Most physicians have some form of debt at some point in their lives. That might be the student loans that put you through medical school, or it might be the mortgage on your doctor home to which you treated yourself after you finished residency.
It doesn’t much matter what type of debt you have–most personal finance experts agree that consumer debt of any kind as well as student loans ought to be paid back sooner rather than later. For many physicians, this could mean repaying hundreds of thousands of dollars.
That can be a long journey. Do you have what it takes?
In today’s guest post by The Motivated M.D., we explore what is required in order to really get serious about retiring your debt.
I previously wrote a post titled Graphing Our Loan Repayment Progress. Here I showed The Motivated M.D.’s progress towards our debt elimination. That graph was taken straight from our family budget. If you aren’t aware, my wife and I are both physicians working to eliminate our $670,000 medical education debt fast. Towards the end of that post, I discussed the day-to-day reality of paying off debt. I received a lot of support from viewers given the honesty and transparency of the article.
Something, Something… ‘Rollercoaster’ Cliché
Yes, the moral of the story: prioritizing debt has its ups and downs. However, the truth is much more than that. Living a life (even if just a few years) that prioritizes rapid debit elimination is no easy feat. I have said it a million times on this blog; debt elimination and financial independence are simple, but not easy.
Why is that? Why can’t we have our cake and eat it too? Well, there are a few things that influence one’s ability to hunker down and eliminate debt fast. Here are a few factors that I think are critical to actually finishing the fight!
A Healthy Dose of Debt Aversion
The first factor that influences debt elimination is one’s aversion to debt in general. For years now I have read countless books and blog posts regarding personal finance. These are predominantly ones directed towards healthcare professionals. Each author usually reserves a section dedicated to debt elimination success stories. The White Coat Investor has Milestones to Millionaire (M2M), the Physician on Fire has FIRE Crossroads, and The Frugal Physician has Debt Free Doctors, to name a few. All of their success stories share a common thread: a mountainous aversion to debt.
Debt aversion represents how internally motivated you are to rid yourself of debt. This aversion can take many forms. For me, it has always taken the form of anxiety. I am a high-income earner married to a high-income earner. It shouldn’t be so difficult to let go of my financial anxiety given our combined income, but it is! It’s because I choose to see debt as a liability in so many facets.
Debt hinders my ability to be less reliant on my career. Debt further hinders my ability to live how I see fit despite having an appropriate emergency fund, appropriate insurance coverage, etc. Until my debt is gone, I feel I will carry this anxiety with me.
Some See It Differently
Now, I will preface by saying that not everyone shares my feeling of debt aversion. Some individuals do not develop the anxiety that often comes with debt. Some are at peace knowing they are tied to debt elimination for the foreseeable future. Other individuals take solace in Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). No matter what their reasoning, certain people are more at peace being indebted.
Debt, to me, carries a significant cost. It weighs on me physically, mentally, and financially. My debt aversion motivates me to destroy it as fast as possible.
One factor that will determine your ability to be successful with debt elimination is gauging your aversion to it.
A Strong Marriage
Here, arguably, is the most important factor influencing your ability to prioritize debt elimination. A healthy marriage is built on a foundation of trust and communication (and love, too!). All of the pillars that support a successful marriage also support a successful debt elimination strategy.
When my wife and I both decided to make debt elimination a priority, we made a goal of paying at least $100,000 towards our debt annually. This is no small task. With my wife overwhelmingly financing our lifestyle as an emergency medicine attending while I was finishing up fellowship, she carried a disproportionate amount of our financial burden.
We often prioritized ‘financial date night,’ and long walks discussing our progress, but the fact remained; the majority of our loan repayment goals were financed through her. This can place a significant amount of stress on a single individual, driving a wedge in your marriage.
The Little Things
One thing I touched on in a previous post about Graphing Our Loan Repayment Progress was differences regarding our distribution of finances. Overwhelmingly we would agree on big picture plans. We agreed that we should be maxing our retirement accounts, that we should be prioritizing debt, that we should avoid all credit card debt, and so on. However, in practice this can prove more difficult. An example that I used then was furnishing a portion of our home as opposed to putting that money towards debt. These decisions were often difficult to navigate as both parties offered valid arguments.
Should we put the moonlighting pay towards more debt elimination or should we purchase a dining room table? In one sense, of course we should put it towards the debt! On the other, we have an incompletely furnished house preventing us from hosting holidays. Hosting holidays and congregating with family is wildly important to us. It’s not appropriate for debt elimination to always come at the expense of quality of life. Yes, there are alternatives to hosting the holidays, but if that is important to your marriage, then it should be prioritized, even at the expense of debt elimination if necessary.
A healthy marriage can make the journey of debt elimination exponentially more enjoyable. You have one another to lean on and motivate you, a built-in hype man or hype woman. Celebrate your successes and your failures together! Use your debt elimination journey to support your marriage and I assure you it will manifest in financial benefits over the long term.
