Confessions of a physician with over $1 million in debt
Updated: Jan 9
To understand how I accrued $1 million in debt, you must first understand where I come from.
I am the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants who escaped to the U.S. after the war with literally nothing in their pockets. My father spent a year in an Indonesian refugee camp before starting over in a brand-new country. He worked tirelessly and provided for our family wonderfully for many years.
But then a few things simultaneously put a financial strain on my family. My dad’s health started to decline, and after an urgent surgery, he was forced to cut back on his hours at work. At the same time, my parents put their life savings into a business that ultimately failed, and our house ended up foreclosed when we were only about 2 years from paying off the mortgage. This happened to be around the time of the economic crisis of 2008.
So, starting at the age of 18, I was on my own financially. To this day, I still send my parents money every month to help them with rent and other expenses.
I ultimately chose the life of a physician and it did not come cheap.
I had to sign a contract at the start promising that I wouldn’t work during medical school so that I could focus on becoming a well-trained physician. Luckily, I was employed at a clinic for one year before starting medical school and was fortunate to receive an academic scholarship to help with the burden that was to come.
Studies have shown that 70% of college graduates leave school with student loan debt that averages $38,000 in 2017. As for medical school graduates, their debt averages $183,000.
My own tally so far at this point? Undergraduate: $12,000. Medical school: $340,000. But it doesn’t stop there.
When you marry someone, you acquire just about everything they bring along with them, including their debt. My husband finished medical school with around the same amount of debt I had. And the amount of interest we acquired in just 4 years of medical school racked up to $40,000 each.
My husband was not able to receive much financial help from his family either. But just like my family, they try to help us with whatever and whenever they possibly can.
After we became engaged, we should have waited until we had actual money for a wedding, but we were just so in love and wanted to call each other husband and wife. I wanted to take a trip to city hall and get a marriage license and be married. My husband however, knew that we would regret not having a celebration with our family and friends.
Our parents obviously couldn’t help foot the bill. So, what did we do? Since we stayed in the same city for residency training, we used our resident physician relocation loans to pay for the wedding and honeymoon.
After finishing medical school and getting married, I started residency training. Residency pay is not what one would expect a “doctor’s salary” to be at all.
An average first-year resident salary is $63,400 annually, as of 2020. When you calculate the average resident work week hours (commonly 80 to 100 hours a week), you realize how little those earnings amount to. To avoid interest from accumulating, I pay as much as I can towards my monthly student loan payment.
I have always been thrifty by nature. During all my undergraduate years, I lived with two of my friends in a one bedroom apartment to save on rent and subsisted on Tuna Helper and peanut butter sandwiches. I bought an inexpensive car my first year of medical school, paid it off, and drove my little 2009 Nissan Versa for 10 years before I finally sold it before moving out of state. I avoided buying any health insurance during all four years of medical school and was extremely lucky I didn’t have any big health scares.
I wish I could tell you that I was super frugal in every aspect of my life and saved every penny along the way. But like some college graduates, I always had the “I’ll pay it all off after I start my career” mentality.
And my tally now? Over $1 million and, thanks to interest, growing more with each passing day.
I’m fortunate that my career as a physician pays well enough that I won't have to worry as much about debt in the long-run. I’m also blessed that I have a teammate in this who has a stable job as well. I know others are not in the same situation. But my advice to them is to do whatever you can to save (except on health insurance, your well-being is worth the money!).
Trying to set aside as much money as possible can feel near impossible, but it will pay off in the end. Also, consider a spreadsheet to track your finances. I finally put one together and it gets extremely depressing at times, but it really does help. I know it’s hard sometimes though, especially when paying off debt means sacrificing everyday pleasures others might take for granted.
But if you have the opportunity, accept help from those who love you. I definitely would have. And please don’t ever feel guilty or ashamed about it. You would do the same and will return the favor when you can.
It's difficult to admit how much you owe, anxiety-provoking at best, paralyzing at worst. There are 45 million other Americans who carry student loan debt. And while we have all heard the statistics, it's still difficult to come by everyone's story because of the stigma surrounding it. But my hope is that in sharing my debt figure, other people in the same situation will feel less shame and, most importantly, less alone.