This article is by Gerard Dawson, a freelance writer and high school teacher.
If you ask Christine Tatum and Dr. Christian Thurstone, a married couple living in Denver, Colorado, about the secret to paying off thousands in medical school debt, you’d get an answer based on results. While many loan repayment plans suggest 20, 25, or even 30 year timelines, Christine and Christian crushed their debt in ten years.
So What Tactics Do They Recommend?
Their strategy was simple: act with discipline, live below their means, and work hard towards meaningful goals.
Is the answer sexy? No. But as the average medical school student graduates with over $190,000 in debt according to 2016 data, it sure is powerful advice. Ms. Tatum, owner of Media Salad marketing agency, and Dr. Thurstone, a psychiatrist, have a lot of wisdom to share with recent medical school grads who would like to one day see their loans balance hit that magical number – zero.
“Do not defer your loans during residency. When you become an attending, live at the same level and pay off loans aggressively,” Dr. Thurstone advises. On the other hand, “frugality doesn’t mean not having fun or not living well” is what Christine would tell a young couple in a similar situation to where she and her husband found themselves in the mid 1990s.
The Money Manager and the Breadwinner
When Christian was in medical school, Christine was the sole breadwinner, working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. At this time, Christine and Christian had clear roles in their relationship that contributed to their financial success and eventual repayment of their loans. Christine came home with the paychecks, and Chris was the money manager.
“I was constantly scouting ways to make more money,” Christine recalls on the hustle she showed as a young reporter. “I was super busy collecting little checks from different cookie jars around the Tribune.” Although reporters are not an incredibly high earning profession, Christine felt good about her and her husband’s situation, because Christian was a savvy personal finance organizer. “I knew then in 1995 that I was running around making a little bit of money, but I knew that my husband was going to a very wise steward of that money.”
In addition to well-defined money roles in their relationship, both Christine reveals one important part of getting debt-free (while maintaining a social life): the power of the sandwich. “We would have friends over on Sunday afternoons, and let’s just say we ate a lot of sandwiches.” Christian echoes this idea, remembering he’d often ask friends, “Hey you wanna come over and have bologna sandwiches with us?”
Discipline and Delaying Gratification
And although millennials are constantly looking for hacks and shortcuts, there are certain things that can’t be avoided when it comes to debt payment. Christine and Christian both emphasize the importance of discipline and delaying gratification in their repayment adventure.
“It’s just a lot of discipline that’s required in life, whether we’re paying off students loans or something else,” Christine mentioned. “We were married ten years before we took our real vacation.” Many people imagine that doctors drive luxury cars, and Christian mentions that during residency, “my friends were buying BMWs” while he was driving an “old beat up Saturn.”
“I’ve run into some patients in town and they’re surprised at the car I drive.” Dr. Thurstone has upgraded to a still-modest 2013 Prius C, while Christine drives a 2005 Honda CRV. “We always have considered cars strict utility, and we are just not interested in car payments because they get in the way of things we really want — such as great traveling with our kiddos,” Christine said.
Online and Autopay vs. Paper Bills
One unique financial habit that the couple shares is there insistence on having a tangible experience of managing their money. The deluge of apps and online systems available today for managing money make some people more distant from the reality of their finances. For Christine and Christian, this is not so.
“Chris doesn’t like auto payment of bills. We are old-fashioned in this respect. We want you to send us a bill. Money becomes a little too fluid. You’re tempted to be lax in your own bookkeeping,” Christine notes on the dangers of applying too much automation to personal finance.
Be Mission Oriented
Christine suggests that people “think creatively about how to repay the debt, and align your life’s mission with how you repay your debt.”
Christine and Christian believe that their individual and shared life missions have helped contribute to their financial success and debt repayment. For one, the couple has partnered together – Christine as the media expert, Christian as the doctor – to educate the public about the dangers of drug abuse on adolescent brain development.
Christian further applies his discipline into another professional pursuit – serving as a psychiatrist in the U.S. Army Reserves.“There’s a theme of discipline and service.” This means he is required to put in “one weekend a month, two weeks a year.”
“It makes a little bit of money,” Christian explains. He joined the army at age 42, after his loans were paid off.
The value of living debt-free today is clear to the couple
“Having zero debt and having money in my retirement is priceless. For us it’s a spiritual principle,” Christian explains. Today, Christine and Christian still live frugally, but they make sure to spend money where it matters most to them – their children’s education. “Our big expense is our kids’ private school tuition.”
Thinking back on their final payment in 2008, Christine describes her reaction to getting debt free in a way that fits the couple’s theme of simple living. “I remember Chris’s smile. We didn’t jump up and down, there was nothing demonstrative,” Christine recalls. “We just simply knew, we just made it into an end zone, and only the two of us knew what it took to get us here.”