Jordan Grumet on his path to financial independence and mastering 'the art of subtraction.'
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Our guest on the podcast today is Jordan Grumet. He is a physician and an associate medical director at JourneyCare Hospice. He also hosts the popular “Earn & Invest” podcast, which he launched after years of blogging about financial independence and wellness at the website DiverseFI.com. His latest book is called Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor's Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life. In it, he shares lessons that he has learned from interacting with patients during the last parts of their lives. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and his medical degree from Northwestern University.
“Earn & Invest” podcast
Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor’s Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life, by Jordan Grumet
Jim Dahle, The White Coat Investor
“Jim Dahle: ‘Income Is Not Wealth,’” The Long View podcast, Morningstar.com, Sept. 2, 2020.
“Coping With FIRE,” by Jordan Grumet, earnandinvest.com, June 5, 2021.
“The Opportunity Cost Fallacy,” by Jordan Grumet, diversefi.com, June 5, 2018.
Jeff Ptak: Hi, and welcome to The Long View. I'm Jeff Ptak, chief ratings officer for Morningstar Research Services.
Christine Benz: And I'm Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar.
Christine Benz: Hi, and welcome to The Long View. I'm Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning for Morningstar.
Jeff Ptak: And I'm Jeff Ptak, chief ratings officer for Morningstar Research Services.
Benz: Our guest on the podcast today is Jordan Grumet. Jordan is a physician and an associate medical director at JourneyCare Hospice. He also hosts the popular Earn & Invest podcast, which he launched after years of blogging about financial independence and wellness at the website, DiverseFI.com. Jordan's latest book is called Taking Stock: A Hospice Doctor's Advice on Financial Independence, Building Wealth, and Living a Regret-Free Life. In it, he shares lessons that he has learned from interacting with patients during the last parts of their lives. Jordan received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and his medical degree from Northwestern University.
Jordan, welcome to The Long View.
Jordan Grumet: Well, thank you so much for having me. I'm excited for this conversation.
Benz: We're excited to have you here. We wanted to start by discussing your origin story. You trained as a doctor, and in the book, you discuss how your father's death drew you to that profession. Could you share that story?
Grumet: My father died suddenly when I was 7 years old. He had a brain aneurysm and literally went to work with a mild headache. It got severe through the day and then he collapsed. He was put on life support, which we decided to remove a few days later. It was at that magical time when I wanted to be just like my father. I was 7. I wanted to walk like him. I wanted to talk like him. And, of course, I was enamored by the occupation that he cared so much about, which was being a cancer doctor. He was an oncologist, and I wanted to be just like him. And when he died, it made concrete in me this idea that I would follow in his footsteps. In fact, as I got older, it became the rationale in my brain for why this strange, unexpected thing had happened to me. I couldn't explain why he died, but I could certainly tell myself the story that I was meant to walk in his footsteps to carry the torch for him, so to speak. And so, I can't really remember a time in my life where I didn't expect to become a physician.
Ptak: As you advanced in your career in medicine, you began to draw some conclusions about how your dad's death had affected some major life decisions you made subsequently. Can you talk about some of the pivotal moments for you on that journey?
Grumet: There were several points where I realized that although I had always thought I wanted to be a doctor, it didn't fit me always as well as I expected. You have to remember that when you're in college and even in the beginning of medical school, I think just like in most professions, you don't really know what it is. There was a moment during residency where it really hit home. I was a second-year resident, and I was left alone in the ICU at night, which was normal for second-year residents. In the ICU, we took care of the sickest of the sick patients. And one of the patients that had been handed off to me went into respiratory distress and I tried my best to put a breathing tube down or intubate the patient. It didn't go as planned. Eventually, the patient passed away. And I remember having this discussion with the family as they came in at 1:00 in the morning. Remember, me, the second-year resident, I was the most senior physician in the hospital at that time, and I talked to the family, and they seemed to understand this was an elderly man and he was very sick, and he died. And after his family left, I got a series of calls the next morning. It turned out the family that had come to see me was his new family, but he had three daughters from a previous marriage who had no idea what happened to him. So, I had to tell them over the phone that he died. They were not even in town. And it was this horrible, horrible feeling. And it was this moment in medicine that changed me forever. From that point on, I started to build up these walls to protect myself.
And that first act of being less enamored in medicine and finding the true stress and fear and difficulty of dealing with life and death was the first crack in the wall of many things that eventually led to a lot of burnout for me with the practice of medicine. Eventually, as I became an attending physician and started my practice in internal medicine, I realized that there were all these things that I just hadn't thought about before—all the paperwork, the administration, the fears of being sued, the worries even about your patient's wellbeing and wondering if you could make the right decisions for them. It really led to me realizing that, well, I loved this idea of becoming a physician because it connected me to my father, it wasn't exactly the profession I thought it would be, and I certainly hit burnout at an early age and continued to burnout as I went farther and farther and worked harder and harder to try to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and my profession. I started realizing that this kind of dream I had as a kid might not have been the reality that I eventually fell into.
