This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
I still remember the call I received at 10:09 am on a Tuesday morning. I got in! I was going to PA school! An abnormally high-pitched scream, lots of happy tears, and an awkward victory dance around my bedroom later it all started to sink in.
The whole daunting journey became very real when I received the information packet in the mail a few days later. The cost of tuition and fees alone was about $80,000. Add in all the books and medical equipment I was expected to buy.
Plus the living expenses of moving to a new city for my didactic year. Not to mention the travel and living expenses of the clinical year where our 7 clinical placements could be spread out to any city in the WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho) region.
This was turning into a whole lot of dollars to a girl who’d managed to work her way to a debt-free undergraduate degree and was most definitely adjusting to her post-school income.
Choosing to Sacrifice to Save Money
So what did I do? Well, the most logical thing for a 25-year old to want to do. I moved out of my very comfortable apartment right back into the empty nest of my parent’s home. I’m not sure who was more thrilled by the arrangement.
This marked the beginning of a very intentional and uncomfortable saving phase. I’d subsisted on very little to sometimes nothing through my undergraduate years so I knew I could do it again.
I already had a bit in savings by this time and I knew I still had several months before the program started and that the first quarter would be online so I could continue to work full-time.
I started tracking my purchases so I could get a gauge for what spending categories I needed to cut back on, and discovered that I was spending exorbitant amounts on coffee each month. I had to convince myself that my daily latte was a luxury, not a necessity – which was easier said than done.
Almost as difficult as convincing myself that drip coffee made at home is just as good as the foaming deliciousness I was picking up at the drive-thru window.
I can relate to the scoff of thinking a five-dollar cup of coffee is really going to make or break your piggy bank at the end of the day.
But it was the little changes to my mindset and lifestyle along with digging up some long-lost relatives twice removed to stay with for clinical placements rather than spending more for an Airbnb that ultimately dictated the amount of student loans I graduated with.
My mentality going into graduate school was that the best way to repay my student loans was to not take them out in the first place.
This mentality ended with me crossing the graduation platform with $38,000 in student loan debt. A total that was significantly less than what was projected for the entire program.
Justifying Student Loan Debt
I will say that my mentality going into graduate school was very different from my classmates. I was one of the few students in my cohort who continued to work in a per diem capacity through both the didactic and clinical years.
My classmates said that they would rather take out more loans now than risk jeopardizing the already difficult journey that had got them to PA school in the first place.
After all, they could easily find loan repayment options once they were finished. Why have the added stress of trying to penny-pinch or work when you’re already emotionally and physically tapped out?
Well, I’ll try to answer some of the reasons my classmates cited for taking out more loans. Despite picking up 12-hour nursing shifts on the weekends throughout my program (often with little foresight as to what major exams or papers might be due in the following days) I still managed to graduate with a 3.85 GPA. Not too shabby.
Side note: I don’t have a photographic memory or some other amazing abilities that make me remember things better than the average human either.
So, I wouldn’t say that continuing to work necessarily puts you at an academic disadvantage to your peers.
The other reason my classmates justified taking out maximum student loan amounts each quarter was because they could eventually have all those loans repaid once they got out into the professional world.
My question to this is, would you rather be a bit uncomfortable before and during school and take out fewer loans or bank on being restricted for several years while repaying your loans instead?
The reason I say restricted is that most loan repayment services, such as HRSA, have specific site and time commitment requirements. I personally did not want my first job (both location and specialty) out of school to be dictated by my loans.
With initial award amounts through HRSA being $30,000-$50,000 depending on the HPSA score of the worksite, the average student from my program having about $100,000 minimum in student loans would be looking at about four years of commitment to a site that would check the boxes for loan repayment services.
Four years may not seem like much to some, but I wanted a different option if I so chose.
It’s All About Choices
So my question to you is, what are you willing to give up? Because giving something up is inevitable, but when is negotiable.
And because I really like bullet points, my unsolicited advice, in a nutshell, is as follows:
- Track your spending
- Don’t confuse necessities with luxuries
- The best way to repay loans is to not take them out in the first place
- Just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to (take out ALL the loans)
- Be a little uncomfortable now so you can have financial freedom later
- Read the fine print (loan repayment services have strings attached)
- Did I mention, budget?