12 strategies to bust veterinary debt

12 strategies to bust veterinary debt

For many of us, student debt is unavoidable—but multiplying debt doesn't have to be. Use these sensible tips to stop adding to your liabilities and start building your financial security for a brighter future.
Apr 01, 2014

For the past two decades, studies, reports, columns and presentations have all raised the same discouraging topic over and over again: the impact of student debt on the solvency and security of individual veterinarians and on the stability and financial health of our profession. It's a topic that's not likely to go away.

The cost of a veterinary education has always been high in proportion to anticipated income. Today indebtedness of $150,000 to $250,000 is not uncommon. Now imagine the debt load faced by a husband-wife veterinary couple! Debt payments often exceed mortgage payments that would buy a heck of a nice home.

Compound that debt load with the compensation reality for associate veterinarians. They often receive similar or less pay than individuals with a four-year bachelor's degree. And as more and more veterinarians want to become practice owners, their amount of debt—even 10 to 15 years after graduation—makes it difficult to take the step from associate to owner.

Unless we are willing to reinvent our educational models, it's unlikely that educational costs associated with veterinary medicine will decline. The fact that our veterinary programs are at capacity, and will only get worse, makes salary increases even less likely.

Where do we go from here?

The reality is that anyone entering the profession should expect a high debt load with little chance of a proportionally higher salary. As the rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis say, "If I'd done it for the money, I would have been a [fill in the blank]." Few veterinarians, if any, entered the profession anticipating they would get rich. But historically, a veterinary degree and a couple years' experience assured us of an upper-middle-class income and the ability to provide for our families while developing a degree of financial security.

Though some creative programs have been established to help with veterinary student debt, there is nothing that can be done after the fact to reduce the cost of education once it has been incurred. Lowering the burden from the outset will necessitate some radical changes in the veterinary educational process: Eliminating a four-year pre-professional curriculum. Offering a year-round curriculum to reduce the number of years a student has to spend in school. Looking at how other countries have significantly reduced pre-professional years from three years to two. We might even make it easier for students to proceed at their own pace, perhaps allowing them to take a year off to earn money for educational expenses.

Regardless of the educational system, veterinarians have to change. We must commit to becoming more aware of business and financial issues. There should be mandatory CE in financial matters, just as there is in controlled drug laws, USDA/APHIS work and other areas of the profession. I don't propose that veterinarians become certified financial planners, but they must learn the basics of financial management and wealth accumulation. Most important, they must learn to reduce or avoid future debt.