Regular readers know that I recently paid off all of my medical student loans. By doing so, I’m one step closer to financial independence. Additionally, as evidenced by my recent posts, it has given me a lot of writing material for the blog. One thought that came to mind was to explain what it felt like to pay off over $400k of debt. Looking back over all of my life experiences, I found that the stages of paying off this debt was pretty similar to the stages I went through when getting a tattoo. How, you might ask? Read on to find out!
Stage 1: Deciding to Get a Tattoo
In order to get a tattoo, you need to first decide to get one. Everyone will have their own reasons for getting a tattoo. Some will have deep, philosophical reasons while others will get one because it’s “cool”. The point is, however, that you can’t get a tattoo unless you decide to get one.
In much the same way, I had to decide to go to medical school in the first place. And while I did have a choice as to whether or not I wanted to be a doctor, I didn’t have a choice as to how I was going to finance my education. Okay, that’s not entirely correct. I could have applied for scholarships to help offset some of the expenses, or opted to have the military pay for my education. But Random Guy at the time was too lazy to look for scholarships and didn’t want to commit to a few years of military service after graduation.
So I decided to apply for loans.
Stage 2: The “Planning” Phase
Next up comes the “planning” for the tattoo phase. To be honest, there isn’t too much planning involved with getting a tattoo… hence the quotation marks. Well, you do have to figure out the design of your tattoo, what part of your body you want inked up, and which tattoo parlor you want to go to. But in all honesty, there isn’t too much thought put into this stage.
In terms of my student loans, this corresponds to the phase of applying for and accepting loan offers. I knew the basics of student loans, like the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized loans as well as interest and capitalization. But that’s pretty much it. All I really wanted was to obtain enough funding to pay for medical school. I couldn’t be bothered with reading promissory notes (who reads those anyways?) or figuring out repayment strategies for when I graduated from medical school. I just wanted to get that money, man!
Stage 3: The “Out of Sight, Out of Mind” Period
This is the period of time between planning for the tattoo and actually getting it. This will vary from person to person, but for me it lasted for a few months. During this time, it was business as usual, and I didn’t think about getting my tattoo all that much.
For my student loans, this corresponds with me being in medical school and residency. I didn’t give much thought to my loans, nor did I look into income-based repayment plans while I was still in training. The only time I dealt with my loans was when I had to reapply for forbearance annually, effectively sweeping them under the rug for another year.
Like I said, out of sight, out of mind.
Stage 4: The Moment of Truth
Ultimately, the time will come when you get your tattoo. This “moment of truth” happens when you’re actually sitting in the chair at the tattoo parlor. The artist has put a carbon copy of your tattoo on your arm/shoulder/back. You hear the buzz of the needle. Your heart starts racing with nervous anticipation. Butterflies flutter in your stomach. The time has finally come.
In much the same way, graduating from residency training is the moment of truth for a lot of young doctors. Not only because they will soon become full-fledged attending physicians, but also because most will have to start thinking about and paying back their student loans.
This certainly was the case for me, although my financial epiphany occurred a few months before graduating. Either way, it was the first time that I really looked at my loan balances in nearly eight years. And while my jaw dropped when I saw how much money I owed, the experience motivated me enough to learn about personal finance.
Stage 5: The Painful Beginning
And then the needle touches your skin. I don’t care what other people say, getting a tattoo hurts. Much more than I thought it would. I actually found myself leaning away from the tattoo artist, my body’s involuntary attempt to get away from the pain.
Similarly, paying off students loans hurts, particularly if you’re trying to pay them off as quickly as possible. In my case, we were putting over half of our combined household income towards my loans and living below our means. While we were by no means struggling, it nonetheless sucked to see so much of our income going to my debt.
Stage 6: The Dull Ache Phase
At some point during the tattoo process, your body goes numb. Whether it’s endorphins or desensitization, you stop feeling pain and instead feel a kind of dull ache. You know what’s going on, but it doesn’t bother you as much as it did in the beginning.
I went through the same thing when paying off my loans. After a few months of making those big payments, I got used to it and it didn’t hurt as much. I fell into a routine, and it just became something I had to do every month.
Stage 7: The Painful Ending
An interesting thing happened as I got closer to the end of my tattoo session. The pain came back with a vengeance. Maybe those endogenous endorphins wore off. Or maybe I realized that the end was near. Whatever the reason, I started to feel a lot of pain again… almost as much as in the beginning. And I couldn’t wait for it to end.
Similarly, as I drew closer to paying off my loans, I started feeling the pain of those big payments again. I knew that the finish line was in sight, but it was so painful to know that I wasn’t quite there yet.
Stage 8: The “I’m a Badass” Phase
The euphoria I felt after getting my tattoo was hard to describe, but I can understand why people would want to get more than one. I felt great, and I couldn’t wait to share my tattoo with the world. I walked around with my new badge of honor and felt like a total badass.
The same thing happened after I made my final loan payment. I walked around with a bit more pep in my step, and in my eyes I was king of the world!
Stage 9: The Life Goes on Phase
The badass phase, however, is short-lived. Outside of a few of my friends giving me a congratulatory pat on the back, there was no other recognition for my tattoo accomplishment. Life went on.
In much the same way, there wasn’t much fanfare when I paid off my loans. Sure, my wife was ecstatic and I received a lot of support and congratulations from my fellow finance bloggers. But there was no ticker tape parade. Life went on, and I was off to the next step in my journey toward financial independence.
Getting a tattoo and paying off debt are both painful experiences. But luckily for us, the pain doesn’t last forever. Tattoos get finished. Loans eventually get paid off. And life goes on.
I might get another tattoo at some point in future. But it’ll have to wait. After all, I’m still working on my second financial tattoo, otherwise known as our mortgage. Ouch!
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