Veterinarian Adopts Low Waste Mindset to Become Debt Free - Michelle's Story
Today, we have a guest post from Michelle DeCourcey. I “met” Michelle through Instagram as I had been following her zero waste journey. I then saw a post about her tackling her student loans as a veterinary resident and how living a more sustainable life helped her achieve that, so here’s her story. Connect with Michelle over on Instagram/going.less.waste.
This post is part of the series: Socially Conscious Women on FIRE, which aims to connect the dots between sustainable/mindful living and financial independence.
“You will be in debt for the rest of your life.”
That was my welcome into the veterinary profession. Starting as early as when I began my undergraduate studies, if I spoke with a veterinarian, the assertion that I would be in debt for the rest of my life would inevitably come up. Considering that the veterinarians who were saying this to me would have had only a small fraction of the student debt that veterinarians graduate with currently, this was a bad omen for my financial future. In some ways, I internalized that message and as my student debt grew, I knew that it was true. Veterinarians just don’t make that much money compared to their student loan debt. I accepted that I would be in debt for the rest of my life.
The breakdown of $198,000 worth of debt from 2013 when I graduated from veterinary school:
Student loans: $175,000 (undergraduate $20,000; veterinary school $155,000)
Credit card debt: $10,000
Line of credit: $3,000
Loan from my parents: $10,000
In the beginning, my monthly student loan payments were about $2,200 a month. This worked out to a little over 50% of my income. I was feeling the despair that comes with crushing debt, and I was woefully unprepared. There were a few voices throughout vet school that went against the grain, telling us that we could pay off our student loans, but they were by far the minority. I was part of the Veterinary Business Management Association in veterinary school that addressed topics including personal finances, budgeting, and negotiating contracts, but those brief lessons didn’t seem to hold traction once I got into the real world.
The breakdown of $185,000 worth of debt as of January 2019:
Student loans: $165,000
Credit card debt: $9,400
Loan from my parents: $4,600
Car loan: $5,300
Care credit: $700
Between 2013 and 2019, my life changed drastically. During that time I was putting a large amount of money towards debt, but I was also taking on more debt. During that time I changed jobs and moved four times, which resulted in me putting my loans into forbearance multiple times, I purchased a car on credit when the one my parents gifted me finally gave out, and I racked up over $10,000 in debt for medical expenses for my pets. Another thing that changed was that I moved in with my current partner and we became a two-income household. I would go through phases of budgeting and getting my credit card down a little, or overpaying on my student loans, but it would never last. I was so sure that I would never pay off my student loans and when you are looking at $175,000 in student debt, everything else just looks like a drop in a bucket. I was oscillating wildly between hopelessness and apathy, with only brief interludes of inspiration.
Many things happened at once this past year that resulted in a massive shift in my perspective and outlook. The first was, we discovered the zero waste movement in April 2018 and decided that we would try to “go less waste.” Then, in July 2018 we moved to a small town away from our friends and family so that I could do a residency in clinical pathology. Additionally, because of the aforementioned residency, I became very busy and didn’t have time to do much outside of school and work. I didn’t realize it at first, because I don’t keep super close track of my money as some of my previous financial woes may have alluded to, but I was spending less money. There were some obvious causes like that we weren’t going to the theater or the orchestra anymore and that we weren’t going out for drinks as often. As part of going less waste, we were also driving less, shopping less, and when we did need to purchase something, we were looking at second hand first. Additionally, we were spending less on food. We still go out to eat, but to avoid the unwanted waste that often comes with eating out, we were cooking more at home and transitioned to purchasing a majority of our food plastic-free by doing most of our shopping in the produce and bulk food sections.
At the beginning of the year, as I was working on my taxes, I had to sign into all of my student loan accounts to get my student loan interest tax statements, and I noticed that one of my loans had gotten down below $3,000 and that I had more than $3,000 in my checking account. I paid it off right then and there. It was exhilarating and empowering. I took stock of all of my debt and noticed that my care credit debt was also within reach. I paid that one off with my next paycheck. All of a sudden monitoring my debt, something that used to paralyze me, energized me. I had a debt snowball going. A debt snowball is when you pay the minimum on all of your debts, except for the smallest one, which you put everything extra towards. Once you pay off that smallest debt, you roll that payment into going towards your next smallest debt. I started following Instagram accounts in the “debt free community” and listening to the Dave Ramsay podcast. I wanted to surround myself with inspiration. For the first time in a really long time, I started to think that it was possible for me to not live in debt for the rest of my life. Instead of accepting that as my fate, I was ready to fight so that I could have financial freedom.
