Overcoming Consumerism in a Culture Obsessed with It

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Following Content Also Features as a Guest Blog Post from Prudent Plastic Surgeon.

Consumerism is all around us. For physicians, overcoming consumerism can be very difficult. We think people equate our skill or knowledge with the car we drive or the house we own. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It is so easy and passive for this imagined outside perception to seep into our own mentality. We begin to think that being wealthy means having stuff, namely expensive stuff.

Of all physician specialties, I’d venture to guess that plastic surgeons are at the top of the list of doctors obsessed with consumerism. I’ve experienced it first hand.

Close your eyes. Imagine a plastic surgeon. What are they wearing? What car are they driving?

You’re probably imaging a woman or man in a fine luxury suit, driving a foreign luxury car. You don’t imagine me, wearing the same suit I had through residency, driving a used 2011 Toyota Avalon.

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Not my car…

I used to think I wanted to be the plastic surgeon that you (and I) imagined. That’s because of consumerism: the idea that we are what we buy. Now, in overcoming consumerism, I could not be happier that I am the plastic surgeon that I want to be, not the one that I think I have to be.

Overcoming coming consumerism takes work and effort.

How did I go from consumerism-obsessed to…not?

I used to be a little hesitant when people asked what I did. I would say something vague. The reason was because I felt I didn’t really fit the imagined version of a plastic surgeon.

I am just not that plastic surgeon. 

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have any problem with those who choose to lead their lives and careers in this manner. 

The problem was that during my training in New York City, this was also the picture that I had of what I should be striving to appear and be like. Even as a resident making an at best average salary in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Even with in excess of $400,000 in student loans.

I was ashamed to admit that I was nowhere near achieving this status and had no idea how I would. The problem was that I didn’t even know if I wanted it, but I do have to say that I felt for a long time like I needed it. 

I wasn’t able to put my finger on what created this disconnect. If you are in a similar situation, I hope that my story can help. Overcoming consumerism can drastically improve your wellbeing and make you a better doctor.

The standard that equates wealth with expensive things is in all of us

This belief is pervasive for most, if not all, high income individuals. But, think again of your mental picture of a plastic surgeon; now imagine a primary care physician. Fair or not, I bet those images looked very different despite both doctors providing important care to their patients at a high level. The thing is, these mental images look different even for people who are plastic surgeons, including me. I struggled to fit in. 

To put it simply, I was falling for the illusion of consumerism.

Over-consumerism can be spotted millions of times each day, just flipping through TV or browsing the Internet. It espouses the principle that you are what you have. It’s what makes residents buy an expensive suit to go to weekly educational conferences instead of paying down their student loans. (If you are a resident, please read this post to see my 10 financial tips for training.)

The feeling of need to keep up with this perceived status as a trainee frustrated me. But what really led to a disconnect between the image of a “rich plastic surgeon” and my reality was that I did not see any viable pathway to achieving this image after 7 long and grueling years of training. This is what can and did lead to burnout.

I was in a residency, specialty, and city that was obsessed with consumerism. I had been sucked in and didn’t know what to do. Next, I would become an attending and get a big increase in salary. But along with that would come a commensurate increase in expenses to pay for all of the fancy things I needed to prove that I was successful. Like B.I.G. said, mo’ money, mo’ problems.

So how did I overcome consumerism consumption?

It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of soul searching. But to put it quite plainly, I decided to ignore the image (real or perceived) of success put out there by others. I made overcoming consumerism a priority.

Active thought was directed at focusing on my passions and goals rather than excess consumerism. I would establish a plan for financial well-being, stability, and independence. 

Once I made financial well-being my goal and admitted that I knew absolutely nothing about it, the flood gates opened. I found a lot of power in this simple admission: that I did not know what I was doing.

Finally, I could move on to the next step: figuring it out. By facing my mistakes head on and dedicating myself to my financial education, they no longer held power because I knew that I could fix them and ultimately get to where I wanted to be.

Freed from outside expectations that I had internalized, I was focusing on the things that mattered to me and my family.

overcoming consumerism
Focusing on what’s important, not what I need to buy

Consumerism does not equal wealth

I learned that “rich” does not make you “wealthy.” Nowhere in any net worth calculator does it ask you what your annual salary is. 

I discovered that I could optimize my spending by allocating it in an intentional manner to the things most likely to bring me continued happiness rather than purchases that brought short, intense highs that would dissipate and leave me wanting more. 

I’ll give a prime example of this intentional spending that I alluded to earlier…my car. 

I am not a car person. I really don’t derive any pleasure from how fast my car can potentially go or how it looks.

Because I was lost in consumerism, I was planning to lease a luxury car for $450/month once I moved to start as an attending. I figured this is just what one did. But then I realized that this would not bring me any real joy. In fact, this would have created stress for me because happiness I derived from the car would never justify the  money I was paying. 

So, I instead bought my 2011 Toyota Avalon from a family member for $2000. I am so much happier driving that car and knowing that the money I would have been spending on a lease is going to the things that truly bring me and my family happiness.

Overcoming consumerism is a constant process

My list of financial mistakes is long. My mindset was unhealthy. I made just about every wrong financial move that you can make. I was ignorant and scared to learn, for fear of seeing just how badly I had screwed things up. 

The thing is, I’m willing to bet that there are a lot of you out there who are in the same boat and are probably ashamed to admit it, like I was. 

It is hard to be self-reflective in recognizing how big a part consumerism has become in our lives and how it is affecting us. Too often, we see others living according to the principles of consumerism and we think that is the only path. I assure you that it is not. 

The concepts of saving 20-30% (or 50%!) of your salary, of investing in assets that make your money work for you (broadly diversified, low cost index fundscash-flowing real estate, etc.), of minimizing your liabilities that take money out of your pocket rather than putting it in your pocket seem so simple now that I’m on the other side. But just a few months ago, these models were completely foreign to me.

Interestingly, while this mindset and financial revolution was happening, something amazing happened

I found myself rediscovering my passion for my work. I became a better physician. 

Unfortunately, many physicians treat personal finance or its discussion as a dirty topic. We got into medicine to help others, not to make money. However, the pursuit of our best life is not mutually exclusive to our desire to help others.

Further, money plays a significant role in our lives just like everyone else, whether we like it or not. We may as well be educated to make our money work the hardest for ourselves, our loved ones, our patients, and the causes that we care about.

If I can slip out of the grip of consumerism to see the light of financial well-being and emerge, dare I say, on FIRE, so can you! 

It is never too late (or too early) to start!

Lastly, join a group of like-minded individuals with the same goals to help keep you (and all os us!) accountable. Join the over 29,000 members of the Prudent Plastic Surgeon community. Sign up for our mailing list below (under the comments) for exclusive content!

Blog Post Excerpt from Prudent Plastic Surgeon.

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