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June 1, 2017 - Dumping Medical School Debt: Tips from a USA College of Medicine Alum
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Dr. Caleb Butts and his wife, Tricia, pose for a photo with their children Joshua, Abby and Ella. In March, Dr. Butts, a chief surgery resident at USA, paid off his medical student loans in full just four years and 10 months after graduating from the USA College of Medicine.

It’s no secret that medical school can be a costly investment. Today, medical school graduates leave with more than just a degree and an eagerness to begin residency training – on average, they also leave with $200,000 in student loan debt.

Practicing good money habits early is important so medical school graduates can spend more time focusing on the practice of medicine and less time worrying about their personal finances.

In March, Dr. Caleb Butts, a chief surgery resident at the University of South Alabama, paid off his medical student loans in full just four years and 10 months after graduating from the USA College of Medicine.

“You have two options with student loans,” he said. “You can say, ‘I’m going to pay as little as I can for as long as I can and try student loan forgiveness,’ or you can say, ‘I don’t want to have my entire life based upon my student loans.’”

Dr. Butts and his wife chose the latter, wanting to pay them off as quickly as he could. “We knew we didn’t want to be surrounded by debt,” he said. “We wanted to be different.”

From the beginning, Dr. Butts and his wife, Tricia, made it their mission to borrow as little as they could for tuition and to pay off what they did borrow as quickly as possible. He said the key to paying off debt is to stay disciplined and to have a goal in mind.

“Our goal was to be able to have flexibility to allow our family to do the things that were important to us – things like adoption and giving back to others,” Dr. Butts said. “We realized that once we became debt free, we would have the freedom for options.”

Last month, Dr. Butts presented “Real Talk about Student Loans,” to current USA medical students, explaining how student loans can negatively impact their life and providing tips on how to pay the loans off early.

Dr. Butts recommends medical students address student loans early on. “I know there are a lot of things going on when you’re a medical student, but it is extremely important to be actively involved in your finances,” he said.

One survey he discussed showed that nearly half of academic attending surgeons said their educational debt still affects their quality of life and 35 percent of them said it places a significant strain on the relationship with their significant other.

“Your educational debt affects your happiness, your relationships and your family,” Dr. Butts said. “It seems daunting, but the earlier you start thinking about these things, the easier it is. Treat it as being one more thing you must learn while in medical school.”

During medical school and residency, Dr. Butts and his wife, a former teacher, made paying off debt a priority. They lived below their means, created a budget and placed extra money they earned toward the student loans.

Over time, small changes make a big impact. “Budgeting helped us find extra money to put toward the loans,” he said.

The Butts’ learned to live off of one income by keeping their living expenses low. “The average family in the U.S. makes $40,000 a year. My wife was a teacher, making about that much. If the average family could do it, we knew we could, too.”

Also during that time, the Butts’ adopted two children, Abby and Joshua. Two days after they brought Joshua home, they found out they were pregnant with their third child, Ella.

“Luckily, because we learned to live off of one teacher’s salary, we had paid down my student loans and had enough flexibility within our budget to be able to afford adoptions,” he said. “By making that right decision early, we were able to do something that we really wanted to do. We put money into things we valued – like family – and we did it intentionally.”

To prepare for Dr. Butts’ next step in his medical training – an acute care surgery fellowship at Wake Forest University in Salem, N.C. – the family sold their house and decided to use that money to pay the last payment on their student loans. “It was such a relief and really awesome because we were totally debt free,” he said.

Dr. Butts suggests the following tips for medical students who want to dump their debt:

1.    Begin with the end in mind.
If you don’t know where you’re going, you are never going to get there. If you don’t have a goal in mind, you are never going to reach it.
2.    Budget, budget, budget.
If you do a zero-based budget every month, you’ll be able to do more with your money.
3.    Live within your means.
Don’t feel social pressures to live a lifestyle commiserate with being a physician.
4.    Be disciplined and intentional.
Use extra money from raises, side jobs or skills to pay down your debt.
5.    Avoid attaching your wealth to things, especially things that lose value – like vehicles – and grow into your salary slowly.

Most importantly, Dr. Butts said for medical students to think about and always remember why you chose a career in medicine. “Money problems lead to unhappiness, and unhappiness leads to burnout. Practice good money habits so you can focus on the real things that matter – things like being a good doctor, a good mother or father, a good spouse and a good community member.”

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