When it comes to financing my Physician Assitant education and student loans,
I have done everything wrong. And when I say everything I mean e👏 ve 👏ry 👏thing!
For a moment let’s put aside the ridiculous fact that it’s considered normal to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to get a professional medical education. Let us pretend that student loans don't exist for you or anyone anymore.
Take a moment to ponder this & be honest. If you didn't have student loans, how would your life change? How would you use that extra money+ freedom?
Would you feel less stuck and have the freedom to leave that soul-sucking job that you might be in?
Would you take that break you've been wishing for to travel, spend time with loved ones or pursue a passion? Maybe you have always wanted to give more and form a foundation or a non for profit?
The point I'm trying to make with these questions is to get you to imagine a life without student loans because of what those loans represent in your life.
When you really boil things down, is it really about the student loans?
Or is it more about unlocking a type of freedom in your life that will afford you more options to do more of what you want to do, when you want to do it?
Unfortunately for a lot of us getting a medical education is synonymous with student loan debt. This is today's education game, and it's a game we must learn to play.
We all know that the rules of student loans, high tuition rates, and the interest rate trap are all set up for the financial benefits of these institutions- and not yours. For instance, let's take the fact that loan payments are automatically set up to pay the interest rates first, which oftentimes is even higher than the actual principal loan payment!
It's crazyville! Needless to say, the longer time it takes to pay the loan, the more interest adds up so it's very much to their benefit that you continue to pay the loan as slowly as you can.
Yes, student loans are a massive pain and the largest, suppository-like evidence of our broken education system. Legislatively speaking, resolving the student loan crisis will likely take a while, we may as well find ways to hack the system as is.
The good news is that even within the confines of the current education system, there are ways to become student loan debt-free.
It will require some sacrifices and planning but it's doable. Many people have done it and many more will continue to do it, so why can't it be us?
Today, I wish I could speak to you from the other side of student loan debt but I've made some mistakes I'll go into in a bit, so I will speak to you from the still very much being in debt side that has come with experience and learning things the hard way.
More good news: there are many ways to mitigate the damage of student loan debt.
Even more good news: Even if you're like me, and you've made major student loan mistakes in the past, you can course-correct and eventually become free of student loan debt as well.
No matter where you are in your student loan journey, it behooves all of us to learn to play the game better. Ideally, you'll pay less over time & free yourself from student loans faster so that you can someday have more freedom, possibly enjoy your career more and live your life on your terms and not anyone else's.
Not Spending Enough Time Looking for Free Money
Personal finance classes would have been great in high school. Since that's not the case for a lot of us, It’s always so nice to have solid guidance when navigating the financing of a college education.
My parents did what they could, but my dear mom, having newly emigrated from the Dominican Republic as a recent divorcee and newly single mother of 5 children, did not speak a lick of English, nor did she have the bandwidth to do much else but survive. At the time, neither of us had any fathomable idea of how college education worked in the US.
As a16 year old with lifelong dreams of becoming a highly educated woman, not figuring out how higher education worked in this new country was not an option. I did the absolute best I could to get myself accepted to college while contending with the shock of immigration, surviving as a family, and the grief that came from our newly fractured family and my former life path as I knew it.
When navigating college education financial strategy, I was way in over my head. But it is that kind of stuff that has shaped me to be so voraciously resourceful, self-motivated, and like a dog with a bone obsessive, when it comes to problem-solving; Qualities that probably give me an edge as a surgical Physician Assistant.
I knew about scholarships and applied for the ones that were readily accessible. I ended up getting a partial academic scholarship that covered most of my tuition to Lynn University, a private university. I also ended up winning a Scholar-Athlete of the year award my senior year in HS which gave me some extra cash.
In PA school I ended up getting a Physician Assistant Endowment Scholarship granted by my alma mater Nova Southeastern University, another private school, which also covered a part of my tuition.
Putting aside the fact that I mistakenly chose my most expensive options for colleges to attend, both times I wished I had spent more time looking for free money outside of what was readily available to me.
In retrospect, I wish I would have spent 1-2 years researching more free money/ scholarship/ grant opportunities and applying to everything and anything I could.
I have a feeling that had I known to look for more sources far and wide vs only what came to my attention, I probably could have gotten a bigger chunk of my tuition paid.
The Lesson: It may be worth your time to spend a significant amount of time searching and applying for free money. Nowadays there are so many free websites/apps out there, in addition to associations and groups with different interests that you are bound to qualify for something, especially if you are a minority in culture, class, skill set, gender, location, or other.
Choosing the Wrong Schools
When it came to my education, I had a “by all means necessary” approach. Acquiring a shit ton of loans to get it done? I didn't bat an eye. Everyone has student loans, I thought so what's the big deal?
As a first-gen immigrant & oldest of 5 kids, II saw myself as the template for how the rest of my siblings could turn out. I viewed higher education as my only way out of poverty and the only way I fathomed I could work hard and level up socio-economically.