Benz: As you were going along in your career as a physician, it sounds like you became acquainted with the financial independence, retire early movement, and you realized that you had the financial resources to retire early, but you didn't have any sense of how you would spend your time if you separated from your practice in medicine. Can you discuss coming to that realization and what you decided to do about it?
Grumet: As I went farther as a physician and felt more and more burned out, I realized that I had to find a way out. I had to find a way to support myself without doing some of this work that was exhausting me. And I started to look around and tried to figure out what my options were. I was incredibly lucky because I was born into a fairly well-off family, and I had two parents who modeled really good financial behavior for me. So, they always saved a lot more than they spent. They invested in the stock market. They owned real estate. They were entrepreneurs and owned their own businesses. I found as I went through medical school and started making money, I made a lot of the same decisions they did, but I didn't really understand why.
I hit this point where I knew I wanted to leave medicine and I was burning out and I went to my financial advisor at the time and asked my financial advisor, how much money do I need to retire? And one of the first questions my financial advisor asked me—this was someone who was actually a very good financial advisor—but in this case, the advice they gave me didn't necessarily serve me. They said, “How much do you want to spend each year?” And this was something I had never contemplated. Believe it or not, even though I really saved a lot of money and took care of myself financially, I had never budgeted. So, when he asked me how much I wanted to spend each year, I was thinking somewhere around $250,000, $300,000 a year. So, he then used those calculations to do a Monte Carlo simulation and ran me through a bunch of calculators and said, “You know what, you're just nowhere near that.”
So, in my mind, I decided there's no way I can retire yet. And then, I asked my accountant. I said the same thing: How much do I need to retire? My accountant said, “I really think you need about $10 million in the bank.” And I was not near $10 million. I'd come to this conclusion that this was just something I couldn't do. I was going to have to find another way to make money or accumulate wealth, because if I really wanted to leave being a physician, I wasn't at the financial place where I could do that. And then, in 2014, I was writing a medical blog. I'd been writing about medicine and what it felt like to be a doctor, and I had a moderate following. And I got a phone call in the office from a guy named Jim Dahle. Jim Dahle is the writer behind "The White Coat Investor." And he had written a book about personal finance and financial independence for people with high incomes like physicians. And he asked me to review it for my blog. And I of course said, “Sure, that's great. You're going to give me a free book.” I thought it was amazing. He sent me the book and I read it. Probably it took me three or four hours to read through it.
And all of a sudden, I had the vocabulary that explained a lot of my financial behavior, but it also gave me the beginnings of the vocabulary of financial independence, and it was very easy for me to do some back-of-the-napkin calculations and realize, oh, you have enough money technically to stop working, or at least cut down quite a bit, and that wasn't a realization that I had ever had before. And as I tell people, I was exhilarated for all of a few minutes. And then, I had a panic attack, and I got really, really anxious and it took me a while to realize what that panic and anxiety were. It actually even eventually led to a depression for a few months. I had spent all of this time thinking about getting away from medicine. I had worried so much about making money and doing all those things that my parents had taught me to be well financially off. But I hadn't done much thinking about who I wanted to be or what the real purpose of that money that I was making was going to serve.
I knew that I needed it to buy food and clothing and support my children and all of those kinds of things. But we all know that that's only one small part of living. I had realized that my identity and purpose were not being served anymore by being a physician. Now I had to face the fact that I was going to sever the small thread I still had with my father who died when I was 7 years old, but also that I had no idea what my identity and purpose were because I had been so wrapped up in this physician identity for so long that I had never really took the time to figure out what was important to me, what I needed to accomplish, what I want my legacy to eventually be. They're all questions I never asked, and I was faced with that all in a moment after reading that book. And it took a long time to actually start sorting through those things and realize some of the blooms of financial independence instead of some of the stress, which is what I felt immediately.
Benz: We want to get into that process of discovery, self-discovery, and also in the book you talk about how people can engage in this process on their own. But I just had a quick question about the financial advisor engagement. Do you still have a financial advisor? I'm curious.
Grumet: I don't. And actually, I am very pro financial advisor. Some of the people I work most closely with are. The reason I eventually left my financial advisor was I realized that I would never really understand and take control of my money until I had to do it myself, and this is really personal. When I was busy being a physician, building a practice, thinking I was too engaged in other things to understand money, I pretty much took everything and put it on someone else's plate. And my advisor was good. I've had multiple advisors in the past. And at least, the last two I had were excellent. They would update me on a regular basis. They would explain to me exactly why they were doing what they were doing. But the truth of the matter is, I always filed it in the back of my head as this is not something for me to understand. It's something to hire smart people to understand it for me.
