Afterthoughts on: “10 Steps for Financial Success for New Grads”

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more.

This past week, I had the pleasure of hopping on an InstaLive session with Dr. Unorthodoc once again. In this week’s Live, we talked about my recent post: 10 Steps for Financial Success for New Grads. She even threw in two bonus recommendations, which you can surely review on her Instagram @dr.unorthodoc. In typical fashion, I’ve spent the last few days conjuring up a few afterthoughts that I wanted to share in this post.

Regarding Financial Success:

Financial success” can mean different things to different people. The vision could include accumulated wealth, fancy things, or financial freedom. For me, it is certainly the latter. A quote that I recently read sums up my idea of success:

“A nice car and a big house are the old status symbols. The ultimate flex is freedom. Time freedom, location freedom, and financial freedom.”

Obviously what was success to my parents’ generation is not financial success to me. The same goes for a peer of mine who might hold different values, be in a different situation, or have a different upbringing. There is no judgement in that fact. It is simply an observation. When I talk about my own journey, I don’t want to exclude people and make them feel like the information is irrelevant to them. I want them to tailor my experiences to their own needs and versions of financial success. Because of this, not every tactic we discuss will apply to everyone and certainly the order in which you do things may change. We went into some of those details in the InstaLive so feel free to check it out!

Regarding Where to Spend Your First Paycheck:

Some of my classmates spent their first paycheck investing in the stock market or contributing to their 401k’s. Some saved up for their first home’s down-payment or upgraded their cars. I used my first paycheck to pay for a financial planner. (The two recommendations we mentioned in the podcast were Travis Hornsby from Student Loan Planner and Andrew Paulson from White Coat Investor.)

This is a prime example of how we can use our money to get closer to our ideas of financial success (wealth, stuff, and freedom). For me, I wanted to be free from debt or anything that would prevent me from living as I please in a day-to-day basis.

Regarding Financial Literacy:

What this also shows is differing levels of financial literacy. I think that’s what makes my financial journey so relatable is the fact that I started at the bottom with zero financial literacy. Meaning, I have been through every possible stage of wealth accumulation so many people can relate to the different phases of my financial journey.

I have classmates who have more money awareness than I did at graduation. Heck, I had friends who had more money period! One of my closest friends spent his mornings in dental school investing in the stock market. I was not even exposed to that world at that point in my life. I also did not have access to generational wealth being a zero generation immigrant.

I am not saying this in an accusatory way or anything like that. But, certainly, they were better versed and can invest in things right out of school because they were at a stage in their life where they were already set up for that. Just because I started at the bottom doesn’t mean every has to hire a financial planner. You might already know everything a financial planner has to tell you!

Remember: the path to financial success is mutli-factorial. The level of financial literacy, current phase of wealth accumulation and your personal definition of financial success all play a role towards your path post grad.

Regarding Student Loans

The best advice that I can give is to choose a path that works for you.

Not everyone should aggressively pay student loans back, and I don’t mind going on record saying that! Those whose definition of financial success falls under wealth accumulation or having nice things would be better off with the loan forgiveness program, granted that they invest their money in preparation for the tax bomb at the end of the 20-25 years. Those who yearn for freedom or value frugal living would benefit from paying it off aggressively.

The question new grads need to answer is, “What lifestyle do I want to live?”

Since my values are centered around gaining financial freedom, the reasons why I decided to pay my student loans off aggressively are as follows:

  • I don’t like having debt looming over my shoulder. It causes me stress and holding on to debt has a psychological and emotional toll on me. Even when it comes to a to-do list, I am the type of person that prefers to check off tasks as quickly as possible, in order to alleviate worry. If you asked my husband, my famous saying that would follow me to the grave would be, “Let’s get it over with!”. Regardless of whether the task at hand is enjoyable or not, the part that matters more to me is getting it done. At the end of the day, it gives me more peace to get rid of my debt.
  • I am not the type of person to only do one thing for the rest of my life. Right after graduation, I knew that I wasn’t going to be the type of dentist who would happily work a 9-5 shift Monday through Friday, running a practice until I was 65 years old. I am a creative person and I wanted to have the choice to quit dentistry all together, whenever I want. If anything, the last four years since graduating has been proof that the 25 year loan forgiveness is not for me. I’ve already quit once (here I wrote about How to Gain Enough Financial Independence to Quit Your Job) which happened to be a job that did not bring me joy at a time when I wanted to recreate myself (we can blame that on Saturn’s return.) I’m the type of person who wants to be a baker some days, a writer other days, a pet caregiver on my time off, and a world traveler not tied down by a consistent job. I want to work remotely in my pajamas at home sometimes, and interact with people other times. I want to think up of ideas as much as work with my hands. Because this is the person I am, I decided having no debt gave me more freedom to live wherever, work however, and be whomever. This required a deep understanding of the true me, which is where the real work lies.
  • Lastly, I am a numbers gal and while there is wealth growth potential to doing the loan forgiveness programs, it appealed to me that paying the loans off in ten years time is still cheaper than waiting 20-odd years – cheaper by more than $100,000! Of course that profit margin increases even more if you pay it back quicker than 10 years, which is what I am trying to do!

