When your aunt is a world-renowned financial guru, you still have veterinary school debt-you're just more excited about it.
Photo by Sarah Carey, University of Florida
Just a walk across the stage and a handshake away from becoming Katelyn Stender, DVM, Katie Stender sat among her fellow University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine grads on May 25. With the average graduating veterinarian’s student debt load sitting at about $150,000, the 87 brand-new doctors assembled that day represented a combined debt of more than $13 million (give or take a few thousand).
Unlike many of her peers, Stender welcomes her debt repayment. She says she’s always looked at money differently. She’s always listened to her family—especially her aunt—when it came to finances. And so she listened again as her Aunt Suze spoke at her commencement.
“Aunt Suze” is host of The Suze Orman Show, which airs Saturday nights on CNBC, and Financial Essentials on the QVC Network. She’s also a regular on Oprah Winfrey’s programs, a New York Times best-selling author, a columnist, a producer and a highly sought-after motivational speaker. And she’s been this new veterinarian’s financial mentor, opening a savings account with Stender on her 21st birthday. “She gave me my first little contribution,” Stender says. “She said, ‘Put money away every month. Just do the best you can. You have to start now.’”
Stender hopes her classmates will take Orman’s advice to heart. “The advice she gives is legit,” she says. “I always have Suze’s voice in my head—‘Do you need it or do you want it?’”
When it comes to spending, Stender is using the weeks after graduation to spend time with her family in Florida. After nearly a decade in college, she wants to “bathe in the glory of ‘I did it,’” she says. She admits she’s not very good at relaxing, but she’s trying. “I feel like this is the last time I’m going to get to relax ever,” she says. Those student loans aren’t going to pay themselves off in coming years.
But she’s not overly concerned about her debt. Her loans have given her access to the profession she loves. She’s already called her loan officer to set up her online account, exclaiming, “I am so excited!’” Stender says.
The woman on the end of the line replied, “I have never in my life heard anyone say they were excited to pay off their loans.”
Stender understands that her perspective may be unique. She was raised in a family that’s comfortable talking about money. And she chooses to embrace her debt rather than fear it. “We should be excited. It’s like our rite of passage. We’re doctors now,” she says. “Get a job, be happy at work and pay those loans.”
Part of Stender’s confidence is due to the fact that Orman’s now-famous financial and personal ideals have been modeled for her for years. “Show up early, work hard, stay late, do what you love and enjoy it,” she says. “I’ve seen many people do this in my life and they’re benefitting from it.”
Stender would like to work at a private small animal practice. Beyond that she’s not sure—but she keeps getting asked about her 10-year plan. “My plans are ultimately to be a great vet and continue to practice doing what I love,” she says. “Who knows where I’ll be in 10 years? The sky’s the limit.”She credits her confidence to the support of her family and the guidance of her aunt. “A lot of that is Suze being my mentor,” Stender says. “She always tells me, ‘The only limits you have are the ones you put on yourself.’”
Photo by Sarah Carey, University of Florida
How much debt could the niece of Suze Orman really have? Is Stender actually in debt? “Absolutely,” Stender says. “I’m close to six figures.”
So while Stender’s outlook may be unique, her situation is not—though not everyone has Suze Orman on speed dial. She says Orman answers her calls with a wry greeting: “You know I never pick up the phone for anybody.” Despite her aunt’s demanding schedule, she’s always there for her, Stender says. “I throw ideas back and forth with her all the time. We talk about everything—it’s not just about money, of course,” she says.
But Orman has shaped many of Stender’s financial decisions, especially when it came to paying for college.
Stender had a full scholarship that covered her undergraduate degree, and she acknowledges how lucky she was in that regard. Still, she worked and saved during those years, knowing that veterinary school would leave little time for earning. “I had summer jobs that I would save money from. I babysat, housesat, dogsat; you name it, I watched it,” Stender says. She also worked for the university during the school year.