When I realized I was financially independent, I decided to take a step back and say, I'm now going to take responsibility to understand as much as I can about my finances. And at the time, I really felt that the only way to do that was to do it myself. As I go farther and farther on, I realize that in many ways indeed I can spend many hours finding out most, probably not all, but most of the information I could get from a good financial advisor, but I'll probably never be as objective as a good financial advisor could be for me, as well as, God forbid, something were to happen to me, it's really nice to have a third party or multiple third parties—you're talking about an estate lawyer, an accountant, and a good financial advisor—other third parties who are putting your financial plan together. So, if something were to happen to me, there would be other resources for my wife or my children or my relatives if I was not here to make those decisions. I think having a financial advisor is a very good thing. I think at that time in my life I needed to do it myself.
Ptak: You've been very much aligned with the FIRE community for much of your career. In the book, you write that you realized that the roots of the FIRE movement are steeped in fear. Can you talk about what you mean by that?
Grumet: One thing I've realized, and the act of writing this book actually in many ways was contradicting some of what I held to be true based on the financial independence, retire early movement. One of those things that I think we do in this movement, and the mistake I certainly made, is we turn money from a tool into a goal. So, instead of thinking about what money can do for us to search deeper for our meaning and purpose and connect us to people we love, sometimes we look at it as a goal unto itself. And the reason that that's bad is it's just something that we don't have as much control over sometimes as we'd like to. And if you think about some of the biggest debates in personal finance and specifically, in the FIRE movement, think about all those things we debate. We debate things like safe withdrawal rates, and we talk about sequence of returns. I think what we're really doing is we're talking about our fear of running out of money, and a huge part of being in the FIRE movement is that continuous concern about whether I'm going to run out of money or not and how to protect myself from that.
As I got further into why we do what we do with money, and especially after spending time and taking care of people who are dying and talking to them about their regrets and concerns, I really started thinking that maybe we're concentrating on the wrong things. Maybe we need to put money back where it belongs, which is as a tool to allow us to achieve those things that have deep meaning to us as opposed to being a goal unto itself. And I think it comes down to that. We can't control necessarily everything about our money. You nor I know what's going to happen over the next 10 years in the equity markets. We just don't know. A lot of us don't know even what unexpected expenses are going to happen that we can't foresee. There's lots of things that happen, for better or for worse, and I think if we focus too much on that "goal of a financial independence number," it leads to fear and worry as opposed to the freedom that we really are looking for.
Benz: One of your passions is helping people determine whether their activities are aligned with what gives them that sense of meaning and purpose. Before we get into that, can you discuss some of the reasons that these two things can get out of whack for us? It seems like the quest for status and financial remuneration would be high on the list. But what else?
Grumet: I think it's really easy to confuse achievement and wealth with meaning and purpose, and I think we do it often. And part of the reason is I think it's low-hanging fruit. I think it's really simple to say, “I will feel good about life when I get to this job level.” Or it's really easy to say, “I will be OK once I reach this net worth.” I like to call that low-hanging fruit. They're easy goals. Maybe not easy to achieve, but at least easy to map out. And we know what to do. If you want to make more money, you can work harder, you can get as many promotions as possible, you can side hustle, you can invest in the stock market. There's all sorts of things you can do. What's really hard is to face the fact that time is finite and that we have a limited time on this earth, and there are some goals that really are deeper than those things like money and achievements. And those goals we may or may not achieve them, and that scares the heck out of us.
I think a lot of us put these easier goals ahead of the other more difficult goals because it feels better and it causes less anxiety, which is OK to some extent, because accumulating wealth and achieving a lot of things, for instance, in the workplace is not bad. But ultimately, one thing I've really learned from the dying is when all of a sudden you're told you only have six months to live, a lot of those low-hanging fruit goals disappear, and you start asking yourself the much deeper questions like, “What did I want to do with my life, and did I achieve that?” I think we're really scared of facing that until we're pushed to. And I think it's important that we start thinking about these things way more early in our trajectory. In fact, I would suggest that we should start thinking about meaning and purpose first and then start building our financial goals and structure around that to achieve some of those things.
Ptak: I wanted to follow up on that. What are some of the key questions that we should ask ourselves on that process of self-discovery? You talk about thinking through purpose, identity, and connections. Can you talk about those one by one why each is so important and how to get to the bottom of how we're thinking about each of them?
Grumet: Purpose is a difficult question, and many people struggle with how do I find my purpose? And this is where working with the dying has really opened my eyes. It's interesting. When you really sit down with the dying and start talking to them about their lives, at some point, most people say, “I really regret that I never had the energy, courage, or time to dot-dot-dot.” Whatever comes after those dots, in my opinion, is your purpose. And so, I think we as young people need to start asking that question much, much earlier before we're on our deathbeds. In hospice, we do something called a life review and it's doctors, nurses, chaplain, social workers, we sit down with our patients. We not only try to deal with physically what's happening to them as they get nearer and nearer to death, but we try to emotionally help them look back at their life and take stock of what happened. And it's a whole process of asking a series of leading questions where you delve into what they accomplished; what they didn't accomplish; what they wished they had tried; what relationships were important in their life; what they still feel like they need to accomplish before they die. I think that's something we should all be doing on a regular basis if we want to start understanding what our purpose is, and specifically, that one question: What would I regret not having the energy, courage, or time to do. We got to start thinking about those things now.
