David vs. Goliath: One veterinarian's epic battle against student debt

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Someday I might want to own a home, buy a veterinary practice or drive a car that tracks in a straight line. These simply won't be possible with the immense burden I'm facing.

We all know the statistics. As of late, the "elephant in the room" of veterinary medicine has become harder to ignore. Just about every veterinary journal I've picked up in the past six months has contained some kind of article describing the financial challenges we are facing as a profession.

I'm not a financial expert, and I don't necessarily recommend that anyone follow my lead on this one. My intent here is merely to document my own struggle with a problem that's plaguing most of us, to describe my own decisions in dealing with this issue and to discuss how those decisions have impacted my life. I surely don't mean to insult anyone, so please don't take my personal views personally.

Here's my situation. Total debt at graduation in 2008: $110,000. Total loan payments made since graduation: around $35,000. Current payoff amount with federal Direct Loan Servicing Center as of 2012: $90,000. No other debts to speak of. I do my part to help support two dogs (with a total of only seven legs).

My salaries since graduation have left much to be desired. In my first-year internship—well, let's not talk about that one. After that I moved across the country twice and also halfway around the world and back—we'll write those years off as "adventure equity." My current salary is still less than the published average for new graduates in 2011.

Reading all of the reports and statistics, I believe I'm more or less average in terms of of veterinarians' total debt and earning potential. So it stands to reason that my circumstances are not unique. Nevertheless, it seems that few of my peers are willing to face these realities head on—to talk about them or try to find solutions. I'm worried about my soon-to-be colleagues and friends who will be graduating from veterinary school over the next several years and also the health of our profession as a whole.

Personally, Obama's income-based repayment policy makes me cringe. I grew up believing that if I owe a debt, I should pay it back. So I do question the real benefit that "forgiving" student loans after x number of years will have on our country. Again, I'm no expert, but I don't live in a world where money can be "forgiven"; it ultimately comes from somewhere, no?

Part of my own problem is that for many years I shared the commonly held beliefs that "student debt is good debt," "I'm going to be a veterinarian so what do I have to worry about?" and "You can't put a price on doing what you love for a living." Sound familiar? The process of realizing how harmful these attitudes may be on my own financial future has been extremely difficult on many levels.

For me, now is the time to change and to realize that I'm the only one who can dig myself out of this hole. In my mind, carrying such a large debt means that I do not actually own anything until that debt is gone. Net worth in the red. Kind of a scary thought, really.

Enter a new philosophy on my student debt: Pay it back as quickly as humanly possible and try to have fun doing it (that last part is the trickiest). Someday I might want to own a home, buy a veterinary practice or drive a car that tracks in a straight line. Contrary to what my local lending institution or car dealership may tell me, these simply won't be possible with the immense burden I'm facing. Unless, of course, I continue to hold strong in the belief that borrowing more and more money to fund every aspect of my personal and professional life is the answer to long-term prosperity. If I do survive my battle with student debt, I think my attitudes about borrowing money for anything will be dramatically affected for the long haul.

My plan for implementing my new philosophy? Work hard and sacrifice. Sacrifice as much as possible and send the dividends straight to my friends at the direct loan center (even though they don't even send me a Christmas card). Adopting this new attitude has been tough, to say the least. This year, more often than not, when it comes to making a purchase of any kind, the decision is "no." I purchased a car with cash. She was only $3,000 and my most recent potential passenger elected to take the bus instead. But she's all mine, and I get to work on time! My current monthly budget works like this: First off, I keep enough liquid savings to realistically cover five to six months of living expenses in case of an emergency. From there, I use monthly income to take care of the rent and necessities at home first (unfortunately that still includes cable TV and Internet—some battles just can't be won). Save a few hundred bucks. Send the rest to the government. That's roughly 50 percent to 65 percent of my monthly income going toward my student loans.

Does it suck? Absolutely. Part of the challenge has been to still have some fun on a budget. One thing I've done is find cheaper hobbies. I'm currently restoring an antique cedar trunk that someone was throwing away. That's about a $100 investment in sandpaper, lacquer and hardware. What it amounts to is endless hours of enjoyment and a pretty decent cardiovascular workout. We may even end up with a decent piece of furniture in the end. Try getting all of that out of a trip to your local furniture store.

The rewards: Since I started adhering to my new plan, I've seen some actual progress in deflating the debt. For the first three years after graduation, watching my best efforts at repayment barely cover compound interest was disheartening. Now I get to watch the actual balance decrease with every payment. A $2,000-3,000 payment, while painful, really makes a difference, although not as appreciable as I would always like. To make things a bit less daunting, I'm breaking down the debt into realistically attainable increments of $10,000 apiece. The day I saw the balance drop below the $90,000 mark was a good day indeed, and several beers were consumed. Now I just need to repeat that nine more times.

One great thing about making big payments is that I never worry about when I have to make the next one; the direct loan center advances the next payment due date when you overpay. This gives me the freedom, if I choose, to save a little more so that I can make a bigger payment every two months. This may sound silly, but it works for me psychologically. For example: if I pay $3,000 one month, well, that's good progress.

However, if I wait another month to make the payment, I can send $5,000. To me, clicking the "make payment" button at $3,000 and $5,000 are equally as distressing, but watching the balance drop by $5,000 is infinitely more rewarding than a $3,000 drop. I often shout things such as "Take that!" while clicking the payment button, just to make things a little more fun. Perhaps next month I'll don a warrior costume and plastic sword when it's time to make the next big blow.

It's going to be a long and difficult road to stay on, but I'm keeping my eye on the prize—that day, hopefully not too far off, when my student-debt Goliath will fall. When I leave that mess of student debt behind me, I'll look ahead to a brighter financial future.

Dr. Jeremy Campfield works in emergency and critical care private practice in Southern California. He is also an avid kiteboarder.

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