An excerpt from Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor’s Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life. Copyright © 2022 Ulysses Press. Reprinted with permission from Ulysses Press. New York, NY. All rights reserved.
You are going to die.
Imagine that I have walked into your hospital room and have gently sat down in the chair beside you. If you are married, your husband or wife listens intently by your side.
I have reviewed the CT scans, spoken to the specialists, and studied the labs. There are many possible treatments that could be offered, but I fear they will not stem the course of all that is happening already. The tumor is too advanced, the metastases, too malignant.
You pause and struggle to take a deep breath. You were aware that the hospice team had been called, but are now only coming to terms with the true meaning of this consult. You look frantically into your spouse’s eyes and see your own pain and fear reflected back at you. You both thought that you had more time.
Let me explain. In my experience, every person, young and old, healthy and diseased, wakes up each morning with a plan for the day … I do not know when you are going to die. Doctors are poor at estimating such things. But I would like to help you focus on the life each day occurring around you. Death is a period at the end of a sentence, not a set of parenthesis or quotation marks.
Your life flashes in front of you. You contemplate all that you have accomplished and that at which you have failed. The names and the faces of your loved ones quickly flit through your mind as you consider your legacy. What mistakes have you made? A question weighs heavily on your mind:
Am I ready to die?
Well? Are you?
Whether you like it or not … you are dying. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. Death may only occur once, but you are dying from the day you are born, and by the time you get around to reading this book, you might have already lived quite a bit of life.
Only you will be able to determine if you have lived a life consistent with your own unique purpose, identity, and connections. But having your financial house in order will go far in giving you the space, time, and freedom to pursue that which is most meaningful to you.
Shoring up our own finances and legacy also means coming to terms with a dichotomy that centers on two basic fears when it comes to dying and money.
We are either afraid that we will die too soon and never enjoy that which we have labored to accomplish, or that we will die far off in the future and not have enough money to sustain us. We’ll die broke.
What scares you more?
My father always knew that he was going to die young. In fact, he expressed this exact sentiment to my mother before she agreed to marry him. Whether he was conscious of it or not, I believe many of his decisions were colored by this belief, especially when it came to his career.
After finishing his fellowship in oncology, he was offered a lucrative job in private practice that would have far exceeded the pay that he would be able to make in an academic position. Yet, he turned down this opportunity to maintain employment at the University at Northwestern’s Veteran’s Affairs hospital. While the pay was obviously much less, it allowed him to a work with all the intellectual rigor, but none of the time and emotional commitment required in private practice.
My father was a tinkerer. He had a small utility room in the basement filled with tools and other supplies and spent countless hours building and creating. He was an avid photographer and used a spare closet to develop his own photos. He was even in the midst of learning Hebrew when he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm.
My father understood the urgency of now and it is clear to me, in hindsight, that his certainty about dying young allowed him to embrace meaningful pursuits up until the very end of his life. He didn’t, however, put much mental energy towards accumulating wealth. As my mother said when I interviewed her for the Earn & Invest podcast:
“The money was just never there!”
He did, on the other hand, take several steps to mitigate the risk of his own premature mortality and insure his legacy. He invested in a life insurance policy at a young age that would eventually support our family and provide funding for my college and medical school education.
He also suggested my mother to go back to school and instead of returning to a PhD program in organic chemistry, which she had started but never finished decades earlier, he encouraged her to get an MBA from Kellogg University. His words ring hauntingly true even today:
“You want to have a career that provides enough income in case something happens to me.”
My father died a few months prior to my mom ascending to the podium and receiving her diploma as a newly minted CPA. By that time, she had already been offered a position at a big four accounting firm.
Was it good luck or wise preparation?
Unlike my dad, I grew up with very different feelings about my own longevity. I have always believed that I would live to a ripe old age. This belief has colored my approach to career and finances. In many ways, I was able to delay my passions in order to build the appropriate amount of jet fuel to power my transatlantic flight. The urgency of now was replaced with a wholehearted wish to delay gratification now to benefit the future.
Getting your financial house in order requires understanding these concepts, weighing them, and coming to terms with what scares you most. Armed with this knowledge you can create a financial plan which balances the urgency of now and your wealth needs for the future.
Jordan Grumet is an internal medicine physician, host of the Earn & Invest Podcast, and author of Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor’s Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life.
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