Finance: Why We Chose Standard Repayment Over Loan Forgiveness

We started our loan repayment journey under the IBR program, as advised by so many professionals. But I always knew in my heart that this was not the best path for me. Apart from the fact that IBR resulted in more money paid towards my loans overall, there was the issue of it extending twenty five years into our distant future. I am one who values freedom above many other things. When I was young, I hated when people told me to do things that did not line up with my values. My most hated explanations were “Just because” or “Because I said so”. Talk about lack of motivation. I despised myself when I was forced to do something, because authoritative figures claimed to have the upper hand. I remember thinking to myself, when I get older, I will have control over my own life. Today, I have that same fire feeding a resolve in me to stay free, from things financial or otherwise. I want freedom to do certain types of work. I want freedom from a tight work schedule. I want autonomy in my decisions. I want the freedom to travel whenever I want to. I want to have free time. All of this also requires to be financially free. Having graduated dental school at 26 years old, the IBR program would mean that we would have this burden hanging over our heads until we were past 50 years old. Psychologically, the burden was too much to bear. It was the psychology of the thing that really pushed me towards frugality, financial independence, and hopefully in the near(er) future, freedom.

When I graduated dental school and I finally started working, Mike and I were facing numerous large payments related to moving in together, creating a home for ourselves, getting married, and going on a honeymoon. And while I would not take back any of the decisions we made, we weren’t exactly saving much at the time. The great part is, we weren’t going into debt either. Whereas some people may take out loans for things such as weddings and honeymoons and moving, we definitely stayed within our means and I am proud of that fact.

But once the dust settled and we found peace in our space and identified our roles in everyday life, we stopped having something to spend money on, and we started to see that we were not bad savers after all. In fact, we were saving at such a quick pace, that we would have saved up for a down payment for a house in two months’ time! We started to talk about buying a home for ourselves, when our financial planner asked us a simple question. Do you realize that at this rate, you can pay down your student debt the standard way in less than ten years?

At first, I was aghast. I had spent months trying to convince USC financial advisers, and Mike, and even my financial planner, that there had to be a way to do this. Mike deemed my conclusions as too optimistic, and slightly delusional. He always said, the numbers just don’t work. But in my head, they did work. The numbers don’t lie.

I then went on to bombard our CFP with a million questions. Excited, I could not wait to tell Mike when he got home that night. I remember being so stoked. Initially, he did not believe me. It wasn’t until our financial planner created a spreadsheet that demonstrated our capability to conquer the loan in 9 years, that Mike started to change his view. We were going to be free from these chains fifteen years earlier than we thought!

But with it comes a cost. We will have to give up buying a house, for now. We have to continue a fairly frugal lifestyle, and have concrete intentionality with our money. We have to be able to psychologically see a majority of our paycheck going towards paying down the loans every month. We have to give up the social status symbols that our friends will be collecting under their belts. In exchange, we will have fifteen additional years of freedom. What say you?

I say Hell Yeah! Mike and I are simple people anyway, as can be seen in the rate at which we were saving. We could rationalize not buying a house, not buying a new car, and not getting the latest gadgets. I could not rationalize being tied down by my career choice until I’m past fifty. We decided that yes, we will choose standard repayment over loan forgiveness!

One caveat. We are still enlisted under the IBR program. Why? Under the standard repayment plan, we have to make minimum payments of $6500/month to be able to pay the debt in 9 years. Under IBR, the payments are closer to $400/month. If one of us loses a job, $6500/month is impossible on only one of our incomes. Especially so if I was the one to lose a job. Switching a hundred percent to standard repayment will make us vulnerable to the whims of whatever life may throw at us. The failure of Mike’s start-up company, the selling of the practice I work at, if we decide to have children, disability for either one of us, these are all things that can greatly impact our finances and if we commit to a standard repayment, it can heavily mess with our ability to pay the loans. And trust me, you do not want to default on student loans. However, under IBR, we are able to pay more than the $400/month without penalty, so we stick with IBR in case of a future emergency, but continue to make the larger payments.

Unfortunately, this does not allow us to refinance our loans. Once the loans are refinanced, we become ineligible for IBR. So although the IBR interest rate is a whopping 6.7%, our financial planner convinced us that the IBR buffer for not-so-awesome life moments is well worth the extra interest rate. Once the loans get paid down to a more manageable sum, then we can refinance, since a smaller loan will be much more manageable.

So therein lies our decision tree, our little story.

Finance: When NOT to consolidate student loans

There was a day last year when Mike, two co-workers, and I all took the day off of work, just because. I remember it vividly. It was a Tuesday and the weather was sunny, and somewhere in the low eighties. Mike and his co-workers came over to our place to work one of his motorcycles. The goal was to change the engine, but I think the boys really just wanted to take it apart and put it back together like a box of legos. Such are the interests of engineers who design electric cars all day. I did my own thing, cooking and writing, and biking, etc. The usual. Once in a while, I popped my head in the garage to watch them tinker, to observe the progress. There were times where they struggled, muscling their way into making pieces fit. Other times, they laughed, at some overlooked rookie mistake of theirs. Most of the time they were either marveling at the mechanics of it all, or otherwise criticizing some faulty housing of electric wires. I guess inefficiencies of mechanical parts are laughable, to some. Overall, they did good. The bike ran, after twelve hours of work, sweat, and metaphorical tears.

At the end of the day, we ate a much deserved dinner of Mediterranean food. As we were talking about who knows what, the topic of student loans came up. It was actually brought up by one of Mike’s co-workers who happened to be dating a pharmacist. He was the one who inspired me to write the previous blog post, and it is because of stories like these that I am determined to share whatever little knowledge I have of finances with the rest of the world.

His girlfriend was pursuing an alternative loan forgiveness program to pay her student loans from pharmacy school. As part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, she has been working for the past two years at a VA hospital in LA county. The program states that after ten years of service at a government or not-for-profit organization, the loans will be wiped, TAX FREE (compared to the IBR, PAYE and REPAYE options which considers forgiven amounts as part of your income and is therefore taxed). She has been working here for a few years and was warned against consolidating her loans by her co-workers. Why?

She had some co-workers who have been working at the hospital for a few years. The hospital started to convince them to consolidate their loans. They said consolidating multiple loans into one will be more convenient and easier to track. Some of them went ahead and did just that, after listening to the hospital’s advice. Unfortunately, there is a clause that states that after consolidation of student loans, previous payments do not count towards the loan repayment program. In other words, despite having worked for 2 out of the required 10 years, after consolidation of the loans, the previous 2 years no longer counted towards the 10 year loan repayment. The consolidated loan is now considered a completely different loan, and in order to have that loan forgiven, they will have to work for an additional ten years. It was a story enough to make one cry. Imagine working your way towards freedom, only to have that freedom taken away and prolonged. The past two years of hard work went towards nothing. The worst part? They were advised to do this! Off course, it is not the hospital’s responsibility to be aware of the clauses associated with every loan program, so we can’t entirely blame the hospital. I just wish there was a positive end result from the decision to consolidate, which there wasn’t. All for “convenience” of having one lump sum, instead of keeping track of a few different loans.

Moral of the story: Do not consolidate your loans if you have already started a Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. If you would like to consolidate your loans, please do this right out of school, prior to working for your not-for-profit or government organization. My heart seriously goes out to those who have discovered this clause the difficult way. I am just glad that our friend’s girlfriend learned of it before she herself was convinced to do the same.

In line with all other aspects of this blog, freedom supersedes convenience in my book, always. Freedom to call your own schedule. Freedom to take the day off with your friends whenever you want. Freedom to enjoy hobbies, learn new things, and work on motorcycles. Even if it means avoiding the conveniences. 

Finance: Student Loan Forgiveness Options: IBR VS PAYE VS REPAYE

I remember the days leading up to graduating dental school. I had an incurable case of senioritis, and I was ready to go. I had reached all my requirements with a few months to spare. It was just a matter of time. It wasn’t school itself that was on my mind. All I could think about at that point was the student debt that I knew I had to face once I got out.

I recall that every student at USC’s dental program was required to take an exit course that went over student loan repayment options. They called it a course to make it sound official, but it was literally a one hour power-point presentation in a small classroom with mostly empty seats. I remember sitting towards the front of the classroom, with a notepad and pen, and furiously scribbling notes throughout the entire thing. Meanwhile, classmates grumbled about what a waste of time this was. Some tardily strolled in, halfway through the presentation, just so they can sign the sign out sheets. Those that did come on time sat, and politely listened, but without a pen in hand, sitting back casually until the presenter announced the end. At that time, I thought that I was the only one who did not understand this stuff. It seemed like either everyone either had rich parents, or had a plan. I remember kicking myself for not studying this before, since my classmates appeared bored at best, presumably because they already knew the ins and outs of their loan repayment plans. There was only one other classmate, a boy, who was taking notes with me. I remember him vividly, though we never talked before, because he asked tons of questions that I was too afraid to ask. I also remember him because after the class, the speaker offered to do additional mini-lectures if we had questions. He was the only other person I saw pursue this topic as avidly as I in the upcoming weeks before graduation. I would come in for a one-on-one meeting with the financial advisor, and after I walked out, he would walk in. Or vice versa. We had meetings with the malpractice representative twice, and for disability insurance once more, after the required one. We were the only two students in the classroom during these meetings. He and I sat next to each other at the front of the room, taking notes and writing down numbers and calculations. I must have seen him on 7 different days outside of the required exit course. I never spoke to him, not once. I don’t even remember his name, although we were in the same class. I wish I did so I can hit him up and ask how his path to repayment is going. Meanwhile, I thought everyone else had it all figured out. But I was wrong.

