Dear College Kid: Choose the Cheapest School

Dear College Kid is a series I write to my younger self. I would send them too, if I could somehow teleport myself via time machine to my late teens and early twenties. I hope other college kids find these letters, and garner some foresight that I myself had lacked. It’s not finance advice by any means, but rather, personal anecdote. Still. I hope it changes lives.

Dear College Kid,

Specifically the college undergrad hoping to enter grad school. (I am also addressing my past self.) I beg you, choose the grad school that costs the least amount of money. It doesn’t matter how well known they are, it doesn’t matter if your parents or friends went there, it doesn’t even matter if you like it. It matters most that it’s the cheapest.

At the end of your grad school career, you will walk away, diploma in hand regardless. You may also walk away with a large student debt. If you choose the cheapest school you can possibly go to, you will have an advantage over your peers. You will be starting your life at a better starting point.

I would love to teach all college students to choose grad schools based on price. If more kids opted for cheaper schools, perhaps elite schools wouldn’t charge so much. A decrease in their applications will certainly give them pause. What if no one applied to the most expensive schools in the country? Trust me, those private institutions will start to wonder why. Let’s not feed them our young.

Starting a career with less debt is equally as good as starting a marriage with less debt. You want the foundation of your life to be on solid ground. If you begin life in the red, then you will encounter more struggles than the people around you. There will be more restrictions with what you can do.

This isn’t to say you can’t live a flashy and glamorous life. You certainly can, but you are restricted to a loan forgiveness program. Or you have to work more hours. Or you may be tied to a job that you hate in order to pay the bills.

But if you start your life with less debt, you will have more freedom to choose how that debt is repaid. You can be ahead of the curve and have a higher savings rate. With more savings, you will reach your financial goals quicker. You can work less hours, leaving time to learn about investments instead. Or you can focus on building careers around your passions rather than your degree.

There are so many benefits to having less student debt. I really implore you to consider the following:

Choose the college that will cost you the least amount of money, because that may also be the path of least resistance to financial success for new grads.

At least, that’s what I would tell my past self. I hope she listens.

If you’d like to speak to a professional, I have a recommendation! Speak to Travis Hornsby and his team at Student Loan Planner. They are knowledgeable and give great advice.

Dear College Kid: Pursuing Medicine Will Not Get You to Financial Independence Faster

Dear College Kid is a series I decided to write to my younger self. I would send them too, if I could somehow teleport myself via time machine to my late teens and early twenties. I hope other college kids find these letters, and garner some foresight that I myself had lacked. I hope it changes their lives.

Dear College Kid,

Have you ever heard of the term FI? More importantly, do you know of the FIRE community? Standing for “Financial Independence, Retire Early”, FIRE is a concept that aims for the option to be free from needing to spend forty years of your life working. Not to be confused with your life’s work, FI aims to free people of your job, if and when you choose to do so, in order to do your life’s work.

What I am here to tell you is this. If you’re dream is to pursue FI, then the medical profession is not the best, most practical route. I’m a dentist, who graduated from dental school at age 26 with more than half a million dollars in student debt. Now imagine being a doctor finishing residency at age 30, or an oral surgeon finishing at age 34. What you have as a college kid that I no longer do is time on your side. Time to get a head start, time to reach freedom more quickly and efficiently. Time to start opening doors.

At 21, I had no idea FIRE existed. It’s unfathomable for me to even think that I would have understood that work is not necessary in order to live a good life. A 21 year old graduating with zero (or very little) student loans, pursuing a desk job and saving  their income will have a 5-10 year head start on a 30 year old medical professional graduating with hundreds of thousands of student loans and saving none of their income because it is all tied up in debt. I will start at 36 years old at $0 in the bank if I spend all my income right out of school and funnel it to paying down my student loans (something I’ve talked about before). Meaning, the 21 year old with the desk job will have 15 years ahead of me in savings. On top of that, those savings have been racking up compound interest for 25 years. Assuming a moderate 6-7% return rate, those 15 years makes a whole heck of a lot of difference!

Off course, if you are pursuing the medical field, I am not dissuading you entirely, if it is what you WANT to do. The medical field is great! I love my job, but that’s because I did not go into it for the money. If you want to become a medical professional because it’s what you want to do for a long time, then by all means, you will be very happy! If you want to enter the medical field because you want to be RICH and that’s your goal in life, then you will be successful. BUT, if you are pursuing freedom or FIRE, and you think the medical field will get you there quicker because of the higher salary, you are incorrect. There are people in the FIRE communities who retire at 30 years old. If you go into the medical field, unless you have relatives that can pay for your entire tuition and you graduate debt free, well, you’ll still be at net-zero at 30 years old, but at least you have the means to get to FIRE by mid-to-late thirties perhaps. Most parents, however, cannot support med school, and if you graduate with a medical degree AND a ton of student debt, then you’ll be reaching FIRE later than your other FIRE friends. See what I mean?

This does NOT mean, pursue a desk job that you hate in order to reach FI. We reach for FIRE in order to be happy. There is no point putting yourself through misery in order to get to FI because you’ll be giving up happiness in order to do it. Some people say, “Well, I’ll just put in the work and hate my job but get to FIRE faster and THEN I will be happy.” But will you really, though? Reaching the end and never working a day in your life does not guarantee you will be happy. True FIRE pursuers recognize that it isn’t about the end goal, but the journey. It’s about gaining your freedom in the future, without giving up your freedom now. Otherwise, you’ve read FIRE all wrong.

Alternatively, FIRE is not entirely about Retiring Early. It’s about having the option to not work at a job, in order to pursue something else in life that will lead to more happiness. Ultimately, this all boils down to entering a profession for the right reasons. If you find a profession you love, you may not need to retire at all. I find myself happier than a lot of my colleagues, some of whom have only been out a few years and are already “sick of it”. They want out! Unfortunately, they are far from being free because of their lifestyle, or their debt, or a combination of the two. I am happier because I did not enter the field solely for money. I am happier because I do not need as much money in order to live, and can therefore choose how much of my life I need to give up in order to live a happy one. As I’ve said many times before, having money dictate the way you live your life is not a good thing. Whether that’s a lack of money, or a plethora of money. My dream is to free myself from student debt, go FIRE, and eventually travel the world and work for free as a dentist in third – world countries. To give back to communities that dentists never touch. I will likely never be “rich”, but my life will be. I am very, very happy, because I am doing what I love.

So in summary, enter the medical field if it is something you are very interested in or really want to do. (Sage advice: enter ANY profession because it’s what you want to do.) Do NOT enter the medical field, thinking it is the quickest way to get you to financial independence. It’s not the fastest, and it’s not the easiest, either.

For those just hearing about FI, here are a few of my favorite blogs and podcasts:

Welcome to the rabbit hole.