Deciding whether to save money or pay off student debt can be difficult. The answer is that you should do both at the same time.
Most vets come out of school and owe hundreds of thousands of dollars loaned to them by the government or a private lender. Getting into debt isn’t a bad thing, as most people would suspect, because the main reason you got into it was to go to school. Imagine if you had enough money when you started vet school to be able to choose whether or not to borrow money. It’s quite an uplifting and uplifting feeling. Few people have this luxury, so they must rely on student loans to continue their education.
The average vet salary in 2020 was $99,250.1 Depending on how much you borrowed during your undergraduate and veterinary studies, your debt could be anywhere from 1 to 4 times your current or starting salary. It all depends on where you live and what type of veterinary medicine you plan to practice. What if I told you that you were a millionaire by taking out these loans? You probably just rolled your eyes or asked, “How? Well, you may not be a millionaire right now, but let’s take a look at your future earning potential. Based on the salary we just discussed, someone working a 30-year career with an average 4% salary increase each year would earn over $5.7 million. Think about it. You borrowed $200,000, but you will earn 28.5 times the amount you borrowed in your career. It is enormous.
Debt is frowned upon due to payments and interest, so many people will have a narrow view and make eliminating it their top priority. If your goal was to pay off the debt in 10 years and you had enough income, but during that time you would save very little, what would you do? This is the dilemma that so many veterinarians face right out of school. The only thing I know for a fact is that we can’t go back. The question I like to ask people is, can you tell me with absolute certainty that you will be able to start saving money after paying off your debt? This is a difficult question to answer, but the answer is no. None of us know what our life will look like in a month, 3 months, 1 year or even 10 years. When priority is given to paying off debt, we sacrifice the certainty that we can achieve other goals in life, while possibly having the choice not to work forever.
We should always start by trying to become a world-class saver. This means that we save 20% of our gross income (salary and production before taxes and deductions). Sometimes it can be difficult from the start because there are other responsibilities, but the goal should always be to save money. Ideally, we would build up an emergency fund for a minimum of 3 months which would be determined from our expenses. The rest of your savings should be directed to accessible compartments. Retirement accounts, such as 401k accounts and Individual Retirement Accounts, are very attractive because people constantly feel behind the 8 ball with retirement savings. The problem is that these accounts come with restrictions and penalties when accessed before a certain age.
If saving is difficult for you, take a step back and create a spending plan. The reason I use the term spending plan instead of budget is that budgets are for those who are really struggling with spending, and the goal is to create hard limits. A spending plan is meant to create awareness and provide the ability to pivot spending when needed or wanted. We need to establish a baseline of what we spend. This includes all fixed expenses, such as rent, electricity, and car payments, and all variable expenses that can be adjusted, such as groceries, dining out, entertainment, and shopping. Once this baseline is created, we can know where to redirect spending to save and pay down debt.
So let’s talk about debt repayment. First, consider all of your debts as one big picture. We want to know the total balance with the average interest rate. There are calculators available online to figure this out. Second, use a time value of money calculator to enter the balance and the interest rate. We need to understand how much money is needed each month to pay off debt over multiple periods. It could be 25 years, 15 years, 10 years or earlier. After understanding what payment is required, this can then help us understand what period to choose and if it is possible to repay so that we can become realistic with our repayment plan. Once the repayment plan is chosen, it is essential to stick to it and continue to repay the loans. You can reassess the repayment plan every 12 months, but you should focus on saving money. Every 3-12 months, you can decide if some of that extra money that has been saved should be allocated to debt or allocated to your plan so you don’t have to work forever.
- Create a baseline of your expenses, including fixed and variable expenses.
- Calculate the required monthly payment for different periods based on the total debt balance and the average interest rate.
- Start saving 20% of your gross income (or as much as possible).
- Start repaying loans on the basis of a realistic period and do not change it spontaneously.
- Every 3 to 12 months, reassess if you want to spend more money on your debts.
The plan is simple to understand, but the implementation is where many people struggle. If you need help, be sure to reach out to someone who can show you how to create these behaviors and sustain them over the long term.
Tom Seeko, CExP is the co-founder of Florida Veterinary Advisors, a Tampa-based financial firm that works with veterinarians across the United States. He is also co-founder and co-host of the financial podcast Smarter Vet, which helps vets simplify their finances to gain clarity and confidence, and experience control and contentment.
How much does a veterinarian earn? US News and World Report. Accessed September 29, 2022. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/veterinarian/salary