I was so obsessed (afraid? aware?) of the student debt’s debilitating ability to control my life that I even had Mike sit in on some of the meetings. This was around the time we had talked about getting married, and I realized that now my decisions will start to affect someone that I cared about. I wanted him to a) know what he was getting into because once you’re married, you share EVERYTHING and b) not be extremely affected by the loan I was bringing in. I felt a lot of guilt, and it was the first time in my life that I realized that my misguided financial choices will impact a loved one’s lifestyle for a long period of time. I knew I had to get out. I went through projections and extrapolations and Excel sheets with counselors. Then I scheduled an appointment with Mike in order to go over the same spreadsheets and Excel sheets again (because they won’t allow you to take a copy of the real numbers home…). We are numbers people, and I had to have him see the numbers. I remember coming home to late night discussions about our “game plan”. I remember feeling trapped, and slightly depressed, that I could not find a short term solution for this. I got out of dental school and picked up just about every possible side hustle I could muster while waiting for my license in the mail. Before I even started work, I reached out to a CFP because I felt that I needed help. I didn’t know the ins and outs of finances as well as I would hope, and I wanted to make sure that we were doing everything correctly. The one thing I did know was that the only thing on our side was time. The sooner I addressed my financial problems, the less of a burden they will be in the future. I wanted to cut off all compounding problems (read as interests), nip them in the bud persay, before the weeds could grow thorns.

Throughout this entire process, all anyone would say (when I was bold enough to ask them about their repayment plan) was that they were going with the student loan repayment route. In parrot-like manner, almost. Surely, when the exit course was being taught at USC, it was implied that the student loan repayment plan is the way to go. It was the YOLOs of all YOLOs. You only pay a small percentage of your paycheck, for 20-25 years, and then your loan is forgiven after that. Have fun now, enjoy life while you are young, and worry about the debt later. I always felt in my heart that that could not have been the best option. But everyone I talked to at the beginning of our journey said that my loan was too large to realistically pay down the debt in a standard way, unless I was some baller G who landed a five star practice that I owned for myself. I mean, I understand why. A standard repayment required a $6000 check being sent to My Great Lakes, every month for 10 years. That is 120 consecutive payments of $6000. It’s a huge pill to swallow. Mike didn’t believe we could do it given the numbers. Even my financial planner, who first looked at our finances in September, said that it can’t be done according to our current financial situation. (Eventually, we did get to a point where it could be done, but I will save that for a future post). So at the beginning of our journey, everyone we consulted with said we had to choose between the following three student loan repayment options: IBR, PAYE, or REPAYE.

I chose one and then entered the real world, where I learned, that most people who graduated from college did not even have an exit course and have absolutely no idea what they are doing with their student loans. I have talked to numerous professionals, and there has been many instances where they asked a question regarding a fundamental aspect of their loan program because they just didn’t have the answer. I have dentists who have been out 3, 5, 10 years, asking me questions about loans. I am no expert at this stuff, just to clarify, but I did study it for a fair amount of time. I have been thinking about writing this post for a while, but it wasn’t until Mike’s co-worker was talking to Mike one day and said, “You know what Sam should write about on her blog? All the Student Loan Forgiveness options and their clauses. Because no one seems to understand this shit.” His girlfriend is a pharmacist working for the past two years under a Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, and she says her colleagues have made some major mistakes that have screwed their financial plan significantly. More on that at a later post as well. The take away message here is that, maybe no one actually knew what they were doing as the graduating days neared us. I sure didn’t. I was so unsure about my options that I felt the need to hire a financial planner just to get things straight. Maybe no one still knows. And when it was outwardly voiced that there is a need for this post, then that’s what motivated me to sit down and write it. Additionally, I will walk you through our decision tree, to give you some insight as to why one of these was the option we chose. Please understand that our decision tree does not necessarily predict your own decision tree. It is only meant to show the thought process through which we reached a final decision.

When we went through the student loan exit course, there were numerous slides on that PowerPoint that, in my opinion, were haphazardly organized. As a visual person, here is the best way I could organize this information. There are three options currently, IBR, PAYE, and REPAYE. The following are the differences between the three programs.

IBR VS PAYE VS REPAYE

  IBR PAYE REPAYE
Eligible Loans -All federal Family Education Loan Program, Stafford and Grad Plus Loans

-All FFELP and direct loan consolidation loans that do not contain parent PLUS Loans

-All Stafford loans or Grad Plus Loans disbursed on or after October 1, 2011.
-Consolidation loans made on or after October 1, 2011, unless they contain a direct loan or FFEL loan made before October 1, 2007, or a Parent PLUS loan.

-Direct loan borrowers without loans prior to October 1, 2007 who also had a disbursement made on or after October 1, 2011.

-Any Stafford/Grad Plus Loan

-Any direct consolidation loan that does not contain Parent PLUS loan.

Eligibility -Payments under a 10 year term must be higher than what they would be under IBR. -Payments under a 10-year term must be higher than what they would be under REPAYE. -No payment amount limit.
Monthly Payment 15% of discretionary income. The maximum is what you’d pay under a 10 year loan. 10% of discretionary income. 10% of discretionary income.
Married Borrowers -If filing joint tax returns, both spouses’ incomes and eligible debt is considered.

-If filing separate tax returns, only the applicant’s income and eligible debt is considered.

– If filing joint tax returns, both spouses’ incomes and eligible debt is considered.

-If filing separate tax returns, only the applicant’s income and eligible debt is considered.

– Both spouses’ income and federal student loan debt, if applicable, is considered regardless of filing status.

-Exception for victims of domestic violence or if borrower is separated from spouse.

Interest Capitalization When calculated, payment is equal to or greater than what it would be under the 10 year term and/or when the borrower leaves IBR. When calculated, payment is equal to or greater than what it would be under the 10 year term and/or when the borrower leaves PAYE. As there is no maximum payment, interest will only be capitalized once they leave REPAYE.
Forgiveness Any remaining balance after 25 years of eligible payments is forgiven and taxed as income. Only payments made on or after July 1, 2009 are eligible. Any remaining balance after 20 years of eligible payments is forgiven and taxed as income. Only payments made on or after July 1, 2009 are eligible. Borrowers with undergrad loans only will receive forgiveness after 20 years of eligible payments. Those with graduate loans will receive forgiveness after 25 years of eligible payments. Forgiven amount will be taxed as income.

THE SIMILARITIES

The following are requirements that apply to all three loan forgiveness options:

  • Discretionary income is adjusted gross income minus 150% of state poverty level for the borrower’s family size.
  • Loans cannot be in default.
  • Minimum monthly payments can be as low as $0 per month. For example, if you are currently not working due to disability or maternity leave, you pay a percentage of your income, which is $0.
  • If payment does not satisfy monthly accrued interest, the Department of Education pays the remained for most subsidized Stafford loans for up to 3 years. For REPAYE only, the agency also will pay 50% of unpaid interest on unsubsidized loans.
  • Like IBR/REPAYE, payments under REPAYE count toward public service loan forgiveness. If your loan is under FFEL program, you need to consolidate in order to get REPAYE.

