Ask Colin: Golden Shackle Syndrome

Dear Colin,

After eight difficult, grueling years of overpriced school and unfulfillment, I am about to graduate next month with a doctorate in pharmacy.

The doctorate is meaningless to me and I’m not even proud of going down this path. I feel like a complete impostor, barely remembering most of things I crammed for exams throughout the years, the pharmacy market is more saturated than it has ever been (due to an explosion of schools opening up), and I have six-figure student loan debt.

I’m extremely motivated to pay off the debt quickly and I hope to achieve financial independence by living a frugal lifestyle.

I now realize time, freedom, and the flexibility to travel slowly are much more important to me than earning an above average salary at a job I don’t care for, especially now that I understand I do not need that much money to fund a fulfilling lifestyle.

I want to work seasonally and have months off for extended, slow, meaningful travel/experiences. I feel like I’ve climbed a dangerously tall ladder just to find out that it was leaning on the wrong building this whole time.

Part of me wants to find meaningful work in a different field (even if a large pay-cut is involved) and the other part of me is saying just grind it out for a few more years (pay off the debt, invest savings) and I can be set for life.

I’m scared of “golden shackle syndrome”—can you offer me an outside perspective? I feel stuck and therefore I feel my judgement is clouded.

Thanks for all you do,


Hey Dana-

First off, it’s wonderful that you’ve been able to achieve the perspective required to recognize this about yourself, your needs, and the trajectory you’re currently on.

That unto itself is a major victory, and it’s something you should give yourself a pat on the back for achieving—it’s neither guaranteed or easy.

I also want to note that many of us end up on paths like these, ones that are perhaps valuable and correct according to some standards, if not our own, because of well-meaning people in our lives who only want the best for us.

It’s common to become resentful of the people who helped you follow a more generic, pre-fabricated path. That’s not necessarily the case here, but it’s something I personally try to keep in mind so I can focus on solutions rather than fixating on the seductive desire to allocate blame.

In terms of reducing debt, I know people who have had success using variations of the envelope system, the debt-snowball method, and utilizing one of the many budgeting apps that’re available across all devices.

More broadly, I’d suggest focusing on what’s most vital to you—in terms of habits, purchases, hobbies, etc—and spending far, far less on the non-vital.

A lot of us are subconsciously trained to assume that certain expenses are foundational to living in the modern world, and this simply isn’t the case.

If you eat out once a day, run the numbers of how much you might save by preparing your food at home, and you might be surprised at what you’d save. The same is true of buying coffee vs. making your own coffee, working out at home vs. paying for a gym membership, and so on.

That said, some expenses are very good investments. If the best part of your day is going to the gym, that monthly membership fee might well be worth it. The same is true of that coffee you buy from the place down the street, or the meals you get at the little bistro by your office.

Consider carefully which components of those habits are the valuable parts, though. It may be that what you really want is the walk, not the coffee, and that you could easily swap in self-made coffee and still take the walk: getting what you want out of the habit, while spending a fifth as much on it.

As for your larger question, though, I think you can be happy and fulfilled whichever path you decide on.

I also think there are major pros and cons to each approach, and that the main choice will be between those collections of different upsides and downsides.

If you take a high-paying, low-satisfaction job, you could potentially pay off your debt within a few years, if you stick with a budget and focus on that goal. It’s possible that you could use that time as a runway period, too, building up the skills, relationships, and resources you’ll need for that next step you want to take.

On the other hand, the “golden shackles” that you mentioned are very real, and very pernicious. I know people who have taken this path, only to have the day-to-day grind erode away their willpower to the point that they begin to break their budgets, and even give up on their future plans in favor of quick-fix, often retail therapy-related, salves for their daily ills.

No matter how much you want something, it’s possible for your willpower to be depleted, your priorities changed, your long-term goals remembered only after it’s too late to go back and claim them.

The other path, though, also has its fair share of downsides.

Yes, you’d be able to jump into that lifestyle you desire more quickly, and there’s something to be said for spending the finite time you have on the things you want to do, most—you can always make more money, but you can never get more time.

But that lifestyle may be substantially and negatively influenced by that debt, acting as an anchor around your ankle, keeping you from doing all the things you want to do, tethering you to a certain income level (so you can keep making those debt payments), even as you continue to accrue interest.

That debt could, in short, keep you from enjoying the life you build, even if everything else is just as you want it.

Again, neither of these paths is absolutely right or wrong, and I firmly believe you can make it work, and enjoy life, whichever one you choose.

Almost certainly the best solution, though, will be some middle path between the two.

Working a high-paying job for a hard-set period of time, for instance, and planning your exit very carefully, along with what you want to accomplish during that period, could help you reduce the debt while also productively building toward that next step.

You can use that deadline, the milestone you’ve chiseled into the calendar, as a source of motive power when things get tough, keeping you focused as you ameliorate the worst of your debt, and granting you additional energy to keep growing and preparing yourself for your desired lifestyle.

Your best bet at the moment, though, is to take a step back, look at the situation from a big picture perspective, and figure out which combination of actions will be most likely to lead to the best possible collection of outcomes based on your priorities.

Be honest with yourself about how those day-to-day realities are likely to play out, and prepare yourself and your environment—focusing on health, balance, and sustainability—so you can do what you need to do in the short-term to stack the deck in your favor for the long-term.

Just take care not to let the short-term linger too long, lest you wake up one day, decades from now, and realize that you never got around to doing the things you always wanted to do.

Enjoy your next steps, whichever path or paths you decide to walk.

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