An Enjoyable Career
Your career can act as a two-sided coin when it comes to influencing debt elimination. There are a few important aspects to touch on.
First and foremost, your career and your reimbursement will absolutely define how quickly you can tackle debt and achieve financial independence. At The Motivated M.D., we predominantly target healthcare workers. A large portion of healthcare workers achieves middle- to upper-class wages. These careers often provide 6-figure salaries which can provide immense momentum toward debt elimination.
Secondly, if you enjoy your career, it can afford you the ability to continue to generate income well after you have reached financial independence. A job that affords you the ability to wake up each morning looking forward to work can create a life of longevity. However, I highlight this to describe the other side of this career coin.
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Bad Things Happen to Good People
I would at least consider that true love for your career could potentially pose as a hindrance towards debt elimination, at least mentally. If you are head-over-heels for your job, then you may not ever see the need to expedite financial independence. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, right? Why would I care about expediting financial independence if I love my career? This is a slippery slope in my opinion because it does factor in the unknowable.
Financial disaster, unemployment, untimely demise or death, all of which are tragic–all of these are also realities. Again, maybe my jadedness is talking, but just because you have a career you love doesn’t mean you should delay financial independence. I wish all of my readers a long and prosperous career, but unfortunately, bad things happen to good people. The earlier you can achieve financial independence, the sooner it doesn’t matter if you love your career or not. You won’t be dependent on it. And that will make all the difference.
Career enjoyment is vital to a life of happiness and gratitude, but it shouldn’t deter you from your date with financial independence.
An Appropriate Lifestyle
Lifestyle will play an important role in how quickly you choose to pursue financial independence. I am not strictly addressing your current lifestyle, but your expectations of future lifestyle as well. Hear me out.
Lifestyle in the present is important. Do you live below your means? Are you saving an appropriate amount? How you choose to live your life now is vital to your ability to eliminate debt. If you are making a 6-figure salary and your annual expenses are in the 5-figure range, then it should be simple math to determine how quickly you can eliminate debt. That’s huge!
Manage Your Expectations
However, your view of lifestyle in a post-debt world should also influence how quickly you pay off debt. If your expectation is to maintain your current standard of living after eliminating your debt, then you should be ‘sittin’ pretty.’ Just transition the amount you were putting towards debt elimination to investments and retirement contributions and you are well on your way. However, if you wish to achieve fat financial independence and retire early, then it’s high time you eliminated your debt ASAP!
How you view lifestyle expectations in the present and the future are both equally impactful on your ability to eliminate debt and achieve financial independence. Avoid the tendency to make them two completely separate entities. Eliminating our debt is a huge milestone, one to be celebrated, but it is still just a mile marker on a much longer journey towards financial freedom.
The last factor I will touch on is more individualized. Freedom has proven to be a more complex goal than I expected in my younger years. Ultimately, we are all pursuing the same goal, right? We may define financial independence monetarily, but in the end, it’s just a long-winded way of describing freedom.
Freedom, to me, is the ability to wake up one eventual morning with a full day planned. My day will be filled because I choose to fill it. I want to have a smorgasbord of tasks all tailored to fit my interests. Maybe I am gardening, maybe I am writing or lecturing. If I choose to cancel a task, I do so readily and without remorse. I can take months off at a time to travel or visit family without having to second guess myself. More importantly, I will not feel this visceral need to do ‘more, more, more!’ I will have enough.
This freedom is not defined as a number, but there is a number out there that can allow me to achieve this to a degree. The rest will be a state of mind. However, I don’t see myself being able to reach this financial nirvana until I no longer have debt looming over my head.
What Does It Really Take to Eliminate Debt?
So, with all of this in mind, what does it really take to eliminate debt? As much as I would have loved for this to be simple and straightforward, the truth is, it’s more complicated than that. As I have tried to outline above, there are multiple factors that weigh heavily on one’s ability to expedite debt elimination.
What does debt elimination really take? First and foremost, it takes grit–grit as an individual and grit as a couple if you have a significant other. It takes a healthy dose of compassion, trust, and communication as well. It’s incredibly helpful to wage this war with a teammate on your side. It takes a career that provides you the means to support yourself and your financial goals without driving early burnout. And lastly, it requires a lifestyle expectation that is realistic to your needs.
Debt elimination takes a lot of things. Some are inherent, some are created, some are discovered; all are needed. The road towards financial independence is paved with blood, sweat, and tears. This journey is not easy. You will need to come armored with grit, bearing a shield of determination. If a loved one is joining you, they need to be on the same page, plan and all.
I have previously written a post reviewing How to Write a Financial Plan. This comprehensive tutorial can be incredibly helpful to those looking to create a roadmap towards debt elimination and financial success. I suggest you give it a read.
The Motivated M.D.