INSIGHTS

  • No Parent PLUS Loans: First thing is first. You’ve got to figure out which student loans you’ve taken out. Once you have that figured out, you can decide which loan repayment programs you qualify for. It is important to note that none of these loan forgiveness programs allow Parent PLUS loans. If you are going to consolidate your loans, you have to make sure that none of the loans that were consolidated are part of a Parent PLUS loan, otherwise, you immediately disqualify yourself from the loan forgiveness programs.
  • October 1, 2011 is the cut off for PAYE. If you have taken out loans prior to this date, you will not qualify for PAYE.
  • Payments under a 10-year term must be higher than what they would be under IBR. But does it makes sense to do IBR? This is important if your loan amount is quite small. For example, if you have a loan of $150,000 (let’s say because you worked your butt off to minimize the student loan total) and you make $135,000/year as a dentist, a 10 year repayment plan will have you paying $1718.52/month at a 6.7% interest rate for 10 years. Compare that to IBR where you pay $1687.50/month at the same interest rate for 25 years. Technically, in this example, you will still qualify for IBR, because your 10-year term payments are still higher than IBR payments. But is it worth it? To me, it would make sense to just stick with standard repayment and get rid of the debt in 10 years, rather than prolonging it for 25 years, especially since you pay about the same monthly payment. The shortened debt time will decrease the total money you end up paying, because it decreases the amount you pay in interest. Plus, you will no longer have the debt hanging over your head. Compare that to a dentist who makes the same amount of money per year, but who has a loan debt of $550,000. Now the month difference is $6500/month vs $1687.50/month. IBR works well if you have a huge loan and cannot make the atrocious monthly payment fit with your ideal lifestyle. For smaller loan amounts, it may be best to just stick with standard repayment.
  • Smaller monthly payments: A good thing or a bad thing? When looking at these programs with a short term mindset, it is easy to think that smaller monthly payments are better than larger monthly payments. However, may I point out that small monthly payments for a large loan may not be enough to pay down the interest at all. For example, with a loan of $550,000, the interest that accrues each month at 6.7% interest rate is about $3,200/month. However, as from the previous example, 15% of a $135,000 yearly gross income is $1687. So every month, you are only paying half of the accruing interest, which means that interest will continually add to your loan total. Over twenty five years, you are increasing your total amount under the IBR program. Because of this, your total loan amount at the end of 25 years will be over $1 million dollars. But that’s alright, because it will all be wiped in the end anyways, right? (PS: In order to equal the accruing interest rate, without even touching the principal balance ever, you would need to be making more than $300,000 / year. Yikes.)
  • Consider your spouse’s income. It is important to note that under REPAYE, your spouse’s income counts as part of the discretionary income. Depending on your spouse’s income, this can increase your monthly loan payments, which will actually increase the amount you pay long term.
  • Forgiven amounts are taxed. This is a crucial part of the clause for the loan forgiveness programs. Those who miss this will be shocked at the end of the 25 years. I actually have met colleagues who have been graduated 3 and 5 years who are not aware of this rule. When I told them that the forgiven amounts will be taxed, their jaws dropped. Why? Because none of them knew. This single rule is what made me question whether loan forgiveness was worth it. As mentioned before, under IBR, with a loan as large as $550k, after twenty five years of payment from a dentist with $135,000 income, you would end up with over one million dollars in debt. I think my number was closer to $1,200,000. This was calculated with the assumption that I would be increasing my salary to more than $135,000 as I increased my experience. Either way, at year 25, the loans will be forgiven, and the total amount forgiven will be considered income that you made that year, and will be taxed similarly. So at the end of 25 years, I was expected to pay north of $350,000, in one lump sum, on top of taxes of the income I made on that year. Unless you have a plan to be swimming in some serious dough in twenty five years, I would say it would be advisable to save up for that $350,000 over 25 years. So that’s an additional $1,166 every month you have to save. But what bothered me most was the total amount of money you would pay after loan forgiveness. It turns out, with the taxed income, you would pay more money than the standard repayment. Standard repayment will lead to a total of $720,000 going towards loans, whereas IBR will lead to a grand total of $856,250. Plus, you would have a loan hanging over your head for 25 years, instead of only 10 years (less than half the amount of time). The time may not seem such a big deal, but that is a very large psychological strain to put on yourself for a very long amount of time. Let’s say you were ahead of your class and graduated dental school at 25. This loan would be with you until you’re 50 years old. That’s a really long time.
  • There is no clause stating that you are guaranteed to be grandfathered in the loan forgiveness program. While I would love to believe that we will all be one hundred percent grandfathered into these programs, we must not be in denial, and agree to the fact that there is no such clause that guarantees this to be the case. This program may be subject to future changes with changes in government. 25 years is a very long time, and the government changes can occur in a short time span within those 25 years. For example, what if a law passes that changes the loan forgiveness program from being 25 years to 30 years? What if you were so far in, that all you’ve done the last twenty years was increase your loan to a point of no return? You would then have to go through with the additional five years, thus increasing your loan total even more, which then increases the final amount you’ve paid for your education. Or what if the programs are abolished completely? Perhaps you would get some help, perhaps you would be grandfathered in, but perhaps they do nothing to help you, leaving you with over a million dollars’ worth of debt in your forties that you must now pay off. People may say, that’s crazy, they can’t do that to us! Unfortunately, until I see a statement saying otherwise, I will continue to believe that anything can happen. That may just be me, being overly cautious. Or realistic, whichever.

APPLICATION: OUR DECISION TREE

So which program did we choose? As I stated before, initially, we were told that this was the way to go, so we decided to choose one category to fall under. Unfortunately, we immediately had to eliminate PAYE because I had student loans that were disbursed before October of 2011, which were my undergraduate loans. So we were down to either IBR or REPAYE. Both will take 25 years before the student loans were forgiven. It may seem as if REPAYE would be the best option, because it only requires 10% of discretionary income to be paid, whereas IBR requires 15% of discretionary income to be paid. However, we chose IBR over REPAYE because of the married borrowers section of the chart. IBR allows Mike and me to file separately, which means Mike’s income is not calculated in that 15%. Whereas REPAYE will calculate Mike’s income into the 10% owed every year, regardless of our filing status. This fact alone makes a huge difference in how much we end up paying. Without giving away the actual numbers, the example below will demonstrate this point. Under IBR, a combined income of $200,000 will yield a $2,500 check per month being written towards student loans, whereas a single income of $100,000 will yield a $1,250 check per month towards student loans. One may argue that it is better to pay down a higher portion of the loans so that at the end of the 25 years, the amount left over that you will be taxed on is less. However, if you choose to do the loan forgiveness program, it will actually benefit you most if you pay the least amount possible. Your total payment will be less in the long run. Notice how filing together will require $2,500 per month to be paid towards your loans, which is still not enough to cover the accruing interest. So even with the increased amount you are paying, the loan total will still be increasing. The numbers ended up showing that it would be better to pay taxes on a slightly larger number, than it is to pay twice as much every month without ever even touching principle. Off course, this is of the assumption that your spouse and you make the same income for work. In order to check what works best for your situation, I would recommend running your own numbers, using your loan amounts and your incomes.

I would like to reiterate that I am no expert. I can’t tell you which plan is better for you, and it is highly likely that I don’t know all the ins and outs of all three plans. But this is what I’ve learned so far, and our method of thinking. If there are ever any doubts, just run projections and calculations and excel sheets, and go with the numbers. The numbers won’t lie. I hope this has been helpful to some, and I hope more people realize the importance of thinking about this early on in their careers after reading this post. If you ever need someone to walk you through it, may I recommend a CFP? I wish you the best of luck in your endeavors, and more future insightful posts on finance to come!

Finance: Tackle Undergrad Loans During A Gap Year (ASAP)

There are a few financial decisions that I made in my early twenties that I am very proud of, and a few that I am not so proud of. For decisions that fall in the latter category, I sincerely wish that someone could just create a time machine so that I could send myself back to my younger self and shake some common sense into her. Or at least allow me to go back in time and have a one-on-one discussion (likely at a cafe somewhere) regarding my retrospectively realized financial mistakes, with the hopes of guiding her towards the right direction. But alas, there is no time machine.

However, knowledge lost to me should not be lost to others. I am fortunate enough to have a little brother, six years younger, who recently shocked everyone we knew by deciding to switch from pursuing a path to physical therapy to becoming a dentist such as myself. At first, I told him not to do it, mostly out of fear that he was entering the profession for the wrong reasons. It’s not exactly the profession for everyone. You have to love being inside people’s mouths, and I sincerely believe that description fits a very small group of people. And in exchange for this privilege of being surrounded by teeth, there is a costly price, which includes not only dedicated time towards earning the degree, but a huge monetary cost as well. I could see a young man entering the profession thinking it’s all fun and games. You can call your own hours, you get a decent pay. But you lose a lot of hours compared to your peers, studying the craft and paying off the debt. Additionally, you don’t see a majority (in my case, any) of your pay if you are dedicated to paying off the loans by the time your 38 years old. And by the time you are free from the debt, your peers would have had a 17 year head start on building their lives over you. I was simply afraid he would become a tooth doctor and then regret the bondage and the responsibility that comes with that. The worst you can do is choose to spend your days doing something you don’t absolutely love.

After a lot of back-and-forth conversations about the whys and the whats and the hows, I could see this is what he decided he wanted to do. And in my family, once we made up our mind about something, there is no change of course. Despite my resistance to the whole thing, I could tell he was going to push through with it, whether I supported him or not. So I did what any big sis would do. I immediately switched to supportive mode, figuring that if he is going to do this thing, then I’m going to give all I’ve got to making sure he loves every moment of it. So now we work together at the same office, me guiding him towards becoming a better dental assistant everyday, and him helpfully suctioning saliva out of my patient’s mouths. Perfect harmony.

I started writing the finance part of my blog to help newly graduated dental students with a massive debt realize that they are not alone, and that there are ways to overcome that debt. Now, I have an even bigger responsibility to walk my little brother, and other newly graduated undergrads towards a path that would minimize that final number, as much as humanly possible. If I can’t send myself back in a time machine to save myself from all the silly mistakes, I can at least try to save my brother. I am not doing this so that he could be rich one day. Such is never my goal. I am writing this so he can be a free man.

So if I could travel back and tell my recently graduated undergrad self what to do while waiting to get into grad school, I would tell them one thing. Use your hard-earned money towards paying down your undergrad loans. This was a very feasible thing for me, since I graduated undergrad in 3.25 years and I had an extra 9 months of freedom between graduation and grad school. It was a year and eight months before I was to start my dental program. During that time, I was living at home, and working three jobs. The first was a job as a dental assistant, averaging thirty hours a week. . The second was a visuals specialist at Banana Republic, averaging ten hours a week. And the last was a tutoring gig in Newport Beach, averaging an additional 10 hours a week. All jobs paid me over minimum wage, which at the time was around $8.5 an hour. The dental assisting and the tutoring paid me $13/hr. The sales job paid me above $9/hr. I wasn’t paying for food or rent, with much gratitude towards my parents. But I was also not paying my student loans down. So where did the money go?

