How I Paid Off $184,000 in Debt in Under 4 Years

by Jul 23, 2020Debt

Kaitlin Claes, a 2015 Michigan State University graduate, managed to pay off $184,000 in just under 4 years.

She works as an associate vet at VCA Oshtemo Animal Hospital, a 5 doctor practice in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Incidentally, she’s also a superstar who has completed several half marathons.

She accepted to share her amazing story with Vet Financial Summit readers.

The goal

“We had $184,000 in debt, consisting of my 174K (40K from undergrad & 134K from vet school), and 10K for my husband’s student loans. 

My husband Jake worked as a graduate research assistant while studying for two masters degrees, which explains his small amount of school debt.

Our #1 financial goal was to pay off our loans before having kids.”

The plan 

“Before I left vet school, I told the financial advisor at Michigan State that I wanted to pay off my student loans in 3 years. She didn’t think it was possible. To be fair, she did not specifically work for the vet school and didn’t understand our field all that well. Even though I had a modest base salary, I worked on ProSal which allowed me to allocate each bonus toward my student debt.

My first job was at Banfield, where I ended up being a solo vet in a 2-doctor practice. Even though it was a huge amount of work and stress, I made a good income which allowed me, again, to pay down my loans with my ProSal bonuses.

During my first year, I moved back in with my parents, which helped me a lot financially. Then I shared an apartment with 2 other people – again a great way to save.

We got married in 2017. We paid in cash for the wedding and our honeymoon in St. Lucia. We chose to go during the slow season, which made it much more affordable.

Then we stayed with my in-laws briefly, while house shopping, which yet again helped us live frugally.”

Monthly meetings

“Jake went to Financial Peace University with Dave Ramsey. He taught me those principles, and we still follow them.

At the beginning of each month, we sit down and discuss our budget for the month. We use an app called YNAB (You Need A Budget). This allows us to create a budget, allocate money to different categories, and plan our entire month.

It’s sort of a digital adaptation of Dave Ramsey’s money envelopes

We eventually purchased a modest house after realizing that the cost of the mortgage was less than renting.”

Other strategies

“We were so driven to repay our loans, that we used multiple tricks to live on a modest budget.

  • I pack my lunch every day and bring it to work, rather than spend twice as much on fast-food.
  • We don’t go out very often. When we do, it’s part of the “going out” budget.
  • We each have some fun money, and we have “date night” fun money. It’s not a percentage of our income, rather it’s a dollar amount based on what’s left over after our bills are paid.
  • We do take vacations, but they are reasonable: we love camping or renting a cabin with friends.
  • We drove the same cars through undergrad, college, and our professional lives.”

The final sprint

“Then Murphy’s Law hit… As we got very close to being done with our loans, we had some unexpected car repair expenses. So it was very stressful, because remember, we wanted to pay off our loans before our son’s birth.

Through a weird twist of fate, I discovered that my grandparents had paid for a life insurance policy when I was a baby. I didn’t even know I had it! I found a way to cash it out to pay off the last bit of our loans, and the car expenses. We were saved by the bell and accomplished our goal in the final hour.

We paid our debt, in full, in May 2019, right before our son was born.

To be clear, I do realize the importance of life insurance, but I have a plan through work and an additional personal policy.”

Next steps

“Paying off our debt gave us a huge sense of relief and freedom. Our second and immediate next goal was for me to work part-time to take care of our son.

When we realized that we were done, we celebrated at a very nice restaurant (we paid cash of course). We had never allowed ourselves to eat there… until this amazing day.

Now, of course, we have much more freedom to allocate funds to accounts that don’t belong to banks!

Our next financial goal was to create a 6-month emergency fund, and we literally just accomplished that.

Our next goal is to increase our contributions to our retirement accounts – 401(k) and IRAs – as well as a 529 college savings plan for our son.

When we were focused on repaying our debt, we still contributed enough to get the match from our employers. Now, we’re able to contribute more than that to our retirement accounts, and that’s a great feeling.

In hindsight, it was a tough journey, but it was all worth it. We are not quite financially free, but we are much more serene when we discuss our financial future and our retirement. And that feeling is priceless.”

Thank you Kaitlin for sharing your story!

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS
Meredith Jones, DVM
Co-Founders of Veterinary Financial Summit

Are you ready to conquer your financial future? Be sure to join us in September for the VFS Virtual Conference. At the conclusion of the event, not only will you have a better understanding of your financial future, you will also have created your financial plan, and become part of a Community of like-minded Veterinarians supporting one another throughout the year.