Most things in life worth doing involve periods of excitement, fulfillment, and happiness, punctuated by moments of terror and self-doubt.  Paying off a ginormous loan is no different.

I’m totally guessing here, but I would say that about 90% of the time, we are perfectly happy and content with our student loan repayment plan.  We see the forest for the trees, so-to-speak, and always try to focus on how we assume we’ll feel at this end of this journey.  Even when we get frustrated from time-to-time about how strict we have to be with ourselves when it comes to spending money, we usually can still keep our eyes on the prize and focus on a debt-free future.

The other 10% of the time is a different story.  Sometimes it’s hard not to block out your own thoughts, and every now and then they can be overwhelming.

The thing I’ve been struggling most with lately is looking back and thinking about what we could have done differently in school or shortly after graduation to have put ourselves in a better financial situation today.  Clearly, this is largely a pointless exercise.  The past is the past, and as much as we may wish we could, there’s nothing we can do to change it.

Why even think about it then?  I guess that because there’s other people today in the same position we were in 6 years ago, maybe we can influence somebody to make better decisions than we did.  So what could we have done differently?  We’ll go through a list here, but if you want the answer right now, here’s a hint:  Less-is-more and delay, delay, delay.

The 5 Things We Could Have Changed

1.  Borrowed less.  

The most obvious answer, but probably the least thought about.  We know that when we were taking out our student loans, it was soooo easy to just say “Yes” to every dollar they offered us.  In fact, not taking everything we could get was never even considered by either of us; it just wasn’t something we thought about.  We figured if they were offering us the money, we probably needed it.  People spend what they have.  Borrow less, and you’ll find a way to live on it.  We wish we would have had this attitude in school.

2.  Spent less.  

This goes hand-in-hand with #1, but make a commitment to spend less money and you will.  Go out less, eat-in more, shop at cheaper stores.  Spend less, and your need to borrow goes down.

3.  Delayed purchasing a house.  

There seems to be a lot of debate these days about if it’s better to rent or buy when still in debt repayment mode.  The truth is, every situation is different.  It depends on your market.  It could very well be true that buying is the cheaper monthly option where you live, although it’s not that simple.  Along with thinking about your monthly housing payments, you also need to consider the down payment for the house, insurance and taxes, and maintenance costs. These things add up, and every dollar you spend on them isn’t being spent on paying off the student loans.

4.  Delayed getting married.  

Truthfully, we don’t regret taking the plunge at all.  That being said, weddings aren’t cheap…

5.  Chosen the right first job.  

Probably the most important decision you make right out of school.  For us, making the wrong choice on first jobs was the number one factor we got off to a slow start paying off the loans.  If you read our post about our starting “doctor salaries,” you know why we say our job choice was poor; we didn’t make any money!  Hard to pay a lot down on your loans when your debt-to-income ratio is more than 4:1.  

By picking a different job (specifically, one in public health where loan-repayment was an option) it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where we paid $100,000 more on our loans our first two years out of school than we did otherwise.  Let me be clear that I’m not using hypotheticals here, either:  I’m talking about actual job opportunities that we turned down to take worse positions, mainly to be in a more desirable (and saturated) location.  

Conclusion

Of all those things listed here that we could have done, borrowing less and spending less would have helped a ton, but choosing better starting jobs (or at least a better W-2 job) would have benefited us the most. It’s tempting to want to go where the action is and be in the “hot spot,” but the truth is we tried that and ended up 1) not making money because it was so saturated, and 2) leaving that location anyways because we finally realized we didn’t really have a choice; what we were doing wasn’t going to cut it in terms of getting the loans paid off sooner than later.

Delaying marriage would have put us in a better financial state, but we can’t imagine our lives being more fulfilling if we hadn’t chosen to get married.

The bottom line is this:  Explore all your options, and don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone.  Being risk-averse and looking for a sense of safety also contributed to us not making the right job choice.  If we could go back and change anything about the way we went through school and graduated, without a doubt we would we would make better choices on those first jobs.  

We’re making our way now, and both our incomes and our loan payments are increasing.  Did you make some bad financial decisions during professional school or soon after graduation?  Did you do anything to correct them?  Let us know in the comments!