The thing about purpose is, it can be something like saving the whales or fighting climate change. It can be something very worldly and important. But it also can be something just personal to you. Like I want to be a black belt in karate. Purpose can be a lifelong thing, or it can be something that keeps you busy for a year or two and then you move on to something else. The key is to start working on those things that have deep meaning to you now as opposed to putting them off. I think that's how we focus on purpose is by running through that thought experiment of how we would feel if we were told that we had a set amount of time to live, and then we had to decide how to get those things done we wanted to do.
Identity is interesting in the sense that it's a much deeper sense of who you are and what you're about. A good exercise to try to figure out or start working on your identity is to ask yourself the question “I am” over and over again. I'll use myself as an example. When I started doing this exercise, I said “I am,” and the first thing that comes to mind is a doctor. A lot of times we talk about the things we do for a living. After asking myself that question a few more times, you start saying, I am a husband, a child, a father. So, you start talking about your relationships, which is also important, but a lot of those are more descriptive terms. As you go further, you might say “I am,” and start mentioning achievements or awards, things like that. But ultimately, after doing this long enough, you get to those deeper answers of what you are and what's important to you. So, for me, after asking myself this question over and over again, I eventually came to I am a communicator. I'm a podcaster. I'm a writer. I'm a public speaker. These things actually described more of who I am than some of those other things, which were just more vague and general descriptors. And again, this is something that doesn't happen overnight. It's something you have to ask yourself regularly. You might even have to ask other people how they perceive you and how they see you. But it's an exercise to do on a regular basis and start thinking of what's important to you after we let go of some of those surface things and how do you see yourself.
And last but not least, once you start working through purpose and identity, connection flows very easily from there. My example is, for so long I identified myself on the outside as a physician, but I didn't really feel like that on the inside. So, that left me feeling in a sense almost shame. I remember that I would go to parties and meet a bunch of people I didn't know, and I would try to sneak away before we got to the point where they asked me what we do for a living, because I didn't feel connected to that identity. And then, I didn't really connect to other people who had that identity. So, I grew up in hospitals and physician lounges and nursing homes and offices, but I never really made a lot of doctor friends because I didn't feel connected to those people. When I really finally came down to this idea that instead of being a doctor what I really connected to was communicating, public speaking, podcasting, writing, I ended up going to conferences and places where people did these things, and I felt immediate kinship because we had the same interests, and so, in a sense, I felt like I found my people.
In the book, there are series of exercises that go into purpose, identity, and connections. But the idea is, we have to start searching for these answers now and they're not easy. So, I realized I was financially independent in 2014. It probably took me a good three or four years to get a hold of who I wanted to be and who I thought I was to then start changing my life such that I was spending a lot less time doing these physician activities that weren't fulfilling me and doing a lot more of those other activities that really related to my purpose, identity, and connections, which now take up a majority of my time.
Benz: I wanted to ask about the role of work in our lives. It's interesting you've been aligned with the FIRE movement, but you're really, really active and still do a lot of work. So, can you talk about the role of work in our lives? What work can bring to us if that work is well chosen?
Grumet: I think we mistake this idea of work, and especially in the FIRE movement, we of define work as something you do for other people to make money so that you can then be free. But the truth of the matter is, I saw this so often that you'd have people who are so excited about financial independence that they would give up their jobs in their comfortable offices that they didn't love but they didn't hate in order to retire with less money so that they could then go home and fire the house cleaner and fire the lawn person and spend their time cleaning toilets and doing the lawn, which they didn't love.
I think we need to change how we feel about work. We're going to do work probably from the moment we're conscious to the moment we die. When we let go of this idea that we work to make money for other people and just think of work more as an exchange of goods and services, we realize that it's not about when you start or stop working, it's more about what type of work you do and how well that work meets your sense of meaning and purpose. And it can lead to some interesting conclusions. In the book I talk about one of my patients, who I eventually met in hospice, but he was a dishwasher, and he got enamored with this idea of retiring, and so, he saved and saved and saved and left his job in the restaurant where he had been a dishwasher for many, many years to go home. And what did he end up doing? He ended up cooking and cleaning for himself and washing dishes, except now he wasn't doing it for his employer, he was doing it for himself, which was interesting because when he looked back at his life and he did a life review, he realized, you know what, I really benefited from some of those connections and relationships I had at work. Why was I in such a rush to leave?