Regarding Emergency Funds:

I like emergency funds because it gives me that layer of added security and ease of mind. That being said, emergency funds don’t have to be that traditional idea of putting away a monetary amount in a savings account or in a safe under your home. I don’t like that idea anyway because that prevents you from growing your wealth. You should at least invest it as a hedge against inflation. I like to make every single dollar work for me and I love the idea of passive income. There are many ways to have an emergency fund without reducing the chances of wealth accumulation.

  • Open a brokerage account and invest your savings into something. Even a mutual index fund like SPY, VTI, or VTSX will be better than keeping it in a savings account, especially if you don’t know much about stocks. Your brokerage account can be you investing in stocks, but also a source of funds in cases of true emergency.
  • We travel hack a lot so that we never have to spend our hard-earned dollars on our travels. Which means we have multiple credit cards open at the same time that have maximum limits. Since we pay all our credit cards in full every month, we have those funds readily available for emergencies. Between my husband and I, we have over $100k in unused credit card spending (I alone have $83k) and that is a source that we can turn to in case of a true emergency.
  • Depending on your loan situation, you could use pivoting your plans to gain access to more money during tough times. For example, even though I am paying off my loans aggressively, I remained with REPAYE the first three year’s to benefit from the program’s promise to pay half of the interest fees. My minimum monthly payment was $900 per month, but I was paying $6,500 or more per month. When 2020 hit and my husband lost his job for 10 months, we paid only the minimum payments to my loans and used the left-over to cover his income loss. Luckily, the interest rate since the pandemic has been at a miraculous 0%. Regardless, this was a good example of using loan repayment pivoting in cases of emergency.
  • Just like you can gain access to money by selling stocks, you can do the same if you have equity in real estate. We own a commercial/residential property and can sell it if things go south, immediately gaining access to our equity.

Regarding Investments:

We briefly touched on investments here but I think the InstaLive had better content within the banter that Dr.Unorthodoc and I had. I just want to summarize with the following: Investments are GREAT but require a bit of heeding. Do your research, don’t let emotions carry you away, and use your head.

Regarding the big picture:

I am all about balance – as you can tell from my lifestyle. Paying loans off aggressively does not hinder us from

-maxing out our 401K

-buying a property

-growing our wealth and investing in stocks

-building businesses

Do a bit of everything! It makes life more fun and interesting. I view life as one big social experiment. Novelty is good for the soul and honestly, I know very few people who can do the grind and truly call themselves happy.

I am choosing happy.

XOXO

10 Steps to Financial Success for New Grads

This post is sponsored by SoFi. SoFI recently created a Work Dashboard that you can use to keep track of your goals. This includes a Student Loan Debt Navigator. And if you decide to pay off loans aggressively, SoFI can also refinance your loans (here’s my affiliate link). Please see Step 5 before doing so.

First and foremost, Congrats! You’ve made it out alive (barely, perhaps?). Now that school is out, it’s time to make money in. Whether you’ve started your first job or are just figuring out your next move, it’s important to start thinking about your finances from the get-go and to act intentionally about money. In an effort to get you closer to a life of financial independence (or at least just enough to quit a job you don’t like and have the freedom to pick-and-choose), let’s review 10 steps you can start to take for success. If it all sounds too overwhelming, no worries. Take it one easy step at a time. I recommend breaking them down over a few weekends to ensure steady, solid progress over time.