At that age, you work like I did and think to yourself, “I’m rolling in the dough.” I had no concept of the power of money at that time, for I had no one to show me, or to even talk to me about it. Friends were dining out every night, going to concerts and raves, watching movies, and buying everything they ever wanted. What did you think I did?There was no outward consideration towards my far off future. I couldn’t see that these loans would one day become shackles that slow me down from enjoying later joys. There was this concept being fed to young kids, summarized in four capital letters. YOLO.

I was twenty one years old, and I thought I was unstoppable. I had so much energy, I worked like a horse. I never realized that the pace was unsustainable and that I will not want to work like a horse for the rest of my life. And off course, once I clocked out, I went on partying like an animal. (Okay, not animal. I saw REAL animals in college, and animal I was not. Maybe a tame deer. Either way…) I  blew my money on frivolities, living my life under the following motto: “Work hard, party hard.” WHO COMES UP WITH THESE THINGS?!

I  wasn’t fully irresponsible (or so I thought) since I paid the minimum payments towards my loans every month. They told me paying the minimum payments is considered good. No one ever told me paying off the maximum you can possibly pay is ideal. I never even hit my principle balance. I was paying so little that my accrued interest stayed about the same. At the time, I was already dating my future husband, and he was also working hard to pay for his housing. Since I didn’t pay for rent, I thought I had wayyyyy more money than him, and offered to take him out to eat whenever I felt like it. I bought him many gifts, just because. I invited him to concerts and bowling and karaoke and anything I can throw my money at. What I didn’t realize was that he had almost zero debt. He took out a skimpy little loan, which was paid off a few months after he started work as an engineer. And there I was, almost two years graduated, with the same debt I had while I was in school.

I was even so foolish as to plan a trip to Hawaii with Mike. In preparation for this trip, and as a reward for working so hard on my year and a half off, I quit all three jobs pre-emptively at the end of May, three months before dental school was to start. I continued my usual spending, and then allocated a huge chunk of my hard-earned money towards Hawaii. Granted, that trip was our first trip together and ended up being our favorite trip until we went to New Zealand. So yes, YOLO. You never get the time back, and it was a great experience. But the trip cost something close to $5,000. At the time, my student loan was about $16,000. I spent a third of my debt on a vacation, without realizing that it’s all just borrowed money. The crazy part was that I had $5,000 in my bank account, (I actually had close to $10,000 in my bank account) ready to be used for Hawaii. That money should have been placed directly into student loans the minute I was earning it. Not knowing anything at all about the power of compounded interest, that could have saved me a good portion of my current loan amount, probably around $13,000 or so, since it accrued interest over the next 5 years that I was in dental school. That’s the thing about any loan with interest. It continues to add even more debt to your plate, and the longer you wait, the more money you waste. As a young twenty something, time is on your side. Address debt while you are still young.

Now, you may be saying, $13,000 out of $550,000 is not a big difference. It’s such a small sliver of the pie! But it is, because it all adds up. It’s not like you graduate and start paying back the principle on your loans right away. You address the interest that has been growing on it first. For the first five months, we didn’t even touch our principle. Five months of all of the paychecks of a dentist going towards a loan, and not bringing down principle can be a very depressing thing. I think people need to see that. Extrapolate that for 9-10 years, as if you are essentially working for no take home pay for ten years, and then tell me that the $13,000 does not matter. Every single penny matters. That should be the mind set newly graduated undergrads should have. That every financial decision they make will shape their future. Especially so if they are going to pursue further education. It’s not a matter of “YOLO, my future self can worry about that.” Your future self is still you.

If I could do it all over again, I would continue to live at my parents, like I was doing. That was definitely a decision I was proud of. I would put as much of my income as possible (which would have probably been 90% of it) towards paying down my undergrad loans prior to grad school. I would have worked harder while I had a lot of energy. I would have saved more by saying no to all the pressures to conform to this image of a successful, newly  graduated student. I would have worked until the very end of my “time off”. I would have probably skipped the Hawaii trip, or traded it in for a more financially friendly local trip to a national park. If I had done all of this, I would have been able to pay off all of my undergrad loans easily, while still living a fairly decent lifestyle, and possibly saving money along the way for my future graduate loans. Heck, I might have even been able to go to Hawaii and do that. Don’t believe me? Here’s the math.

Dental assisting: $13/hr x 30 hrs/week x 78 weeks = $30,420

Banana Republic: $9/hr x 10 hrs/week x 78 weeks = $7,020

Tutoring: $13/hr x 10 hrs/week x 78 weeks = $10,140

Total income: $47,580

Student Loans Total when I started dental school = approximately $16,000

Conclusion: I didn’t know anything about money at the age of twenty one.

Currently, my brother is gallivanting around Costa Rican terrain with a college friend. Before he left, I went over finances with him, grilling him on what he was planning to do while there, how much he was planning to spend, and pointing out tips to save money while traveling. The bottom line is that I can’t stop him from enjoying his life. I’m not even saying his trip is a life mistake. The Hawaii trip was a financial mistake, but it was also an experience that led us to realize how important traveling was to us. Ironically, the debt limits the extent with which we can travel. You win some, you lose some. He will likely learn something very valuable about himself on his travels. But I want him to at least hear from somebody that this decision will affect his future from a financial standpoint. I think every newly graduated kid deserves to hear that. If I could talk to my twenty year old self, I can’t guarantee she would have listened, or even fully understood. I mean, I would continue to make this mistake throughout all of dental school, again and again. But there is a chance that she would have changed her course, ever so slightly. And that makes a difference.

 

The First 5 Steps to Getting Our Finances in Order

Right after I graduated from dental school, I knew I wanted to get our finances in order. We were six months away from swearing eternity to each other, and I wanted to be clear about what our current financial status was and where we want to go from there. They say that finances are one of the biggest stressors in a relationship, and I knew I wanted to nip that one in the bud and move on to living happy eternal lives.

There were a few key steps that, on paper, seem super elementary, but I guarantee that the majority of the people do not have these five steps down. I am not saying these are the first five steps everyone should take, but they were the first that we took and it worked out really well for us! If you are looking to get your finances in order but aren’t sure where to start, hopefully one (or all!) of these will give you the boost you were looking for.

