The vet tech debt dilemma

November 21, 2018
Kyle Wendy Skultety, LVT, CVT

For many veterinary technicians, the cost of school just doesn't add up to the money they can make in a practice. Here's what vet techs told me about their debt, finances and frustrations as well as the passion that keeps them holding on.

If you're a veterinary technician struggling with student debt, you're not alone.

While veterinary literature focuses on doctors and their debt (visit dvm360.com/curbyourdebt to read our coverage on that), little is written about the burden of debt slung over technicians' shoulders. In fact, veterinary technicians may struggle even more, as their burden is made heavier by endemic low pay.

Technicians interested in becoming credentialed need a degree from an accredited school, as the alternate path based on hours worked has been abolished in most of the country. Technician schools can cost anywhere from $4K to $15K per year and at least double that for a four-year degree. Some states forbid noncredentialed technicians to work at a veterinary hospital, which makes the need for school (and debt) unavoidable for many. Elsewhere, employers give preference to technicians with formal education, as that signals a commitment to learning as well as discipline. That commitment is consistently rewarded with inescapable financial woes.

I recently interviewed a dozen veterinary technicians between the ages of 21 and 50 with debt ranging from $7K to $160K to learn how debt is affecting their lives. I wanted to know: Did they feel their loan-to-salary ratio was a hardship? Had they ever considered leaving the profession to make more money? And how did they handle their monthly bills? If you're in the same boat, read on ...

Roommates, parents and old cars: Adult life with technician student debt

Most of the technicians I spoke with said yes-they were feeling hardship because of student loan debt. Their approaches to dealing with it were varied. Some relied on their spouse's income, making them financially dependent on those relationships. Other technicians took as much overtime as possible or had a second job.

One veterinary technician told me she lived frugally She didn't have cable TV, bought store-brand groceries only and had an older-model car and cellphone.

Another technician moved back in with her parents after failing to make things work living with a roommate. Despite her parents' help, she still has financial concerns depending on when she gets paid and what bills are due.

Some technicians who wanted to have children said they've put their plans to be parents on hold indefinitely due to their loan debt. They're frustrated they can't afford even the basics required for having a family.

Most respondents reported having no disposable income.

 

Run over by retirement

The future financial security of technicians has also been affected. Due to their debt, some of them stop putting money away for retirement, 401(k)s or even savings. The pay rate among my respondents ranged from $13 to $22.60 an hour. At a glance, these figures might look pretty good, but not after figuring in a loan repayment and the cost of living.

Resources for curbing debt

> A downloadable spending analysis

> Advice on money-saving apps

> Tips on mindfully approaching student debt

> A firsthand account from a tech with a plan to pay off her debt early

All at dvm360.com/curbyourdebt.

One VTS said she lowered her 401(k) contributions from 6 to 4 percent just to free up funds to pay her loan. Another technician said she didn't have a 401(k) because she couldn't spare the money. Two technicians who make $22 an hour? They stopped contributing.

And even after sacrificing their secure retirement, none of these interviewees reported feeling financially secure in the present.

A big mistake?

Nearly all the technicians I spoke to have considered leaving the profession, with most citing financial difficulty as their big reason.

One technician with a $590 monthly loan payment said she'd considered leaving the profession to become a nurse or ultrasound technician in human medicine.

Another considered becoming a pharmacist, which would require a second round of school and loans. She changed her mind and is studying to become a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager. She decided to stick it out to grow her career and eventually “be able to speak about different subjects as a practice manager,” she said.

One technician considered moving to the lab animal side, “where the pay is higher, and the benefits are better.”

Another technician said that the sacrifices have been persistent and grating: “At the end of each month, I was negative in my checking account. Not only did I deplete my savings account, but I maxed out my credit card just to stay afloat. I remember going months without an oil change because I couldn't swing the extra money that month.” She had to give up the beloved horse she'd owned for 25 years because she “simply [couldn't] afford it.” Her parents have implored her many times to consider other options, worrying that she'll never be able to afford a house or live comfortably as long as she's a technician.

A few younger technicians said that they weren't experienced enough to leave the profession and find a good job. One RVT who's worked for veterinary practices since she was 13 said she didn't know how to do anything else but would “try just about anything” that would not require her to “go back to school and earn more debt.” She also felt that there was “nothing” out there that fit that description.

'I can do what I love every day'

Despite having nearly $160K remaining in debt, one technician remained positive about her job. She relied on her stepfather to help her obtain one loan and has a much smaller one in her own name. She said that when taking out the loans, she “didn't quite understand the scope of the money borrowed compared to what [she] would be making on a technician's salary.”

One technician said that when taking out the loans, she "didn't quite understand the scope of the money borrowed compared to what [she] would be making on a technician's salary."

She said she struggles to make ends meet while paying a $1,300 monthly loan payment. Her dream of starting a family feels perpetually unreachable since she and her husband can barely support themselves, her second job notwithstanding. Despite the bleak outlook, this veterinary technician said she still doesn't regret her debt: “I have this amazing degree, and I can do what I love every day. I love what I do, I take pride in what I do, and I know I'm making a difference in not only the patient's life, but also [for] their family. Without my schooling, I wouldn't be able to do what I love, and for that I will always be grateful.”

Where now … ?

These statements paint a picture of an industry that can't or won't pay what will sustain the level of expertise the job of veterinary technician demands. Moreover, the stress and frustration were palpable in these veterinary technicians' words when they talked about what it's like to manage so much debt on such a small salary. Though still passionate about their work, many felt disillusioned and let down by the very job that had buoyed them up at the beginning of their careers.

It could almost be said that the industry uses our passion to take advantage of us, resulting in a stressed-out, insecure, revolving-door workforce. This constant loss of talent results in poorer care for patients, and when money concerns loom large, self-care gets pushed to the back burner, creating a cycle of stress with no outlet. These technicians may choose a suboptimal diet, fail to enjoy hobbies, or avoid nights out with friends simply because they can't afford it.

Remember that technician who gave up her equine companion of 25 years yet cares for others' pets all day? She may never forgive herself.

Kyle Wendy Skultety is the practice manager of VCA Bayview Animal Hospital in Toms River, New Jersey.