Paying Off Over $550k in Student Debt: Changing Your Mindset
As someone who promotes the idea of financial independence, the idea can be tougher for those that are coming out of school with an inordinate amount of debt. How can one think about financial independence when repaying your student loans is such an onerous task?
This is why I was so intrigued by a recent Choose FI podcast episode. In Episode 98, the hosts interview a young dental school graduate. She graduated from one of the most expensive dental schools in the country and came out on the other side with over $550,000 worth of student debt. That’s right- over half a million dollars in student debt.
It’s an eye-popping number. Dental school graduates consistently graduate with an obscene amount of debt, as detailed in this orthodontist’s $1 million student loan burden. Veterinarians are unfortunately not alone when it comes to mortgage-sized student loan payments.
What stood out about her story is that she plans to pay it all off. No forgiveness plan, but to pay every last penny back (with interest). She is on track to do this in less than 10 years.
When listening to her story, there is the math behind how, and then there is the mindset behind how.
She is part of a dual income household. She makes about $125,000 at her job. She does not specify how much her husband makes in the episode, but they are living off of his income alone while her salary goes directly to debt repayment. (Note: I contacted her directly, and she was very forthcoming that her husband also makes six figures, but she still out-earns him. She gave me permission to reveal this information in this post.)
If she were paying this off on her own, then of course, the math simply wouldn’t work. Using some online calculators, I estimated that her monthly take-home paycheck would be around $7,700 and her loan repayment on the standard 10 year repayment plan would be around $6,300. That means over 80% of her take home pay would be going towards loans. So technically, I guess the math works, but it would be nearly impossible if you’re wanting to be financially healthy. Especially in southern California, where she lives.
However, I bet there are plenty of dual income couples with a similar household income profile that would still pursue forgiveness without much further thought. She mentions that while in dental school, forgiveness was not really presented as an option, but rather, it was the expectation once you graduate. She does not know of any other fellow graduates who are planning on paying their debt off in full. This is where the mindset part comes in.
To understand her mindset, you have to understand her background story.
She was born and raised in the Philippines. Her family was one of the wealthier ones in town. She and her siblings each had their own personal nanny (although I’d like to point out that the idea of having nannies in other cultures is not as privileged as it is in the US). Life was good, but her parents were thinking ahead and felt that life in the US would provide better opportunities for the family.
Upon immigrating to the United States, she adjusted to the culture here. Specifically, she adapted to the consumerism culture that she did not see back in the Philippines. She may have had the history of belonging to a well-off family with her own personal nanny, but life was simpler there. There was not the overabundance of stuff. There is a distinction between having status and wealth versus having material items.
For many of us born and raised here, it may be difficult to see this perspective. My own perspective is probably different from most of my readers in that I’m a daughter of immigrants, and although I’ve lived here my entire life, I am sensitive to how culture plays a huge role in one’s overall outlook on life.
As a result of her own personal experiences, she eventually adopted a frugal and minimalist mindset. And she makes it abundantly clear throughout the episode that this not a mindset of deprivation. This is a mindset of choice and freedom. She understands that she has the ability to choose a frugal and minimalist lifestyle, and she embraces this wholeheartedly. It’s the lifestyle that feels the most honest and genuine to her.
WORKING FOR “FREE”
She acknowledges that for the next decade, she will essentially work for “free” as her income will go directly to debt payoff. In other words, she won’t see the monetary rewards of being a dentist.
For most people, this would be soul-crushing. This alone would be the reason that they would choose a forgiveness plan, in order to feel like their work is “worth” something.
However, she doesn’t appear to be thinking this way. She and her husband are content living on less. I was struck how her response to this debt was not one of stress and the fear of missing out on life. There was no anger or resentment in her voice. It was simply a debt that needed to be paid off, full stop. She had a strategy on how to get there, and after running the numbers and realizing that she could pull this off, she committed to this decision. In the meantime, she was going to continue living and enjoying her life.
She is still in the early stages of paying off her debt. She has made good progress over the last year, and this is providing momentum to see this commitment through.
Of course, there are unforeseen events that could upend this plan. There could be financial emergencies, disability, burnout, job loss, and divorce, just to name a few. I don’t know the details of their finances, of course, but I hope that they are mitigating these potential issues with the proper emergency funds and insurances.
So make no mistake, there is risk involved with this strategy.
But forgiveness also poses a risk. Just because you’re on a forgiveness plan doesn’t mean that you’re immune to financial emergencies that you can’t pay for, disability without the proper disability insurance in place, burnout from your profession, losing your job, and divorce. Yes, forgiveness allows you extra cash flow, but if you’re like most people, you’re going to use a bulk of that cash for consumption items that are not necessarily increasing your net worth or contributing to your overall financial wellness.
Many assume that you will be using that extra cash for investing instead of paying off debt. Remember, paying off debt has a guaranteed outcome because you’re paying off a known quantity, whereas investing could actually make you lose money if you make bad investment decisions. Even if you invested your money wisely, are you guaranteed that this cash flow will never be interrupted? There is no company out there that is forcing you to invest the same way a loan servicer is forcing you to pay them back. Other financial obligations will likely be prioritized over diverting money to investments. I got serious about paying my loans off early when there were too many other financial obligations that were vying for my attention. That was one less “mortgage” that I needed to make space for in my budget.
Both forgiveness and forgoing forgiveness are risky choices. Your choice depends on your personal situation and which types of risks you’re willing to take.
One idea that I talk about constantly is one’s behavior and mindset when it comes to money. Everyone thinks that personal finance is about the numbers. Obviously, the numbers are important and cannot be ignored. But I would argue that an even bigger component to one’s finances is your mindset and how you approach those numbers.
Sam shows that a different mindset leads to a different course of action. To be clear, this is not a path for everyone. It only makes sense for those that have a similar mindset, where you view student debt as something that needs to be paid off sooner rather than later, even if it means that doing so will take a significant part of your budget for years. Her story will resonate with you if you’re more frugal and minimalist, as she is. Since most people are not wired this way, I don’t expect that most of you out there would be able to turn a switch in your head and all of sudden decide to save 50% of your income and start accelerating your debt payments.
However, if you are already leaning in this direction, then maybe you need some inspiration. Maybe the expectation that you pursue loan forgiveness never really sat well with you, and you’re looking to see if anyone else is attempting to pay off their loans in full. If you do your due diligence, work out the math, and decide your risk tolerance, then the only thing holding you back is your willingness to commit to this strategy.
If you would like to follow her story, check out her blog at thedebtist.com and take a listen to the Choose FI podcast episode. I am personally rooting for her and hope that she continues to find success and happiness in her future!
(ETA: Here is a link to an interview with The Debtist- enjoy!)
I found it very inspiring and her attitude amazing. Also to note she doesn’t own a home and they are still contributing to retirement and to a emergency fund while paying off the student debt and living in southern CA. Crazy!
I agree- she really did have an amazing attitude. Also equally impressed that they could still fund retirement and an emergency fund, in southern CA no less!