Essays & Confessions/Work/Life Balance

What Treating Cancer Patients Taught Me About Money

By | Thursday, January 16, 2020

When I first started working as a nurse in an oncology unit, I was incredibly frugal. I wanted to save every penny I earned. My coworkers would talk about spending money on expensive clothes, vacations, and so on, and I thought to myself about how foolish they were for not saving more for their future. A few times, I chastised them out loud for wasting their money on things I thought were frivolous. They would tell me to look around at all of our patients and how little time they had left — people who wished they had done more before becoming sick. I blew off their “bad money advice” and went about my life, nose up, about my superior financial habits. I knew that someday they would regret not saving their money.

During my seven years in the unit, I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many different types of people. All of them are fighting a terrible disease, trying to prolong their time. I’ve heard countless stories of people working feverishly in order to retire comfortably and enjoy their golden years, only to discover they have cancer. They then spend this time in a hospital getting treatment instead of being with their family, going on vacations, or just being in the comfort of their own home. Unfortunately, this story is all too common in my unit. I hear it repeated daily. 

After working here for a few years, I started to shift my way of thinking about spending. It started slowly — a quick trip here or a pedicure there — until I actually made “fun spending” a priority. I was much happier and finally started enjoying the money I earned from working those long, 12-hour shifts. I began to realize I didn’t need to be so scared of running out of money. After all, I had a stable job with enough flexibility that I could pick up shifts if I was ever short on cash. I also had very little debt, contributed to my retirement regularly, and paid my credit card in full every two weeks. Why had I been so scared of running out of money or incurring any debt? One downfall of my parents teaching me to save was that it also instilled in me a sense of fear about money in general. The same motivation that helped me become a frugal saver also kept me from ever spending on anything I really wanted.

 It took a while,  but I was able to find a healthy balance of saving for the future while still enjoying the present. My time treating cancer patients has allowed me to create financial credos that are my own. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Save a set amount to stop worrying.

It sounds a bit simplistic, but if you’re worried about something, figure out how you can act on it. I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough for retirement, so I sought financial advice about how much I would need to save in order to have a comfortable retirement. Many websites have free calculators (like this one from Forbes or this one from Wealthsimple) that give you an idea of how much you will need. 

There’s also the old rule of thumb to multiply your desired yearly retirement income by 25 to get a rough estimate of how much you will need.  For example, if you wanted to have $50,000 every year in retirement, you would need to save $1,250,000 for your retirement ($50,000 x 25 = $1,250,000).

Of course, this assumes you’ll live for 25 years in retirement, and it’s a rough estimate that doesn’t take into account other factors, like inflation. But it does give you a ballpark idea of what you should save. The actual number will look different for everyone because we all have different financial goals. Some people want to retire earlier than others and some, like me, may never want to fully retire. You also have to decide how you want to invest that money. But the bottom line is, fear should not be your only motivator for saving money, and you can save for tomorrow and still spend money today. When you figure out how much you need to save and get into the habit of saving every week or month, you don’t have to actively worry about money as much. This leads to my second tip.

Create a savings account for fun.

Being in a profession where you are a caregiver can be draining in many ways — physically, mentally, emotionally. And it’s been said before: You can’t serve from an empty vessel. In other words, it’s important to take care of yourself. To that point, I have a category in my budget for “fun spending.”

Saving for fun activities has not only helped prevent me from burning out, but it’s also given me a goal to look forward to. This has become a non-negotiable savings account because I know the impact that it has on my wellbeing. Once I started budgeting for the experiences and things I wanted, I felt better about spending money on them. I knew I was saving an appropriate amount in my other accounts, so I didn’t feel guilty about my purchases. In a sense, I am still saving to spend, but this strategy works for me.

Yes, spending can make you happy.

While caring for my patients, they would often tell me about the vacations they took with friends or what they would be doing right now if they were home. Some showed me collections of things they owned, like classic cars, but talked about them in an experiential way — how they used those purchases to spend time with others, like going for drives. 

What they and my coworkers decided was important to spend their money on was very different from what I thought would bring value to my own life. I shouldn’t have judged them for spending their money how they wanted to. Spending doesn’t buy happiness itself, but the things we buy can make us happy in small ways. It doesn’t have to be something extravagant, like going to the UK with a friend for three weeks. Something as simple as meeting up with friends at a coffee shop and enjoying a latte can be so satisfying.  I found that spending money is most enjoyable when I knew that it would be used to spend time with others. Money that is used to create joy for yourself and others will never be wasted. 


I still believe saving money is extremely important. The likelihood that we will get sick with a serious illness might not be high, but it’s also not impossible. But I’ve learned that it’s okay to go out and do the things we love that make us happy. And with a little financial preparation, you don’t have to feel guilty about it.

Image via Unsplash

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