The Real Reason Doctors Can’t Pay Down Their Student Debt

I was sitting at work once (and many times after), talking to colleagues of mine who were all in their early thirties – fairly young by doctor standards. We were talking about student loans (what else?) and how steep the price has become to get an education (in this case dental, but it applies to education in general). We were going through our numbers and they were going through their excuses as to why it was impossible in their situation to pay down debt. Of course, me being me, I gently stated the obvious which was that the real reason doctors “can’t” pay down their student debt was because they thought they deserve more than everyone else.

This statement may hurt many doctors’ feelings, but actually, it’s true.

For example. I had one person complaining about drowning in student debt. He blamed it on the kids and the fact that he is a single income household. Fine. But he also just bought a brand new Tesla SUV. He gets a nanny to watch his kids so that it’s easier on his stay-at-home wife. He gets help (did he say $100k a year??) from his in-laws that is budgeted for the kids. His dining out bill is $800 a month. But he can’t afford his student debt.

Another person also bought a brand new car after graduation, enrolled his 6-month old in Montessori private school, took wild vacations (without travel hacking!), and bought a grand house for their family of three.

Yet another person owns two medical-grade massage chairs in his home, bought his girlfriend a Tesla, and drops $10k on trips around the world.

What if I told you that this story is repeated many times over? I have spoken with my fair share of indebted graduates, especially after releasing my own personal story with ChooseFI.

They all wish to banish their student debt. They also don’t wish to do the work.

Here’s the thing I see most often with doctors. They work very diligently to get through school. They do anything to get to their dream career, including taking out a huge sum of moolah (hell, I did too).  They sacrifice the best of their young years. They put off buying a home, earning money, and settling down. Then graduation hits and they think, “I’ve made it.” For a brief second, they breathe a sigh of relief thinking it’s all going to be worth it.

So they buy a new car to celebrate. Then they buy a home or a practice. They go out every weekend for food. Sometimes they dine out a few times a week! They want to live in affluent communities. They want to go on vacation. They throw themselves a dream wedding. They buy nice clothes and expensive Figs scrubs. But more than all this are the little purchases. They want the daily coffee, the trinkets from the $5 section in Target, the happy hour events, the spin class – you know, the harmless stuff.

They become obsessed with the high-life and quite quickly, they refuse to give it up. 

And if you think I’m being extreme, I’m not.

Because when I graduated, I wanted all these things, too!

The most excruciating part about facing my student debt, the part that nearly killed me, was realizing that after every sacrifice and sleepless night, after giving up the best of my youth, after working three jobs during school, after wracking my brain on ways to extend $40 for another week, after being a model student, the good daughter, the most loyal employee, the most valuable I could be to the community – the work was still not done.

And when I tell new grads coming to me for advice on making loans disappear that they have to use their beat-up high-school ride, possibly move-in with their parents or take on a roommate, cook dinner every night, manage a budget every week, wear their same scrubs from dental school for five more years, and try their darndest to travel for FREE – well, their faces fall and I can see the disappointment plain as day scrawled on their furrowed brows.

Only thing is, I can’t tell if the disappointment lies in the fact that they have to continue living like a college kid for ten more years or if the disappointment lies in me – because I wasn’t the magic genie they wanted that would grant them their wish.

I can tell you how to repay your loans. You just might not like it.

99% of graduates with more than $350k of debt choose to stay with loan forgiveness. Probably because it hurts the human psyche too much to know that everything you’ve done thus far is not enough.

Becoming a doctor does not end the day you graduate. Not for me. It ends the day everything you need to become a doctor is behind you. Loans included.

Not everyone thinks this way, though. Many people truly believe that the hardship stops the day you get the degree. Ahhh, time to sit back and enjoy the benefits of all our hard work. But how can that be when you don’t even know what a hard-earned dollar looks like?! What makes you better than the rest of ’em?

I know I’m making enemies here but I must pose the question. If not I, who will?

I don’t blame the docs. They were merely children when they signed their lives away for a chance at the American Dream. I blame our upbringing for creating the expectation that a doctor’s life is a rich and easy one. I blame the institutions that are set in place that allow universities to charge this much money to get educated. I also blame lending companies who are handing out loans this large. Child robbery, that’s what I call it.

I implore to all the existing doctors that make it seem like being a doctor is easy. How will we ever change the trajectory if we keep implying to young ‘uns that pursuing this career path will mean they won’t have to work hard for the rest of their life. How will they realize and make an informed decision when the time comes?

I know the real truth.

That behind the facade of wealth is an increasingly long list of medical professionals patiently waiting 25 years for loan forgiveness to hit. Behind every confident thrust of the credit card is an avoidance technique that makes life a bit easier to live. Behind all our heroics and saving lives lies a coward afraid to face our social responsibility to pay back debt that we chose to take out. And behind every accomplishment lies a lifestyle creep that is avalanching too fast out of our reach, propelling doctors further forward towards an unsustainable way of living.

The real reason doctors “can’t” pay back student debt is because they won’t.

They choose not to work hard anymore. It isn’t burn-out, although that stuff is real too. It’s the social expectation that a doctor’s life is breezy. The mindset to pay back debt just isn’t there. Many cannot accept that graduation is not the end-game. They think they already won.

There will be excuses. I don’t buy any of it.

There will come a day when I will finish my loan repayment journey, and people will think it’s a miracle. They’ll think I was one of the lucky ones, rather than a penny-pinching maniac. Perhaps the stars aligned and the pandemic gave me this “unique” ability to pay back loans faster because I was not being charged interest for six months. My parents must have helped me out. An investment strategy probably worked out for me but not them. I can’t wait to see the excuses they make. But none of that will be true.

My current car is a high-school ride that I’ve had for 13 years. The passenger’s rear-view mirror doesn’t match, because when someone broke it (probably to re-sell it), I didn’t want to pay an extra $60 to get one that was white when the stock color was black. Mike even helped me put it on the car myself because I didn’t want to pay a service fee at the auto shop. My neighbor came out of his garage this past week and looked at me funny when he saw me physically hand-washing my car. He said, “That’s … nice…” and walked away slowly.

I sometimes have to wipe graffiti off my windows, because I chose to live in a lower income neighborhood so that I could buy a business storefront AND a dwelling at a very low price. Last Friday night, it was getting ratchet at the club next door since they moved the party outdoors due to COVID restrictions. I’ve had to run away from my own home before when the riots first started and they fired fireworks at the cops.

I spent a third of last year working midnight shifts. I still wear my USC scrubs that I was forced to buy upon entering dental school in 2012. I run with the Nike’s that my husband bought me as a gift when I was attending dental school so that I could “be cool”. They used to be orange but now they’re mostly black. I sell my de-cluttered stuff on Poshmark. I research heavily in order to travel the world for FREE. I come home from work to work. I still actively budget every week. I aim to spend only $200 a month in groceries for the two of us and $150 a month in dining out. I created a lifestyle where my job is three blocks away, to reduce the gas I have to buy. TO REDUCE THE GAS I HAVE TO BUY. I spent my last birthday repainting our bathroom. We spent Mike’s birthday picking up birthday freebies. Heck, even our cat was free.

Do you know the real reason THIS doctor can pay off student debt?

Hard work and a willingness to.

It’s not rocket science.