How I Paid Off my PA School Debt


So have you heard that PA school is expensive?  Well, that might be an understatement.  Any graduate program is going to be a little pricey, but medical programs tend to be on the higher end of things.  If you look at estimated costs for PA school, you'll see a broad range from 5-digits all the way to hundreds of thousands of dollars.  That's a lot of zeros.  And you have to look at tuition + fees + books and other resources + tools + traveling for clinicals + housing + food + everything else!

Thankfully, I went to a public program so that initially cut my costs.  My second choice school would have cost 4x as much as my program cost.  Unfortunately, that's the norm.  I had a few other advantages that helped me to cut back on the amount of loans I had.  Which brings me to Tip #1 - Take the minimum amount of loans possible!  I was able to live with my parents for the first year, and although they couldn't cover all of my expenses, they covered my fees.  I only had to take out loans to cover my tuition.  I also went to a public program, and that decreased costs significantly.  Tip #2 - Don't take out extra money to put into savings.   The amount of return you get in savings is so much less than the amount you're being charged in interest, so it's just not a smart financial move.  

I took out federal loans though Sallie Mae, which is now Navient.  I made an interesting, somewhat subconscious, decision to not ever look at how much I owed until the end of PA school when they make you do financial literacy training.  I guess I figured that it wouldn't make any difference since I wasn't able to start paying them off yet anyways.  And although I was not able to do this, here's Tip #3 - If there's any way that you can make payments during PA school, do it.  (Even if it's a small amount.)  If you get any extra income, have a spouse who works, or have savings you're sitting on, think about putting some of it towards your loans.  Those small payments make a big difference in the long run, especially with high interest rates.  

So anyways, when I pulled up my loan summary, I owed around $75,000, and that was shocking to me.  Now I know that PA school costs a lot more for a lot of people, but you can't deny that 75K is a big chunk of money.  I mean, that's the average starting salary for a new grad PA.  About 55K was principal (meaning that I had actually borrowed that much), and the other 20K was interest (the fee for the money I borrowed).  My interest rates were varied, but averaged at about 6%.  

After you graduate, there's a grace period where you are not required to make payments on your loans.  Tip #4 - If possible, start making payments during your grace period.  While you don't have to make payments, your interest is compounding and growing.  From day 1 of getting a paycheck, it helps if you start making payments right away.  You won't miss the money if you already have it dedicated to your loans.  I committed to this at first, but then I got a little lazy.  My original goal was to put at least 1/2 of my salary each month towards my loans.  But then I got the great idea that I would just put whatever was left over at the end of the month towards them.  Just kidding.  Not a great idea.  That only lasted about 2 months before I got myself back in check.  After working so hard for 2 years in school with no compensation, it can be easy to go a little crazy.  I would love to tell you to make a budget and stick with it, but I'm personally terrible at budgets, so I can't give you much advice in that area.  

So I went back to committing at least half of my salary to go straight towards my debt.  Tip #5 - Decide how much you want to put towards loans each month, and do it.  As you see the amount you owe decrease, it's so reassuring.  There are differing views on what loans to pay off first.  Dave Ramsey has the "Snowball" plan, meaning you pay the one you owe the least on, without regard to the interest percentage, and go from there to gain momentum.  I paid off the one with the highest interest rate first, and then worked my way down.  If you do automatic payments, you may get a decrease in the interest amount.  

After you've put your committed amount towards loans, if you have any extra money coming in, consider putting it towards your loans.  Tip #6 - Try to put extra funds towards your loans.   Every little bit makes a big difference.  It may not seem like it at the time, but I don't think I would have paid off my loans as quickly as I did if I hadn't done that.  And I can think of specific purchases that I made that delayed my final payment, and they probably could have waited.  

So back to my loans.  After I found out how much I owed, I committed to paying half of my salary each month to my loans, and any bonuses I got.  There were a few hiccups along the way, but I got better at it with time.  I tried to put any extra funds to my loans.  I started working in August 2014, and this past January 2016 I made my last loan payment!  It felt awesome.  Took my entire bonus/commission, and drained our bank account, but it was worth it.  I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, and I have a lot more freedom at this point.  Instead of going to the beach a few hours away, I can afford the trip to the DR without feeling guilty for not paying towards my loans.  Tip #7 - Make frugal choices while paying your loans, not extravagant ones.  

Everyone is different, and I'm sure not everyone will agree with how I did things.  But that's ok, and I'm extremely happy with where I'm at.  Debt-free, and able to start saving more and making good financial decisions.  Tip #8 - Do what works for you.  I'm a generally frugal person anyways, but I can splurge on something like a vacation or good meal.  Making big purchases, like furniture, are a lot more fun now too.  

