How Do You Cope with Dental School Debt?
Prospective dental students, dental students, and new dentists contact me all the time on Twitter @LarryDougherty. It’s pretty cool! I try to answer their questions as best I can from what I’ve learned and experienced as a dentist.
Debt seems to be the biggest thing on every prospective dental student’s mind these days, and rightfully so. The cost of education is ballooning out of control. It’s hard to get out of dental school in the US without being at least $200K-$300K in debt with student loans from dental school alone. Factor in any undergrad debt and things start getting out of hand in a hurry.
Debt should definitely be a consideration when deciding whether or not to go to dental school, when choosing a dental school, and when deciding what to do afterwards. At the end of the day, it has to be worth it, right?
I could write a book about professional ethics and what it means to be a health care provider in today’s world. I could also write a book on financial planning based on all the lessons of my mentors, the books I’ve read, and my own experiences. It’s hard for me to answer questions that deal with money and ethics and health care and not get fired up about it! I feel very strongly on all of those topics.
Here’s some questions/quotes from my prospective dental student/dental student/new dentist Tweeps.
“What is it like having dental school debt looming over you?”
I was scared about this, too, but I made a plan that was manageable. I picked a date that I wanted to have everything paid off and I stuck with it. When I could afford to throw a little more money at it, I did. When I couldn’t, I didn’t, but I always stayed on top of it and factored it into my budget. It’s awesome when a debt is paid off, don’t get me wrong, but when you have a plan in place and you set goals, you shouldn’t feel the weight of it on your shoulders every day. It’s a monthly expense just like your rent/mortgage or your phone bill. It’s just like any other bill, really.
“I’m worried about getting into dental school, I know that’s hard, but it’s what happens after that makes me the most nervous.”
Being nervous about the whole process is pretty normal, I’d say. Any path you take in life is full of uncertainty. There’s a reason dental school is hard to get into. A lot of people want to get in! The profession is rewarding and there is potential to be your own boss, take care of people, and earn your own living without someone telling you what to do all day. At the same time, if you’re really nervous about the whole thing, it might not be the right path for you. There are so many rewarding careers out there. So many young adults get pressured into a health career by their family or by expectations they’ve set on themselves that don’t necessarily match up with what they truly want to do. Making the decision to go to dental school might be the biggest important decision of your life so far. Confidence and courage are requirements to follow this path!
“I am nervous about graduating dental school with 300K in debt.”
I don’t blame you. 300K is a large amount of money. Factor in a little bit of interest and it’s way more than 300K. Like I said, though, you make a plan to manage it, stick to it, and it starts disappearing before your eyes. Read up on different ideas about managing your personal finances. You could live off 50% of what you take home, contribute 20% to debt payment, 30% to savings/investing. I just made those percentages up to illustrate that people use this type of thinking to manage debt and manage life. Without a plan like this, you should be nervous!
“How long does it take to pay off dental school debt?”
That depends on how agressively you can afford or want to pay it down and how much you have. I know some people that have been practicing almost twenty years that still have student debt, and others that paid it off in less than four years. Once you start earning money as a dentist, deciding what percentage you are going to put toward each category (savings, living, debt), you can get a better idea of how long it is going to take you. Re-evaluate the plan at least every year if not every quarter. Take advantage of consolidation programs if they benefit you.
“How can you focus on being a quality health care provider with debt over your head?”
When I was studying in dental school, I had no idea how much any of the procedures I was learning about cost. When I got to the clinic, I didn’t know about insurance codes or financing options or anything. All we ever really talked about with faculty was ideal dentistry, how to deliver care, and providing the best care possible for anyone and everyone. All of my training was just focused on being a quality health care provider. We never really talked about money in school, and personally I don’t have a problem with it staying that way. There’s a concept that applies to every business, not just dentistry, and it’s that if you treat people right, they’ll come back, they’ll refer, and they’ll be your raving fans. People who don’t trust in that concept fail in business, no matter what business it is. People who abuse their power and priveledges eventually get caught and suffer consequences. In health care and in service, you put the needs of others first and good things happen. Your average patient is not going to understand dentistry like you do, but they can tell if you are honest and caring.
Like most Americans, you’re likely to have some form of debt for a good portion of your life. Business loans, student loans, credit card debt, a mortgage, automobile, etc. It will probably take a long time to rid your life of debt, so it’s going to be “over your head” for a long period of time. Does your debt define you? Does it dictate your character and the moral standard you hold yourself to? Any decent job in dentistry will afford you with enough money to make payments on your debt, live comfortably, and save a little bit. If you don’t have enough money to do that, a new job or a second job is always a possibility. You can ask for a payment holiday with your loan company if times are really tough. It’s really not that hard to keep your priorities straight if you respect your patients, you respect yourself, and you respect dentistry. I just can’t come up with any scenario where it makes sense to compromise your professional ethics and integrity to pay a bill. Whatever it is, it isn’t worth it.
If your getting into dentistry, you’re most likely getting into debt. A plan is essential to managing debt so it doesn’t stress you out or ever put you in a position to compromise your professional judgement with patients. It’s intimidating, but it is something that many that have come before you have handled and many after you will as well. It’s part of the journey!