This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
At least that’s what I thought after stumbling across a Student Loan Planner article detailing the seemingly impossible path out of debt as a new dentist in America.
I had always been proud of the US News headline’s touting dentistry ranked at #1 career of choice. My dental school graduation day was one of the best of my life; I had finally completed many grueling years of higher education and training and accomplished my life-long dream of becoming a dentist!
Then roughly five months later I was close to a very real nervous breakdown. My eyes, filled with tears, were glued to my computer screen as I scoured line after line of the SLP article. Suddenly, I was halfway through the article when I became convinced that within the past four years of schooling I had literally ruined my life financially. And I was terrified.
How could no one have told me that I had voluntarily signed up for a lifetime of debt? My parents, my professors, my mentors, and even dentists had assured me for years that I was going to do very well for myself. Were they all lying?
After hours of crying in fear that what I once believed to be my greatest accomplishment was actually my life’s ultimate failure, I brought myself to scroll to the bottom of the page and finish reading. There was a glimmer of hope. Travis Hornsby concluded the article encouraging his disheartened readers, “Don’t Lose Heart. There is a Path Forward, and I’d Like to Think I Can Help You Get There”.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?”
I got this question many times in my life, and often it was said with a taunting sort of tone. I can vividly remember the day that Jimmy in my 5th-grade class pointed and laughed to his friends about me, “She looks like her face got hit by a truck! Did all her teeth get knocked out?!” Some kids straight-up suck.
See, I have a congenital dental condition called non-syndromic oligodontia, which is basically a fancy way of saying that I’m missing a lot of teeth, twelve teeth to be exact. They just never developed. So by the time that everyone else’s missing two front teeth were growing in, mine were not.
I went home from school that day so angry, so heart-broken, and feeling pretty bad for myself. I remember thinking over and over again that I shouldn’t have to feel like this – I deserve to love my smile!
As chance would have it, there was a SmileTrain magazine on my family’s kitchen table when I got home with a picture of a girl about my age on the front cover, but she was missing more than just a dozen teeth; she had cleft palate and her entire lower face was deformed. My stomach sunk. “She deserves to love her smile,” I thought. In that moment, I wanted a full, beautiful smile for her far more that I wanted one for myself.
That’s when it hit me: Everyone deserves to love their smile. That day, in the 5th grade, I knew that I wanted to be someone that made people love to smile. I wanted to be a dentist. Such harsh comments from my peers didn’t sting any less throughout junior high and high school, but I had newfound confidence because I knew one day I would be a dentist, helping everyone love their smile.
“What about ‘financial aid’?”
I wasn’t completely naive to the reality that I would be under a heavy pile of debt after school. I tried to do my best as a young, ambitious undergrad to research my dental school financing options.
Upon admission, dental schools are fairly transparent about their tuition and fees, and without any financial support from family or outside sources, I was told that I basically had two options to cover the cost of my schooling: Military or federal loans. Long story short, I tried to go for the military option, but that didn’t work out well. So loans it is.
While all those trailing zeros behind the dollar sign seemed very daunting to me, no one else really seemed to be phased or concerned that there should be any difficulty in repaying them following graduation. I mean, I was going to be a dentist after all. But maybe no one was concerned because they didn’t know enough to be concerned.
Honestly, dental schools should be ashamed of themselves and their gross incompetence to properly inform their students about their debt management and repayment options. Don’t get me wrong, my dental school trained me expertly to be a skilled, competent and confident clinician. But when it came to financial aid, the only “aid” I received was from a lady showing me where to sign on the dotted line to accept the maximum amount of federal student loans I qualified for.
I realize this may be coming across as harsh, but unfortunately, I know that I am not alone in my experience, or lack thereof, with the financial aid department. I truly hope that professional institutions, dental schools especially, will step up their game, do the research, and provide the kind of information and assistance that Student Loan Planner has masterfully made available to young professionals.
I had my initial consultation with Travis at SLP almost 2 years ago now and have since been an avid blog and podcast follower. They helped me to be aware of what repayment options were available and which made the most sense for me. I chose to switch to an income-based repayment strategy and go for loan forgiveness after 20 years while investing on the side to prepare for the tax-bomb.
It took a while to wrap my head around the reasoning for this strategy and the thought of NOT paying down my debt ASAP was certainly uncomfortable. But once I had all the numbers and details in front of me, it became clear that this was the strategy that would give me the most spending flexibility and peace-of-mind to live the kind of life I wanted for this career to be worth it.
“So is it worth it?”
This is a question each person will have to answer for themselves. No one can answer it for you. But for me, the answer is: Without a doubt. Being a new dentist is not at all the glamorous lifestyle I anticipated I would have, nor does it reflect the lucrative ways of dentists portrayed in movies or TV. But that’s not why I became a dentist.
If you’re considering a career in dentistry, my advice would be to pursue it if you think you could love it. Don’t go after it because some news articles told you that dentists have the easiest, most carefree lifestyle with a high salary and you only need to work Tuesday-Thursday, 9:00 am-3:00 pm. Because unless you’re already set up to take over your uncle’s booming private practice in the middle of Nowheresville, there’s a slim chance you’ll have that experience.
If you’re after the high salary, I’d recommend spending a fraction of the cost of dental school on getting a business degree instead. The cost of education to the expected salary ratio will be much more appealing.
But if you think you could love it and you don’t want to be a dentist living in your parent’s basement and eating Ramen, do your homework ahead of time. The resources at SLP are probably THE best place to start. From there, be committed to being smart with your money and have realistic expectations.
I really do love being a dentist, and yes, it pays well. Since graduation, I had completely depleted my savings account, needed to cash in old savings bonds that my grandparents started for me in my infancy so I could go grocery shopping, consulted with Student Loan Planner and revamped my repayment strategy, replenished my savings, started contributing to retirement, saved up and paid for my wedding in cash, bought our first home, and now my husband and I are expecting our first baby.
And the greatest blessing in the world is that I’m not terrified anymore. We don’t live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet they way I know some of my classmates and colleagues do, and I attribute my peace of mind to the repayment strategy that SLP helped us to develop.
We don’t live luxuriously, but we are happy, healthy and more than comfortable, and I get to wake up each day (okay, 4 days) of the week and go do the work I love. Yes, it’s worth it. Each day that I help someone new love their smile is worth it.