A Darwinian Doctor origin story: the meatball sub

This PhRei Network post was authored by The Darwinian Doctor, March 11, 2019.

Editor’s note: Today’s Post is from our PhREI Network founder, Daniel Shin MD, at The Darwinian Doctor.

We all have different experiences in life that influence our world outlook. These experiences and how we process them influence our internal drive and can motivate us to achieve specific goals. Sharing the source of your motivation can sometimes be difficult but it is often a rewarding experience. “The Darwinian Doctor” shares his origin story in this post and by the end you will completely understand why Dr. Shin has found a home in the financial blogging world. You may even have a similar story. This post is a sad one but filled with great lessons.

AKA: Why I care so much about financial independence

My first memories of financial scarcity

When I was in middle school, my father, who up to that point had been a fairly successful real estate broker in New York City, lost most of his business during the recession in the early 90s. There was so little commercial real estate sales to go around that he had to look for a completely new line of work. He ended up trying to start a construction business in Puerto Rico and spend most of my middle school years doing that.

It was during this period that my family fell behind on our mortgage payments. I still remember the menacing phone calls from the creditors. We weren’t allowed to answer the phone, so they would leave their threats and insults on the answering machine.

Things were so dire it was a struggle for my mom to buy food for dinner. She cooked everything from scratch because that was the cheapest way to do it.  Most of our meals were simple rice and vegetable combos with the cheapest cuts of meat that could be bought. My mother would just stew the meats endlessly to soften them but this had the unfortunate side effect of creating supremely bland dishes. The scent of those meals mixed with the stress of need created a rancid odor of scarcity that permeates my memory of my elementary to middle school years.

The uncle

My father’s brother was a lawyer, and by pedigree alone should have had a pretty sweet job.  But the recession was indiscriminate. He was under employed during that time and actually was forced to move in with us one summer. He had a fondness for used motorcycles and sports cars, and I remember during that summer our garage and driveway were full of his beat up machines.

The worst part of having my uncle around what is that it drove home my father’s absence all the more. It would’ve been more tolerable if my uncle had been a decent father substitute. But in addition to lacking any parental instincts, he also made no effort to contribute to our household in any way, financially or otherwise.

He had a particularly nasty habit of going out to purchase food on his own, bringing it home, and then eating it by himself. He usually would eat in private, but the scent of the food would drift through the whole house.

Let me tell you, when one’s dinner throughout the week is mainly rice and vegetables, a hamburger or slice of pizza smells like the most delicious thing in the world.

The meatball sub

One summer afternoon, I remember coming inside to find him eating a meatball sub from the pizzeria down the street. On this day, he was feeling especially gracious and let me have one bite from the meatball sub. My mom was hanging out in the same room and I remember turning to her and saying, “Mom, this is so good. Can you please buy this for me sometime?”

Decades later, my mom confessed that she cried for hours that night because of my request. She knew we couldn’t afford to buy meatball subs.

Her admission created such a storm of emotions. I felt guilty at having caused her so much heartache, and I felt furious at my uncle for having put  me in a position to unknowingly hurt my mother. 

The foreclosure

Shortly after that summer, we lost our house. The messages from the creditors grew more and more threatening, and then one day my mother announced that we had to pack.  Within a few days we were out of the house and into a rental. The bank had repossessed my childhood home.

The fallout

Many years later, in college, the unconscious desire for a stable job strongly influenced my decision to go pre-Med. While at the time I knew nothing about the doctor shortage facing the United States, I did know that people get sick and need medical care whether the economy is in boom or bust.

Now as a practicing surgeon, you would think that the worry of financial insolvency would have left long ago. But I don’t think you ever outgrow a childhood marred by financial scarcity.  Even as I move down the road to FIRE, I remain plagued by the vague sense that I’m one misstep away from losing it all.

But if we can stay on track, I hope to create a future where my children and hopefully even future descendants will never experience those dark days. 

Conclusion

I hope this story wasn’t too much for you to handle. But from the day I posted in embarrassing detail about the real numbers behind my spending, this blog has already gone down the road of oversharing.  That ship has sailed. So I might as well own it!

–TDD

This is just a glimpse into what motivates The Darwinian Doctor towards financial independence.  Do you have an origin story pushing you towards FIRE? Comment below!

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