Physicians should take their time with big purchases

While at a gathering during residency, I found myself talking to an older physician.  He graduated from the same residency ten to fifteen years prior.  He was a natural leader and a good storyteller.  He was also a good teacher because he was about to teach me a lot about delayed gratification.

In the midst of our discussion, I told him that my wife and I intended to move once our student loans were paid off.  Our 1,100 square foot house was running out of room with five humans and two dogs.

He said something I didn’t expect, “You know, when we lived in our small house with our family of five … those were some of the happiest years of our life.  We look back on those memories fondly.  Don’t rush your move.  It won’t make you any happier.”

As a young, financially illiterate resident, that was not what I expected to hear.  Who doesn’t love a big doctor house?

Of course, this was sage advice.  At the time, I didn’t understand the power of the best alternative investments and what sort of purchases really make us happy.

It’s all about the journey

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

How many times has Emerson been proven right?  With each house, car, or designer gadget purchase we realize that the happiness provided is fleeting.

Looking back, we can often realize that the anticipation of buying something is almost always far more satisfying than the actual purchase.

This ironic conundrum teaches us the two lessons of delayed gratification.

Delayed gratification and anticipation

When I ordered my car (my one financial faux pas!), I had to wait for about nine months to sit in the driver’s seat.  My Chevy SS came all the way from Adelaide, Australia. After it arrived, I waited to see if a discount would come.

In that time, I visited the Chevy SS forums frequently.  I investigated the car. I even researched the easter eggs (i.e., cool things about the car that are hard to find) that lied within.

Whiled driving my 2008 Nissan Sentra, I visualized the dance that would occur with my feet as I engaged the clutch to switch from 1st to 2nd gear via the manual transmission.  It was going to be great!

When the car arrived, I was not disappointed.  It was a great car.

I truly enjoyed the experience.  Being a car guy, I can still appreciate how fantastic my V-8 rear wheel drive, naturally aspirated, four-door sedan is when I punch it.   There is nothing quite like putting 415 horsepower straight to the ground as I put my right foot to the floorboard.

My SS is also the first manual transmission car that I have ever owned. So, it has taught me a lot, including the steep learning curve of driving my first stick – like how to stall out stoplights and how uphill battles in a manual transmission are the real deal.

That said, it did eventually turn into a car.  A great vehicle that ultimately gets me from point A to point B in safety and without much drama.

In the end, I’d be lying if I said that the anticipation wasn’t more dramatic than actually owning the car.  I still love my SS, and have zero regrets about buying it because I was able to buy it while still reaching our financial goals.  But, as great of a car as it is – it is still just a car.

Delayed purchases give us time

There’s nothing quite like buyer’s remorse after realizing a recent purchase wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.  In addition to the remorse, unnecessary purchases also bring on unnecessary financial stress.

For example, when we bought our house, the additional unanticipated costs would have been a big issue had we not waited to buy it.

The increased cost of utilities on a larger home, lawn maintenance on a bigger yard, need for some minor repairs, and the cost of (partially) furnishing the house all would have caused financial stress if we didn’t have the extra cash from our student loans being decimated over the past 18 months.

This can cause a lot of buyer’s remorse, which is one of the best reasons to wait before making a big decision.  You are giving the logical side of your self a chance to have a say.

While my wife and I aren’t perfect practitioners, we try and live by a 30-day rule for big purchases.  Everyone will define “big purchase” differently, but for us, it’s usually around $500.

Delaying large purchases also give us time to discuss whether they are worth it.  Often, we will realize that the infatuation will pass.

Despite having this experience time and time again in our life, we are quick to sacrifice our future for current happiness.  We tend to be expert players in the game of immediate gratification.

In the end, the main enemy of our financial success is ourselves.  We have to build our financial success in such a way that we limit how much pain we cause ourselves.

Giving yourself a pre-determined amount of time before any big purchase is a great way to do that.  This includes the big doctor house that my alumni physician friend was speaking about at the beginning of this post.

Take home

Don’t rush into big purchases. The anticipation (or the journey as Emerson would call it) is really what provides most of the enjoyment.  Additionally, buyer’s remorse is a genuine phenomenon.

With any big purchase, give yourself a lot of time (two to four weeks are recommended) to think through the in’s and out’s of every aspect of the purchase.  That way, you can look back without regret and still enjoy some of the best memories of your life.

The Physician Philosopher” is an anesthesiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, The Physician Philosopher.

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