Growing up in poverty in Vietnam makes me appreciate the value of money. It was a constant struggle for my parents to pay rent, much less buy enough food to fill our stomachs. However, even if they had to go to bed hungry, they always ensured that I had something to eat. Undoubtedly, that meant we couldn’t afford our plane tickets to America when we were approved for immigration. Luckily, an international Catholic charity group provided us with an interest-free travel loan that took my parents several years to pay it off. Having to start over in their late 30s and early 40s with $200 in borrowed money in a foreign country, my parents had to work in low paying jobs to support the immediate and extended families on both sides. Though I never went to bed hungry and had a comfortable and care-free childhood, I was cognizant of the difficulties they faced and learned to live frugally.
The Early Years
I started working since the summer of 8th grade, at the age of 12, in order to buy my own things without burdening my parents. I had so many odd jobs up until residency. There was a shipping company, a video store, babysitting, waiting tables at a local restaurant, and private tutoring. That didn’t stop me from excelling academically. In just a few years of living in the United States, I graduated high school as my class valedictorian and got accepted to all universities that I applied to. With my strong academic and community service background, I received many scholarships that year. The school’s scholarship advisor informed my parents that I probably broke the record for receiving the most scholarships for a graduating senior. Additionally, I had a full ride scholarship to a local private university and by attending this school, I was able to save money on living expenses. I barely had any loans from undergraduate studies.
Unlike our neighbors and other family members in Vietnam, my parents didn’t have a house. Therefore, they worked long and physically exhaustive hours to save for that elusive first home. However, when I decided to pursue Medicine, they sacrificed what little financial stability they had to support the first two years of medical school to lessen my debt burden. That’s why my loans are not outrageous like other doctors.
During the first two years of medical school, I chose to live in a fully-furnished studio close to campus to save money on transportation costs. I left Zeus (my car) at home so didn’t need car insurance. The close proximity paid off in long term in lowered stress levels. I canceled my cell phone service and relied on Skype and Facebook to keep in touch with my loved ones. To curb the utility bill, the AC was turned on exactly three times, twice for my birthdays and on the last day of basic sciences. I air dried my clothes and hand-washed all the dishes. I disliked how my clothes were stiff and wrinkled but decided against ironing them because that would add to my bill. Besides, I was there to study to become a doctor, not to impress anyone.
I also rarely turned on the lights and would cook right after classes when it was light out. Some classmates thought I was never home since my room was always dark. Little did they know that I was in my studio the entire time, studying in the dark. I didn’t buy textbooks and would find free pdf versions online or borrowed from the library. It’s no wonder that my vision deteriorated quickly in two years.
I didn’t drink alcohol nor attend any parties except the welcoming one. YouTube was my main form of entertainment. I rarely ate out and cooked most of my meals. As a Biochemistry and Pharmacology TA in the second year, I was able to use that money to book flights home in between semester breaks to see my family and Tran. After 22 years of living with my parents, these two years taught me to live independently, cook, and be comfortable in my own skin.
To minimize my third and fourth year expenses, I looked for cheap housing on Craigslist. I had my fair share of manipulative landlords and housemates. During this time, I tried to apply for jobs while juggling full time rotations at the hospital and studying for boards. I sent out resumes to places such as McDonald’s, Walmart, Subway, and got turned down because I was “inexperienced.” On the verge of giving up, I saw a post on Craigslist for a position at Payless Shoes. Without any sales experience, the manager took a chance on me and I quickly became one of her best employees. Therefore, she allowed me to work around my hospital hours so I mostly worked the closing shifts on weekdays and often full days on weekends and holidays. I studied during meal breaks and was able to pass my boards easily and graduated medical school with highest honors, summa cum laude.
During residency, while many of my colleagues splurged on nice apartments, I took a chance on Craigslist once again to find housing. For the first year, I rented a room with 4 other housemates in the nicest and safest part of Providence for $450 per month, all inclusive. Many of my friends also put their loans into forbearance. Unfortunately, doing so continues to rack up interest and add even more to the already-overwhelming debt. I took a different approach and started to pay my student loans that were recently consolidated into one. The housemates didn’t feel comfortable having my then boyfriend visit so I moved out to a studio a block away for $700 in the beginning of second year.
The studio was small yet convenient to all the shops that I came to love. I furnished with a used kitchen table and chairs from Craigslist. Since I spent most of the time at the hospital, I didn’t bother buying a bed frame or a window AC unit. I only bought a queen mattress on Amazon for $200. To avoid the hot summer days, I would study at a local Starbucks located two blocks from my studio or would take multiple cold showers. My neighbors happily shared internet with me as long as I brought them some treats occasionally.
It was during this time that Tran and I discovered travel hacking. We both love to travel but didn’t want to waste so much money because of student loans. We were able to travel to multiple destinations using credit card miles/points.
Our first trip using points was to Paris for our engagement photos.
At the end of 2nd year, I saved enough for a down payment while simultaneously paying my student loans. After many decades, my parents’ dream of living in their own home was finally realized. Purchasing a property on a small resident salary is far from savvy but sometimes filial piety trumps wise financial decisions. If I were to wait until am financially stable, my parents would be too old to enjoy the comforts of a new home. Because of this, I started living paycheck by paycheck in the last few months of residency. I had enough to pay my rent in Providence, mortgage payment for my parents’ home in California, and daily expenses such as groceries and gas. Tran supplemented an occasional trip out of state. Again, being allergic to alcohol definitely reined in my spending. Having a budget also helped tremendously.
In my final year of residency, I started interviewing for jobs. Initially, I wanted to find something in Chicago to finally be close to Tran. Unfortunately, the salary has an inverse relationship to the size of the city. Staying in Chicago equates to taking a huge pay cut while also seeing more patients. I didn’t want to get burnt out this early in my career so decided to take a traveling job. Most of my salary post tax went into my loans. As of now, all of my student loans have been paid off…exactly 4 years after graduating from medical school.
To summarize, I was able to pay off my student loans by living way below my means, having multiple side jobs, and using Craigslist religiously. 🙂 I never felt like I suffered except those occasional hot days where the AC wasn’t turned on. My priorities were to eat good food, travel, pay off student loans as quickly as possible, buy my parents a house, and to visit my loved ones frequently.
It is such a relief to be debt-free. The feeling is indescribable. My husband also tackled his student loans aggressively. He managed to pay off $160k of student debt in a little over two years while many of his business school classmates with similar incomes are on 10-15 year repayment plans.