I think when we redefine what work is and what it means to us, we can start bringing this idea of meaning and purpose into our work, such that we're not in such a rush to retire, because we want to continue doing things that have meaning for us. That doesn't mean there isn't a place to put your nose to the grindstone and work at a job that isn't full of meaning and purpose to make enough money to then better allocate your time later on to do more meaningful work. That's not to say that we can't make that trade-off in life. It's just I think we need to be much more thoughtful about how we do it. And specifically, for me, what I learned was that, as opposed to just completely leaving that physician persona, I started subtracting those things out of work that I didn't like until I found what still felt part of my identity, which was hospice work. So, in a sense, I was able to move away from this idea of that traditional idea of work of doing activities for other people, which you don't particularly like, but I found a segment of the work that I had been doing this whole time that really fulfilled my sense of meaning and purpose—something that I would do even if I wasn't getting paid for it, and I knew that was worth keeping.
When we change our concept of work, we can start looking at what we spend our time doing, whether it is to make money or not, and start whittling away those things we don't like and start building up those things we do like and spend more time doing things that frankly have a sense of meaning and purpose for us and help us make those connections that are important.
Ptak: I suppose while we're on the topic of, and you call it mastering the art of subtraction in the book, and it's a very interesting section of the book, a related question is whether someone needs to be in a position of privilege to engage in that process of subtracting? On the surface, it seems like a rarified thing to be able to pick and choose activities in this way, but you've had a lot more experience with this, so maybe you can disabuse us of that notion. But do you think that maybe there is an element of privilege to it?
Grumet: Well, don't get me wrong, there's no question that having the privilege, meaning having enough money to have better control over your decisions helps; but it's not required. And I can think of a number of situations where people were in more dire situations but still could use that art of subtraction to make decisions.
My in-laws came to the United States from Iran and had to use the art of subtraction in many different ways, both in their jobs and outside of. So, first, in 1979, they found themselves on the wrong side of a political agenda and had to decide whether to subtract out a comfortable life, where they made lots of money and were very securely middle-upper class. They had to decide whether to subtract that out for safety, because the other possibility was staying in Iran that had become dangerous for them because of some of my father-in-law's associations through work. So, his first great act of subtraction was leaving all of his wealth behind to come to the United States. Once they were in the United States, they had to use that art of subtraction mercilessly in many different ways. Lifestyle ways, they had to subtract things out of their budget that they didn't need. So, when they lived in Iran, they had nice cars and expensive furniture and really nice clothes. When they came to the U.S., they didn't have that luxury. They had to subtract all that out and do things like shop at thrift stores. My father-in-law eventually owned a shoe store. He was barely making it work, making a little extra money, and then he got held up at gunpoint twice within a six-month period in his shoe store. He had to then subtract that out of his life because it was not safe for him and instead took what little money he had and bought a multi-unit building, which eventually would support them for the rest of their lives and build enough wealth for them to live off of.
Subtraction is something we can definitely do when we're in that privileged position, but there are a lot of people who aren't. I had a patient who eventually got emphysema and he had been working in the school system forever and he had not been as careful with his money, and he was a math teacher. And any of us who have kids know that the way we teach math over the last decade or two has changed quite a bit, and he was really in disagreement with the new way math was being taught. On the other hand, he needed to stick around for that school pension, and he certainly didn't have enough money to quit right away. So, he used the art of subtraction in an interesting way. He used some of his other skills and stayed within the school system, but stopped teaching math and became a college counselor, and then they had a need for a coach for one of the high school teams. And he was able to change his job so that he could stay there and that he could still collect his teacher's pension, or at least build it up, still get all the benefits that he needed to live. On the other hand, he was able to subtract that part out of his job he didn't like, which was teaching math, and yet keep what he did like, which was helping young people, and in this case, coaching a sport.
I think there are ways that we can start using the art of subtraction to make our lives better. That might mean moving from one job to another. That might be leaving one portion of your job and working in another sector. That might be for some people who have a little money saved up going to part time. For other people, it might mean starting a side hustle. So, I think it can mean a lot of things depending on where you are economically, but I think the point of all this is that we need to start being intentional about the trade-offs we make when it comes to how we make money. Whether you are fighting to put dinner on the table tonight or whether you are securely financial independent and have a high net worth, I think everyone needs to be thoughtful and intentional about the trade-offs they make. Sometimes there are going to be a lot of choices; other times, there may not be any. But that's what we need to strive toward.
Benz: You wrote in the book about what you call the fallacy of enough. Can you describe what that means?
Grumet: I definitely experienced this with both money as part of the financial independence movement as well as being what I like to say an achievement junkie. I've lived my whole life going from achievement to achievement to achievement. At some point, we start thinking if we just get to a place, it will be enough. And I'd like to talk about money because I think when it comes to money, and especially in the financial independence movement, it makes sense. We get to, for instance, a net worth, and we say, “Once I make it there, I will have enough.” But a funny thing happens when you get there. One is, you get totally freaked out that you're going to lose everything you made—it's called loss aversion. This idea of losing what we have almost scares us doubly compared with not getting there in the first place. Loss aversion actually takes some of that joy out of what we "call enough" and takes it away.
