Veterinary School Debt – A Close Look at What We Face

One of my favorite things to do is teach.  At Michigan State University’s CVM, we recently had a group of “VetBound” students come visit us for 6 weeks.  This is a program for undergrads who are seriously considering attending veterinary school after graduation.  I was lucky enough to have two of these students assigned to follow me around for one week.  I kind of went above and beyond what I was supposed to do during that period; I used our downtime to give lectures on how to do a physical exam and set up suturing workshops.  A few weeks later, I joined a panel of vet students who answered questions from these VetBound kids.  One of the questions was, “Do you ever regret coming to vet school?”

My answer was, of course, “All the time.”

cvm logo

“Why do we keep inviting him to do these panels?”

This may sound strange because all of my recent posts have been about me describing why I’ve fallen back in love with veterinary medicine.  It’s certainly true that I’ve realized I’ll be very happy doing what I’m training to do.  I love how veterinary general practitioners can do more than human ones, I like working up cases and coming up with treatment plans, I’m getting more comfortable with surgery, and I of course love working with animals.  But there is a single aspect of veterinary medicine that I will never be happy with; a facet that makes me questions whether I should have gone into human medicine.

That would be the debt.  Let’s break it down.

debt load

I don’t want to 😦

I was stupid before I went to vet school.  I knew that veterinarians made less money than human physicians, but I thought we still made a very decent living and the debt would be just a minor annoyance.  A couple hours on Google would have remedied that mistaken belief, but 21 year-old Ryan wasn’t as sexily responsible as 24 year-old Ryan is.  The internet is full of generalities on veterinary school debt, but I’m going to walk you through the specifics of my debt so people who are interested in going to vet school (or who are curious about the status of our profession) can get a serious idea of what us vet students go through.

So here’s some basic facts about my situation before we go into a giant list of numbers:

1.  I was lucky enough to get out of undergrad with no debt.  I got almost a free ride due to me going to a state school and having an awesome GPA in high school.  I only needed a single $5,000 loan which my Dad is kindly paying for.

2.  That $5,000 loan from undergrad is the only help my parents can give me.  My aunts usually give me about $500 a year, which I am very grateful for.  Beyond that, as far as veterinary school goes, I am completely on my financial own.  Obviously, your own struggle through vet school will depend heavily on what your parents or other family are able to provide.

3.  I spent the first 2.5 years of vet school living in a graduate dorm, which probably cost about $1,000 more a semester than living in an apartment or house with friends.  Now I live with two my friends which saves me that aforementioned amount.  If you can in vet school, live as cheap as possible with roommates.

Okay, let’s delve into our journey of veterinary school debt.

The most logical place to start is tuition.  This is the tuition chart for Michigan State University’s Vet School:

msu tuition chart

Look upon its color-coded glory.

Let’s keep things somewhat simple by assuming that all of these living expenses are exactly accurate, minus health insurance.  That’s because until you’re 26 you can stay on your parents’ health insurance.  So we’ll subtract that and add up the “Resident Totals” and “Non Resident Totals” for all 4 semesters.  Here are our totals for 4 years:

Resident total: $199,008
Non Resident Total: $306,652

I’m from Rhode Island, which does not have a veterinary school.  That means no matter where I went, I would have to pay over an additional $100,000.  So if you don’t have a vet school in your state, realize you’re screwed over.  If you do have a vet school in your state, do everything in your power to go to that vet school.

cummings giraffe

“But I’m from Michigan and I want to go to Tufts.  They have giraffes on…”

I don’t care; you’re going to MSU.  Deal with it.

You also can’t forget about a little bastard called interest.  Vet school loans accrue interest while you are still in school at outrageous rates of about 5.84%.  So each year you are in class you can add thousands of dollars to your total debt.

Okay, so now you know how much debt you’ll roughly have after vet school (again, don’t forget that accumulating interest). For me personally, thanks to a few scholarships I received, I’ll owe about $300,000 when vet school is done.  I’ll stick with this number for simplicity’s sake and to serve as a real-life example.

So once I graduate, let’s say I get a job with an average starting salary for a veterinarian, which is $65,404.  Obviously that’s going to vary a ton depending on where I work, but we’ll stick with averages for this example.  That certainly doesn’t sound too bad.  But now we have to take into account paying our loans.  The PAYE (Pay As You Earn) repayment plan is what most vet students will use to pay back their loans.  It works by paying 10% of your discretionary income.  Discretionary Income = Salary – 150% of Poverty Guidelines.