  1. Build up an emergency fund, and then never touching that money unless it’s a TRUE emergency. For my entire life, I knew in the back of my mind that I needed an emergency fund, but never have I had one. I assumed that there will be some money left in the bank in the case of a true emergency that I could rely on until the emergency is solved. Off course, I was underestimating the cost of my potential emergency. I assumed an emergency constitutes of a flat tire, or the need to buy something right away (this was before I became anti-consumption and was practically throwing my money out the window). In light of the recent fires in Ventura County, it is safe to say that a TRUE emergency can constitute of a fire affecting your city, so that your home burns down, along with the office that you work at, thus putting you out of a home, without belongings, and without a job. Recovery from such an emergency could take multiple months. Or an accident that could leave you with hospital bills and a disability that prevents you from going back to work. When put in that light, I never thought a true emergency could happen to me. Well, it can happen to me. Most certainly, it can happen to anybody. So one of the first things we did was build up our emergency fund. Our emergency fund is enough to last us through three months’ worth of living expenses. It sounds easy to do, but in order to find the correct number, you actually have to track your monthly living expenses. There is a tendency to underestimate the correct figure. Saying yes to dining out with friends and purchasing random items during a Target run can quickly increase that number significantly. So we started to track our finances (See item #2 below). Once we got our number, we saved up enough and then did not touch that money. It still sits in our bank accounts today, which is a great thing because that means we have been emergency free for the past year and a half! I’m not talking, “I am out of money in my bank account, let me just borrow from my emergency money.” Ideally, you don’t ever want to get to the point where you run out of money in your bank account, but we will get to that later.
  2. Track your money by budgeting. We started to track our finances with the budgeting tool called YNAB. You can use any budgeting tool alternative, such as Mint.com, or your own homemade spreadsheet. We decided to go with YNAB only because it was what our financial planner set up for us. I fell in love with budgeting! I was always interested in numbers, organizing, and planning, so this was just my cup of tea, luckily for Mike. The tool tracks money going in and money going out. By linking your bank accounts, the tracking is almost immediate. The only part you have to do is categorize your spending and income, so that you can see how much you spend on things such as rent, groceries, gas, dining out, and any other category you can think of. You can be as specific or as vague as you want. I prefer to be vague so that it makes the process a little bit easier. I was amazed at how much money we were hemorrhaging through, and that’s quite a realization since, compared to a majority of our friends, we were pretty frugal. This was the part of the process that pushed me towards minimalism and anti-consumerism. Thinking about my past habits with spending money is almost nauseating. To multiple that by the number of Americans who do the same or worse makes me want to cry and beg Mother Earth for forgiveness. To this day, we continue tracking our spending. It’s taken the guesswork out of finances, and we no longer have to think about whether we have money or not for a certain something. We always have the money, because it is already allocated for. We follow the simple envelope system, which long ago would consist of one taking their income and placing them into different envelopes based on spending categories. There would be an envelope for utilities and for auto-registration, etc. In order to pay for something, one would take the money out of the appropriate envelope. If a person tries to overspend on dining out, they can’t, because there are no physical dollar bills left in the dining out envelope. It would require for them to physically take money out of a different envelope to cover their spending, or force them not to dine out for that day. That’s the simplified version of the envelope system and it’s the categorization system that YNAB uses. Because of this, once we get our paychecks, every single dollar bill is allocated for a future expense. So that when the expense comes, the money is already there. What about in the cases of unexpected expenses? Well, that would be called an emergency, and that’s also already saved and built up from step 1. And no, there is no such thing as a shopping emergency. There is no such thing as an unexpected expense unless some drastic unforeseen natural disaster strikes in your neighborhood. The whole point of the budgeting process is to teach us that there is not one thing that we absolutely need, and those that we want, we have the time to plan ahead for and save up.
  3. Put everything on Auto Pay. Life gets hectic and busy, and sometimes we miss a payment and get charged a late fee. Ugh, those late fees kill me. It’s another way of throwing money straight down the drain. Stop that right now and put your worries to rest. Take the minimum payment for every credit card, utility bill and loan and place it on auto pay at a particular time of the month, every month. Just make sure it draws after your paycheck is deposited in your account, at a time when you know the money will be present in the bank account. The last thing you want is an overdraft fee.
  4. Start paying off your debts one by one. Since I opened my first credit card at age sixteen, I have never been debt free. The first thing I wanted to do was start our debt snowball. Credit card interest rates are insanely high, and it was crazy to think that I was throwing away so much of my money at the same time that I was spending money I did not have. So we tackled our credit cards one by one until we brought them down to zero. After we cleared all our credit cards, we kept them clear every month by paying off the total. By doing this, we were also reaffirming that we were spending well below our means. After all our credit card debt was paid off, we only had two debts left. My student loan, and Mike’s car loan. We decided to tackle the student loan first. The reason was because it had a much higher interest rate than the car loan, as well as a higher amount. The amount of money we would be gaining in interest by letting my student loan sit is way more than the amount of interest we would gain by letting the car loan sit a little longer. Don’t get us wrong, we are still paying down the car loan at the same time, at a speed fast enough so that it will be gone in three years. But we are funneling all our extra money towards paying down the student loans instead. Once you start paying things off, it becomes more addicting than spending your money. I get such a thrilling, spine-tingling joy when I pay off debt. The debt snowball is well on its way, and my goal is to make this snowball the biggest and fastest snowball possible!
  5. Hire  a financial planner. It’s the last on the list, but it was actually the first thing we did. It was how we began this journey. So why is it listed as number 5? I hesitate to put this on here because some people believe that hiring a financial planner is not a worthy way to spend money. Some may argue that paying for such a service could cause you to lose out on money that would be better served invested or paying down debt. I am not completely disagreeing by the way. If you are really good at this type of stuff and can do an equally great job on your own, I would back up your decision not to hire a financial planner. I would agree that your money is way better spent towards investing or achieving your dreams. So it isn’t for some people, which is why I hesitate to put it as number one, for fear that somebody will just shut down this post’s tab and move on with their lives. For us, this was the right choice, and I think it IS worth the money. One hundred percent! First off, notice that I did not write financial investor. That is a different type of service, one that focuses solely on investing money. A financial planner, when you’ve got the right one, does more than investment management, although that is part of their job description as well. A good planner will start by helping you discover your goals, and then trying to get you to your goals by tackling your financial life. It isn’t about the money, but about the end result. Where you want to be, and how you can shape your finances to get you there. Ours is particularly good at analyzing what we truly want and asking us the right questions to re-evaluate every few months if our dreams are still our dreams. We create the vision, and he helps to give us the path to make that a reality. The planner will keep you accountable, and is useful as a resource to guide you towards new and innovative ways to approach your goals. People can say it’s a mistake, we don’t care. Let’s just say, it’s a mistake we have to make. And if we had to choose all over again, we would do it just the same because frankly, I wouldn’t even be here, writing about all of this, if we had chosen differently.

So those are our first five steps, and now you know that the list is not in a particular order. Happy budgeting!

Paying down student debt: Where to start

For the past few months, I have written about my debilitating student debt (We started with $538,000 with $36,000 already accrued interest at 6.7% interest rate) and the reasons I have for tackling it mercilessly and quickly. What I have learned (by the sheer number of people who have approached me and asked me how I was doing the impossible), is that there is a huge interest in the community of recently graduated students (or even people who have graduated 5-10 years ago who still have student debt) to do the exact same thing. It’s crazy to me that no one ever tells us just how. I remember taking an exit course in dental school and meeting with “financial counselors” about how I can pay back the debt fastest, and they told me that it will be best if I just leave the debt, pay the minimum payment under a loan forgiveness program, let the interest (and overall total) accrue for 25 years, and then have the loan forgiven and pay the taxes on your now-over-a-million-dollars debt. It’s alright if you end up prolonging the debt longer and paying more in the long run, because by then, you’d have saved up money and be super rich. Yeah, super rich in debt. I’m a numbers kind of gal, and their approach towards paying down student loans would probably appeal to a more emotionally inclined person. The numbers just didn’t add up for me. So I kept pursuing and pursuing, until I found a way. Current update: still pursuing a faster way. Never giving up.

Firstly, I would like to say that I tend to avoid writing how-to blogs, mostly because I don’t like telling people what to do, which is mostly because I don’t like people telling me what to do. Treat others the way you want to be treated, they say. But I’ve been getting enough questions that I think it would be more efficient to just write about it.

Second, there is not one way to go about paying down student debt, just as there is not one right way to deal with finances. You must take into account your ideal lifestyle, your life mission, your personality, and your current life situation as well. I am not writing this how-to in any definitive sort of way. I am just walking you through to how I got here, with some actionable tips that have been helpful to me, and may be helpful to you.