10 Steps to Financial Success

1. Review Habits

You want to know where you stand with your money. More specifically, you want to know where the money is going. Whether you’re aware of it or not, the way you handle money is centered around the habits you’ve formed over time. The best way to find that out is to create a budget. That is the very first step we took towards our path to financial independence. Without tracking where your money goes, you cannot ever analyze your habits or learn from your mistakes. You don’t know where to improve. This step is so important to our financial journey that I even wrote an entire course around it: How to Master Your Budget. You can access my course for FREE. After the course, I would highly recommend signing up for a budgeting tool, to streamline the process. It makes it more fun rather than feeling like a chore. The one we use is YNAB (You Need A Budget)! Find out how YNAB helped me pay off $84,000 in student debt within my first year of loan repayment.

2. Build Credit Score

If you’re like me, I had a whole slew of debt when I graduated college. I decided to tackle all of my credit card debt and improve my credit score. Graduating from school is a great time to build habit #1: Pay off all your dues in full each month. After you do that, go ahead and tackle the bigger payments like car loans and student debt. By making monthly payments on time, you’ll build your credit score in no time. Don’t forget that a poor credit score can make your life harder in the future, so avoid it at all costs. In fact, it could cost you more money too, since a low score typically lands you a higher interest rate on future loans!

3. Pay Off High-Interest Debt First

High-interest debt increases the amount of money you lose paying off the interest. I had a lot of credit card debt when I graduated dental school because I pretty much had no money and was living off of my dreams and thin air. I tackled credit card debt first because the interest rate on those was 16-24%! YIKES. Get that high-interest debt off your plate, so that you can focus on paying off your student loans (if you have any).

4. Pick a Strategy for Your Student Debt

I am being honest when I say that it doesn’t matter what strategy you pick for paying down student debt – as long as you have one and you stick with it! I personally needed to pay off my student debt as aggressively as possible, but if your lifestyle better matches with the loan repayment and forgiveness programs, then go ahead and do it! It is important to be well-versed in the different repayment options, so do the research and choose wisely.

5. Talk to a Professional

If you have any doubts at all, I would highly recommend speaking with a professional. That’s what I did! I spent my entire first paycheck paying for a financial advisor. They aren’t cheap, but their return is ten-fold! I have two I would recommend. Travis Hornsby from Student Loan Planner saved us thousands of dollars by picking the correct plan. Andrew Paulson, from White Coat Investor, is another option. Once you’ve decided which path to take, determine if refinancing is something you should do. SoFi is a company that does student loan refinancing but there are plenty others out there, too. Shop around – I’ve listed a few in this previous post!

6. Max the Match and Other Contributions

The earlier you start saving for retirement, the better. There are plenty of options out there, but whether you choose a 401K or an IRA, if you have a company match benefit, make sure to maximize it! That is free money that not everyone has the privilege to have. I certainly don’t, but we definitely max out my husband’s match from his company.

7. Save up

I am certain future you will have wants and wishes. There are many things out there you probably plan to buy, some of which are quite big purchases. If you wish to buy a graduate degree, a car, a home, or anything else of that nature, you’ve got to learn how to save up. Remember those habits you formed at the beginning of the journey? Well now it’s time to benefit from them. For me, I don’t mess around with my savings, especially if it’s a short-term goal. I am quite conservative in that way. I stash my savings in a high yield savings account like Marcus, where I can gain interest on my savings at a higher rate than a traditional savings account, without risking losing money (as opposed to investing my savings in a brokerage account). Find out how a Marcus High Yield Savings Account can help you reach your short term goals. If you’d like to sign up, my referral link here will give you a 0.2% APY increase on the current rate.

8. Invest With Your Head – Not With Your Heart

I consider investing an advanced finance skill. However, I can’t argue with the fact that the sooner you start, the better you become. Like any other skill, it takes practice. However, if you haven’t learned how to control your spending, get rid of debt, maximize your retirement opportunities and save money for your future goals, then there’s a chance you’ll lose the investing game – and bad! Perfect Steps 1-7 first, and then remember this advice: Invest with your head, not with your heart.

9. Find Your Tribe

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, the same goes for being managing money. You need people in your corner who won’t tempt you to spend your hard-earned dollars. People who will understand if you would rather order pizza than go out. Friends who won’t ditch you because you said no to a few happy hours. You want someone in your corner cheerleading you on your way to financial independence. Your tribe is very important. It can be the making of your success, or the downfall. I don;t want to be elitist, but even your friend group should be an intentional choice.

