My proudest moment as a veterinarian: Becoming a zero

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Paying off that veterinary school debt is the best thing you can do for yourself.

One of my fondest memories in the past decade is the day I became a zero-that is, the day my net worth became $0.00.

I remember it well: sweaty palms logging on to the hated student loan payment site, gritting my teeth and delivering the final blow to the lead balloon of my student debt. Afterward, I wanted to run outside and raise my hands and exclaim to the world, “I am a zero! I am finally worth nothing!” But we lived in a quiet neighborhood at the time, it was late at night, and I was a little worried the neighbors would call the cops.

Two hundred thirty thousand dollars. That was the breaking point.

Here's what I mean: In hindsight, knowing what I know now (I graduated in 2008), I can see that $230,000 is the absolute maximum amount I would have borrowed without feeling like I'd made a poor decision or should have pursued a different career. Anything above that mark would have eventually caused me to regret my decision to become a veterinarian and my financial decisions along the way.

Yet when I look back at my feverish pursuits to gain admission to veterinary school, one thing is clear. I wouldn't have listened to anyone about the dangers of student debt back then. Even if I'd met the time traveler version of myself coming back from the year 2020 to slap me around and tell me to be careful with my loans, I would have told that freak to get back in his DeLorean and leave me alone 'cause ain't nobody got time for that.

The good news is that I graduated owing $110,000. I realize this is a paltry number in comparison to current averages and the burden of many of my new DVM friends. But it was still a major challenge to deal with. Through austerity and hard work, my wife and I have finally put that debt to rest for good. I couldn't be happier about it.

But the death of this debt, like any death, leaves opportunity for reflection and lessons.

First of all, I'm going to stubbornly adhere to my idea that in the economy I lived through after graduation, paying down my debt as quickly as possible was the only strategy that made sense. You've all heard the argument that we need to start saving from day one, debt or no debt. The examples go something like, “If Jack saves $1 a month starting at 10 years old and Jill saves $10 a month starting at 20 years old, who has more money by the time they retire?” In those examples, neither Jack nor Jill owed $200K accruing 6 percent interest annually. And somehow Jack and Jill were seeing steady returns on their investments, which I can't say I've experienced in the current economy. Yes, it's essential to create an emergency cash fund before you start eliminating your debt. Beyond that, though, any delay will cost you dearly.

There's also the viewpoint that life is a marathon-that debt is something you'll be paying for over the marathon of your career and you shouldn't worry about it. (I'm pretty sure a lender came up with that one.) Forget that. Life is a bunch of marathons. Marathon number one is slaughter that debt so you can move on to the next marathon of owning what you have instead of the bank owning you. Owning your home. Owning your practice. Building actual wealth by keeping all of those teensy little tenths of percentages out of lenders' pockets and safely in your own.

Now that I've eliminated one big debt, my next challenge will be finding any peace with debt in the future. Quite simply, I hate it. Once you make a concerted effort to offer your debt a swift and humane death, you more intensely realize exactly how much that debt costs you-in dollars, yes, but also in quality of life and overall well-being. I now know exactly how hard I have to work-and for how long-to stalk that huge, ugly financial beast and send it to its final bloody resting place. I bear the scars. No wonder I want to strangle the real estate agent telling me we should buy the brand new house in the upscale neighborhood instead of the starter home at a third of the cost.   

Why am I an expert on debt? Because mistakes add wisdom and I have made every darned financial mistake there is. Often when I think back on purchases or decisions I made in the past, it's clear that the sum of many less-than-good decisions amounts to a whole bunch of money I would rather have in the bank now.

Student debt isn't an isolated problem, and there's no easy fix. But one thing you can do now is help yourself. You can cut costs, sacrifice, work hard and kill the debt to create a better future for yourself. Once you've dragged your scraped, bruised, bleeding, exhausted skeleton out from under that enormous pile, you may then move on to helping reshape the financial future of our profession. I would agree that we don't have a responsibility to spread bad news to young kids who want to go to veterinary school. However, I do argue that we have a responsibility to educate the brightest and most promising veterinarians-to-be on doing everything they can to minimize their borrowing, starting right now.  

The fact that I no longer have to deal with my own student debt doesn't mean I'm giving up the fight to prevent this problem from taking a Bellator-style rear naked chokehold on our profession. My personal war against student debt ain't over, even though I've squarely won the first battle-to become a zero.

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