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Doctors Free of Student Loans: A Series

Have you ever felt like your mountain of student loans will be with you forever?  Have you ever felt trapped under the weight of debt and couldn’t find a way out?

I’m starting this series to highlight the stories of the doctors that have  hunkered down and gotten rid of their student loans fast!   

The goal of this series is to give readers insight into the thought processes and techniques successful docs have used to get out of debt and prosper.  I love hearing their inspirational stories and I hope you do, too!

So, without further adieu… 

Please welcome Dr. James S., a full time dermatologist in Washington State.

Dr. James' Student Loan Story

How much student debt did you pay off and how long did it take you?

I graduated with approximately $373,000 in student loans between college and medical school and paid it off in just over two years. I did not opt for PSLF. My wife is a stay-at-home-mom and she had about $20,000 in student loans.

Do you have kids? Do they have any educational expenses?

We have two kids under 3 years old. Because my wife stays home with them, our childcare expenses are pretty minimal except for the occasional babysitter for a rare night out.

Did you refinance your loans?

I refinanced my student loans three times. The first time was as a second-year resident when I decided I was not going to do PSLF. Darien Rowayton Bank at the time was the only company that would refinance loans for residents and allow for a relatively low monthly payment.

After I graduated residency in 2016, I shopped around and found Common Bond to have the best 5-year variable rate, which was 3.1% at the time. I was betting on myself that I could pay off my loans before the interest rates increased past the 5-year fixed rates.

At the end of 2017, my rate was getting close to 4% so I decided to look again. Since I had a full year’s worth of income under my belt and a lower principal balance, my debt-to-income ratio was more favorable than when I graduated, which allowed me to refinance with Earnest at a 5-year variable rate of 2.5%.

By the time I made my last payment, the rate had increased to 3.3% but I still came out ahead since the 5-year fixed would have been +4.8%.

Did you pursue PSLF (Public Service Loan Forgiveness)?  What made you decide to pay of loans early?

I did not pursue PSLF because I had a hard time believing, and still do, that the government would forgive that amount of debt for us “rich doctors.” 

Also, since I am in a relatively higher paying specialty, I figured I could work hard and make enough to pay off my loans in under five years

Dr. James' Strategy Getting Out of Student Debt

Now the question on everyone’s mind: How did you do it??  How did you pay off over $350k in just 2 years? 

Truth is, there’s really not much to it. If you’re a regular reader of WCI, POF, {TFP}, or any of these other physician finance blogs, you already know what to do:

Live well below your means and save, invest and pay off debt with the rest.

I didn’t have any assets or forms of inheritance so we paid off our debts simply by following the above.

We tried our best to minimize the big three expenses: housing, transportation and food.

“You Need a Budget” was invaluable with this as it kept us on track with our budget. 

Keeping up with the Jones is a real thing, so we tried to surround ourselves with people who share our same financial values.  I found that being a part of community with like-minded people really helped. There is an ongoing thread on WCI where people posted their student loan payoff stories which I have found so inspiring.

As for actual numbers, we made it a goal to use at a minimum 50% of our take home pay towards loan payoff. Sometimes it got as high as 70% depending on my productivity at work.

Did you invest for retirement during debt payoff?  

Even though I was prioritizing student loan payoff over most of my other financial goals, I still made sure to max out all my tax advantaged accounts. This included my 401k + match, a backdoor ROTH IRA for the two of us and a family Health Savings Account, which I am using as a “stealth IRA”. We probably averaged $50-60k/year in retirement savings, depending on how much I put into our taxable account.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give yourself during medical school?

Borrow as little as you can, try to do some part-time work and most importantly read the White Coat Investor. Going into medical school, I had zero financial literacy. It wasn’t until residency where I started to finally learn this stuff on my own. As a result, when I received a loan offer for ~$300k to pay for medical school, I had no concept of how much that would actually cost me in the long run.

What advice would you give yourself during residency?

I was fortunate enough to finally figure this stuff out during residency so there’s not much different I would have done during this time in my life. I moonlighted a TON. I made more than twice my resident salary in moonlighting income alone during my last year in residency. I used all of it to either pay off loans or invest in our residency 401k plan.

What advice would you give yourself during your first few years as attending?


As good as it feels to finally be debt free, I do think I put too much pressure on myself to get rid of these loans in such a short period of time. Not to say I ever felt deprived, but perhaps we could have enjoyed live a little more if I extended loan pay off for another year and spent that extra money on regular date nights with the wife and day trips with the kids. Life is all about balance so I’m still trying to figure out what the right balance is for us and where I should fall between being a “Mustachian” (Mr. Money Mustache) and “YOLO”-ing it.

Student Debt Free Living

How does being student debt free feel? 

Freeing.

One of the unanticipated but wonderful benefits of being debt free for me is the ability to start changing the type of work that I do so that I enjoy my time at work more.

I don’t necessarily have to work five days a week and see forty patients a day anymore. I can afford to give up a day of clinic and use that time to pursue other interests within my specialty, such as clinical trials, consulting and speaking. This will undoubtedly will help me with career longevity because I was quickly burning out at the pace that I was working before.

What are your plans for the extra money in your budget now that your loans are paid off?

Saving up for a down payment on a house and turbocharging our 529 contributions for our two little ones.

Any parting words

The point of me sharing my story wasn’t to tell others that they have to pay off their loans in two years. We all have different life circumstances, whether it’s the specialty we practice, the city we live in, the size of our family and whether we have a working spouse. It’ll take some a few years longer and others will do it in even a shorter period of time. 

My point is that being debt free is possible for anyone of us, especially as physicians, as long as we use some financial common sense, keep our eyes on the prize and stay-the-course.

Dr. D: Well said, Dr. James!  What an inspiring story.  I hope all of you feel as pumped about paying off student loans as I do right now.  You can do it!  We’re here for you.  ‘Till next time folks!

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Standard Disclaimer: Not meant as individualized financial advice.  Stock photo from Unsplash.com.  This post contains affiliate links.    

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