Given the neighborhood we lived in North Jersey at the time we were vulnerable to becoming Latino stereotypical statistics. We were surrounded by high school dropouts, teen parents, gangs, and drugs. I was determined to get myself and the rest of us out of there, and college was my ticket out.
At that time, I knew loans would definitely be part of the deal of finishing my education. I started undergrad in1999 and PA school in 2005. Much like today, higher education costly, inflated, and academia seemed to be getting away with more fraudulent things like hiring people to take tests for academically challenged college athletes and the wealthy paying for their kids' acceptances and subsequent diplomas from Ivy League universities. It was the wild west.
I just wish I had known to educate myself better about ways to reduce tuition costs, student loans, and interest so that I would have been better prepared to mitigate the high cost of my college education.
I could have saved myself so much $$$ if I would have simply chosen my universities more intelligently. I chose all the wrong schools for all the wrong reasons.
For undergrad & PA school I chose to go to expensive, private universities out of state in FL. Yes I had scholarships but in both cases, they did not cover costs in their entirety.
I had other more intelligent options that were much less expensive, yet great caliber schools in NJ where I was living at the time. With my grades, and being an in-state student, Rutgers University would have basically been free for me. I also had an opportunity for significant athletic scholarship at Seton Hall for running track, which was my jam back then.
I did not even consider that these universities were likely a better financial match for me. This was a big mistake that cost me $180,000.
At the time, my reasons for overlooking these more viable college options were as flimsy as:
"Seton Hall’s track team was no joke and the team has a mandatory curfew and lights out at 10 pm and I don't want my life to be controlled by a coach", to " I hate winter and I want to live in FL where it's warm."
I was done with running track & I wanted to go to college with my best friend who was going there and live out our fantasies of being young and quirky and roommates like Ross, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, and Joey.
Quite on-brand for a naive teenager not to consider cost at all, don't you think? 😂
Then I lived and I learned. I
In undergrad, even with being a Resident Advisor with fully paid room and board, and having that partial academic scholarship, I still ended up with about 30K in loans.
Although attending Lynn University was an incredible experience I do not regret- I mean it's where I came of age and met the best people who became like family.That decision cost me much more than money.
Lynn turned out to be a mecca for super-wealthy international students, which in some ways made me feel at home, and in other ways, it was isolating & tested the boundaries of my inner strength. I got to experience people, cultures, and traditions from around the world in an intimate environment. I studied alongside an African prince, diplomats kids, oil heirs, people who went to boarding school in Gstaad with Paris Hilton and Arab money kids, which honestly, puts Robin Leach and rap videos to shame when you experience it first hand. The cultural diversity was incredible and I loved it, but the economic disparity was stark in comparison to my situation, and it messed with my head. Not so much in terms of material jealousy, but more jealous of the freedom they had in not having constant anxiety about getting kicked out of school for financial reasons.
I wished more than anything to have just regular college life/academic stress be the only thing I worried about just like everyone else. They were Mercedes's and apartments on the beach, and I was crying at financial aid every semester because I couldn't register because my account was on financial hold yet again.
Do you understand how frustrating it is to want an education so bad that you're willing to have 2 jobs, go to school full time and crush it grades-wise and still not be able to peacefully go to school without financial aid drama?!
It felt like the universe was punishing me for wanting to better myself. In reality, I was the one who chose that path. Even if I didn't know it at the time, I had stacked the odds against myself.
I wish I would have had the where with all to realize that as much as I wanted this school experience to be my life like it was my Lynn University peers, It probably wasn't the most intelligent decision for me.
Staying at home and going to Rutgers should have been an option to seriously consider. It would have saved me tens of thousands of dollars in addition to having the room + board+ moral support of staying with family. Like all families, living at home wouldn’t have been all rainbows I’m sure, but it would have been a short-term sacrifice I wish I would have given more consideration to.
The Lesson: When it comes to choosing a school, please consider your options carefully in terms of tuition, loan amount needed, cost of living/commuting, and social and economic support throughout your education. Try your best to discern what will be best for you in terms of your ability to have academic success at a particular school, in addition to minimizing the amount of debt you may incur. State schools can sometimes end up costing more than private depending on the circumstances! Pre-Reqs at a community college can be very smart. Be strategic and intentional about the school you choose. Depending on your prospects, you do not necessarily have to go to the biggest name school, or an expensive school that may or may not be more than a fancy name on your resume. For the most part- where you went to PA school etc. matters very little compared to your qualifications in the real world.
Being Clueless About Personal Finance & Credit Before Enrolling
In addition to finding free money and choosing a more cost-savvy school, I wish I had known more about my own financial health beforehand because it would have saved me a lot of $$.
At the time when I applied for student loans, I didn't know the first thing about money. I had a little job and I cashed my paychecks for cash at a check-cashing store. I had no bank accounts, no money saved up, no bills to my name, and my credit score was awful because I had never had any. I got money. I spent money. Rinse and repeat.
Federal Loans through FAFSA for undergrad and PA School were no problem cuz those don't take credit into consideration.
