This veterinarian (who wishes to remain anonymous) resides in the Midwest and is a 2017 graduate. Read on as she shares her tips on minimizing your debt load while in school, as well as her debt payoff strategy.

1.Give us a little of your background and how you got started in veterinary medicine.

Growing up on a farm I was always around animals. I was always fascinated when the vet came out and would hang on his every word. I excelled in science and math as well. I was dead set on becoming a pig vet when I first started undergrad. In my first year of undergrad, I started working on the campus dairy farm helping with research trials. Later on, I worked on the general farm and was hooked on dairy medicine. I almost turned down my admission letter to veterinary school because I realized I enjoyed the management side more than the medicine, but I was young and everyone I knew told me I would regret making that decision. So I continued on my plan to vet school. 

2. What was your level of financial literacy prior to veterinary school? Were you price sensitive when pursuing veterinary medicine?

I grew up in a very frugal household. We bought off brand of pretty much everything, and I would guess that 95% of my clothes my whole life have either come from Walmart or a thrift store. We didn’t eat out a lot and would do a lot of day/weekend trips, but only took a big vacation once. When you are raised like this you just don’t know any differently, and it has helped me tremendously. I am 27 years old and still have never had a credit card or a loan other than a student loan. I paid cash for my nice used car. 

I was absolutely price sensitive. I made a budget when I was in high school and estimated that if I followed it, I could be debt free by age 30. I applied for every single scholarship I could find. My undergraduate degree at my in-state university had a tuition of $13,000/year, and after scholarships, I owed about $5,000 total, which my parents graciously paid. That means I earned close to $45,000 in scholarships!! I worked enough during the school year and summers to cover all of my living expenses and add to my vet school savings account.  

In vet school, my tuition was $25,000 my first year and then gradually increased to $30,000 by my 4th year. Using my savings, I paid for almost my whole first year of school. My parents gave me $5000/year as well, which was very helpful. I applied, but did not receive many scholarships during veterinary school, only $1000. I worked enough during the school year and summers to pay for all of my living expenses (it can still be done, I only made $10/hour). I always lived with lots of roommates and lived as cheaply as possible. I probably lived off of ~$1000/month, including rent and everything. I took out around $85,000 in student loans, and by the time I graduated they were at $94,000. 

3. Did your veterinary school provide personal finance education? If so, what did you think of the quality? 

 We had one day of it, at the end of our 4th year. It was elective, so maybe ~20% of our class attended. At that time, it was too little too late and basically was a quick overview of the different loan repayment programs. (Editor’s note: One class is NOT enough, especially not as an afterthought in your fourth year. Vet schools, I challenge you to give your students more resources when it comes to learning about personal finance, especially with the trend of higher and higher debt burdens coming out of school.)

4. How much debt did you have upon graduating from veterinary school (if any)?

Student loans: $87,000 on the principal with $7,000 in interest, so $94,000 total. My average interest rate was ~5.75%, and I get an extra 0.25% off for being enrolled in auto-pay. 

No personal debt. 

5. Describe your debt payback strategy and how you decided to use that strategy (if applicable).

Honestly, the best debt strategy I can tell you is to keep the debt as minimal as possible from the beginning!! That has set me up for success more than any payback strategy, but my payback strategy is using the “debt avalanche” method. This means paying off the loans with the largest interest rates first. I had a CD in the bank that I started in high school, and it had $14,000 dollars in it by the time I graduated veterinary school. I applied that to my loan as soon as I graduated. I also started paying as soon as I got my first paycheck, even though I didn’t have any payments due for 6 months. So my actual loan when I entered repayment was at $78,000. 

I always try to have at least 6 months of living expenses in my savings account before I will pay any extra on my loans, so there have been some months where I do not pay extra because I am trying to build my savings back up. 

6.  How long did it take for you to pay off your debt (if any)? What was your debt to income ratio during this time period?

When I entered repayment about 1 year ago, my student loan balance was at $78,000 and my starting salary was $70,000/ year so I was almost at a 1:1 ratio starting out!! My monthly payment was ~$750/month, but I started paying between ~$1000-2500/month, so some months I was making ~3x the amount of payments. I graduated veterinary school 20 months ago and my current student loan balance is $57,000.  I plan to be debt free in 3 years, unless anything crazy happens. 

7. If you have a significant other/spouse, what role did they play while paying off debt?

I have a significant other but he is pretty new to the picture and hasn’t really played a role in helping me pay off my debt other than being super supportive! 

8.  Have you had any challenges while paying back your debt?

Yes!! I spent 3 months of my first year out unemployed. My first job was a horrible fit and I left after 8 months with no job lined up. I spent the first 6 weeks lying around feeling sorry for myself and never wanting anything to do with veterinary medicine again. I then starting going on some job interviews, and picking up some vaccine clinic shifts. I was back in full time practice after about 10 weeks. I did not pay any extra on my loans at that time, but I did still make my monthly payment. I ran down my savings some, but I built it back up before paying extra on my loans again. 

9.  What are some financial mistakes that you’ve made?

Going to veterinary school, haha. I easily could have found a different career in the animal science and agriculture field without putting myself into debt and worked my way up to making a salary similar to what I make as a veterinarian, but hindsight is 20/20. 

As far as how I have handled my finances with the path I took, I honestly wouldn’t change a thing! 

10.  What is your financial advice for other veterinarians?

If you are planning to go to veterinary school, find a way to minimize your debt! I’ll say it again for those in the back, minimize your debt!  Also, live like you are making minimum wage for a few years after graduating. Once my student loan debt is paid off I plan to buy a house in the country with some land and start a little hobby farm. It is my light at the end of the tunnel and what keeps me motivated. Find something like that to keep you motivated. Maybe you want to have money to travel, or save up and retire early. Write it down and think about it often.  You have to want it, badly. It is more a way of thinking than any actual skill or amount of money. 

Closing Thoughts

This veterinarian is completely #winning when it comes to handling her money! Here are some key takeaways from this interview:

  • Her frugal upbringing did not mean that she felt deprived growing up. What we can take from her story is that we can be content with what we have, no matter the price or status level.
  • She did NOT think of student loan money as Monopoly money, which is unfortunately how many student borrowers treat their loan money (including myself). She was incredibly intentional about how much she was taking out in loans. She was also actively on the lookout for scholarships.
  • Her parents had the means to help her out financially while she was in school. But she didn’t sit back and rely solely on their generosity. She took action by working whenever she could. As a result, she came out of school owing much less than a typical in-state resident. According to this VIN Foundation website, the cost of veterinary school (including tuition and cost of attendance) can range anywhere from $150,000 to $250,000 for an in-state resident. Ouch!
  • Her story illustrates the importance of an emergency fund! Having a cash cushion allows you the freedom to make choices, such as leaving a job that is a poor fit for you. She didn’t let her first bad experience keep her down; she took some time to feel sorry for herself, but then she took ACTION. She is still very much on track to paying off her loans early!
  • I love her parting advice- it is incredibly important for veterinary students to actively minimize their debt while they’re in school! I also loved her vision of having a hobby farm. It is SO important to have your “why” when it comes to making big financial goals.

I have so much respect for this recent graduate, who is clearly being smart about her money and aligning her financial decisions with her life goals. She’s has a wonderful future ahead of her!

Thank you for sharing your story, and I wish you the very best going forward!

I hope that this story inspires YOU to take action. What can you do today to ensure your financial success?

Are you interested in submitting your own Vet Success Story? I’m currently accepting submissions for student loan debt payoff, FIRE, and Entrepreneurs. Contact me at grace@richerlifedvm.com.

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