Author questions 'frugality, saving, and investing' after caring for dying patients

Dr. Jordan Grumet is the author of "Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor’s Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life."

The unexpectedly early death of his father set Dr. Jordan Grumet on a path to pursue a career in medicine and pushed him to develop a fierce focus on financial security, following the FIRE movement, which stands for “financial independence, retire early.”

But his work recently as a hospice doctor discussing end-of-life issues with his patients made him rethink the role money plays in all of our lives.

“The more I began to learn from my patients, the less certain I was about a lot of my ideas concerning frugality, saving, and investing,” Grumet, 49, said.

It also led to his new book, Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor’s Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life. He’s also a personal finance blogger and host of the Earn & Invest podcast he launched in 2018.

Grumet offered insights and advice in a conversation with Yahoo Finance. Here are the highlights of that conversation:

Book jacket
Book jacket

Why did you write this book?

As a hospice doctor working with people who have terminal illnesses and dying, I was getting some answers to life questions. They were looking at their lives as they were getting closer and closer to death and starting to answer some of those bigger life questions such as what was my purpose in life? What was meaningful to me?

And those were the exact questions that I was trying to answer when it came to money and finances — what is our money supposed to do for us? Money can't really be the end-all goal. It's somewhat of a false goal, because it doesn't really have any deeper meaning than knowing that we're safe. I felt like it would provide a unique vantage point about how to talk about money.

How did the FIRE movement impact your transition to hospice work and your financial podcast?

The FIRE movement has done lots of things for me, but maybe not what you'd suspect. The greatest thing for me about the FIRE movement is it gave me the vocabulary to understand my finances.

When I got to the point where I was burning out in medicine, I had this vague idea that I needed a certain amount of money in order to stop practicing medicine and start doing things that were more gratifying to me. What the FIRE movement did is help me frame this idea of what is enough money. And using that frame, I was able to start looking at my life and subtracting out the things that I didn't like doing, the things that were creating friction, and adding in things that I did like doing, or adding to my sense of purpose, identity, and connections.

What I didn't get out of it in the end is this idea that we need to rush, rush, rush, make lots of money as fast as possible, and then stop working completely, which is, I believe, how some of the early FIRE practitioners operated. It was this idea of let's get done as soon as possible, so that we can live the rest of our lives.

My own evolution showed that maybe as opposed to escaping work altogether that we have to do a better job of making that employment fit our needs. For me, that ended up being hospice and going into the personal finance world.

You write about fear and the FIRE movement. What do you mean by that?

The problem with the FIRE movement is that it makes money the goal, as opposed to a tool. We really focus on a certain net worth and what our retirement age and number are. And the problem with that is it's a very fear-based calculation for a few reasons.

One, if you've gone through this process, most of us know that when we concentrate so much time and energy on making money, when we get to that actual goal, instead of feeling good, we're left with what's next?

And unfortunately, the answer often is making more money. So, then we double down and start doing more side hustles, or working harder, or asking for a bigger raise that actually adds to anxiety.

The bigger issue, too, is something called loss aversion. I think a lot of us when we have this money goal in mind, and we work so hard to get there, as opposed to being satisfied, once we reach that place, we're actually doubly afraid that we're going to lose what we've built.

And so instead of getting to this place and feeling relief, or safety, we actually feel a greater amount of fear that the stock market's going to change, or I'm going to have a major cost that I didn't expect. Instead of making us feel good, it makes us feel bad. Ultimately, I think the FIRE movement began as the fear that I'm going to run out of money and not be able to live the life I want to live.

I refocus this on the idea of living the life we want to live now, and then let's build our financial structure around that so that we can really get that sense of purpose and identity today, as opposed to waiting until some later date, which we may or may not get to.

The stock market may go up or down. One day you're at your financial independence number. The next day, you're a hundred thousand dollars below it because things changed and the market dropped.

You have a part of the book called why you should never despise work. I totally agree, can you share takeaways there?

This idea that we're going to hit a certain number and stop work just makes no sense to me. We have to be a lot more thoughtful about what type of work we do. If you are in this place where you're working at a job and it does nothing for you, and it's painful, and it causes you stress and anxiety, it's not worth the tradeoff of doing that for five or 10 years.

You can hit financial independence, and you can quit, but I think the better tradeoff is to create a work situation which you enjoy more. It’s one which allows you to pursue purpose and identity, whether at work, or it gives you the time to do it outside of work and realize that your work life may be longer.

One of your mantras is that money is not the only thing that compounds when you invest it. Elaborate?

Money is one life tool, but our experiences, our passions, our relationships, those are also important things to our life that compound. What I love to tell people is when I sit with the dying and they talk about what they regret, they regret that they didn't let their relationships and joys and passions compound. Almost none of them say, I really regret that I didn't let my money compound.

Almost everyone worries about what they didn't do in life. Almost always, those things have nothing to do with money. It has to do with all those other great things that can compound in our life, but you've got to invest in them. You've got to invest in people. You've got to invest in yourself. You've got to invest in your children. All of these kinds of things can really blossom and compound and make life very worth living.

Jordan Grumet
“The more I began to learn from my patients, the less certain I was about a lot of my ideas concerning frugality, saving, and investing,” Grumet, 49, said. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Grumet)

What are the big regrets of the dying that you've witnessed?

No one at the end of life regrets that they didn't work more nights and weekends. Often what they regret is their non-monetary investments. Did they invest in those things that were important to them? Did they invest in those things that gave them a sense of purpose, identity, connections?

For every person, that's different. With hospice patients at the end of life, we do something called the life review where they talk through that. What was important to them? What did they accomplish? What they didn't.

I'm hoping we can start having younger people do that, too. It’s really easy to say money's important to you, or certain achievements. I want to hit this job title or I want to be a partner at the firm, and all that's wonderful. But usually when you dig deeper, you realize that those goals are somewhat false. They don't actually fulfill our sense of purpose, identity, and connections. And that there are other things that we're putting off because they're difficult or painful or remind us that we have a finite time left on this earth.

We regret that we don't go after those things that are important to us earlier in life. We let fear and anxiety get in the way, and we don't have the courage to start doing those things now. And then at some point we turn around — maybe we just get a terminal diagnosis, maybe we're older — and we realize that the time has passed and we haven't done those things that were really important to us.

What are some of the ways to love what we do?

We have to start thinking about this early. We can look at our life and then we can decide what's meaningful to us. And then we can start paring away things we don't like at work or at least making decisions that try to maximize the time we're doing those things that are important to us and minimize the time that we're doing those things that we don't like doing.

We can't control time passing, but we can control what activities we put in that time. So, if we start as a young person getting rid of those activities we don't like and slowly start to put in activities we do like, we create a life that's very meaningful for us.

That life may be filled with work. You might love your employer. And you can do that within the workplace just as well as you can do it in retirement. And that's the mistake I think a lot of the FIRE people make and a lot of us make because we set up this idea that I can do those things that I love to do once I'm retired. And my suggestion is we should really start working on that stuff now.

Kerry is a Senior Columnist and Senior Reporter at Yahoo Money. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon

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