The other thing is—again, this gets back to meaning and purpose—when we put so much stress on getting to this point, especially if it's an economic goal, once we get there, we find ourselves at a loss for what to do next. You set your life goal to get to this net worth or get to this achievement or job, which you thought you're going to love, this promotion. And the minute you get there, you start thinking OK, what next? How am I going to define myself? What has meaning for me now? And often, we find that when we thought we were at the peak of the mountain, we look up and there's another peak farther up. And we do this treadmill thing where we keep running faster and faster and we feel like we're getting somewhere but we really aren't because we're no more happy than when we started.
So, for me, instead of thinking as enough certainly monetarily as a net worth or even a specific job description, I've started thinking of enough more as something in the book I call the climb. And what that means is making meaningful improvement and headway toward something that is deeply purposeful to you. And I'll give you two examples: The writing of this book and my podcast. I could look at both of those and I could say my goal is to sell a million books or my goal is to have a million downloads on my podcast every month. I don't have a lot of control over those things. And in a lot of ways, if I don't get there, I'm going to be upset. And if I get there, I'll probably be petrified that I'm going to fall back down to a lower level. Instead, I like to look at it as the climb. I want to fill my time with things that have great meaning for me and are purposeful. So, for instance, the writing of this book or doing a podcast, when I sit in front of my mic to host a podcast episode, I feel a huge sense of joy and I look forward to having these conversations that I get to have because I'm a podcaster. Yes, I'd like to make some improvement, but instead of worrying about whether I can get to that big audacious goal, I focus on incremental gain. So, what are those things that I can do that are deeply meaningful to me, give me a sense of purpose, that I enjoy doing regardless of the end result and that then I can also make a little headway or some incremental gain at. I think that's way more gratifying than shooting toward this idea of enough and however you define it as.
Ptak: I think you might have mentioned this earlier in our conversation—that you believe that it's easy to get caught up in worrying about money because it can be measured and monitored in contrast with less tangible and squishier concepts like purpose and identity. Is that one of the reasons people often focus disproportionately on their financial wherewithal and less on how well they're doing in some other areas?
Grumet: Again, I think it's really low-hanging fruit. I think it is easy to measure and monitor, and there is this deep gratification of getting closer and closer there. But in a sense, there's no there there. Monetary goals are great. But ultimately, the purpose of money is to be spent on things that give us a sense of meaning and purpose. And sometimes thinking about those things that give us a sense of meaning or purpose are complicated and difficult to think about and are anxiety provoking. In a lot of ways, I think it's a concept people have a tough time grasping. But, I think when we really start thinking about meaning and purpose, it reminds us of this idea that life is finite and that we're going to die one day. And as opposed to thinking about will we or won't we achieve those things and we better start today, it's really much easier to put that aside and think about some of the easier things.
Benz: I suspect that one factor that keeps people working and accumulating assets beyond what they really need is fear that if they step away from their current positions, they'll be giving up financial remuneration and may also not love the new thing that they've opted to do, so you'd lose on both sides of the ledger. Like, if I take this leap, I might not love it, and I might also put myself in a worse financial position. Is that legitimate in your view? And if not, can you discuss how people could get past that?
Grumet: I think we have to really understand the concept of time to answer that question. I think a lot of times we think that time is a commodity, and we talk about trading time for money, we talk about spending time and losing time. We use all these descriptive terms that when you think about it, don't really make sense. Time is a constant, and we don't have a lot of control over it other than two things. One is our perception of time passing, which it's its own subject, and the other is what activities we place into those time slots.
So, when you have someone who is making money and they like this idea of making money, but they don't really like their job, and especially for the people who are closer to financial independence, or at least have enough money to have some wiggle room and make some decisions in their life, what they're doing is they're filling those precious time slots, time slots that we have no control over, with things that don't have meaning and purpose for them.
It is true that if you decide to pivot from one thing you don't like doing but clearly makes you money to something else, which you're not sure you will like doing or not. I again remind people, money is a tool, it's not an end to itself. When you're spending your time filling those time slots with things that don't gratify you, with things that don't add to your meaning and purpose, you're pretty much wasting the one thing that really is important to everyone is those precious moments of time, which we can't change. I would say, by far for you to strike out and try something you're unsure of and possibly be using those few time slots we have left in life— whether it be 10 years, 20 years, or less—by far more important to take that jump and take that risk, and maybe find that you can fill those time slots with things that are a lot more gratifying, which mean a lot more to you. Because what's the sense of making money if the cost is doing things that don't fulfill you? I think the trade-off isn't worth it.
Benz: What about people who might say, well, my work isn't something that gives me a lot of gratification, but I get these elements of gratification in the other parts of my life through my family, through my social activities, whatever it might be. Is that a legitimate way to do it, where you have work in a box and say, yes, it's not something that I love, but I'm going to get through it? Can people legitimately approach it that way? It seems like a lot of people do that from a practical standpoint.
