Today, Americans have over $1.64 trillion in student loan debt. While undergraduate students will graduate with an average student loan obligation of just under $30,000, those who must attend additional school for their chosen career only see the student loan problem compound as the years go on. Student loan debt is often a huge problem for professionals, including doctors, optometrists, veterinarians, and dentists.
The American Dental Association estimates that the average debt per dental school graduate in 2019 was $292,159. Roughly 64% of graduates report that they have over $200,000 in debt.
Thankfully, the earning potential for a dentist is high. U.S. News reports that the median salary for dentists in 2018 was $151,850. The best-paid 25 percent of dentists made roughly $208,000 in 2018. Student Loan Planner states that despite high incomes, however, dentistry is still the number one job in America for total debt.
Owning your own practice can significantly increase your income potential. However, getting your foot in the door as an owner can be inhibited if you have a huge mountain of debt looming over you. Banks may not be willing to lend to you to purchase a practice if you cannot get your student debt under control. Further, you may not be able to shoulder the potential risk of developing a new practice if you already have large amounts of debt.
Paying off debt should be an important part of your journey toward financial independence. If you want to own your own practice or become an owner, paying off your student loans should be high on your priority list.
We have some practical advice that you can use (starting today) to help you control your financial future as a dentist.
Budgeting is one of the best steps you can take to control your money. Many people simply spend and do not consider where their money is going. They always seem to barely make it to the next paycheck.
For many, they are not behind on their bills or student loan payments, but their spending is out of control. They are spending money on frivolous things when that money could be going toward debt payments. Getting control of your money by using a budget is a great first step in making progress toward paying off your loans.
One method to track your finances is a “zero-based” budget. This type of budgeting assigns every dollar to a category so that your income minus your expenses always equals zero every month. You map out your expenses and then use any extra money that you can squeeze out of your budget to pay more toward your debt.
Generally, creating a budget starts with understanding your income and expenses. Look at previous months of spending to get a better idea of where your money is going and how much you are spending on your necessary bills.
Below, are some steps to get the budget process started.
Once you create your budget, it is also important that you continually track your expenses and try to stay as close to your plan as possible.
If you want to keep the interest from piling up too quickly on your loan, you need to make payments quickly. That will often mean that you will need to make some cuts in your lifestyle to increase the total payments you can make. Below are some quick ideas on how you can cut back to increase those extra payments.
You can also sell some of the items you have around the house that you are no longer using. Purge your closet and garage. Utilize selling platforms like eBay, Facebook, and Craigslist.
Depending on how you have your student loan repayment set up, only paying your minimum payments could leave you saddled with student loan debt well into your 50s. Do you really want to make these payments for the next 25 years?
Paying more than the minimum payment not only cuts down your repayment time, but it also decreases the overall amount of interest that you have to pay. Your future self will thank you for the extra money in your pocket in the months or years down the road.
In many situations, you can pick up another job as an associate at other practices. Adding a day or two per week outside of your primary practice location can be a great way to generate more income.
The additional time as an associate at another practice will not only earn you more money right away, but it also gives you exposure to other working environments. This type of experience will help you continue to learn as an associate, so you are better prepared for the business side of running your own practice in the future.
Refinancing your loans can be a great way to cut down on your interest rate or get better control over your loan payments. In some cases, even dropping a couple of percentage points can save you thousands of dollars every year. There are many refinancing options available through various student loan-focused companies, like Sofi or Credible.
Sometimes adding a co-signer (like your parents or a spouse) can help you decrease your interest rates, too. However, if you add a co-signer, keep in mind that person will be on the hook for your loan if you cannot pay it, often even if the reason you cannot pay is that you passed away. Be sure that you think long and hard about your options before bringing in someone else to be responsible for your student loans.
When you have high student loan balances, it can be frustrating and disheartening to continue to pay on the loans year after year. Staying motivated is easier said than done in many cases. Here are some “quick tips” on how you can stay motivated as you work through this process.
Staying motivated can be the hardest part of this journey. Find what works for you and go for it!
Depending on your lender, enrolling in autopay can save you money in interest. Many lenders will take off a small portion of your interest percentage if you enroll in autopay. While the decrease may not seem like much, it can add up.
Autopay also lets you put your bills on the back burner, so you never have to worry about missing a payment. You can also often set up a separate payment that is over and above the minimum using your bank or your lender.
If you work in the public sector or work in an underserved area, you might qualify for student loan forgiveness. There are several programs available, and each has its own requirements. They are often limited in the amount that you can forgive.
States often have their own forgiveness programs. The American Dental Education Association has set up a comprehensive list of these programs.
There are two major deductions and credits related to student loans that you should be aware of as a dentist. First, you can take a deduction for your tuition and fees while you are in medical or dental school. While most students will have already used the American Opportunity Credit while they got their undergraduate education, you can still get the Lifetime Learning Credit while you are in dental school. This credit is up to $2,000 each year.
You can also get a tax deduction for paying student loan interest. Depending on your income level and how much interest you paid throughout the year, you may be able to deduct up to $2,500 in student loan interest you have paid.
If your income is lower now but is expected to increase in years to come (which is typical for dentists), then an income-driven repayment plan may be a good idea for you. This payment plan is available for federal student loans. It adjusts your required minimum payments based on your income. You must reapply every year. Some private lenders have similar programs, too.
An income-driven repayment plan can be a great option if you are struggling to make your payments based on your current salary and repayment plan.
In Part II of How to Pay Off Student Loan Debt, we dive deeper into strategies you can do to pay off your student loans faster. You definitely don’t want to miss this article.
At Dental and Medical Counsel, we can help you address your student loans to ensure you are on the right path to eventually becoming a dental practice owner. Contact us to learn more and to schedule a complimentary consultation with medical and dental attorney Ali Oromchian.
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