  1. Find a purpose. There has to be a reason why you want to pay down the student debt, but you need much more than the purpose behind paying down the loans. Obviously, that would be easy to determine. Reasons such as, to get rid of debt, to owe no money, to be financially free, to be rich, are all easily identifiable purposes behind paying down a debt. As an extremist, I had to go a hundred times deeper than that. I identified my life purpose, or what some people would call their mission statement. I realized that I wanted to have freedom from everything (hence the dislike for people telling me what to do, ever). In order to get the freedom to do whatever it is that I wanted, I had to not be tied down by material goods, jobs, or anything related to money, including student loans. I want to be creative, to have the ability to drop whatever I am doing to pursue a passion. Whether that is ridding myself of all my belongings and traveling the world with just a backpack, to creating art or side projects, or opening something as mundane as a coffee shop with my husband, or the ultimate dream, which is to be a temp and to do all these things and more, I needed to be free. Finding a purpose such as this is way more powerful that any of the reasons I listed to pay down student debt. It will provide you with the long-term motivation and inspiration that you need to tackle something as massive as half a million dollars, or in my case, more. When money is the reason for your actions, it is very easy for money to take over your life. I needed something much more substantial than money, much more positive than money, much more inspiring and uplifting. And it’s been working so far. We have been on track for 6 months (we started in May 2017), and things are looking up. We went from 25 years to 10 years to 9 years, and my goal is to get that even further down to 7 years. How awesome would that be?! $574,000 with 6.7% interest paid down in 7 years.
  2. Overcome emotional intelligence, and think long-term. With regards to student loans, it is very easy for people to opt for loan forgiveness. Many “financial advisors” will actually promote this option, and they successfully convince you to do so by appealing to your emotional intelligence. They tell you that with student loan forgiveness, you end up paying less than you would for the ten year plan, and then you just have to pay taxes on the forgiven amount at the end of 25 years. When you point out that adding the taxes at the end of the 25 years causes it to be way more than the ten year plan, they say one of the following things: “Yes, but by then you’ve earned so much money that it wouldn’t be a problem” or “Then you wouldn’t have to deal with the stress of making your payments for ten years” or my absolute favorite, “Yes, but for most people, it isn’t possible to pay it off in ten years”. Translation: Putting it off to deal with later is way easier than dealing with the problem now. Hence they are only trying to convince you that emotionally, this is the best way. It’s this idea of instant gratification versus delayed gratification. Off course this appeals to a lot of people because it gives them instant gratification. They can spend their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s applying only a small percent of their income towards their loans and using a majority of it for themselves, to buy homes, to travel, to acquire all the social status symbols of wealth that tell the world, “Hey! Look at me! I am a successful and rich person capable of acquiring all of these But let’s just ignore that growing pile of debt that I owe. Keep looking at all the things I’m spending to show you how rich I am.” Which, hey, works for some people. Like I said in step number one, you need to figure out your life mission and if that’s your life mission, then keep doing what you’re doing. No judgments passed here. Just a different perspective. Also, it makes me think back to the published Marshmallow test, where they put a bunch of kindergarteners in a room with a marshmallow. You are either given the choice of instant gratification (eating the marshmallow right away), or delayed gratification (waiting for one hour, which in the case of a five year old is eternity, and receiving a second marshmallow if you survive). Those who choose delayed gratification end up with 2 marshmallows, and I think they measured future success as well, but you’d have to go and read it for yourself. This isn’t to say that delayed gratificators WILL be guaranteed more success in the long run. We don’t talk in absolutes here, and success is defined in so many different ways that the area starts to turn gray. But don’t let emotional intelligence be your deciding factor as to which path to choose. Run the numbers. Run the numbers in all sorts of possible future scenarios, and then find the excel sheet that most closely matches the life you want to lead. After all, you got a college education. You’re smart enough to do that, I know it. It’s just a matter of grit, and a little bit of common sense. And if you do find that waiting out on the loan repayment in exchange for heavy savings now is a good trade off, then all the more power to you! But I’m fighting for my freedom, not for the riches.
  3. Find a team of supporters. When I was about to graduate, I reached out to the aforementioned financial advisors and had one-on-one meetings with them. When I wasn’t satisfied with their answer, I brought Mike with me to some of those meetings to see if he could see any way to pay it off in ten years. He came to the same conclusion as the counselors, which is to pay off the debt in 25 years. I still wasn’t happy with that so I sought out a financial advisor. Who also initially looked at our current savings and income (this was right when I started working) and said it wasn’t possible. I sought and sought and sought, and I think I convinced myself so much that I started to convince others around me too. In April of 2017, less than one year after I graduated, my financial counselor said, “Oh my god. I think you guys can do this.” And then Mikey started saying, “Oh my god. I think we can do this.” And I started saying, “Off course we can. I knew we can do this!” Okay, so the honest truth is, it wasn’t just my convincing that did the trick. I owe a lot of our successes to our financial advisor and to Mikey. I must stop and say that yes, a financial advisor is the way I chose to go with, but it is NOT the only way. This is still perfectly doable without hiring a financial advisor. Likewise, hiring a financial advisor does not guarantee you will get it done either. It will require a lot of hard work on your part, because at the end of the day, you are responsible for your own finances. Lastly, there are many types of financial advisors out there. Some of them are affiliated with third parties and have a hidden agenda or interest. Beware of those ones. Others just tell you what to do, without going through the whys, and even others do not even bother to follow up. Beware of those too. I honestly got lucky in finding one who has no third party affiliations and who is more interested in the whys of finances rather than the whats. He helps educate us about finances and he has been very accessible and thorough in teaching us how to better manage money. I’ve recommended him to so many people and even those who have had financial planners before or are skeptical about paying someone to help handle their money (I know, counter-intuitive on paper, but really it isn’t), have reached out to him, and have found that there is a way. He and Mike are my two strongest support systems for paying off the student debt. I think everyone needs a support system. 10 years of loan repayment is equivalent to 120 recurring monthly payments of large sums of your hard-earned income. There is a point where you will wonder if you chose the right path. Once you choose paying your loans down, it wouldn’t make financial sense to turn around and go back to loan forgiveness. You just end up losing money that way, especially if you turn around near the beginning, where most people give up. Which is why having a purpose will really help you to push through. And when it feels hopeless and the purpose isn’t enough, then you will need your support. So make sure to pick a good one.
  4. Run numbers again and again. This commitment will take a lot of hard work. You can’t just put in a number on your auto-pay and leave it there for 10 years. Things change. Opportunities arise, and life happens. I am constantly re-assessing my situation. I run numbers day in and day out, multiple times a day if possible. I track all of our spending on YNAB, which is an online budgeting tool that our advisor set up for us at the beginning to get a feel for how money comes and goes in our household. You can use any budgeting tool you want, or just create an excel sheet and track transactions. I find that an online budgeting tool cuts the work in half by automatically downloading all transactions. What you find by tracking all of this and by constantly re-assessing is that you continually improve on being in control of your assets. I ask for spreadsheets and spreadsheets of extrapolations of our future earnings and spending and loan payments when any change in our current situation comes up. Mike got a new job, how does this affect us? I just got a raise, how does this affect us? We want to leave the country for two weeks, how does this affect us? Everything is budgeted, calculated, and accounted for. And what I’ve found is that the more you do it, the more it becomes second nature. The thought-process is almost intuitive and you start to apply it to every life decision you make. And the decisions get easier and easier. You no longer think, “Okay, should I be spending money on this?” but rather, “If I spend money on this, this will be what happens, and if I don’t, that will be what happens.” And then you just choose the outcome you want, and there is your answer. The decisions become very technical rather than emotional, which makes them easier to make. I’ve always loved numbers. I think it comes down to the math, and if the math says there is a way, then there is a way. And I will find that way, no matter what.
  5. Accountability. This is my last and final point. I share a lot of my life decisions and my biggest goals via Instagram or my blog, or by just sharing it with everyone I know in my daily interactions. It is not because I want attention or I want to boast. I am actually a very introverted and shy person. When I was younger, I had difficulty sharing anything, because I was afraid of being judged. Now I share everything because I want to be judged if I don’t follow through. It holds me accountable for my crazy ideas and statements. And because I still fear judgment to some extent, once I tell somebody I am doing something, I try my absolute best to get it done. To prove to the world that I can do what I set out to do. If I fail, well, I am no longer embarrassed of judgments due to failure as long as I tried my damndest. I’m more embarrassed of not trying hard enough, and not following through. So yes, I share it all. And I think something as big as this, you’ll want to share too. Hopefully it will garner you a whole community of supporters, people rooting for you to reach the end. You’ve got at least one standing right here. But if anything, share it in order to solidify your reserve to do what everyone says is impossible. Because I can tell you right now, it is not as impossible as they want you to believe.

Finances: My money egg

I was not always debt averse. Like so many millions of Americans, I used to embrace the idea of debt as a given, a necessary evil. Only recently did I realize that only half of that term “necessary evil” was true. I graduated dental school about a year ago, with a staggering debt of over $550,000. Many of my classmates graduated with a similar debt and the common concensus was, “God this sucks, but this had to have happened for us to be here today.” While part of that may be true, because none of us had half a million dollars lying around at age 22, or whenever it was that we started dental school, it did not have to be such an overwhelming total sum. There was a voice in my head telling me that this was just not right. I must have messed up somewhere (and I did) but I did not know where. This unsettling feeling in my stomach prompted me to get my financial story straight. I hired a financial planner even before I started work to start understanding why being in so much debt was bothering me.

Some people can have financial debt up the wazoo and not bat an eyelid. Apparently, I am of a different breed. In the past five years, I experienced an ever-growing discomfort with my ever-increasing debt. They came hand in hand. In order to tackle the debt, I had to first see where it all started and what led me to this moment. One of the first things our financial advisor did when he met us, even before he hatched a plan or gave us any insight on how to regain control of our finances, was give us an assignment. He had us draw our money eggs. The money egg was supposed to include every experience we have had regarding finances from birth until now. We could also only draw pictures of those experiences, with our non-dominant hands. At this point, Mike was rolling his eyes to the back of his head. I had convinced him that a financial planner was what we needed but this was turning into a sort of psych therapy situation for him. I, on the other hand, practically jumped up and down with excitement and worked on the assignment as soon as I could. It ended up being a very smart way to begin approaching our finances.

My money egg totally explained my progression toward debt aversion and ironically, my progression towards a minimalist lifestyle. This is my money egg. Warning: it’s basically my financial life story and then some, and I’ve been alive twenty seven years, so yeah, it’s long.

I was born in the Philippines, a third world country, to parents who came from opposite social classes. My mom was from what was considered to be a well-off family, had seven brothers and sisters, all of whom got what they wanted and more growing up. My dad came from a small province near Manila which my mom called the ghetto and from my dad’s childhood stories, I can believe that it was true. By the time I was born, my parents were what you would consider successful folk in Manila. My dad and mom were both engineers and when I was born, they were both working. We were well–off enough that my mom was able to quit her job, and they were still able to provide a personal nanny (or yaya) for me, my sister, and my brother. We had three yayas living with us in our home. I remember having two dogs, pet fish, two doves. My sister and I went to private schools and enjoyed privileges that our neighbors could not. But it was still a third world country. Definition of privilege there was like, as cute as a little girl wearing her mother’s heels.

When I was eight, my dad was offered a job in the States. In hopes to provide his children with better access to, well, everything, my dad accepted and we moved to California. We went from having three nannies to living in a single bedroom of a home of one of my dad’s friends (coworkers?), who I didn’t even know. I remember the single bed my parents shared with my two year old brother, and my sister and I were squished sleeping on the floor in the space between the bed and the desk. I vaguely remember having to step over each other to move around in that space. It was summer, all the kids were out of school, so we were stuck in that one bedroom all day long. We were rarely allowed out because my parents did not want us to bother the owner, but the few moments we were allowed to sit on the couch in the living room were the best. We were growing kids and we had to stretch our legs. I remember it always being hot, hot, hot. That’s what I remember most. The terrible heat.