We’ll assume that you live on your own for simplicity’s sake.  The 2015 poverty guideline for a single person is $11,770.  Now we multiply that by 1.5 to get $17,665.  Subtract that from the average starting salary to get $47,739.  So we take 10% of that to get our loan payments each year: $4,774.

Okay, let’s sum up so far.  We have a starting salary of $65,504.  We pay back $4,774 each year.  Of course, we also need to subtract both federal income taxes and state income taxes.  I tentatively plan on living in New York State, so that’s the state I used to figure out my state taxes.  When I used federal and New York Tax Brackets on that salary of $65,504 a year, these are the costs I calculated:

$12,294 for federal tax
$4092 for social security
$957 for Medicare
$3,479 for New York taxes
Don’t forget the $4,774 per year for PAYE payments.

When we subtract all of those numbers from our salary, we are left with $39,908 per year.  Side note, anyone still reading this is doing an awesome job of paying attention to all these numbers.  You deserve a funny animal gif.

You readers are da real MVP.

Okay, so we have a final spending salary of $39,908 per year.  Let’s round it up to an even $40,000 because you’re an awesome vet and you earned that extra $92.  The things to remember about the PAYE plan, though, is that you don’t just pay that 10% of your discretionary income.  After 20 years, the remainder of your student loan debt is wiped away, but you have to pay tax on it as though it were your income.

“Okay,” you might say, “Income taxes on $300,000 isn’t too awful.  Plus we’ve been chipping away at it for 20 years.  This will be fine.”

No it will not.

You’re forgetting about Mr. Interest, that sneaky bastard.  You may be paying $4,774 of your debt off per year, but your total debt as an out-of-state student is $300,000.  Those loans accrue interest at a rate of roughly 5.84% per year.  That means every single year, your balance goes up by about $17,220.  You’re knocking $4,774 off of that, but that means your loan balance is still going up by $12,446 per year.  Multiply that by 20 years, add it to your original debt, and now you owe roughly $548,000.

So 20 years from now, you need to pay income taxes on $548,000.  Let’s jump to our tax brackets and figure that out.

tax brackets bitch

Let’s do our math for each individual bracket and add them up.  If your income is $548,000 then your tax that year will be roughly $171,000.  So 20 years after graduation, you better have saved up $171,000.  That means every year for 20 years, you need to save $8,550.

So the last thing for us to do is look back at our list of expenses and add that $8,850 to it.

Starting salary of $65,504.  But take out:
$12,294 for federal tax
$4092 for social security
$957 for Medicare
$3,479 for New York taxes
$4,774 per year for PAYE payments
$8,850 to save for income tax forgiveness after 20 years.

Man there’s been an annoying amount of numbers in this post.  We’re near the end, though.  So after everything you need to pay and save for, the amount of money you have to spend each year is $31,508.

Is that the worst thing in the world?  Of course not.  Assuming a 40 hour workweek (you’ll work more, though), that’s over $15 an hour after taxes.  Tons of people survive off of that amount per hour before taxes.  But is it worth 8 years of intensive schooling?  That’s for you to decide.

The important thing to remember is that these are specific to my situation, which is nearly the worst-case scenario.  Maybe you’re lucky enough to attend an in-state vet school which drops your debt load by a third.  Maybe you have parents who can help you.  Maybe you get an amazing job offer right off the bat.  Maybe you go into a non-profit career, which changes all this to an insane degree.  (If you work in a nonprofit for 10 years, you just pay the 10% of your discretionary income for 10 years.  Then the remaining debt burden is completely wiped away – no tax on the remainder.  You’re free!)

Of course, I’m sure there are also tricks and credits you get to reduce your taxes each year.  I’m not an accountant; I was just looking at base charges.  Plus, you’re not going to be making your starting salary for long.  Within a few years you’ll probably be well over $70,000 and maybe edging towards $90,000.

So what is my final point here?

I want people to understand you are not going to be rich becoming a veterinarian, at least not for a long time.  You can easily survive if you get a decent job, but your lifestyle will not be lavish.  Personally, I don’t think it’s worth the 8 years of training we receive.  That’s why I wish I’d looked more into human medicine.  I still think I probably would have chosen vet med for the reasons I listed at the beginning of this post, but I should have educated myself more.

Human doctors do need more training, but they also start off with salaries well over $100,000 per year.  I’m not a human physician so I don’t know all the details of their salaries, but it’s way more than what vets make.