10. Set A Date

All of this should be given an end date. Make a plan, then set it in a calendar. Life can get in the way – so make sure to revisit your plans, goals, credit score, and debts once every six months. Look at that date you’ve created for yourself when you lose your way. Soon enough, you will be financially free!

I don’t know about you, but navigating the post-grad world can be tough! It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the advice out there, or worse, completely lost and with no one to turn to. I hope this guide has helped to at least start the journey. Other related posts that you may find helpful:

Preparing for the Resumption of Student Loan Payments

This post may contain affiliate links. Please see my disclosure to learn more. 

I don’t pretend to know what anyone’s financial situation is like. I know that our stories are different, and depending on where we lie on our path, the story changes with time. I have already written about what one should be doing with their federal student loans at this time, but the advice is not finite. I find that the best mode of action, historically, has been to share with others what I myself am personally doing with my student loans, and letting others walk away with what they’d like to keep for themselves. So here it is. A little update on me, preparing for the resumption of student loan repayment once the 0% interest resumes at the latter part of 2021.

WHAT WE’VE BEEN UP TO

For the past year, I have been holding onto my usually aggressive student loan repayment sums for multiple reasons. Firstly, the uncertainty of the economic and social situation due to the pandemic. Mike spent 10 out of the 12 months last year not working. I honed in on only working part-time at one of my offices so as not to spread disease among different population groups. Family members lost jobs and we didn’t know who would need our support. Siblings moved back into parent’s homes, parents themselves moved, and a majority of our immediate families went without work or school for most of 2020. So I paid my minimum payment (in order to avoid forbearance just in case it affected the terms of the loan in the long-run) and took the rest of the income and invested it into a High Yield Savings Account.

Meanwhile, to compensate for Mike not working, I maxed out my 401K for the first time ever, and dabbled into a brokerage account. But for the most part, we enjoyed the relaxed vibe of staying at home and doing nothing for the most part of 2020. I wasn’t as tight on finances as I should have been. I have financial independence to thank for that – and you can read how pursuing financial independence has actually benefitted us during times of COVID.

Regardless, I am starting to feel that the end of an era is near. With the available vaccinations increasing in Southern California, I am anticipating the reopening of most of our economy, which will also signal the end of the student loan forbearance (currently scheduled for September 2020). So, like any Spring bird preparing for what’s ahead, I am gathering my resources like figments of a bird’s nest, and preparing for the return of my aggressive student loan repayments.

THE GAME PLAN

Because my loan was huge ($575,000), we initially stayed with a student loan forgiveness program instead of refinancing back in 2017, in case something unexpected came our way (oh, sayyy COIVD?). However, now that the loan amount is dwindling, we are starting to see the light. The OG plan was always to refinance once the loan reached under $300,000. Why this number? I have found that this number is the threshhold for many student loan refinancers. Many of them won’t even consider a refinance if the loan amount is more than $300,000. It is also the threshold that transitions one from a high interest rate (ours is 6.8%!!) to a lower interest rate (around 3%).

Luckily, under the REPAYE plan, the interest rate was half-subsidized by REPAYE, which meant we were able to stay in the student loan forgiveness program while paying interest fees around what we would have paid if we had refinanced. This is why it is important to understand your loan repayment options, which you can definitely learn more about here. This subsidy ends after three years, and we reached that mark during COVID (November 2020). Luckily, due to the 0% interest rate in effect right now as part of the COVID relief program, we have not jumped into the 6.8% interest rate bracket. However, our goal is to be under $300k by the time the 0% ends and refinance to an interest rate that is hopefully lower than 3%. I do not recommend refinancing your loan before the deferment period ends, but I do recommend preparing for it by planning to pay off the largest chunk you possibly can and then refinancing to a better rate to make the going easier for you in the future. Think of it as a snowball method.

OUR PREPARATION

We are doing a few things to prepare for Fall. None of these things are out of the ordinary for us. They are actions that I’ve been advocating for years. Although I must say that we’ve loosened the reigns a bit recently. Our frugal muscles have become droopy, and it’s time to exercise. Here is what I plan to do in the upcoming months.