At the end of the day, whether you're still in undergrad or worried about affording PA school, your loans will be paid off at some point.  It may not be as soon as you would like, and you'll probably make some mistakes, but it will happen!  If you have any other tips for others about paying off loans, please comment!  Or if you've paid off you're loans, I would love to share your story and help others to have confidence that it is possible!  


How to Save Money in PA School


Unless you have someone supporting you financially or have been saving extensively, the cost of physician assistant school can be quite overwhelming.  If you attend a public program, your debt won't be quite as much, but some of the private programs can cost over six figures just for tuition and fees without considering the cost of living.  And most programs do not allow students to work during school, and it really isn't feasible with the intense schedule of PA school.

I was really lucky to go to PA school where I grew up, so I lived with my parents the first year before I got married, which saved a lot of cost of living.  They helped me out with fees and I covered all of the tuition with loans.   I attended a public program so tuition was about $7,000 per semester.  I also got a random scholarship that gave me $2,000 a year which helped as well.  I chose to not look at any of my loans until the end of school and that number was quite shocking to me.  I don't remember the exact number, but it was a little over $60,000.  Now I realize that many people have loans that are WAY more than mine, but it was amazing to me how much interest can accrue over a short period of time, and it really got me motivated to getting my loans paid off as soon as possible, which I am currently working on.  I'll share some ideas here on how to save money while you're in PA school because every little bit helps!  I would also advise only taking out the minimum that you need because if you have the money in reach, you're more likely to spend it.

1.  Find roommates:  Whether it's your parents or classmates, you'll find cheaper living options if you live with someone else.  A one-bedroom apartment is typically much more than a 2 or 3-bedroom.  Whenever you find out you're accepted, usually there's a Facebook page where you can connect with other students and see what their living situations are.  If you're in class together, you can carpool as well or split a parking pass!

2.  Bring lunch and don't eat out:  There were so many of my classmates that would eat out for every meal, and those costs can add up quickly.  You definitely have to eat and want to be healthy if possibly, but packing a lunch will save you some money in the long run.  If you currently eat out a lot, look at your food costs for one month, and then try to eat out less for the next month and compare.  As much as I love to save money, I'm also support splurging occasionally on meals or events, so if you're saving money on lunch each day, you won't feel as bad going out to eat with your class or going on a date night!

3.  Avoid online shopping during class:  I know this one from experience actually!  One of my good friends sat beside me in class and there would be times that one of us would find something really cute or a really great deal online and if she bought it, I would just get her to throw one in for me too, or vice versa.  It saves on shipping right?  I'm all about a good deal, but I also make the occasional impulse buy.  If you like to shop for clothes, you could try Stitchfix because they have a great referral program and if your friends sign up you get a 25 credit.

4. Referral Programs and Surveys:  You won't have a ton of extra time in PA school, but there are some survey sites where you can actually make a little money.  Swagbucks is a really easy one to use, and I don't do it quite as frequently, but I've gotten over $200 in Amazon gift cards over the past few years, and that really comes in handy!  As for referral programs, if you are purchasing something see if they have any kind of program.  Sites like Groupon and LivingSocial will have deals, such as if 3 people buy the same deal you got with the link, then you get it for free!

5. Make money!:  If you have any extra "stuff" think about selling it on eBay or another resell site, like Craigslist.  There are multiple "Garage Sale" Facebook groups in our area, which are a great way to sell things locally and find good deals.  If you have extra clothes, there's Poshmark online or Uptown Cheapskate or Plato's closet, which will pay you for clothing.

6.  Use coupons:  I'm not talking about extreme couponing, but if you want to do that then go for it!  Using coupons occasionally can help you to save some money though.  Kroger and other grocery stores have some great apps now that you can add coupons to.  You can also use Groupon and LivingSocial or to find deals on gift certificates to restaurants to eat out.  If you use this link to LivingSocial you'll get $10 off of a deal that's at least $20.

7.  Textbook alternatives:  Whenever we got our textbook list, I would always check to see if there was an online copy for free either as a PDF or app.  Our library provided some great access to textbooks online.  I personally like to have the physical books, so the best places to check for this are Amazon or eBay, or with the class above you to see if they are willing to sell.  I think it makes much more sense to purchase the book and then sell it to another student or to Amazon's Trade-in program than to rent the books.  Amazon is amazing, and as a student you can get a great rate on Amazon Prime, which includes free 2-day shipping on most items and a ton of music and videos as well.  With this link, you can get a free 30-day trial!

8.  Scholarships:  Make sure to check and see if there are any scholarships offered by your school, and if they have any financial aid survey, fill it out!  The scholarship I received was called the Lettie Pate Whitehead Scholarship, and I got it just because I filled out the survey and qualified.  I think some of my classmates could have received it as well, but they just never looked into their options.  Here is a post with a good list of scholarships!

Here is a blog post with some other tips on how to afford PA school as well.  

I hope you found some of this a bit helpful, and if you have any other tips please comment below!