Bright future? Or dark cloud?

by Lorien E. Menhennett

You have a bright future in front of you
But a dark cloud over you

So stated a New York City subway ad for a student loan refinancing company. (My paraphrase, but that was the gist.)

I smiled as I read the words, sitting there on an orange plastic seat, the train clattering along. Smiled, because I could relate to the feeling. Smiled genuinely though, not in a sad, resigned way. Because while I could relate to that feeling, I no longer felt that way.

Medical school in the United States is insanely expensive. Each year at Weill Cornell Medical College, I borrow about $90,000 from the government for tuition, living expenses, health insurance, and so on. I also have loans from the two-year pre-medical program I completed — more government loans, and some private bank loans too. At the end of it all, I will owe the equivalent of a hefty mortgage. Heck, depending on where you live, I could’ve bought two houses with all these loans.

Residency is when you start having to pay things back. You’re a doctor, but not making a doctor’s salary. For the government loans, there are income-based repayment plans. But not for the private loans. I’ve had many moments of middle-of-the-night panic about this. How in the world could I afford to start paying back all this money, potentially three loan payments at once, while making around $50,000 a year?

“It will work out. It always does,” I’ve whispered to myself on more than one occasion, to still the panic.

And now I have a better idea of how it will work out.

The fact that I’m graduating in a year has forced the issue. As I’ve scrolled through psychiatry program websites and pondered my personal statement, residency — and the accompanying loan repayment — has shifted from the realm of fantasy to reality.

But I’m no financial expert. And the world of student loans is a quagmire. I’ve felt completely unprepared to figure this out on my own. So I turned to the Internet. I don’t remember my Google search terms. They were probably something desperate like this:

How do you afford medical school loans as a resident?

Bank websites came up, of course, promising special repayment deals for medical residents. I investigated, discovered that it’s possible to refinance private and/or government loans to drastically reduce monthly payments during residency. Interest continues to accumulate, of course. But you can now afford to buy groceries, pay your rent, and avoid default. Seems like a good compromise to me.

I even called one of these refinancing companies, heard their spiel, and learned that there’s really nothing for me to do until after I graduate. I can’t refinance until then, or even apply, until I have my diploma. I was glad to know about the option though, and now have it tucked away for next year.

I kept poking around the Internet though, in search of advice on how to create a more comprehensive repayment plan for myself. Or for the name of someone who could help me do that.

A website called The White Coat Investor popped up. The person who runs the site is an emergency medicine doctor who got sick of “financial professionals ripping me off.” This seemed promising. Specifically, I landed on a page titled Student Loan Advice. The page gave me some information I already knew — how complicated student loan management is. It also gave me information I didn’t have — the names of people who specialize in helping medical residents manage their student loans.

I scheduled a free consultation. A specialized financial advisor and I discussed my options (in broad strokes), what his company could do to help me, and how much they charged for their services.

After the call was over, I felt a sense of relief. More than that: pure peace.

The exact details of my plan are yet to be determined (and can’t be, not fully, until after I graduate next May). But there are doable plans, and people who can help me map them out at a price I can afford.

Rather than that dark cloud, I can now focus on my bright future.