  • Tightening up the Master Budget. Since we eliminated a majority of our spending due to the lock-down, I have found that over the past year, I have loosened significantly the reigns on spending buckets that would usually have tightly closed lids. The savings we received from cancelling subscriptions, gym memberships, and most importantly, international travel trips has given me a lot of leeway with home and lifestyle improvements. Now, it is time to tighten the purse strings once more. If you need a refresher on mastering a budget, you can refer to my free course here. Don’t let any stone go unturned. You can create monthly frugal challenges to make the saving more fun. Here’s a few of mine.
  • Resume Side Hustles. In order to protect my family and my patients, I had decided to stop my dog-sitting and my bakery last March. I also decided that it would be best to only work at one dental office at a time. But now that things are opening up again, I have started to resume my side hustles. I have returned to the bakery where I once worked as an early morning baker and have started the position of Wholesale Director in March. I love being back with the Rye Goods crew, and truly enjoy my alternative work life. I also have continued to write for this blog, as well as guest write for Bogobrush. If you wish to grow your income, too, check out my ever growing list of ways to earn extra money here.
  • Research Refinance Options. If, like us, you plan to finagle your way down to the smallest loan amount possible with the hopes to refinance for the lowest rate possible in order to snowball your way to student debt freedom, then I highly suggest starting the research on refinance options today. There will be different companies vying for your attention. It would be best if, when the time comes, you are well-versed enough to be able to refinance in a jiff. The worst possible scenario is choosing a refinance company that won’t give you the best deal, or waiting so long that you will be stuck paying the high interest fees when loan repayments resume. A few things to note. Do not apply to them if they pull your credit. You want to maintain your good credit score for when the actual time comes. Also, the smaller your debt, the better your rate. So save, save, save! Lastly, make sure you have budgeted out enough emergency funds to cover your monthly payments after exiting from your student loan forgiveness program in case of job loss or an emergency. Preparation is key before pulling the trigger. Here are a few refinance options that I’ve been recommending to colleagues.
  • Speak to a Professional. Still don’t know what to do? Speak to Travis and his team at Student Loan Planner. They are knowledgable and give great advice. I highly recommend their services for those who do not know what to do with their loans. I send all of my closest friends and family members to him because I trust his team and know that they are up to date with the finest details regarding student loans. For those looking for an alternative option, there’s also Andrew Paulson, from Student Loan Advice backed by White Coat Investor. I haven’t yet tried his services but I am always trying to keep an eye out for good options! Once you’ve decided which path to take, determine if refinancing is something you should do.

I feel like a warrior getting dressed for battle. It has been a long year of nothingness. I must admit that it was lovely and nice, but I am ready to get on my horse and face the challenges of loan repayment once again. Instead of our usual yearly update (because there is nothing to update you on), I hope that this post suffices. I will write a lengthy one as September draws near, as well as after our planned refinance.

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

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.

Related Posts:

 

Finance: The Third Year of Paying Down $575,000 in Student Loans, An Update

Every May, I post an update on how we are doing with our path to financial independence, which largely depends on our student loan repayment plan. If you haven’t already heard the story,  I graduated at the age of 26 years old (turned 27 a few weeks after graduation) with more than half a million dollars in debt. A weight that was too heavy to bear, I decided to shun the common notion of waiting 25-30 years for loan forgiveness and instead to get rid of the debt as fast as I can.

Three years of aggressively tackling my loans is coming to an end, and what a journey it has been! You can read about my first two years here and here. As every year before, I will summarize what we have accomplished financially since last May, and how we plan to move forward and snowball our way down to being $0 in debt.

A Summary of Accomplishments for Year 3

This past year, there have been numerous accomplishments that I am very proud to share. It has been a year of experimentation and discovery for us both. But also, a year of triumphs over a few financial hurdles. Here is what we’ve done.

