Are You Ready for Financial Independence? Here's What I Did

What if someone told you that you could pay off your student loans within a few years of finishing residency? Does it sound too good to be true? 

Well, it’s not. You don’t have to be like most newly graduated physicians who start paying off their loans with the minimum monthly payment and keep doing that forever. 

While this might be the least complicated way to deal with debt (let’s face it, it’s just one of many worries), one could argue that it’s not the smartest. 

Student debt can cause stress and anxiety, eat into your budget, and limit your financial freedom. So why not try to eliminate your debt more quickly, so you never have to worry about it again?

In today’s post, we’re going to discuss strategies that can allow you to maximize your income and save on expenses, which can allow you to pay off your debt faster. 

You might not live like a rock star (not yet, anyway), but you can get the debt monkey off your back early in your career and enjoy your hard-earned income later.

Maximizing Income and Saving Money

First, let’s talk about maximizing your income. Locum tenens is a great way to do this because it pays more. If you play your cards right, locum gigs can pay more than a traditional, permanent job right out of residency. Exactly how much you’ll make depends on your specialty and how much you work. 

For example, a locum tenens hospitalist can make at least 30% more than the average salary. However, if you utilize the strategies I describe in this post, I believe you can add an extra 50% or more.

Second, if you want to pay off your student debt quickly, it’s not enough to just make more money. You also need to think about saving money. This is where your negotiating skills come into play. 

For the average person, the biggest monthly expenses include housing, transportation, and utilities. The great news is, these expenses are covered by your locum agency!

In many markets, there is a large demand for locum physicians, so you will need leverage when it comes to negotiation. Agencies are usually willing to negotiate terms, which can allow you to get a little creative. Keep in mind that they pay for travel and lodging expenses anyways – more on that below – and you can simply ask them to channel these payments differently.

Based upon my experience, here are a few strategies for working as a locum tenens.

  • Work full-time locum tenens. The key is to work enough to make it worthwhile for an agency/hospital to cover as much of your expenses as possible (i.e., 10-14 shifts a month for hospitalists). This might be obvious, but working more will allow you to maximize your income while saving on expenses.
  • Only commit to long-term locum gigs. It takes time and resources on the agency’s behalf to fill open positions, so it’s better for them if you commit for longer periods of time. You will have more negotiating power in this situation.
  • Live where you work. Live near the hospital in a rental that is paid for by the agency/hospital. If you live and work in a small town, your pay will likely be higher and your expenses lower.
  • Minimize your other expenses. While most of your living expenses are covered, you still need to live frugally to pay off your debt fast. Exceptions may include eating healthy, exercising, and doing things you enjoy (within reason). This will help you to keep your sanity and prevent burn out.
  • Live a “nomadic” lifestyle. Try not to buy “stuff” that can slow you down. Living simply will be cheaper and allow flexibility. The idea is that you should be able to take off and go to your next assignment easily.

For most physicians, these strategies probably work the best right after residency or within a few years after your graduation. This is when you are more likely to have spending habits of a resident and fewer obligations (e.g., childcare, mortgage). It’s also easier to adopt a “nomadic” lifestyle early in your career, especially if you relocated for school or training.

What Your Savings Can Look Like

As mentioned previously, locum agencies will usually cover lodging and transportation costs. Here’s a breakdown of what that might look like:

Lodging: Renting an AirBNB or corporate apartment (weekly or monthly rate) is much cheaper than staying in a hotel for a long period of time (daily rate). Most corporate monthly rates would run $1,000-$1,500 a month compared to $130/night. This could save you about $15K-$20K of after-tax dollars per year.

Utilities: This also might be obvious, but when you live in a hotel, apartment, or other rented space, you won’t be responsible for any utility payments. That’s another $200-$500 monthly savings ($2,500-$6,000 a year).

Transportation: Option one is to finance a car with a three to five-year loan. Then you can ask the agency to cover your monthly payments (instead of rental car costs), gas, and insurance. The benefit here, aside from saving money, is that you’re paying off the principal on your car at the same time.

Option two applies if you already have a car you plan to own for another few years. You can ask the agency to cover gas, insurance, and maintenance expenses. You can also ask for a flat monthly car “stipend” instead. That’s another $5K–$10K/year saved.

So, how soon can loans be paid off?

This is the million dollar question. According to my calculations, you could pay off your medical school debt in year or two. Again, this largely depends on your student debt amount, your specialty, and how hard you work.

There are ways to get out of debt fast. Strategies that include maximizing your income through locum tenens work and saving money on expenses can help you on your path to financial independence. So get to work and stop paying the monthly minimum on your loan payments — you’ll thank yourself soon!

Vladimir Dzhashi is a Seattle-based hospitalist obsessed with career freedom and flexibility. He's successfully practiced locum tenens across many states. On his popular blog, he shares unique, super-actionable tips that help physicians make more money and live a better locum life.

Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz

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