Here's the thing though: Tuition for the private universities I chose exceeded the maximum federal loan amounts I qualified for, even with my scholarships. I needed private loans to cover the difference, so you can imagine what happened when I applied for student loans with my terrible credit, right?
It gets worst.
I was on the verge of being kicked out of school for the remaining balance of the tuition more times than I can count. It was pretty much every semester. I lived in a state of impending panic & maybe that explains why I'm still so "jumpy", as my husband calls it.
terrible credit=Private loans were out of the question. My only viable option was to get my mom to get a Parent Plus Loan in my name. She refused. I was mad, but now I totally get why- there was no way she could have ever paid that back, it was a smart move on her part.
I'm ashamed of what I did next.
This is how desperately I wanted to stay in school. I called up the Parent Plus people from a payphone by the cafeteria on campus. I pretended to be my mom, accent and all! and applied for the Parent Plus Loan in her name to cover the rest of my tuition. My mom had great credit so I was accepted on the spot. I didn't think it was a big deal at the time since I knew I was the one who was going to pay it back, but looking back this is straight-up identity theft! What the heck was I thinking!
Why I put on an accent I'll never know. It's not like they knew my mom😂. It haunts me 'till this day.
My mom didn't find out about that loan until after I graduated PA school and I missed some payments while in the professional purgatory that is the space between graduating and earning money. She was furious.
It was the first thing I paid off as soon as I could.
In PA school I had the same issue where my federal loans were short for the tuition, but by then I had been working for a few years and had established some credit and managed to get some private loans but with high-interest rates.
This left me with exactly $0 for books or living expenses so I had to work as much as I could all through PA school to pay rent, 60-mile commute, books, materials, and whatever else. I worked nights and weekends at an Animal Emergency Clinic as a vet tech throughout PA school- and even that wasn't enough to make ends meet. I fell behind on a lot of things and my credit took a huge hit yet again.
That period of time was so stressful I don't remember a lot of details. It almost broke me and I have the memory loss to prove it.
I wish I had known then that saving money and building better credit would have greatly helped me offset the cost of my education.
Here are some things I wished I would have done before applying for student loans
Work and stash money to pay for school in an online-only savings account. These tend to be higher yield rates and also much harder to withdraw from
Built my credit up. Having great credit would have saved me tens of thousands of dollars because it could have given me lower interest rates. I wish I had known that doing two simple things like paying bills on time and paying off credit cards in full every month are the most impactful things that have made my credit great today.
The Lesson: If you are applying for loans, ensure tip-top financial shape prior to applying. You can save thousands by paying tuition out of your pocket if possible vs loans. In the event that you do need to utilize loans, it pays to make sure your credit is good so that you may qualify for more competitive interest rates and save yourself lots of interest over time.
Not having a Budget & Not knowing my Numbers
I could have saved myself a whole lotta stress had I sat down and written out all the expenses of my education. In retrospect, PA school was not the time or place to be financially stressed.
I wish I would have known what a lifesaver it would have been to budget wisely to void stacking financial stress to the already crushing pressure of PA school.
Had I calculated the tuition and all my expenses beforehand and been truthful with myself about what I could afford, I would have easily seen that the schools I chose were astronomically out of my budget.
I admit I was the type of person who would avoid looking at my bank accounts because it was always really bad. This was a fatal mistake for me because it lead me to commit grossly uninformed financial decisions regarding my education.
Now I understand that the more I get to know my financial habits and spending patterns, important numbers, and overall financial picture more intimately, the more I learn about myself, how to better manage my money, and more importantly how to live well within my means.
According to one of my favorite finance gurus Tiffany Aliche AKA the Budgetnista, there are 5 personal finance numbers you should always know. This would have helped me tremendously with my student loan situation then and is helping me now in cleaning it up.
The Lesson: Know your numbers try your best not to turn a blind eye to your finances because it can truly cost you. There are many downloadable budget templates, apps, and websites out there that can provide some guidance. I myself am a huge fan of Dave Ramsey, The Budgetnista, and the YNAB method. I started out reading all their books and it has helped me tremendously. Check them out & look at your numbers today. Rip the bandaid, scream and cry if you have to but let the course correction start TODAY.
My biggest student loan mistakes ultimately have shown me many financial blind spots that cost me time, money, freedom, and peace of mind. My hope is that you can use my experiences to completely avoid debt, minimize it or hack the repayment process so that you may be free from student loan debt forever.
If you found this blog post useful pay it forward. Pass it along to a friend that may benefit from knowing what student loan pitfalls to avoid.
In Part 2 I'll show you the next batch of major student loan mistakes I've made for the past 13 years in the repayment process and what I wish I would have done instead.
I'll also be revealing my remaining student loan debt amount and the steps I'm taking to undo the damage.
Make sure you're subscribed so that you don't miss Part 2 of this series!
*Disclosure: This blog post provides personal finance educational information and experiences, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice. I am in no way an expert in any of these areas, I simply want to share my mistakes and what I have learned so far. All of the content of this blog post is my opinion and not that of my employer, affiliates, or business partners. I do make a small commission from affiliate links in this post.