David vs. Goliath: One veterinarian's epic battle against student debt

Someday I might want to own a home, buy a veterinary practice or drive a car that tracks in a straight line. These simply won't be possible with the immense burden I'm facing.
May 01, 2012

We all know the statistics. As of late, the "elephant in the room" of veterinary medicine has become harder to ignore. Just about every veterinary journal I've picked up in the past six months has contained some kind of article describing the financial challenges we are facing as a profession.

I'm not a financial expert, and I don't necessarily recommend that anyone follow my lead on this one. My intent here is merely to document my own struggle with a problem that's plaguing most of us, to describe my own decisions in dealing with this issue and to discuss how those decisions have impacted my life. I surely don't mean to insult anyone, so please don't take my personal views personally.

Here's my situation. Total debt at graduation in 2008: $110,000. Total loan payments made since graduation: around $35,000. Current payoff amount with federal Direct Loan Servicing Center as of 2012: $90,000. No other debts to speak of. I do my part to help support two dogs (with a total of only seven legs).

My salaries since graduation have left much to be desired. In my first-year internship—well, let's not talk about that one. After that I moved across the country twice and also halfway around the world and back—we'll write those years off as "adventure equity." My current salary is still less than the published average for new graduates in 2011.

Reading all of the reports and statistics, I believe I'm more or less average in terms of of veterinarians' total debt and earning potential. So it stands to reason that my circumstances are not unique. Nevertheless, it seems that few of my peers are willing to face these realities head on—to talk about them or try to find solutions. I'm worried about my soon-to-be colleagues and friends who will be graduating from veterinary school over the next several years and also the health of our profession as a whole.

Personally, Obama's income-based repayment policy makes me cringe. I grew up believing that if I owe a debt, I should pay it back. So I do question the real benefit that "forgiving" student loans after x number of years will have on our country. Again, I'm no expert, but I don't live in a world where money can be "forgiven"; it ultimately comes from somewhere, no?

Part of my own problem is that for many years I shared the commonly held beliefs that "student debt is good debt," "I'm going to be a veterinarian so what do I have to worry about?" and "You can't put a price on doing what you love for a living." Sound familiar? The process of realizing how harmful these attitudes may be on my own financial future has been extremely difficult on many levels.

For me, now is the time to change and to realize that I'm the only one who can dig myself out of this hole. In my mind, carrying such a large debt means that I do not actually own anything until that debt is gone. Net worth in the red. Kind of a scary thought, really.

Enter a new philosophy on my student debt: Pay it back as quickly as humanly possible and try to have fun doing it (that last part is the trickiest). Someday I might want to own a home, buy a veterinary practice or drive a car that tracks in a straight line. Contrary to what my local lending institution or car dealership may tell me, these simply won't be possible with the immense burden I'm facing. Unless, of course, I continue to hold strong in the belief that borrowing more and more money to fund every aspect of my personal and professional life is the answer to long-term prosperity. If I do survive my battle with student debt, I think my attitudes about borrowing money for anything will be dramatically affected for the long haul.