The Psychology of My Debt

My debt weighs on me, both financially and psychologically. Interestingly, this was not the case in medical school or residency. Then, about 3 months into my first job its specter began to grow, even though the actual number started declining for the first time in 7 years.

Overtime, the psychological importance of my debt balooned in inverse proportion to the speed at which I was paying it off. I would spend hours per month tracking it, trying to find ways to pay it off faster.

I stared at the screen, as if by sheer will I could reverse the nature of compound interest. This did not work.

This was always going to be a bad thing for me, psychologically. Money has never motivated me. Having more money has never made feel better about life or myself. It felt unnatural to be so concerned about numbers on a screen. It just wasn’t me – but I couldn’t stop.

Turns out, having lots of money won’t make you happy, but owing lots to someone else can make you miserable.

My wife tells me sometimes our marriage feels like a terrible love triangle between me, her, and my debt. Yet, after leaving my first job, the problem did not improve. It actually worsened.

We took a significant hit in income and any hope at loan repayment went away with transitioning to 1099 work. I felt the pressure of paying off the debt land squarely and intensely on my shoulders. I focused all the energy I had previously given to medical training onto paying down my debt.

It had become my white whale.

Obsession is Never Healthy

At first, I had assumed my debt weighed on me because I hated my first job. I had jumped from the cloistered, privileged, insincere nobility of academic medicine into the cauldron of RVUs and the greed driven Hospital-Pharmaceutical Complex. The disillusionment was scalding.

More disturbingly, my partners were lining up at the trough to eat the unethical slop. The system was playing them like fiddles, and they were happy to oblige. Never mind the fact they were actually miserable.

Yet, they played the part of selfless, caring physicians – even if all we ever talked about at meetings was how much money they could make. I felt tainted by association. The guilt gnawed at me.

That guilt did not immediately go away upon changing to my current locum tenens work, it morphed into a different kind of guilt. I felt guilty for abandoning the noble aim of continuity of care and my former dream of being the “local doc.”

So, my obsession grew, despite changing my work situation.

Kids Change Everything

Having our second daughter gave me a chance to refocus. Having a family has changed the relationship I have with medicine again. I have slowly been able to let go of some of the anger I had at the way my partners and health system treated me.

I had directed a good deal of that anger at the institution of medicine. I have since come to realize it isn’t particularly helpful to hold an amorphous profession accountable. I will never be able to have closure with a profession.

I have also released myself of my burden of accountability to the profession. If the profession is not accountable to me, I am not accountable to it. This has greatly improved my relationship with work.

I have managed to lower my bar for satisfaction drastically. My relationship with medicine has evolved from complete devotion, to resentful hatred, to a simple acceptance.

This evolution has allowed me to see how much power I was giving my debt over my life.

We Give Things Power over Us

Most people seem to have the problem of not realizing how detrimental debt is to their financial health. I had the opposite problem, I gave my debt complete control over my enjoyment of life.

I had made eliminating my debt into the dreaded “next step.” That next accomplishment I had to reach before I could be happy. Even though I knew that trap all too well, it had caught me again.

Debt had become a binary state. I was either in it or I wasn’t, progress did not exist. And, as long as I was in debt, I was beholden to medicine. And that pissed me off.

Eventually, I realized it had gone too far…

Around tax time, I was able to throw a huge amount of money at my debt. As this was the first year I have been paid substantially as a 1099 sole proprietor I apparently had over-saved substantially for my tax bill. In one fell swoop, I eliminated over 15% of my remaining debt burden.

But, I was not pleased. Instead of congratulating myself on making large progress in eliminating debt, I was emboldened to try and move up the timeline on making myself debt free.

I felt the need to pay more faster because I had made so much progress so quickly. I knew this was not a reasonable reaction.

I was chasing the dragon…

I had something to decide. I could continue to be angry and resentful for 2-3 more years and hope it got better when I paid off my loans (the go to doctor coping mechanism). Or, I could actually wrestle with my emotions and try to find a way to happier in the present.

Perspective Change

So, instead of continuing to think of my loans in binary terms of being chained to or free from medicine. I asked myself a bigger question.

“If I had already paid off my loans, what would I do differently?”

Turns out, probably not much.

I would probably work a little bit less. We would travel more(I hope), probably buy a house. But, most importantly, I wouldn’t quit medicine and try a different career.

This was hugely freeing.

The emotional benefit of being debt free is the idea you could walk way if you wanted to. So, realizing I would not walk away took away a lot of the power of the loans.

Doing The Math

Once I deflated the emotional power of my debt, I could look at it a bit more rationally. I had made a lot of progress. I decided to run some scenarios.

I ran various amortization schedules based on refinancing vs not and at different time intervals (2-5 more years). Instead of the shackles vs. freedom emotional response to debt, I tried to give myself more of a dollars and cents view.

Turns out, depending on various scenarios, my debt will likely cost me another $10,000-$25,000 in interest. Also, it turns out I should probably refinance my student loans.

So, those numbers are not nothing. However, it allows for a more rational conversation about my loan debt. Instead of a binary choice for happiness, I can ask:

“How many more months am I willing to be in debt to enjoy my life more for the net 2-4 years?

Since I am not going to go out and buy a Tesla or mega-house or anything like that, it is mostly about how gentle am I going to be with myself about how choosing to work a little less so I can spend more time hiking, fishing, traveling, etc.

Turns out, I am probably willing to spend up to 6 months more in debt to have more time doing other things I enjoy.

I am tired of waiting for the next thing, I am living right now. 2 years of living a happier, more balanced life seems worth a few more months of debt.

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of My Debt”

  1. I think you came up with a fair and balanced solution trying to appease your need to eliminate your debt and the need to enjoy in the present.

    I never knew how much weight on my shoulders I carried from debt until I became completely debt free. It was utterly freeing. I hope you get there soon my friend but don’t burn yourself out rushing the debt payoff journey.

    You are likely to be debt free at a far younger age than I did (45) so keep up the strong work.

    1. I should be free of student debt by 38 at the latest (which is my only debt currently). A Mortgage would be another thing entirely. Thanks for the encouragement.

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