There are not many topics that optometry students would care to discuss less than student loan debt. Aside from the few lucky ones who have a rich uncle to pick up their optometry school tab, student loans are a very real necessity of attending graduate school today and tuition rates are on the rise. But however daunting student loans may seem, following a few of these steps can help you minimize your financial liability upon graduating from optometry school.
1. Don’t borrow more than you need
This first one seems obvious. It goes back to the basic principle of the less you borrow, the less you will have to pay back. It’s important to realize the impact that taking out more than you need has on your situation later in life. For example, imagine you borrow an extra $200 in student loans to pay for a piece of equipment you really want. Compounded daily at 6% interest over a 25 year repayment period, that $200 you borrowed would actually cost you around almost $900! That’s the power of compound interest. Remember that a dollar unspent is often better than a dollar earned because you don’t get charged the interest on it. If you have funds, cancel or return federal loans to the principle balance. When you return funds to principle, you avoid future interest as well.
Tip: Try to buy some of your equipment in cash or buy used equipment from a senior student.
2. Work while in optometry school
I know that this one is not a realistic option for many. Especially in fourth year when you are essentially paying to work a 40 hour work week, being an optometric technician or optician on the weekends sounds like the last thing you would want to do. However, if you’re not busy with externships, it’s often manageable to find a flexible side job especially during a summer break or on the weekends. Adding a little bit of supplemental income now can pay off huge dividends in the future, and may allow you to borrow less. To understand how even a little extra income can help you tremendously in the future, read on!
Tip: Find a job at an optometrist’s office that you are interested in working for. They may end up hiring you when you graduate, or refer you to someone who will!
3. Pay off your accrued interest monthly
This one may seem like the hardest of all of the options so far, but can pay off huge dividends upon graduation. Many students fail to realize that their unsubsidized Stafford loans (one of the most common type of graduate school loans) is actually accruing interest while they are in school. What’s worse, this accrued interest is then transformed into principal after the grace period ends. For example, if you have a $170,000 loan and $15,000 of accrued interest, then exactly 6 months after you graduate, that loan then becomes $185,000 of principal which you are then charged interest on! That’s right, you are now being charged interest on your $15,000 of interest!
Tip: Use your odd job you picked up from tip #2 to pay off as much of your accrued interest while in school. Also, try to use some of your wages earned from your job after you graduate to try to pay your interest off during the grace period.
4. Apply for scholarships and travel grants
This may seem like another obvious one, but the number of scholarship applications received for some scholarships are often low. This is because as optometry students, we are all very busy and it’s hard to find the time to apply. However, many scholarships and travel grants offered to us are targeting a very small population, such as only being offered to 3rd year optometry students. This reduction in applicant size increases your chances of winning!
Aside from tuition assistance, travel grants award the recipient the chance to network and with doctors from around the country. Who knows, one of them might even offer you your dream job!
Tip: For some great scholarship opportunities, contact your school’s student services and check out http://www.aoafoundation.org/scholarships.
5. Know your situation
I know many, many students that don’t even want to look at their student loans for fear of becoming sick to their stomach. If polled, many students probably couldn’t even tell you what their school’s tuition is. However, I encourage you to have a handle on your situation and at least know your numbers. This becomes very important when trying to make a budget or choose a repayment program. Remember that investing in yourself is “good debt” and you shouldn’t be afraid of it. Embrace the decision you’ve made and the hard work you’ve put into school. The better you know your situation, the better financial decisions you are able to make!
Tip: Log in to https://myfedloan.org and check out your own situation. Also, https://myfedloan.org/borrowers/repayment-plans can help you understand what impact different plans will have once it comes time for you to start making payments. For more information about loan servicers who help you manage your loans, check out https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/understand/servicers.
Remember that optometry school is an experience and a lot of things can happen in your life in four years and your financial situation may change. Having an emergency fund can help you out of a jam without having to add credit card debt to your mounting student loans. Think about your goals and priorities and decide if doing something now to change your outcome at graduation is really worth it to you. Just remember that the less financially distressed you are when you graduate, the more you may be able to hold out for your dream job or buy into that dream practice! Write down your goals and remember that consistency and discipline will pave the way to financial freedom whether you are in or out of school.