Stories from the front lines of the war on veterinary debt

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The first of three stories of real veterinarians who are all engaged in the battle.

This month we're kicking off a series highlighting the stories of three veterinary professionals, all in very different financial circumstances and stages in their careers. I chatted with each of these doctors, and our open discussions left me with a broader perspective on the various elements that play into how we each perceive and manage our careers and debts. They also led me to reflect on a couple of situations during my own career when I had to make an important decision that would profoundly impact my financial future.

Have you been given financial advice to deal with your debt along the way? How good did that advice turn out to be? With so many opinions and experts out there, finding the best path can be daunting. During my internship year, I recall one not-so-helpful tip that I received from an associate veterinarian in the same practice. The associate suggested that my best strategy to deal with my student loans at that time was ... to shoot myself in the head. While he may not have been that far off strictly in terms of practicality (equine veterinarians tend to be very practical), I was motivated enough at the time to explore alternate approaches.

GETTY IMAGES/STOCKTREK IMAGES

Another factor that influences a veterinarian's financial situation—and ability to pay down debt—is whether he or she chooses to pursue an internship or advanced training. Does the financial benefit of being board-certified offset the opportunity cost of compounding interest and decreased savings during those important years? My feeling is that the majority of specialty-trained veterinarians pursue their passion, not the salary.

I recall one potential "job interview" in which I was extended a fantastic opportunity. It was three years after my graduation and I was coming to realize that my dream career in equine practice just wasn't panning out. It was time for me to make the (very scary) shift to small animal practice if I was going to survive as a practicing veterinarian. The owner of a reputable small animal referral hospital in California had a truly great offer, just for me. He said that if I wanted to work at his hospital full-time and receive no salary or benefits, then perhaps in a year or so there might just be an opportunity for me to enter a training program. After many sleepless nights of deliberating, I decided that the offer was too good to be true and politely declined.

Pursuing our career and financial goals will lead us down a bumpy, winding road. Here is the first of three stories illustrating more of the varied experiences within our socioeconomically diverse profession.

Elena Lugo: The future of veterinary medicine

Age: 22

Expected graduation year: 2017

Expected student debt: $110,000 to $130,000

Elena Lugo

Lugo is from Fontana, Calif., and is thrilled to be starting her freshman year of veterinary school this year at the University of Missouri. She has a strong interest in beef and dairy production animal medicine, but recently she has also begun to develop an interest in small animal emergency practice. In interviewing Lugo, I was reminded of the excitement and anticipation that we all experience before starting that important chapter of our lives.

Lugo is going into veterinary school as prepared as she can be, including having a rough financial plan. Since starting the application process and subsequently being admitted to veterinary school, she has been working hard at her job and saving up as much as she can. Her short-term goal is to have enough savings to cover rent and car payments for the first year. She is also considering taking on a part-time job during that first year, which would help establish residency status for in-state tuition starting her sophomore year. An in-state status change amounts to about $20,000 per year in tuition savings.

Trying not to squelch Lugo's enthusiasm too much, I hit her with some tough questions about her financial future and the implications her decisions will have on her life as a newly minted veterinarian. She believes that veterinary school tuition in general is too high to be accessible to middle-income families without taking on the responsibility of large loan payments. Lugo is aware that she will face debt challenges after graduation. But as most of us can relate to, that factor is not enough to stop her from pursuing her education.

"I have the passion to pursue my dream career," she says. "I think that if I am smart early on about managing finances, I can make this work for me."

I asked Lugo how prepared she was to take on debt to pay for school and all the considerations that go along with that. She says she would not have been prepared to develop a strategy of saving and budgeting if someone had not confronted her with the issue head-on. She is referring to the day that a pushy veterinarian (who may or may not be the author of this article) handed her a pile of white papers on the financial status of the veterinary profession. I was excited to learn of her admission to veterinary school, but I also felt compelled to help her understand the kind of burden she was about to take on.

When I asked her about her projected salary upon graduation, I wasn't surprised at the answer. Again, like so many of us, that salary figure has not been a focus for her while she's been getting ready to start veterinary school. This phenomenon should raise some concern among our profession as a whole, as it may be fueling some of the debt-to-salary disparity that seems to be compounding these days.

Lugo clarifies, "I am not money-hungry. I have not put tremendous thought into what my starting salary is or should be. I am preoccupied with determining my species preference and career path much more so than with my salary at the end of school." When I twisted her arm to give me an on-the-spot guess as to what her starting salary might be, she projected a range between $50,000 and $80,000 per year.

Lugo and other incoming veterinary students are the future of our profession. It is entirely up to those of us currently working in veterinary medicine to make sure that these energetic new minds have some basic understanding of what lies ahead. We have a tremendous responsibility to warmly welcome the best and brightest into our professional family and also to make sure they have a place to go after graduation day. Some countries outside the U.S. are so overpopulated with veterinarians that a veterinary degree is not considered a means of earning a livable wage. We all must do our part to make sure that does not become the case here.

Dr. Jeremy Campfield works in emergency and critical care private practice in Southern California.

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