Eventually, my parents moved us to a town home in Milpitas. I know that my parents were determined to give us kids a wonderful life, and they worked hard to do that. We started to get our bearings and move up the social ladder. My dad moved jobs frequently, always in search for a better life for his kids. I really appreciated his hard work, motivation, and pretty much, for just biting the bullet and doing what he had to in order to do what he thought was right. My mom was doing the same thing at home. One of the things that I really appreciated about my parents was that they worked. They worked their ASSES off.

After a few more years, my parents bought a beautiful four bedroom home in Pleasanton, CA. Each of us had our own rooms again! My dad also at this time was working three jobs. I hardly saw my dad during this time period. I remember begging my mom to wake me up at 6am so that I could go with her to the train station so I could drop him off and wave goodbye as the train took him off to work, not to return until midnight. Sometimes I’d try to hide silent tears rolling down my cheeks as he zoomed by. He worked a 9-5 job as an engineer, and then worked afterwards as a janitor for Blockbuster when it still existed (or was it Hollywood Video?), and later on as a janitor at Staples. At one point, he also was a retail salesperson at Robinsons-May (also when it still existed). He was in the lingerie department, and he hated it. But he did it anyway because he did what had to be done. It was also at this time that my brother started kindergarten and my mom started volunteering at school. Eventually, she started to work part-time for the school district. They were climbing up that social ladder real fast. We hosted parties nearly every weekend. We were the kids that always got the newest gaming console the night it was released. What I didn’t realize was that while I was getting every Disney sweater I wanted, my parents were working harder and we were eating mac and cheese and spam once a week. It was the most interesting paradox. We got every console that was released for Christmas, but I ate more beans from a can with rice and Vienna sausages on toast than my classmates. After two years, my parents decided to move yet again to Irvine in SoCal. They sold the house and my dad took an “even better job” in Orange County. All for the sake of searching for a better, more improved life.

This is where I stop and say, as kids, we hated the moves. I moved 10 times before I got into high school, including moves from house to apartment to apartment to motel to house etc. We lost a lot of friends along the way, and growing up, that was a pretty big deal. I was thirteen when we moved to SoCal, which in my head, the most “CRUCIAL” time in my life, aka the most dramatic time in my life. I think my sister took it harder than I did. I have never seen anyone resist my parents as much as she did. She fought until she got out. But I couldn’t blame my parents for trying to give us what they thought was a better life. In retrospect, I think if we just grew up in the same spot and established roots somewhere, (anywhere!), we would have probably had an improved life at home during our teen years. Less rebellion, less discontent, and more stability in general.

But on with the story about the continual search for more. We moved to Irvine and my dad started his new job and my mom started working at Irvine Unified School District. It only lasted one year before we moved into an extended stay motel, preparing to move yet again to Ladera Ranch. My parents bought another four bedroom home because my mom couldn’t stand living in a tiny apartment any more. My parents were ecstatic at finally owning a house again. A house located in a very affluent neighborhood, with well-paved streets and maintained parks, doggie bags included. 8 pools within a 3 mile radius, it was glorious. And off course, with each move, the accumulation of more stuff.

My dad continued to work for Robinsons-May even after it turned into Macy’s until he set his foot down in December when he said he did not want to work on Christmas Eve because he was going to put his family and kids first over money. I really admired him for making that move. He never went back to retail after that point. It was a wonderful Christmas, except I think my sister rebelled on the night of Christmas Eve and it actually turned into a tear-stained Christmas. Nothing short of usual family drama. Not shortly after, my mom took a second job in the afternoons at a tutoring company, Mathnasium. It is from here that she will eventually launch her own tutoring side business a few years down the road.

Up until this point, my parents have been trying to achieve an improved life for us. I would argue that they already achieved that in Pleasanton. We had what we needed and much more, and we kids were very happy kids. There’s a line between need and want. And then there is want-for-no-reason-at-all-just-because-you-can. The page turns, and that is where life took us. This is where I (slowly) started to learn that money cannot buy happiness. It can, but only up to a certain extent. Once you cover your basic needs, as well as ensure a stable income to the point where you don’t have to constantly worry if you will be supported next week or next month, money does not buy more happiness. Sometimes, I think the opposite could be true. It was the constant moving that got to my sister and I. Most of our arguments with our parents stemmed from that. Most of the blame and the resentment. My sister was never the same after our final move to Ladera Ranch. Granted, those were also the teen years and maybe it would have happened anyway, her turning rogue on us like that. But then again, maybe not.

At age sixteen, I started to work at Jamba Juice. My parents raised me to be a hard-worker too, and I liked the money I was making. I remember my mom telling me that, now that I was making money, I could start buying my own clothes, with the implication that I needed more clothes. When I started work, I opened my first debit card and my first credit card. My mom had her name assigned to my debit card so she could “help me monitor it”. What that also allowed her to do was to withdraw money from the account whenever she needed to borrow extra. By 18 years old, she had convinced me to open up 2 more general credit cards, which she later used to borrow to buy groceries and to buy other things that she needed. She also convinced me to open a credit card at Banana Republic, which I was now working at, so that I could make use of the discounts. I bought into it and spent paycheck after paycheck on clothes, saving very little for myself. It was a reward, she justified. I also bought clothes for her when sales were happening, and she paid me back, albeit a few days or weeks later. And I was okay with it.

When I was 18, my mom insisted on throwing me a traditional debutant ball. I told her that was not necessary, I dreaded the thought of going up in front of everyone and perform dances and speeches and whatever else. But she insisted and like a good daughter I went along with it. It was a $10,000 birthday party. With photographers, videographers, two gowns, everything. It wasn’t for me, and I don’t even want to say it was for her. It was for our friends and relatives, to show them how well-off we were. So well-off that she could flippantly throw a $10 grand birthday party for an 18 year old. The following year, my mom insisted my sister had one too, and despite my sister’s much stronger resistance to the thing, she got one whether she wanted to or not. After my sister’s debutante ball, my credit cards were maxed out, and they would stay maxed out until I was 25. One was maxed at $2500 and the other $8500. Where was all the money going? I did not know it then, but I know now that all that money went to buy social status symbols. Symbols such as debutante balls and Banana Republic clothes and gaming consoles, random dinners and social events, everything a regular American typically spends money on. Well, minus the debutant parties. But that’s where a lot of the money was going to. In fact, I started receiving letters in the mail addressed to me saying that the payments on my credit cards were not being made. They were overdue, consistently, month after month. There were threatening emails saying the cards would be suspended if minimum balances weren’t met. I kept asking my mom about it and she kept brushing it off and saying, “Don’t worry about it.” But I WAS worrying about it. Eventually, at age 20, I got the cards back and closed both accounts. I forced my mom to open her own Banana Republic credit card. And I removed her from my debit card account. Today, only the $2500 credit card is paid off. The other one still has money unpaid. But I give them props, because they are at least working on paying that down now, after repeated, heavy arguing over the last five years.

Let me pause here (again) and say that I am not an ungrateful child. My parents were doing what they were taught to be the right thing to do and I don’t hate them for that. They are good people. But they were misled by an American Dream. I am very appreciative of their efforts. They bought my sister and I brand new cars for our first car, which I am so grateful for! And compared to other kids I went to school with, these weren’t crazy expensive cars like theirs, but these were still brand new. That’s amazing and sweet and generous and kind. But as I look back on it now, I can’t help but think that that was also soooooo unnecessary.

Maybe in the back of my mind, I always knew we were short on money. I worried about money all the time. I worried about it enough that I felt the need to get a job at 16 years old. I even knew it enough that I chose my college based on how much money I would save living at home. I got into UCLA, which is where my boyfriend at the time decided to go, and which was viewed as a higher ranking college than UCI, but I chose UCI because I knew that I was the one who had to pay for my college education and I needed to save every bit that I could. My high school teachers and friends all thought I was crazy and tried to convince me to go to UCLA. But some part of me knew that I shouldn’t. I was slowly starting to become debt averse. However, even though I was smart enough to realize all of that, I was wrongly convinced that I could reward myself every time I got a paycheck with clothes and dinners and events and stuff in general. My parents sure supported that kind of lifestyle. You can never have too many shoes. And you need more professional clothes, even at 18! But I always had this feeling…

I graduated undergrad in three years and an extra quarter. I worked hard to pull that off so that I wouldn’t have to pay more money for the last two quarters. People asked why I did not just stay in school and take fun classes, and my answer what that I honestly did not want to spend more money. By this time, at age 20, I was working three jobs, just like my ole man. I was working as a dental assistant every day the dental office was open, at an average of 33 hours a week. It was an emotionally taxing job, serving a community of people who had very high expectations and demands in an environment that caused a lot of fear in patients. On the days the dental office was closed, I was working at Banana Republic (still!) on Tuesday and Thursday mornings before the stores would open. I lifted mannequins above my head and climbed ladders twice my height, nearly breaking my back every day to set up the shop windows before the customers came in. If it was a Sunday, I would work the floor, following consumers as they dropped piles of clothes on the floor and I folded it back for them into perfectly neat stacks. I saw customers throw clothes at sales people when they were displeased, complaining of the heat in the store when there were too many other customers walking around, and slamming dressing room doors because they waited so long in the lines. Retail was a place where I learned how NOT to treat people. And it was where I saw the first glimpse of how “things” could turn people into such monsters. After a long physical day at BR, I would have a few hours to myself before I would drive to Irvine to tutor high school kids from Corona Del Mar. Not exactly mentally draining, these sessions did provide me further insight into lives of very very rich people. Back then, I wanted that lifestyle. These kids were driving Mercedes and Maseratis like it was nothing. Their parents owned boats and they went on international vacations by themselves every holiday. Who didn’t want money when they saw that? What I didn’t internalize was that many of these kids were taking anti-anxiety pills. ADD pills. Disliked their parents, or never even saw them. They were stressed more than I was, because of the high expectations that were set upon them by their parents and their peers. They know of more people their age who committed suicide than I did from watching television. I mean, these kids were paying $80/hour to talk to me about their problems at school and at home. All I could see was the prestige, their beautiful clothes, their lavish vacations, their lack of concern for money. And I was blinded to believe that that was what I was working towards.