Grumet: I think it's legitimate if we're intentional about the reason we're doing it. So, there are multiple ways to get to financial independence, and one of the ways is, what I call the path of the eldest brother. It's what we call front-loading the sacrifice. It's working really hard in jobs that you may or may not love, but being intentional about saving that money, investing it, allowing it to compound to get to a point where eventually you have enough of this tool, this potential energy, this money, that you don't need to worry about making any more of it and then you can go on to more purposeful or meaningful things.
There is completely nothing wrong with saying, I'm going to spend eight hours a day doing this thing that I find mediocre, but it makes me enough money that I can spend the other waking hours of the day doing things I love to do. Great, but I'd also say then be real intentional about building the financial independence framework so that eventually you can even relieve yourself of doing something you don't like those eight hours in the future. I think as long as you're being intentional about it, that is a very reasonable path to financial independence. Build that financial framework, use that money in order to start compounding and saving, and get to a net worth that allows you to then start being really thoughtful about how you use those hours.
Ptak: I wanted to ask maybe a variation of a question that we've put to you earlier in this conversation. But a key financial tension that we all face throughout our lives is figuring out how much we can spend on things and experiences in the here and now and how much we should save. Do you have any tips on how people can thread that needle or strike that balance?
Grumet: I definitely do. And the structure of the book, my book, Taking Stock, really is in three parts. The first is defining better your meaning and purpose. The second is building a pathway toward financial independence. And lastly, it's really asking yourself a big important question: what scares you more that you're going to die today and not use all that money you've accumulated to do things you truly want to do in life? Or are you worried that you're going to live to an old age and run out of money before you die? If you can answer that simple question of what scares you more, you then can start being a lot more thoughtful and intentional about how you save money for the future versus how you spend money now to fulfill a sense of meaning and purpose.
Let me give you an example. My father—I told you he died when I was 7 years old—he was 40. Now, he always thought he was going to die young. In fact, he told my mom when he married her. He said, “Now I have to warn you, I've always had this feeling that I'm going to die young.” So, for my father, the conversation was a lot different for me. Deferred gratification wasn't as important to him because he didn't think he'd be around for retirement. So, there wasn't a lot of worries for him to save for retirement. Of course, he worried about us. So, he had life insurance for his kids and his wife. He worried about my mom having a career in case something happened to him, she would be OK. But he had hobbies and things he loved to do. He was learning other languages when he died. In fact, when he got out of his fellowship to be a cancer doctor, he was offered a very lucrative job in a private practice and he decided to forgo that to make half as much money to work at the VA at Northwestern University, because it was a lot more fulfilling of a job for him. My dad didn't think there was a long term for him. He was worried about dying early. So, for him, he didn't need to save as much.
And I would tell people who feel like my dad, you can still build a good financial independence framework, but maybe you're saving 10% of your money as opposed to the FIRE community, which advocates saving 50% of your money. If you think that you may not live long, or if you're just worried about missing out on today, don't save as much. Still build the financial independence framework, but let's say, you save 10% and then, you have 30% leftover. Put that 30% in a YOLO fund, and you know what, enjoy yourself today. So, what could happen? Two things could happen. You could be like my father, and you could die young. And you know what, if that happens, you really did spend on today and tried to enjoy that money. Let's say you're wrong and you live to a ripe old age. Well, you're still building a financial independence framework where you're still saving 10% of your income. It might take you to 65 or 70 to get to that point where you can retire. But you have a big YOLO fund all those years and you're doing things you love to do. So, to me, that sounds like a win. That's one scenario.
The other scenario is, if you're like me—unlike my father, I thought I was going to live to, and I still feel like, I'm going to live to a ripe old age. So, I wasn't so worried about YOLO—or you only live once—when I was young. I was concerned about making a lot of money, putting it in the stock market, letting it compound because I didn't want to run out of money when I got older, but I also didn't want to work as hardcore for the rest of my life. So, I was happy to defer gratification, because I thought I was going to live to a ripe old age. So, for me, saving 40% or 50% made a lot of sense. And then, by the time I got into my 40s, I had a big enough net worth and I had enough investments that I could stop working completely if I wanted to and do whatever I wanted with my time.
The short answer is, everyone should build the financial independence framework. People who are worried about today and not living long should really save a lot less and enjoy every moment as much as they can. People who feel like they might have a long life and don't mind deferring gratification a little more should save a lot more with this idea that they'll be able to stop working sooner, and I think that's the best way to answer that question. No one knows. We only have best guesses. Just like we don't know what's going to happen in the stock market tomorrow, we don't know what's going to happen with our health. Not everyone in a sense is lucky as my dad that he at least had a premonition that this was going to happen. But we can at least go with our best guess, and I think it's the best way to organize the role YOLO and deferred gratification play in your life.