  • I opened a bakery and managed my own small business with one employee for an entire year. One of my life goals was to pursue my hobbies and possibly make them into mini-side-hustles. Other jobs that I had last year on top of dentistry was this blog space and dog-sitting via ROVER. After a year of baking for local restaurants, coffee shops, and markets, I closed my bakery two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic took place.
  • My husband wanted to switch careers. He has been interested in coding for some time and he decided to take a coding boot camp in order to be able to do systems analytics for large data sets. We enrolled him in a program which started January 2020 and paid for the schooling in FULL (it cost $8k) without reducing the amount we put towards student loans. We took the money from our “emergency fund” and built it back up over the course of 3 months. In February of 2020, when the company he was working at was doing lay offs, he requested to be considered for it due to a nice severance package for two months which ended on April 7, 2020.
  • COVID-19 epidemic happened which ended up helping us financially. My husband, whose severance ended in April, then applied for EDD and instead of getting very little money during this period of professional transition, he gets paid $4200 a month from the government.
  • As a dentist during COVID-19, I was in a precarious position. I split my time between two dental offices and was working 6 days a week prior to March 15. However, the government decided that dental treatment should be limited strictly to emergencies, thus causing one of my offices to shut down for the time-being. Luckily, the other office located 3 blocks from my house stayed open and I was able to work 3-4 days a week due to a particular patient pool. A 3-mile radius around our office houses over 330,000 residents who are mostly within a lower social-economic status. They usually do not have time to worry about preventative dental care and go to the dental office only when something hurts. Thus, emergencies ran amok. Additionally, 80% of the patients I see have Medical. Therefore, Medical covered all root canals and extractions at 100%, and everyone who came in with a medical emergency pretty much had a free pass at getting the treatment started on that day. Since most other dental offices were closed, patients from 30 miles away were driving to see us, too. If it were any other dental office, I would have been sitting at home like all my other colleagues but due to sheer luck, this actually kept us afloat.
  • COVID-19 helped us even further by reducing the interest rate on student loans to 0% until the end of September. This is a dream for all graduates paying off student debt, especially if they are paying it off aggressively. With the uncertainty that came in March, we paused student loan repayment and kept all our incomes liquid. However, now that we realize that the stipend from EDD for Mike and my work situation puts us at a stable financial position, we have enough set aside for student loans to bring us in the $300,000s ($375k to be exact)! Which is CRAZY! That means that in three years, we were able to go from $575k to $375k at a 6.8% interest rate. So now, we are tossing and turning the option of partially withholding some of that loan repayment money and putting it into buying a second property that we can use as a rental unit – thus increasing passive income. We are still up in the air about whether to experiment with real estate or focus on paying down loans. Perhaps we get both?
  • This past weekend, we finished off my husband’s car payment, a loan that lasted five years. My husband has owned three cars and three motorcycles. Five years ago, he was convinced by the dealer that he should take out a car loan to improve his credit. His other motor vehicles were always bought in full and in cash. The dealer recommended a car loan to improve his chances of being able to get a house mortgage in the future. Since Mike has no history of accruing debt, opening his first credit card AFTER graduating from college, he technically had “bad credit”. Mike signed up for a car loan and while I agree it improved his credit tremendously, I also get weak in the knees thinking about all the money we lost on interest. It’s a screwy system. But now it’s all over, which adds that monthly $585 car payment towards liquid assets which we can put into our loans or a rental unit.
  • Speaking of mortgages, we are finishing up our home refinance, which if successful would reduce our monthly payments by $500 a month. Add this to the savings from the finished car payments, and that’s an extra $1k to put towards snowballing our path to FI.
  • Lastly, we made a few adjustments including switching our car insurance and our homeowner’s insurance to a different company so that we can shave off an extra $100 per month. Now that Mike is at home working on his course, we have saved money on dining out since someone is always home making meals. Also, without the bakery, I have less stress and can focus on improving our finances and other aspects of our personal life.

How to Continue Snowballing

There are many ways in which we are snowballing the loan repayment so that we gain momentum and speed as time progresses. An example of this is the car being fully paid off, which then adds an additional monthly $585 towards our repayment plan. We had created many ideas along the way on how to make our repayment system better. Here are a few ways.

  • The Repaye program pays 50% of interest for the first three years of the program. By switching to REPAYE within the first year of repayment, we have saved thousands of dollars on interest. The final year of REPAYE is this coming year. We hope to reach mid to low $300k by the time it ends.
  • After the 50% perk of REPAYE ends, we hope to be at a low enough dollar amount to refinance the entire student debt. If we can refinance at 3% instead of the 6.8%, that would speed up our progress tremendously. Also, as the principal amount decreases, more of our repayments go towards the principal itself.
  • We are debating about purchasing a second property as a rental unit. If we do, we are searching for one that would at least cover the mortgage and it would be swell if we could find one that can actually rake in a bit more than the mortgage per month. This builds equity under our name and sets us up for passive income in the future in case we pursue early retirement. As we get closer to the end of the student loans, we always have the option of selling it (assuming it accrues value) towards the end of repayment to get a chunk of liquid assets and put it into the loans. Of course, the latter option is less financially savvy.
  • Currently, with me working and Mike unemployed, we can still afford our monthly $6.5k student loan payment and our living expenses. My hope is that Mike will get a job after the coding program that he enjoys and we can funnel 100% of the additional income into loans.
  • Currently, we are renting the bottom floor of our loft to my brother’s girlfriend for a very cheap rate to help her out. My brother is currently in Arizona starting his second year of dental school in the Fall. There has been discussion about them moving in together in a year or so. Of course, we would love for her to stay with us forever and ever but if she does choose to move to Arizona, we can definitely rent the bottom space closer to market value. Since our live-work-loft is commercially zoned and faces a downtown area, we can rent the bottom space to either a business or a resident. Our options are widened by the fact that it can act as an office space or a storefront.

