a resident making 1/8th the salary. I factored in doing things for fun as well, because without fun, why is anything really worth doing.
  6. Put something away from every check. As a locum tenens, this is INCREDIBLY important. I contribute to a SEP-IRA up to the maximum of 25% of my AGI (adjusted gross income) but also have to set aside money for estimated taxes. Since I leave meagerly as above, this usually isn’t a problem, but when I was in residency and had almost no surplus from my monthly checks, it was important to do it consciously.
  7. Fly coach and turn down the luxury. I remember after I became an attending how a younger resident asked me why I didn’t just go buy an Audi. I mean, dumbest decision ever… That’s why. I think of everything in comparable parts: I could buy an Audi or I could eat for a year and pay down loans. To each their own with what makes you happy, but it’s not the secret to getting out of debt or working your way into wealth. I will never forget the intern that came to me as an attending for financial advise and started out with, “So, i graduated med school an bought a Mercedes…” No, don’t do that.
  8. Grow into raises slowly. No matter where I’ve been in life, no matter the bump in salary increase, I always have tried to stay around the same budget. I definitely did allow a slight increase of a few hundred per month when I hit an attending salary, but it’s all a proportionate thing in my opinion. If you make a 5% salary increase, i’d liberalize my spending increase to 1% only. Not being greedy sets you up for such a long term gain.
  9. Financial advisors. There are so many that argue against this, but on the other hand, it depends on how much you “do your own research.” And, while it is likely possible to be a wise investor of sorts based on your own learning… I caution so much against this to all of my doctor friends. It is such a rookie move. Just because you’re a doctor, or a lawyer, or a brilliant mechanic doesn’t mean you know anything about anything else. You know your field, and you can learn a bit about others, but you are unlikely to master it unless a second lifetime is devoted to it.
  10. Extreme coupon. Between July of 2020 and February of 2021, I lived paycheck to paycheck. You heard me. A DOCTOR, with such inconsistent work that I didn’t know if i had enough money to pay off loans, utilities and still have food. I would extreme coupon and figured out ways to make off with free POUNDS of fish, watermelons, sausages, etc. I still ate like a king, because for me, food is important.

The obvious basic things on saving money are to not live too lavishly beyond your means, pay yourself and spend with intention of saving and, frankly, to enjoy life and remember that money isn’t everything. The last point is also tied into my personal belief on finding or understanding happiness, and I’m likely more lost on this than most, but it’s because I am human and haven’t learned to entirely let go either.

Image Credit: https://www.wjhl.com/reviews/best-piggy-bank/

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