Benz: The point of your book is to share some of the profound lessons you've learned from people who are dying. First, can you talk about why people are so lucid at this stage in their lives? And second, can you share some of those key lessons that you've learned?
Grumet: Something strange happens when a person learns they're going to die. One is, there's obviously mourning. They are mourning for what's happening, mourning for their family, mourning for what could have been. But really then the rest of that time for most people is spent figuring out how to reconcile their life. And a big part of reconciling your life is letting go of all those preconceived notions, worries, all those things that you had thought were important and spending some real time thinking who am I, what's important to me, and what kind of legacy I want to leave.
In a sense, it's incredibly clarifying. I find people at the end of life finally coming to terms with who they are and what they want, something I really wish we did most of us in our 20s when we were young and then could live the rest of our life doing those things. I say in the book it's like a vise grip has been released. It's like instead of worrying about what society expects out of you, instead of worrying about what your family or friends expect out of you, instead of worrying about something that scares you so much you want it so bad that you're not willing to come to terms with it or think of it, all of that melts away and it gives us the excuse to think about who we really are and what we really want.
What do the dying regret? Well, let me tell you what they don't regret: They don't regret that they didn't work more nights and weekends. They don't regret that they only made it to a net worth of $1 million instead of $500,000. Those kinds of things are not there. Usually, again, what they regret is that they never had the energy, courage, or time to pursue those things that were deeply meaningful to them. That could be about relationships. Often, that's about things that were important to them that they were afraid to try. A perfect example is, I had a guy in his 40s who I took care of in hospice who died of leukemia. In his 20s, he took a year off of work and trained to go climb Mount Everest. The reason why I bring up the story is, he didn't know in his 20s that he was going to die in his 40s. But think how he would have felt if he had never tried to do this deeply meaningful thing to him when he was sitting on his dying bed. He would have regretted it. The other interesting thing about his story is, he didn't succeed. He made it only a certain way on Mount Everest and then the weather and everything pretty much got out of hand, and he had to turn around and walk back down. And he never ended up going back again.
So, we mistake this idea that we regret what we didn't succeed at, which I don't think is true. The dying tend to regret what they didn't have the courage to try, what they didn't have the courage to go after, and often the outcome is not nearly as important as giving it their best. And so, that's what I see in the dying is that they wish they had spent more time thinking about what had meaning for them and pursuing it. And I think that's again a huge lesson for all of us who are spending all of our time thinking about money and the role it plays in our life and worrying about our net worth and debating what the safe withdrawal rate should be—which is a joke, Christine, because you and I just had that conversation—and worrying about things like sequence of returns. These are all important things; don't get me wrong. But I think we need to go back to this idea of putting them in service of what's really important to us.
Ptak: And at the risk of asking you to maybe repeat some of those principles and precepts you talked about before to build on your previous answer—taking some of the lessons that have been imparted to you from caring for the terminally ill, what are some of those key steps that people can take to put themselves on that path to self-discovery where they don't have these regrets, as you mentioned, about not trying something that they wish they had more time to try irrespective of what the outcome might have been?
Grumet: I think we need to spend time doing a life review on a regular basis while we're young and certainly before we die. In my book, I describe how to do a life review, and certainly, you can find it online. Life review is a big part of dealing with people in the hospice program, and I think it's something we should start at the beginning. We should start asking ourselves now what has meaning for us, what is purposeful. We should do some of that identity work. Who am I? How do I define myself and why? And I think even if you do some of these exercises and you're struggling, then you've got to put yourself out there and experience things you haven't experienced before. You have to say yes to activities or people you normally wouldn't say yes to. You have to open yourself up to the realm of human experience and decide what feels good to you. And I think that's the positive. The negative then is, you have to start subtracting things out that don't feel good to you. So, if you look at your schedule, what are the things you dread every week? Do you have to do them? Could you find ways to subtract them out of your schedule? I think we need to work on both sides: what we need to add to our lives and what we need to subtract to our lives? And I'm not suggesting that this is something that you can do over a day or a week. I think this takes a lot of thought process, and I think it's something we have to work through. Again, using some of the exercise in the book is a very good way to do it. Asking yourself some of those important questions and thinking through it—what are those things that you would regret on your deathbed and why aren't we pursuing some of that now?
Benz: Well, Jordan, this has been such a thought-provoking conversation. Thank you so much for being here. And congratulations on the book.
Grumet: Thank you so much for having me. These conversations I just think are so important. So, thank you for giving me the chance to answer some of these questions.
Ptak: It was our pleasure. Thank you.
Ptak: Thanks for joining us on The Long View. If you could, please take a minute to subscribe to and rate the podcast on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Benz: And @Christine_Benz.
Ptak: George Castady is our engineer for the podcast and Kari Greczek produces the show notes each week.
Finally, we'd love to get your feedback. If you have a comment or a guest idea, please email us at TheLongView@Morningstar.com. Until next time, thanks for joining us.
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