When Gerald E. Nissley, Jr., PsyD, got his doctorate in 2009, he faced a daunting task: paying off $100,000 in student loans. Five years later, the debt was gone.

One key strategy behind that financial success story? Reconceptualizing the debt.

Instead of thinking about his student loans as an overwhelming problem that harmed him and his family, Nissley viewed them as just another expense in his business plan, akin to office space or electronic health records. “You have to spend money to make money,” says Nissley, now a private practitioner in Marshall, Texas. “I thought of loans as an investment.”

Nissley and Brad Klontz, PsyD, CFP®, an associate professor at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, offer additional tips for paying off student loans:

  • Avoid “lifestyle inflation.” When you finish school and get a job, your income will soar since you’ve probably been making nothing, says Klontz. Don’t squander that opportunity. “I kept living like a grad student for the next three years,” he says. By dedicating half his income to his debt, he paid off $100,000 in a little more than three years.
  • Seek out loan repayment programs. Consider a job offering loan forgiveness, such as those that qualify for the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. In addition to gaining key experience and providing services to the underserved, says Klontz, such programs help you “make some amazing strides toward paying off your loans.” And don’t overlook state programs, adds Nissley, noting that Texas and many other states with large underserved areas have programs of their own.
  • Tackle high-interest debt first. Consider all your debt, not just student loans. If you have credit card debt, pay that high-interest obligation off first. And if you haven’t consolidated your student loans, pay off the highest-interest loan first, then target the next highest one until you’re done, says Klontz.
  • Be strategic. “A real temptation is to stay in income-based loan programs because you never have to worry about being overwhelmed,” says Nissley. “But then you end up paying until you’re 80.” Consider going with an income-based program when you start your practice, then switch to a fixed payment so you’ll pay less interest overall and get the loan paid off, he says. Also consider your tolerance of debt. Nissley was so eager to be debt-free that he paid extra each month to chip away at his principal. “By doing that, you can very quickly make a good dent in your loans,” he says. Others might decide to let a low-interest loan stretch out and invest the money that would have gone to the loan company to a retirement account instead, says Klontz.
  • Defer payment if you have to. Nissley persuaded his lender to let him defer payment during his postdoc years. But keep paying the interest even if you’re not paying any principal, he and Klontz emphasize. While economic hardship can make deferment unavoidable, try to avoid it if possible, says Klontz. “You’re basically kicking the problem down the road,” he says.
Date created: January 2018