This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
Prospective chiropractors ask me if I could go back and do it all again, would I? The truth is, I would, but I would certainly do it differently.
I tried to do everything right. I worked hard and devoted my life to helping others. I received a full academic scholarship for my undergraduate degree and earned my Bachelor’s degree in three years.
By the time I graduated with my doctorate, I was 25 years old and owed $160,000 in student debt with 5.75% interest.
It’s been 12 years since graduation, and I currently owe $277,554.55.
Where did I go wrong? I made several mistakes, most of which seemed small and insignificant at the time, but like your APR, they have a cumulative effect.
The Cumulative Effect of Interest
When I was about two-thirds into my chiropractic education, student loan interest rates dropped ridiculously low. The financial aid department encouraged us to reconsolidate while we were in school, but told us it was a ‘loophole.’
They told us we would give up our grace period to repay the loans, and we would have to defer while we were finishing school. I was scared of making a mistake, I didn’t like that they made it seem like we were pulling a fast one, and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make my first loan payment the day I graduated.
I was young, had never used credit before, and didn’t really understand the full ramifications of what I was doing.
Mathematically, I knew what interest would do to my loans, but I had never used a credit card before. I had never paid for something I didn’t have enough money for. I had never borrowed money from a friend that I couldn’t immediately return. I never bought a pair of shoes that I couldn’t afford.
I had never experienced the truly devastating, exponentially cumulative effect interest has. I never had to choose between paying a bill or buying groceries and gas.
In years to come, I would experience all of those things as my credit slipped out of control.
I chose to do nothing.
I thought 5.75% wasn’t so bad. Besides, after graduation, I would be making a doctor’s salary. I would probably pay off my loans in five to ten years because I was good with my money and would be motivated to pay off the loan early.
So, I just let it ride. I grossly overestimated what my income would be upon graduating. I assumed I would be making at least $50,000 per year and would have no problems making my loan payments.
The Little Things Add Up
Another lie I told myself was, “It’s a drop in the bucket.” Sixty dollars for a pair of shoes? It’s a drop in the bucket! The $20 sweater and $12 lunch seem insignificant compared to your monstrous tuition.
Why was I shopping while I was raking up over $160,000 in debt? In retrospect, I felt tired of sacrificing for my education. I had already sacrificed my social life, sleep, tears, friends, relationships, and who knows what else just to get into grad school, let alone through it.
I also watched my friends buying cars, houses, taking vacations, and all of the other things that the Joneses tend to do. Meanwhile, I was still driving the used car my parents bought me in high school, on a prepaid cell phone plan, waitressing for extra cash, shopping at the salvation army for furniture, and buying my meat on quick-sale.
I had moments of weakness. I bought things I didn’t need and spent money I didn’t have. I didn’t go overboard, I didn’t buy a new car or a pair of Louis Vuitton’s, but all of those lunches out, sneakers on sale at Marshall’s, movies, and Christmas gifts add up.
Fast forward to graduating and getting that big doctor’s salary, my best job offer was $26,000. I was going to buy the practice in two years and be making a quarter of a million dollars a year. I thought I was paying my dues.
I moved in with my grandmother to save money. I enlisted in the Income-Based Repayment Program. My regular monthly payment was $2,000, but my IBR was only $130.
I put all of my extra money into savings to buy the practice. The owner originally told me that they would hold the note for me, but I didn’t get it in writing, they changed their mind, and I didn’t qualify for traditional financing.
A banker actually laughed at me when I asked about a loan. I had no collateral and a growing student debt of around $175,000.
I chose to take the money I saved and open my own practice. The first two years in the business I declared a loss so my IBR payment was $0. I thought it was amazing, I was going to get so much debt forgiven. I was having a hard time paying bills, my car couldn’t be repaired so I leased one.
By the third year, I had made a profit but underestimated how much I owed for taxes. I quickly racked up credit card debt to keep my practice open and not let my friends and family know that I was financially devastated.
I invested money I didn’t have into advertising, business coaching, and upgrades to the office. Eventually, these things helped, but it was a very difficult couple of years.
Meanwhile, my IBR was still $0. My student loans were over $200,000. I signed up for a Dave Ramsey course at a local church. My student loan was greater than the combined total debt of everyone else in the room.
I eventually moved my practice into another doctor’s office, but it was 30 minutes away. The overhead was lower and there were opportunities to make an additional income. My small but growing practice was cut in half. I continued to struggle for years.
The Truth About Student Loan Forgiveness
The love of my life proposed, but I didn’t want to get married because I didn’t want to risk him getting attached to my debt. I felt like I a burden because I wouldn’t be able to contribute financially to our family.
Eventually, we got married, my parents paid for the bulk of the wedding, and it was almost equal to the unpaid interest on my student loans. I was so grateful for what they gave me, but felt awful they had to give it. I felt like a failure and a deadbeat.
I discovered the truth about student loan forgiveness, that my student loans would turn into tax debt. I triaged my finances and got a second job. I am happy to say that I paid off my credit card debt. I am absolutely distraught to tell you that my student debt is now over $275,000.
My husband and I can not afford to purchase a home. I work six days a week. I don’t have traditional health insurance. My husband and I don’t have children because we don’t have the money or time to raise them.
Combined, my husband and I make more than double the average American household. Sadly, there are many days I think life would have been easier if I had chosen to be anything other than a chiropractor.
There were many days that I looked for other job opportunities. I considered getting a different education, but the thought of adding student loans was nauseating. Truth be told, I love being a chiropractor. I can’t imagine getting up to go to any other job in the world.
It breaks my heart when a high school or college student asks me about becoming a chiropractor. I want to tell them without a doubt, yes, go serve the community. Be an amazing chiropractor. The world needs you to do that.
There is this spot in my heart that worries that they will struggle as I did. That they will cry into their husband’s arms like I have many times. That they will have to put the rest of their life on hold.
My advice to them is that if they think they will love it, absolutely do it. Please don’t make the same mistakes. Get your undergraduate degree as inexpensively as possible. Get a job while you are in school. Fiercely stick to your budget.
Take out as little loan as necessary. Pay attention to interest rates. Pay attention to Public Service Loan Forgiveness qualifiers. Do whatever it takes to pay your regular payment. Know your worth and fight for what you deserve.
Make a solid plan, stick with it, and find people that know more than you to help. I spent a lot of time not asking for help because I was ashamed of myself. There is no room for that.
Don’t bank on things getting better. Things will get better and you will make more money. Unfortunately, your loan will grow to a soul-crushing, dream destroying, thief of joy before it does.