Intersection of Zero Waste and Debt Free Community
Refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, repair, rehome, recycle, recover, replant, rot. The zero waste movement has a lot of R’s, but the ones that we have really latched onto are refuse and reduce. Since joining the zero waste community, the things that have had the biggest impact on me were: #minsgame, waste audits, and litter picking. Minsgame is something that is promoted by The Minimalists and is when you get rid of a certain number of items equal to the day of the month. We have done a version of this project twice now and gotten rid of almost 1,000 items from our home. This exercise has changed how I view my possessions. When I laid out these items, I saw many items that I never used, things I purchased impulsively and didn’t really want, things I felt guilty for spending money on, gag gifts, free items that I had taken without questioning, the list goes on and on. We had accumulated so many things and for some reason it was difficult to get rid of them. Getting rid of things takes so much more energy than the acquiring. And that’s what I object to. The acquiring part shouldn’t be so easy. It shouldn’t be mindless. It should be full of thought and consideration. Now when we purchase things we are full of questions. We must consider if the product will be useful to us, or in the famous words of Marie Kondo, if it will bring us joy. We may also consider how and where it was produced, how it was transported, if we have to drive to get it, if we can purchase it second hand instead, if we can repair it if it breaks, and how we will rehome or dispose of it when we no longer want it. The hardest part of minsgame, truly, is rehoming and properly donating or disposing the items. After we finish minsgame, it takes months to do this part. We want to make sure that if we donate an item, the place that we donate it will be able to resell it. There is a huge dumpster filled with donated items behind the thrift store that we donate to, and I’m sure despite our efforts, some of our items have ended up there as well. The drop off areas at donation centers are a brutal snapshot of our consumerist and throwaway culture.
I also did trash audits when I first started going less waste. Instead of trying to fit all of our trash into a jar, we would just monitor how long until the garbage under the sink filled up and then take stock of what was in there to see where we could make changes. When we started, it only took 3 days to fill up our garbage. Today, we take out the garbage every 2-3 months, but we have stopped keeping close track as we have moved on to other goals. We also started picking up litter. The result of these activities is that I can now see many things for what they really are: trash. And I see it everywhere. So many things are made to be single use, but there are also things that are made under the guise that they are not single use, but are actually so useless or poorly made that they are essentially single use. This category of things includes almost everything that is made as promotional material (think: all the random swag you get at conferences for instance).
So, we don’t buy much anymore and it doesn’t seem that difficult because we don’t want the plastic or other waste that comes with it. I am cured of wanting to buy new clothing, because when I look at the equation of human rights and environmental impact versus how good I look in that shirt, the former almost always wins. The result is, we save money. I see people in the zero waste community and the debt free community doing no spend months, bragging about secondhand finds, embracing a minimalist lifestyle, and bringing their own lunch and coffee. Sometimes I lose track of who is who. The motivations are different, but the results are similar.
Our goal for 2019 was to start more seriously considering how much we drive and factoring that in more consistently when making decisions. When the snow got really bad here, I decided that it was faster to walk to school than shovel the driveway and scrape my windshield. That wasn’t so bad, so I sold my parking pass and made walking to school permanent: even when the weather is bad, even when it’s late, even when I’m late, and even when parking is free. It has been very freeing. I definitely saved a lot of time and grief this winter by not shoveling my driveway. Then, we decided I didn’t even need a car. I don’t know if that will always be the case, but that is our reality right now. We are very privileged to live in a small town where we can walk to almost anything and where, as a student, I have free access to public transportation. When we made the decision to sell the car, I still owed a little over $5,000 on it. We took money from our savings to pay off the car, with the plan that when we sell it, that money will go directly towards our credit card debt. Before we really took a hard look at our debt, we were also saving money. Although we do need to keep more than a $1,000 emergency fund around as Dave Ramsey suggests since we own a rental house, we had way more money than we needed for an emergency fund. Since the interest on our debt is so much higher than the interest that we make on our savings, we decided to prioritize paying off debt first (baby step 2 of Dave Ramsey’s 7 baby steps to financial freedom) by pulling money out of our savings. Selling my car is something that I never would have even thought of a year ago. Owning a car has always felt necessary and even now, I feel scared to make this transition permanent. Truthfully though, we haven’t needed two daily drivers for about three years now. It makes financial and environmental sense.
The breakdown of $171,000 worth of debt as of April 2019:
Student loans: $162,000
Credit card debt: $4,500
Loan from my parents: $4,500
I have a little over two years left of my residency. Currently we are working on the credit card (and excitedly coloring in our debt free chart). Selling the car will pay off the rest of the credit card, then our next task will be to pay off my parents, and tackle the smaller of my student loans. If everything goes according to plan, those will be paid off by this time next year, and then all that will be left is the BIG student loan ($151,000). Joining the #debtfreecommunity on Instagram has been an invaluable source of motivation. Although I don’t always agree with everything that Dave Ramsey has to say, it is also incredibly inspiring and refreshing to hear about other people who have overcome their debt, and to feel like I have someone cheering me on and telling me that against all odds, it is possible to pay off my debt. Going less waste is what allowed me to break the cycle of mindless consumerism and believe in a future where we can be debt free. I’m so excited to continue to align my actions with my beliefs and can’t wait to see what we can accomplish once we have financial independence.