So please, if you want to go to vet school, consider all of this.  Consider the debt you’ll be in and if it’s worth it to you.  I firmly believe that if you love medicine but just like animals, you should strongly look into becoming a human physician.  At least check it out.  You should only jump headfirst into veterinary medicine if you truly feel nothing else will ever make you happy.

Again, I know it’s not all bad.  $30,000 to start after taxes and paying off loans is very decent, and your salary is only going to improve over time.  Not to mention that after 20 years, you’ll be making close to $100,000 a year with no more debt.  But when you’re in school and just starting out, the student loans will drive you crazy and make you feel like shit.  And if anyone ever accuses you of being in vet med for the money, you will want to punch them in the throat.

scrubs ryan

But at least you get to look awesome while at work.  Thanks for reading and good luck, guys.


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I'm a 24 year-old veterinary student, novelist, & aspiring screenwriter. I'm trying out this blogging thing in my spare time.

5 thoughts on “Veterinary School Debt – A Close Look at What We Face”

  1. Hello doc.

    I recently graduated last year from VMCRVM and was wondering how the debt load was waying in on you now that you are done. In school I analyzed our market and found it to be such a shame, but I wanted to know if this out of state choice really sets you back from making investments, buying a house, and other needs.


  2. You did a great job with this. One more thing to consider is the opportunity cost of not entering the work force immediately after receiving your undergrad. Even a modest average annual salary of $40k over 4 years is $160k before taxes and expenses.


  3. Ryan, first off thank you so much for this post. I am a fan of numbers and your case makes it pretty clear to understand compared to anything the AVMA supplies.

    To play devil’s advocate a little bit, I just want to show what a non-worst case scenario may look like.

    Using your worst case scenario:
    $31,508-$20,000 (life on a student budget extended after graduation) + $8850 + $4774 =$25,132 that you can theoretically pay towards your debt. You will pay off $300,000 in…20 years.
    Haha it looks like it doesn’t pay to try to be aggressive about paying off that debt since in this scenario you are living on $20,000 a year instead of $30,000. This is the worst.

    Using average on average:
    Average salary $44,682 post taxes assuming no money went to debt payment yet.
    Average debt as reported by AVMA is $135,000. We will assume 6.8% interest rate.
    $47,445-$20,000 =$27,445 going towards aggressive loan repayment per year. You will be done in 6 years. With this example, you will be free to save to buy a house or pay for your kids’ college tuition starting in 6 years (if you have a spouse with at least the same income, you can get started on these sooner). But what about emergencies? Stuff you have to pay for that you never imagined? As long as you have health insurance from your boss, what’s more likely than an emergency? A raise. If you budget for emergencies, you will still be done in 7-8 years.

    Real life example:
    I am a 2014 grad from UPenn and have been out for a few years. I am in all respects, a “regular” primary care doctor. I work either 9-6pm five days a week OR 8-6:30pm 4 days a week. I only do small stuff, no emergencies, no surgeries other than spay/neuter and I am not a specialist and up until recently I was not good with money. My salary has been no joke, an average of 100K a year. I live in Texas where there is no state income tax and I share an apartment with my sister and live frugally but live well. I can afford to eat my favorite meal every other day if desired (pad thai!) and I have a $3000 budget for travel and $1000 for gifts/holidays yearly and I spend $20,000 a year post tax. To see how I can achieve this, read front to back. It took me 2 months to read and changed my whole life.

    My income is around $100,000 gross. Take home post taxes and gov fees is $70,000. My debt is lets say $200,000 for simplicity’s sake, interest rate 6.8%.
    $70,000-$20,000=$50,000 to pay towards debt. I will be done in 5 years.

    Okay my life is not very “real” given my high salary. Let’s imagine $60,000 salary to start and $5000 raise a year as you get more confident and valuable and cap is $100,000. We will give you a $200,000 debt with 6.8% interest. (a bunch of calculations later…), You will be done in 7.5 years at which point your salary will be $90,000/yr when you are debt free.

    All of these scenarios do not take away from the fact that our debt is huge and sacrifices need to be made. However, you can be well off in your mid thirties for most vets with a little effort.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Also I didn’t do this because my loan was so manageable but you can also consolidate your loan to get a nice <3% intesrest rate instead of 6.8% interest rate. Get that credit score up while you're still in school.


  5. oops my numbers on the “average on average” starting salary are discrepant. the $44,682 is what you get with state taxes pulled. In Texas I would get $47,445. Sorry about all these addendums. I’m the worst.


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