When we first started our student loan repayment journey, we thought it’d be great to pay it back in less than 10 years. The first plan we made put us at 9.8 years. We made such good headway the first year but it wasn’t until Travis Hornsby from Student Loan Planner tipped us off on switching our repayment plans in order to save more money that our trajectory put as at paying back the debt in 7 years. With COVID-19’s help, I did the calculations at the current rate, I can repay it in 3.5 more years. But assuming Mike gets a job soon after his coding camp ends in June, I think we can actually finish this in only 2.5 more years.

And to think that people almost convinced us not to do it. They said life would be very difficult for us personally and financially. Yet we are the only couple we know who are calling the shots at work, creating our own schedules, switching professions if we wanted to, pursuing hobbies as options to replace work, traveling the world freely, and living a relatively stress-free life. Choosing the harder path, the road less traveled, really set us up for a different life.

Which is to say that sometimes, it pays off to follow your gut. Reach for your dreams. Look at more than just numbers. Surround yourself with like-minded people, cut out societal expectations, go rogue and run like vagabonds toward the nearest exit signs. Be afraid and do it anyway. Live life to the fullest, you’ll have no regrets.

Here’s to Year #4! Cheers!

Tips for New Grads with Large Student Debt

  • Get a consultation with Travis Hornsby of Student Loan Planner. I know it costs money and it feels difficult to pay more money when your goals are to save and pay back debt. But you don’t know what you don’t know and Travis is well-versed in student loan repayment options. Even when we were already aggressively tackling our student debt and working with an amazing financial planner whose wife was a dentist herself, Travis still taught us a few things we didn’t know. He saved us about $10,000 by simply placing us in a different repayment plan!
  • Run the numbers. This may be hard without someone’s help, but you’ve really got to run every possible repayment scenario to see which one saves you the most money. Of course, in the end, you may choose the one that affords you the lifestyle you want. In our case, we chose the one that does both. By choosing to aggressively pay back debt, we are saving more than $100,000 than if we just waited for forgiveness 25-30 years later. We also are freeing ourselves us 15-25 years sooner than our peers, which is a huge psychological benefit. Notice that I said we chose the one that saves us the most money. Travis will argue that we didn’t choose the one that would make us the most money. Which is true considering you can invest over 25 years of working. But I guarantee you we chose what was right for us.
  • Figure out your priorities in life. The best thing our financial planner did when we started talking about our finances was to spend a few sessions in the beginning asking us the hard questions to try to figure out what exactly we wanted. It was like marriage counseling for money. The top few items we had were to spend time with family, travel the world, and have the freedom to pursue our interests and hobbies. Freedom and independence dominated the conversation, and it was because of this that we decided aggressive repayment was the way to go.
  • Master a budget. You have to start somewhere. Mastering the budget is where you have to start. You can always increase your income, but if you never learn to curb your spending then there is no point. I made this course FREE on my blog to help as many people out. We use YNAB to manage our budget.
  • Surround yourself with a community of like-minded people. There is that saying that you are as good as the 5 people you surround yourself with. I choose to surround myself with finance resources. My favorite finance podcast is ChooseFI, but there is also Afford Anything and FIRE drill. My favorite book is Your Money or Your Life  by Vicki Robinson but other goodies are The Simple Path to Wealth and Goodbye Things. And then, of course, there are blogs, including Mr. Money Mustache, Mad Fientist, JL Collins, and The Frugalwoods.

Finance: Why We Chose Standard Repayment Over Loan Forgiveness

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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.