How I Paid Off $121,000 of Student Loans in 21 Months


By the time I graduated PA school, I had accumulated roughly $135,000 in student loan debt. I wish I had considered other options to pay for school rather than resigning myself to a massive student loan debt.


I had very little guidance when it came to finances, and I blindly accepted that PA school required taking out huge loans. For me, it was a constant source of dread and shame after graduation. I could not buy a t-shirt or go out to eat with friends without feeling guilt. Yet, I felt like I deserved to breathe and enjoy myself after years of schooling.


Once I was out of school, I felt the increasing external pressures of what I should be doing with my new salary. I heard that it was time to invest in a house, save for retirement and upgrade my car, yet I had already spent $135,000. I could not grasp why I should be spending even more money on big ticket items.


The sheer size of the debt caused me a bit of paralysis, and luckily that prevented me from rationalizing additional debt or major purchases. However, it also prevented me from setting into motion a plan to deal with the debt that I already accumulated, at least for the first few years.



The epiphany

I spent the first 3-½ years out of school without much of a plan. I did manage to consolidate some undergrad and graduate loans at a higher interest rate than any of the original loans, which I did not realize until later. I am not terrible at math, I just assumed the point of consolidation was to lock in a lower interest rate, otherwise why would this be offered?


How I Paid Off 121K as a PA lBe a Physician Assistant

Admittedly, I was a bit naive. In those first years, I did not spend extravagantly or make any large purchases, but I traveled some, bought small items that I could have lived without, and enjoyed dinners out and activities with my friends and family.


Added together, my behaviors were essentially chipping away little by little at what I earned. I was not planning my spending ahead of time and because of that, each paycheck slowly slipped away from me.


I was paying extra on my loans, but at the end of over 3 years of payments, the total principal balance of my loans remained over $121,000. So I had paid over $40,000 towards the loans, and my balance decreased by only $14,000? And I was already paying extra? #$&@!


I already agreed to pay back $135,000, and I was not okay spending a major portion of my career paying back well over that amount. My loan payments were robbing me of my income and my choices, and I knew I had to make a change.


Free budgeting guide

The execution

The most important first step to tackling my debt was making a budget. Not seeing what I was spending after it was already spent, and not what I was hoping to spend, but a plan made in advance of what I really needed to spend to get by each month.


I live in a large, relatively expensive city, so rent was my biggest expense, ranging from $1200-1400/month during my 21-month debt payoff. With the other essentials - food, insurance, utilities, dog treats, and an infrequent hair cut, my monthly expenses ran about $2000/month.


Nearly everything else - eating out, saving for retirement, vacations, a gym membership and any extra spending on the non-essentials - was eliminated.


The biggest necessary adjustment was my attitude. I did not care about what other people thought about my plan. I found that I became very content with what I had and was relieved to focus all of my energy on one goal.


I got my blueprint on how to pay off my debt from Dave Ramsey. This plan provided me with the permission to focus all of my efforts and financial resources to aggressively pay off my debt, and that was what I needed to get started.


Once I got going with the budget, I started looking for ways to make more money in order to get out of debt faster. I applied for several prn ER, urgent care and walk-in clinic positions, but did not hear back for awhile.


Three months into my plan, I got an interview with a walk-in clinic and was offered a part-time position.


From the time that I applied, it took about 6 months to be credentialed and to start working. By that time, I had paid down around $18,500 in debt, more than my first 3 years of principal reduction combined.


If you follow the blog, you may know that I work full time in oncology. In transitioning from my day job of treating cancer patients, it was hard to work up much sympathy for someone who, in their mind, had the world’s worst case of sniffles and wanted to “nip it in the bud”. It was especially hard when I was on my 63rd day in a row of work, but I had a greater goal in mind.


I found another part-time job freelance editing manuscripts of non-native English speakers for submission to scientific and medical journals, which I did in the early in the morning and late at night.


The more opportunity I had to work, the more I worked, and the easier it became to work 6-7 days a week. Paying off $6000-8000 each month can be a serious motivator.


The end

From start to finish, my plan took 21 months to complete. It took cost cutting and a major adjustment in what I thought I was entitled to in order to accomplish it. It was awful a lot of the time, but the end was always within reach.


In the process, I learned to live on a budget and be content with what I had, both of which are still true.


I was fortunate to be worried enough about the debt I had already accumulated, which prevented me from digging myself an even bigger hole by adding consumer debt to my mess.


Looking back, delaying my student loan repayment for lifestyle upgrades that I thought I “deserved” would have been fairly easy to do.


The lifestyle of most PA graduates almost immediately increases after graduation. If you do not fall into this trap, keep things simple, and live like you're still a broke college student, you can start right out of school and pay off your debt in 2-3 years.


It is not easy, but it will mean that you get to experience the rest of your life and your career without the emotional or financial burden of debt.

If you're ready to start on your spending plan, be sure to download my FREE budgeting guide. It will help you make a plan for success in under 10 minutes. 


We have a couple of weeks to go in September's blog series on PA school finances. Coming up, we will focus on the steps you can take to payoff your student loans in 3 years or less (if you have not successfully avoided it by following How to Go to PA School Without Debt).