Membership & Fellowship: 8 Doctors Share How They're Tackling Medical School Debt

Article reprinted courtesy of SoFi, ACOG’s partner in refinancing members’ student debt. Research your student debt refinancing options at SoFi.com/ACOG

Originally posted  July 11, 2017 on SoFi’s online blog.

There are lots of good reasons to become a doctor. Being a physician means you can help people in one of the most direct ways possible—by doing your best to restore their health. An added bonus: you can eventually make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year doing it. Medscape’s 2016 physician compensation report found that the lowest-earning doctors (pediatricians and endocrinologists) bring in around $200,000 a year, while the highest earners (orthopedists and cardiologists) make over $400,000.

The catch, of course, is that becoming a doctor is expensive, and student debt levels have risen significantly over the years. Seventy-six percent of US medical school graduates in 2016 were carrying education debt, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. The median debt among medical students is $180,000, which of course affects the early years of most doctors’ careers.

We asked eight doctors how they’re dealing with their debt, and their answers ranged from living frugally to refinancing their loans. Some opted to attend less expensive universities, while others participated in scholarship programs that required them to work in underserved areas or the military. Here’s how they’re getting out of debt, and how you might approach your own as a doctor (quotes have been edited for length and clarity):

Living the Modest Lifestyle

“If you can do the standard loan repayment plan, where you pay more right away, in the long run you pay less because you pay less on the interest rate. I [also] don’t spend too much. I wouldn’t go buy the most expensive car; I’m not going to buy a Ferrari. At this point, I’m not going to buy a house or anything. I wouldn’t go out and eat at nice restaurants every night. I’m just trying to live a modest lifestyle, so I have a one-bedroom apartment, the most modest I could find in the area where my work is, things like that.”
—A New Jersey-based ophthalmologist, Wake Forest School of Medicine

The debt payback plan: This doctor owes $55,000, and pays a fixed amount every month rather than paying back less in the beginning of his career and more as his salary grows. He is able to do this in part because of low overall debt.

Choosing the Family Career Track

“My first year of med school I took out student loans and thought, ‘This is going to be ridiculously high.’ My father, uncle, and cousins served in the Navy. I grew up in a Navy town in California. The Navy was just very familiar to me. I figured out that somebody’s got to pay for this, and it’s not something that’s going to get strapped to my parents’ back. As an adult, I realized that if I’m going to do something, I need to pay for it. So, I made a plan, and the Navy was that plan. If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely [make the same choice]—and this time I would go for a four-year scholarship.”
 —Erika Walker-Magra, MD, emergency medicine physician in Florida, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine

The debt payback plan: Dr. Walker-Magra is paying back $100,000. She took out loans for her first year of medical school and some living expenses, but minimized the rest of her debt by earning a scholarship for three years of full tuition. She was also awarded a monthly stipend from the US Navy’s Health Professions Scholarship Program in return for serving as a physician in the Navy. After her internship, she was stationed as a general medical officer on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf for two years as part of the US military’s post-9/11 campaign. She recently paid off her loans—once she was done with training and making a full income, she “attacked those loans” and got rid of them.

Double the Doctors, Double the Loans

“My wife is also a physician. We’re going to have to manage our money in a way that [will allow us to] pay back our loans in the first five to 10 years. We want to make sure we’re not compounding interest. I do foresee that we won’t be buying a house right away, and we definitely won’t be spending money on hobbies and things like that until the majority of her loans are paid back.”
Raj Patel, MD, completing last year of residency in internal medicine before starting a cardiology fellowship, St. George’s University, Grenada (West Indies)

The debt payback plan: Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, loans are forgiven after 10 years of minimum payments—as long as you’re working at a government or nonprofit organization for a decade’s worth of monthly payments (they don’t have to be 10 consecutive years, though). Dr. Patel’s minimum payment is about $400 a month now because he’s still in training, but it will go up to about $2,500 a month once he starts working. He currently owes $400,000.

Working on Refinancing—With 20/20 Hindsight

“I regret that I took too much money out. I should have taken just enough to cover my rent. I would tell people now to only take the amount you need to live on.”
 —Eli Moses, MD, ophthalmologist in New Jersey, Stony Brook School of Medicine

The debt payback plan: Dr. Moses, who initially owed $120,000, is now down to having $55,000 of debt. He minimized his tuition expenses by attending a state school, and took out federal loans to cover tuition and living expenses. He also consolidated $30,000 in first-year loans at a low interest rate. Now, he’s looking to refinance $25,000, the remainder of his unpaid debt.

Stay tuned—the next issue of ACOG Rounds will feature four more doctors on how they're tackling their medical school debt. 

There is no one solution for paying off medical school loans. Every doctor finds their own way to tackle their debt, whether it’s through a loan forgiveness program, a scholarship, or a refinance for a lower interest rate. 

ACOG has partnered with SoFi to bring members and their families the opportunity to save on student loan debt. If you or your family have medical school debt, you can refinance your student and Parent PLUS loans through SoFi.com/ACOG to receive a 0.125 percent rate discount1.

Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi loans not offered to residents of Nevada. Other state restrictions may apply. See eligibility requirements at sofi.com/legal. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Finance Lender Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636.

1Rate discount will be issued electronically once you become a SoFi borrower; you have submitted a completed application with documents and your loan has been disbursed. Offer good for new customers only.

 

 

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