This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
When I set off on this journey to become a dentist and fulfill my childhood dreams, I was bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and debt-free – but I had no idea just how quickly I would become bruised and broken, standing at the front door of a rehab facility, unemployed, at personal rock bottom and under a mountain of student loans.
To me, it felt like the perfect storm, and like many people who end up checking into rehab, I had tons of excuses – a toxic relationship, burnout from 10 years of school, anxiety about my skills, the future, my profession, and of course the big kahuna, close to $400,000 of student loan debt.
But the reality is those excuses were just thinly veiled attempts at justifying past behavior – I had lessons to learn – hard lessons about how to look at life through the right lens, how to exercise true control, and how to never let fear get the best of you.
The concepts involved are simple, but the shear stress of becoming a dentist, taking on massive debt, and starting a career in dentistry can complicate things, cause anxiety, and overwhelm the mind – so I hope that somehow this story can help show how changes in mindset can give you focus, and hope, and change everything.
Addiction, Rock Bottom, and More Debt
When I was in the throws of that perfect storm, when it felt like the world was conspiring to smother me – finding a mental escape from the current reality became the number-one item on my daily to-do list, and take it from me folks, when you rely on drugs and alcohol to find an escape, you get into trouble.
I’ll save the gory details of my addiction story for my next essay contest, but let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. My relationships suffered, my performance in school suffered, and my health suffered, to the point that in 2014 I ended up hospitalized and had to temporarily quit dentistry altogether.
It was a knockdown, drag-out fight that went on for years, stripped me of my perceived identity, put loads of stress on my family and friends, humbled me beyond words, and taught me a ton.
Coming back from near death and trying to put the pieces of my life back together was a challenge unlike any other I’ve experienced and having student loans only made it more stressful.
I had over $20,000 of debt from rehab, no paycheck, and no plan. I felt overwhelmed all over again. It took time, and patience, and strength to gain positive momentum, and I could only do it using the tools I had picked up from rehab.
What I learned in rehab was a whole new way to think – and it helped me realize that this wasn’t just about personal and behavioral health – career success, finances, and student loan debt are perfect challenges for applying this mode of thinking.
Control is an Illusion
You might be wondering – what do they teach in rehab that helps you handle the stress of personal finance and debt reduction?
Its really very simple – getting sober taught me 2 core concepts: how to strip everything down to things that can be controlled and things that cannot, and how to take life one day at a time.
I learned that the idea of control is largely an illusion – there is so much in our lives that is out of our hands.
You can never really control your current set of circumstances, but you can control how you react to them and the decisions you make going forward, and those decisions start with what you do today.
This allows you to simplify exactly what is worth directing energy towards, and what is worth forgetting.
I had to stop looking at things I had done in the past as “mistakes” – that negative energy was getting me nowhere. Why didn’t I go to a cheaper dental school? Why didn’t I save more money before dental school? Why didn’t I work harder to get a scholarship? Why didn’t I join the military? Why did I do this at all??
I had to stop these thoughts from driving me nuts because they simply didn’t matter anymore. I was where I was, and I needed to focus on the things I could control.
I also had to stop letting the overwhelming weight of a $400,000 debt load scare me into avoidance – it was time to face it head-on, one day at a time.
In rehab there is a common mantra, or prayer that is the cornerstone of recovery; it reads ‘grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’
I had to use this to face every challenge in life, personal, professional, and financial – to take a hard look at what I really could change, and what I couldn’t.
I couldn’t change the past, and I couldn’t magically get rid of my student loans. But there were lots of things I could do, and this is where I found true control.
I could improve my health and fitness, I could let go of irrational fear, I could kick the tires on a toxic relationship, I could change the way I spent and saved money, I could come up with a detailed plan for student loan repayment, and most importantly, I could start to strategically plan the rest of my career like it’s the Normandy invasion.
My Strategy to Maximize Savings and Maximize Growth
I decided first to simplify everything as much as I could – to take the complex specifics and things that make us feel overwhelmed and boil them down into a bite-size action-oriented strategy. I call it the “Maximize Savings, Maximize Growth” strategy.
The idea is to set student loan repayment on autopilot while using my income to aggressively save for taxes on forgiven loans and retirement, while also reinvesting in my personal career growth to increase my income as much as possible.
I first worked with a friend in the finance industry, and then with Travis from Student Loan Planner, to study the numbers and decide which repayment strategy made the most sense. For me, that was the PAYE plan. The PAYE plan allows me to limit my monthly payments as much as possible, so I can use leftover money for the two pillars of this strategy – savings and growth.
I then set personal goals for savings as well as goals for growth. My goals for savings are tied to my net income while my goals for growth are detailed, with specific production and income goals in the short term along with bigger, more concrete goals in the long term.
It’s still early, but thanks to my student loan plan and career strategy, I’ve nearly tripled my savings and doubled my income in 3 years. I’m going on 5 years sober now. I’ve lost 50 lbs since rehab and gotten back in shape – I have an amazing wife and a beautiful 1-year-old daughter.
Life has turned around completely since standing in front of that rehab facility feeling crushed by the world – and it was all from changes in mindset, and taking one day at a time.
I have come to believe that personal finance, debt management, career development, and everything in life is a big mind game. When good core ideas direct good thoughts, the right behavior ensues, which in turn produces the outcomes we want.
Forget the stuff you can’t control. Get rid of the noise, and don’t let fear make you overwhelmed. Relax, and take it one day at a time. Define the problem, work the problem, and focus on what you can change. Believe me, it can change everything.