In between graduating undergrad and getting into dental school, I made a lot of dumb mistakes. I was making good money working three jobs, but I didn’t tackle my student loans. Instead, I went out frequently. Spent money on clothes, food, alcohol and more alcohol. I even did a celebratory trip to Hawaii with Mike to celebrate getting into dental school. My loans sat there and I paid the bare minimum which didn’t even cover interest. And so my loans grew. I was working my ass off, but my debt continued to grow. I was working so damn hard that I was sick for months at a time, because my body could not keep up with the stress. I couldn’t wait until I got into dental school so that the payments could be delayed another four years.

I didn’t apply to many dental schools, but I did get into two schools right away, as early as December the year before. Ohio State University and University of Southern California. I wanted to stay in California to be with Mike and be close to home, so I decided to choose USC, which happens to be voted THE most expensive dental school in the United States. I swear I wasn’t getting any smarter with the finances thing. I mean, I KNEW it was the most expensive. I got an apartment to myself across the street from campus, which also meant I was spending A LOT of money on housing alone. Two weeks after dental school started at USC, I got an offer to go to dental school at UCLA, which started a week later. I denied it! You want to know why? It wasn’t because I liked USC better. It was because of sheer laziness! I was already set up in my apartment, moved in, and I already met a few people at school. I did not want to start all over or commute across the city. That’s it! That is the reason I said no. It was probably the worst financial move in the entirety of my life. And I hope never to make a mistake like that ever again.

Debt is never a good thing. More debt in exchange for a supposedly more prestigious school does not make the debt valuable. It’s not worth it. End of story. Yes, in order for me to achieve my dream of becoming a dentist, I had to go into debt. But I had a choice to take less debt, and I was a moron.

It was also around this time that my parents lost their house to the bank. This was the same year they had to take money out of their retirement fund to pay for something or other and were slashed with a big tax fee at the end of the year. But who was I to judge them? I stayed at USC. That single decision put me more in debt than my parents. So I cannot judge them for their financial decisions. I should be focused on working on my own spending habits rather than over-analyzing theirs. Plus, it turns out, I was growing up to be just like them.

Since I was living by myself in an apartment across the street from USC, I was dwindling down the few extra bucks I saved working three jobs during my one and a half years off. I was taking out the maximum loans possible (over $100k a year!) and still, by the end of my first year, I had no extra money in my bank account. I decided to move in with a roommate a little further away from school, but still in downtown LA. It made rent $100 cheaper per month. But it still wasn’t enough. In my second year of dental school, to the shock of my dental classmates, I took on a job as a librarian on campus and worked 20 hours a week, on top of being at the dental campus over 40 hours a week. I was exhausted, sickly, hardly spoke to my roommate and released all of my stress on Mike at the end of the day. After all the money financial aid was handing me, and the extra hours I was working, I was still going into further debt. Mikey had to lend me $1000-3000 at the end of every trimester to make ends meet. I would pay him back the minute I got my funds for the following trimester, which meant that at the end of the next trimester, I would need to borrow even more from him. How was this possible?!

It’s all those little things that you don’t even think about when you buy them. It’s that one shopping spree that you went on just because you were feeling down. It’s the new picture frame your apartment needed. It’s the chips and ice cream that you had to add to your grocery bill. It’s the second pair of Nikes you have because the last one has a mark on it. It’s the wedding dress you had to buy to attend your friend’s wedding, because she has seen you wear all the other dresses you owned. It’s the fifty books you have yet to read but buy impulsively because the cover calls to you. It’s that one time you were too lazy to cook so you went out to dinner with your friends. It’s when you got hammered at your friend’s party and offered to buy everyone a round of drinks. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. One bad financial decision after another. And these were just the little things. The big things were worse. The choice of housing for the sake of convenience. The choice of school due to laziness. The choice to borrow money from someone else for lack of discipline. It’s not consumption that’s the problem. We are human, and we need things. But it’s compulsive consumption that is the issue. The failure to see the difference between need and want.

By the summer after my second year of dental school, I was drowning in debt and I couldn’t take it anymore. I told my roommate I was moving out by the end of the week. A bitch move, and I can’t believe we are still close friends after that. I moved to Torrance to live with my boyfriend and his two guy friends, where my rent changed from $1200/month to $345/month. I quit my librarian job and paid Mike back every single penny. I committed to cooking meals at home with Mike as much as possible, and started budgeting our grocery bill to $50/week. I still follow this budget until today. I was taking a step towards debt aversion. But I continued to be a bad spender, or rather, a spender period. After all the money I saved, I spent any excess loan amount I had to travel or to dine out! Oy vey. I was so excited that I had “extra money” that I could not wait until the end of the trimesters to see how much I had left in order to live the good life. The truth that we all know is that, I have never had any extra money. As long as you are in debt, you don’t have money. I have been in debt since the day I opened my first credit card. But I spent the “extra money” anyway instead of paying back my loans. I continued this toxic cycle up until the day I graduated.

I wish I could say all of this ended after graduating dental school. After the loans stopped coming in and I was left with whatever debt’s version of a black hole is. Unfortunately, it didn’t end there. The summer after I graduated, I had to borrow money from Mikey. I was out of loans. In our entire relationship, I was very adamant about splitting everything in half. Down to the last penny. So any money I borrowed from Mikey, I kept tabs on. Until I graduated from dental school, Mikey and I were Even Stevens. I owed him over $16,000 by the time I started work. $16,000! That’s a lot of money I didn’t have. That summer, I was even more obsessed with spending. I had to have a nice loft apartment and I had to buy new furniture for it. I spent his money to take classes and workshops. I was in denial that I had to face a burdensome monstrous debt. I knew I had a problem, then.

Here is my issue with money. You might not have this issue but I did. And it all started with things.

The more things I wanted to buy, the less money I had.

The less money I had, the harder I had to work.

The harder I had to work,

The more stressed I was.

The less time I had with my friends.

The more sick I became.

The faster I tired.

The less personal growth I had.

And if I wasn’t growing,

Then I was dying.

And that had to change. ASAP.

I was just like my parents. Just like so many other Americans. We have too many choices and that was a problem for me. I thought I needed to have every choice offered to me. When I had to present my money egg, I knew all of this. I was aware of the entire story as it was unfolding, as I was living it day to day. In fact, I was hyper-aware, and that’s what made me worry so often since I was a young teenager. I knew this because I watched my parents go through it.  But I was also in denial. I deserve this. I worked hard for this. This is my reward. If they can have it, so can I. I am in less debt than they are. This is worth the money. All of these are excuses and lies that I fed myself. When I finished presenting my money egg, I couldn’t help but think to myself, that for once in my life, I made the right financial move. I hired myself a financial planner who did not tell me what to do with my money, but had me change my whole perspective of life in general. After presenting my money egg, he had me and Mike discuss our priorities, our future goals, and our dreams. He asked us questions like, what brought us happiness, what projects we wanted to start, when we saw ourselves retiring, what retirement looked like for us. He asked us what we wish we could had done in life if we were told that we had an incurable disease and we were to die by the end of the year. Then he asked us what we wish we could have done if we were told we were going to die tomorrow. If you were to die and had a million dollars in assets, how would you divvy that up? By asking us these questions, and writing down all our answers, he came back at us and said, look. From all the answers that were provided, there were a few things that mattered to Mike and I. Family seems to be the most important thing. Next came travel, hobbies, and self-improvement. After that was contributing beyond ourselves. There was no mention of a house or stuff. So we had to approach our financial situation in a way that allowed us those things not only in the future, but more importantly in the present. It was like a switch flipped in me. I radically altered my lifestyle. It was around this time that I started to embrace what I would consider the simple life and the concept of minimalism.

Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can focus on life’s more important things, which aren’t really things, at all.

-The Minimalists

In the last year throughout this process of gaining more and more control over my financial life, this is what I learned.

The less stuff I bought, the more money I had.

The more money I had, the more focused I was on paying down my debt.

The smaller the debt got, the less I worried about my finances.

The less I worried about finances, the less time I had to work.

The less time I had to work, the more time I had to learn about myself.

The more I learned about myself, the more focused I was.

The more focused I was, the more clear my priorities became.

The more clear my priorities became, the better my relationships got.

The better my relationships got, the more meaningful my life got.

As I discovered what was meaningful to me,

I realized that it never had anything to do with stuff after all.