The extra money allowed her a little disposable income. “It’s OK to treat yourself,” Stender says. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to buy a Range Rover. I’m going to get a manicure.”
Once she started veterinary school, her situation changed. “I didn’t work for four years. I was totally committed to vet school,” she says. And during that time her student loan mounted.
“In vet school it was completely different because I was living off loans, and it’s a lot harder to justify spending money that you didn’t earn,” Stender says. “Let’s just say that over the past four years, I got really good at cooking, waxing my own eyebrows and painting my nails and toes.”
When she did treat herself, a coupon or Groupon usually accompanied the purchase. She rarely bought new clothes. “My sister Lauren is a very successful shoe designer and has a wardrobe to die for, and all my clothes are hand-me-downs from her,” Stender says. “But we laugh because she’ll see me in a new dress or something and I’ll make her guess how much it was. I recently went to a friend’s wedding and my dress was $10!”
Stender says it’s important to be honest with yourself about your finances. “Be reasonable, live below your means and save your money,” she says, echoing her famous aunt. The mantra has become ingrained in her from countless conversations with Orman, and she trusts it. “She’s honest. She tells it like it is. I like to call these moments that we share—” here Stender laughs—“the ‘Suze smackdown.’”
With every purchase Stender makes, she imagines having to explain it to Orman. “Everyone should pretend their aunt is Suze Orman before they go shopping,” she says.
Orman noted in her commencement speech to Florida veterinary graduates that she has only one pair of earrings. Obviously it’s not because she can’t afford them—she’s worth millions—it’s because she chooses not to spend her money on them. Stender says it’s true.
As a Christmas gift last year—“What do you buy Suze Orman?” Stender asks—she cleaned and organized the closet Orman shares with her longtime partner Kathy Travis. “She seriously really only has one pair of earrings,” Stender says.It’s that example of financial restraint that has shaped Stender’s perspective, although it’s not always an easy path to take. The Jeep with 200,000 miles on it Stender has driven for the past 11 years is kaput. Now, on top of her loan, she’ll be buying a car too. Besides her education, it’s her first big purchase—one she discusses with Orman. “She’s definitely been a big part of the car shopping experience,” Stender says. “I’m trying to be so frugal about it.” The problem is, Stender really loves cars.
Photo by Sarah Carey, University of Florida
“I want this really cool car,” she tells Orman, who says, “Get something reliable. You don’t need a flashy car.”
“But I love cars!” Stender implores.
And Orman responds, “One day you’ll be able to afford the car you want, but you can’t now, so don’t get one.’”
Stender can’t argue with that. “It’s true,” she says. “It’s so silly, but it’s just not important. I need a reliable care to get me from A to B.”
Stender says reconciling needs and the wants is difficult. “Our generation can be caught up in vanity,” she says. “It’s easy to think about the present day without thinking about the repercussions in the future.”
She says that during the last six months she and her peers have thought and talked a lot about their student debt. Stender’s friends ask her, “What would Suze do?”
“I always tell my peers just try to save as much as possible,” Stender says. “Just try to get the loans paid off. My best advice to my peers and other veterinarians is to save as much as you can and approach it like a rite of passage. It’s something we have to do.”
Yet Stender admits she has moments of weakness. There have been e-mails and phone calls when she’s exclaimed, “I’ll never” or “I can’t,” but she says it’s been her family that’s guided her through it. “I really do have the greatest family,” Stender says. “My mom and dad are so supportive. Kathy and Suze—I couldn’t have done it without them.”
For Stender, her debt represents her accomplishment. “I feel so fortunate that I get to do what I love,” she says. “I just love veterinary medicine and I’m so excited.”
While not everyone can have Suze Orman as an aunt, Stender hopes everyone does have a mentor like her. “Having Suze Orman as my cheerleader, you feel pretty darn good about that,” Stender says. “She makes me truly believe there are no limits to what I’m capable of. I hope everyone has that kind of person in their life.”