This essay is from a finalist for the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
I am probably not your typical doctor. Even now, typing the words “I” and “doctor” in the same sentence feels foreign.
I have no doubt that the evolution of my thoughts around money has a part in that feeling. Traversing socioeconomic classes in the US is not easy, but I feel it has been a subtext to many aspects of my life so far.
Like many people, when growing up I associated “doctor” with fancy cars, private schools, and the people who lived on the other side of town. Not me or my family.
We were not poor, though. My mom was an engineer and my dad was an electrician during my early childhood and later got his engineering degree. I always felt like we lived poor, though – a family of 6 in an 800-square-foot house in the midwestern suburbs, one parent working their way through college, the other supporting the family.
On the other hand, we were pretty well off, compared to some. We took vacations to the lake. In our high school years, us kids would play on travel sports teams and take music lessons. Yet we all wore hand-me-down clothes. I think this taught us to value experiences rather than things, decades before this became a minimalist meme.
Discovering Interest Rates
In middle school, my brother and I discovered interest rates. We realized that the bank was actually paying us money for the privilege of keeping our birthday money and lawn-mowing proceeds with them. And if we agreed to let them keep a chunk of this money for a length of time by putting the money in a CD, they would pay us a little more.
By the time that CD expired a year or so later, we had discovered stocks, which we thought would pay us even more. So we pooled our money, about $2,000, and bought stock in one of the few companies we knew at the time, the company where our mom worked.
By the time we reached high school, those investments had lost money.
In college, I all but forgot about that investment. Sometime after graduating, I asked my brother about it, and he fessed up to having sold the stock at a loss while we were in high school and buying video games with the money.
There were so many lessons learned from these early experiences, not the least of which is to be careful who you trust with your money!
Being Comfortable Without Money
During and after college, I was not in the mindset of making money but was very comfortable living without having much money around. I was lucky enough to attend a prestigious East Coast university and even luckier to have my parents footing most of the bill.
College is a crazy time for most people, and I was no exception. What I found most surprising though, was the extreme wealth from which many of my classmates came.
In this context, those of us who came from public high schools were outsiders, ruffians, street-kids. We donned a bit of pride in being “public school kids,” as if this gave us street cred, though we all knew kids back home who were the real street-kids. Kids for whom college was never an option. Elementary school classmates who would disappear in middle school and high school because their parents lost their job and had to move, or they were sent to the “alternative school” or they just quit going to school altogether.
In any case, I was now amongst classmates who didn’t have to worry about money because they had plenty of it. I didn’t worry about money either, but because I felt comfortable living without it.
After college, my girlfriend and I put our frugal skills to the test and sought more varied experiences by thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail from North to South.
This may not sound like a good use of limited money or a very frugal thing to do, but now, ten years later, it was worth every dime spent at second-hand stores for gear, and every quarter put into a campground shower.
After this adventure, I was again lucky enough to make a transition from living on next-to-nothing to living in a world of relative excess. You see, the prestigious college I lucked into was (and is) a highly sought after status marker among certain people, and I was hired as a science teacher at a fairly well-off East Coast boarding school.
I became responsible for teaching, coaching, and putting to bed each night the high school kids of the East Coast elite class. Kids whose families had off-shore banking accounts and private planes. Kids whose parents felt they could pull their child out of school for two weeks for a European vacation and an extra donation to the school would replace any work their child had missed.
It was a world I had no idea even existed prior to leaving the midwest for my own education. It was a world I quickly became disillusioned with.
From Teaching to Medical School
My next job would be living on a farm and working for my room and board. I was making no money, but was satisfied and exhausted at the end of each day.
Eventually, the “making no money” part of that situation got tiring and I found another job – back to teaching. This time I was teaching at an inner-city charter school. Again, the differences between the science classrooms of the “haves” and the “have-nots” were stark.
The job was the toughest I’ve ever had, but I felt like I was needed. After a couple of years, I decided I couldn’t do it anymore. The physical and emotional toll of the job was not worth the meager public charter school salary I was making.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for the teachers who stay in our tough public schools, but I have seen both worlds and how the two sides live.
I knew that I had more control over my own future than many people have of their own. And I chose to go to medical school. I figured that as a doctor, I could both be satisfied with my job and make enough money to not worry about money.
How naive I was.
As you well know, medical school isn’t cheap! Even after choosing the least expensive school I could get into, I still came out with near $200,000 of debt.
I am now in my fourth of six years of post-graduate training (residency + fellowship) and that debt, along with my family, have continued to grow.
I am currently paying under the REPAYE program, so my loan payments are quite low. Depending on what kind of job I get after training, I may stay the course if working for a non-profit, or refinance if working in private practice.
Either way, I’m expecting my years of living on next-to-nothing to continue for several years after my pay increases 5-6 fold in a few years. It will have to. After immersing myself in everything written by Travis at The Student Loan Planner through the free emails, I don’t see any other way to do it.
I have found that living a financially secure life is simple, but hard – find a satisfying job and live below your means. I think there are enormous lessons to be learned navigating the socioeconomic divides in our society and financial security is just the beginning.