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A Dentist’s Guide: This Is How To Crush Your Dental School Debt

dental school debt

Dentistry has long been considered a smart career choice for intelligent, driven individuals who have the talent and skill to succeed in this field. Working toward a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree requires a sincere commitment to academics, including at least eight years of study plus on-the-job training. Dentists must also become licensed to practice in their state, usually by passing a state-administered board of dentistry exam.

For most dentists, the hard work eventually pays off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dentists earned an annual mean wage of $178,670 nationally in 2016. Dentists in some states earned even more. As the BLS notes, top-paying states for dentists in 2016 included Delaware ($236,130), North Carolina ($236,020), and Alaska ($234,240).

But, those high wages definitely come at a steep cost for students who pursue this lucrative field. Eight years of higher education doesn’t come cheap, and even the most well-off students struggle to keep up with the costs.

What is the average dental school debt?

The high costs of dental school necessitate the use of student loans for most students who pursue this field of study. Unfortunately, dental students almost always leave school with a mountain of dental school debt that can take years – or even decades – to pay off.

According to the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), average student loan debt for all indebted students was $262,119 nationally for 2016 graduates. Private school debt was slightly higher at $291,668, on average. Further, over 30 percent of dental school graduates from the class of 2016 reported student loan debt in excess of $300,000.

Is dental school worth it?

With average dental school debt climbing well over six figures for the average indebted graduate, it’s no wonder that many who might pursue this field of study are hesitant to sign up. The idea of becoming a dentist might be appealing, but graduating with six figures in debt is a terrifying prospect. The goal of any career is to make money, yet dentists seem doomed to owe money forever.

Fortunately, dental graduates are usually in a good position to repay their loans over time. ADEA figures show that dental school graduates, in particular, have a great reputation for promptly repaying their loans. As the ADEA notes, dental school graduates are usually able to enter the workforce faster than other professionals within the healthcare field, bringing in fairly big paychecks early on.

High incomes also help dental students earn a great ROI (return on investment) for the money they spend. Dental school is pricey indeed, but the large income dentists earn more than make up for it over time.

It’s also worth noting that dentists, in general, remain in demand. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment for dentists is expected to surge 18 percent through 2024. The average anticipated growth for all occupations combined, on the other hand, is only 7 percent during that timeframe.

4 ways to overcome dental school debt

Dentists have faced huge college bills for years now, yet most overcome them and move on to build lucrative careers. Dental careers allow professionals to use their talents and skills to build real wealth, buy their dream homes, and enjoy the kind of autonomy you can only find in highly-paid, professional occupations.

Dentists with the best outcomes don’t just “see what happens” after school, however. Most plan out their educational goals far ahead of time, taking special care to strategize debt repayment as it relates to their future earnings.

Here are some ways dental students set themselves up for success, regardless of how much they owe:

1. Create a financial roadmap.

One of the best gifts any dental graduate can give themselves is a financial roadmap – or a plan – that helps them confront their dental school debt from the beginning. Facing six figures of debt without a plan is a recipe for struggle and failure, whereas having a financial roadmap in place can ease the burden by helping you build a lifestyle that’s conducive to creating the best financial outcome possible.

Most dental students will have an idea of how much they’ll owe upon graduating. From there, they can determine a repayment plan that helps them balance their ideal lifestyle with their financial responsibilities.

While some students attack their loans with fervor, with the goal of paying as much as they can, others choose extended repayment plans to make their monthly payments more affordable. Either way, it’s helpful to create a plan and a list of goals that can help you approach your loans in a thoughtful and realistic way.

2. Consolidate or refinance your student loans.

While some dental students choose to stick with a standard ten-year repayment plan or choose a federally-sponsored extended repayment plan, others choose to consolidate their loans. Consolidation can make a lot of sense for students who have several loans (and several loan payments) to deal with. For many dental students, having a single loan payment to make each month makes debt repayment – and life in general – a lot simpler.

But, there are other benefits to be gained when you consolidate student loans. If your loans are at varying interest rates, for example, you may be able to consolidate into a single student loan with a lower interest rate and better terms.

While a Direct Consolidation Loan from the federal government allows you to consolidate federal student loans, private lenders also offer debt consolidation options for both federal and private student loans.

Refinancing your dental school debt can also make sense if your interest rates are high or your loan terms are less than desirable. Before you refinance your student loans, make sure to run the numbers and compare offers to ensure you’re saving enough money to make the process worth it. A good student loan refinancing calculator can help you calculate your savings.

3. Maximize your earning potential.

While general family dentists earn plenty of money, students who pursue certain specialties can sometimes earn a lot more. Orthodontists, for example, earned an annual mean wage of $208,000 or more in 2016 according to BLS figures. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons, or dental surgeons, earned about the same that year.

While pursuing a dental specialty may require more time in school and higher educational costs, the payoff for that extra investment can be worth it over the long-term. Orthodontists earned almost $30,000 more than general dentists, on average, in 2016. Over a span of five years, that’s a difference of $150,000. Over ten years, the difference in earnings could be as much as $300,000.

4. Minimize your expenses.

While earning more money can absolutely help you pay down debt faster, cutting your expenses (or keeping them low) can have the same effect. Here are a few tips that can help you minimize your expenses and get out of debt as quickly as you can:

  • Share living expenses with someone else. Most people share an apartment or dorm in college and can save money by continuing to do so for several years once they graduate. The longer you can avoid the financial trappings of a bigger paycheck, the more cash you’ll have to throw toward your loans. Consider keeping your college apartment for a few more years. Or, move back home with mom and dad so you can squirrel away as much cash as possible to repay your loans.
  • Avoid lifestyle inflation. Getting that first big paycheck may be one of the most exciting moments of your life, but you’ll be better off if you don’t run out and finance a new car or buy a lot of “stuff” you don’t really need. If you can form the discipline to save your money for debt repayment for the first few years, you can pay your loans down a lot faster.
  • Wait to buy a practice of your own. Most dentists hope to own their own dental practice in the future, but that doesn’t mean you have to own one right away. Like dental school itself, buying a practice takes money. Most people have to borrow the funds to buy a dental practice, and that means more debt. If you can focus on debt repayment for a few years instead of adding more debt to the pile, you’ll be a lot better off.

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