U.S. News and World Report recently reported on the best paying jobs for 2019, and for the second year in a row, every entry in the top 10 was a job in medicine. Led by anesthesiologists and including other specialties like surgeons, psychiatrists, and dentists, the point was clear: doctors are well-paid.
Joining a lucrative and admired medical profession is not an easy process. It demands years of dedication and the right temperament to handle a high-stress job that typically does not offer much work-life balance.
Becoming a physician also requires the highest level of education: a doctorate, at a minimum. This can be a barrier to entry for many promising students, because the average cost of medical school ranges from $150,000 to nearly $400,000 for just the necessary 4-year degree. And that doesn’t include living expenses or pre-med schooling.
Weatherby Healthcare recently reached out to physicians across the US to understand the impact of student loans on their lives and careers. We learned that nearly two-thirds (65%) of practicing physicians said they still carried student loan debt, some well over a decade after graduating. The amounts were significant: 80% had more than $100,000 in remaining debt, with 32% carrying more than $250,000.
Most physicians who had paid off their loans (35% of respondents) did so relatively quickly, with 47% doing so within 2 years of graduating and 27% paying off within 5 years. This group generally used a blend of strategies, including pursuing extra work, consolidating debt, and carefully managing finances.
Although medicine is a lucrative career, most doctors begin their residencies with tremendous debt, which can alter their life plans. Adopting the strategies of doctors who successfully paid off student loans can help others find freedom from debt. Here are three of the most common:
1. Supplement your income and make larger loan payments
A popular route for physicians paying off student loans is to work locum tenens or per diem shifts. These temporary work assignments are financially incentivized by hospitals in order to cover urgent needs. Because of this, locum tenens physicians can make significantly more money per year than someone working a typical full-time schedule.
Moonlighting was another frequently reported option, either through locum tenens/per diem work or in non-medical part-time jobs. Although often challenging to find time to pick up extra work, many young physicians who had paid off their student loans indicated this pathway allowed them to put additional money toward their loans.
2. Reconsider before refinancing
Survey respondents frequently listed debt consolidation, private refinancing, and loan forgiveness plans as attractive methods of clearing initial loans. However, people are often so eager to be free of debt that they charge into a refinancing plan before they are really set in their strategy. This is a particular problem for physicians who may have a change of plans and later decide to utilize public service loan forgiveness (PSLF) plans, which require both qualifying loans and qualifying employers.
Once physicians choose private refinancing, they close the door on any possible PSLF program. However, nearly two-thirds of hospitals in the US have qualifying PSLF positions. Even working locum tenens does not disqualify physicians from the 10-year loan forgiveness program. When young physicians take that option, they can often eliminate their debt much easier through loan forgiveness.
3. Live for the future until loans are paid off
Most physicians who had paid off their medical school loans preferred the straightforward approach of making short-term sacrifices early in their careers. That provided them with greater financial freedom in the years to come. “Live like a resident” was common advice, encouraging young doctors in practice to spend well below their means for a few years until the debt was clear.
Although keeping tight control over spending helped many maintain their focus on future financial security, it also required communication and understanding between everyone in the equation. The vast majority of additional debt accumulated by respondents was from expenses related to families and homes, not in luxury items or lavish vacations. For most, sacrificing for the future primarily meant delaying personal goals.
Like the decision to pursue a career in medicine, the pathway to repaying student debt must be grounded in individual circumstances and career priorities. Student debt can slow financial success and personal plans for years, chewing into retirement funds and delaying professional development.
However well-paid and admired medical practitioners may be, debt is still a burden that prevents people from progressing in their lives and careers. Paying off school loans will let physicians get out from under the umbrella of debt and take proactive steps toward their futures.