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Spending four years in Chicago can have very different effects on ICO alumni. Some ODs find that they thrive in the energy of a big city. These doctors seek out urban practice opportunities, as well as the food and culture offered by densely populated areas. Others feel the pull toward a quieter, smaller town. Many rural communities move at a more measured pace, with patients that are warm and neighborly. Deciding where to put down roots can feel complicated. Life after ICO may mean starting a business, a family… and inevitably, student loan repayment.
We sat down with two ICO graduates- a “country doc” and a “city doc.” Both have paid off their student loans ahead of schedule. Their paths may appear divergent, but all ICO alumni share common ground. Read on for financial (and lifestyle) advice from contrasting worlds, plus extra tips from a fee-for-service student loan consultant.
DARREN WRIGHT, OD ’95 – AUBURN, NEBRASKA
By the time he became a doctor, Darren Wright, OD ’95, was sure he wanted to practice in a small town. Auburn, Nebraska, fit the bill. He loves living there so much that he became the subject of a Vision Source documentary promoting rural practice.
Dr. Wright joined Lifetime Vision Center to replace a retiring ICO grad (Patrick Crotty, OD ’55). LVC is the only optometric practice in Dr. Wright’s town of 3,400 people. His office attracts patients from “50 miles in all directions.” It is so successful that Dr. Wright and his partner bought out a second location, making LVC one of only two practices in another small town nearby. He recently completed a quarter million-dollar remodel of his Auburn reception and optical area.
Surprisingly, Dr. Wright had never lived in a small town before deciding to work in one. Though he and his wife had both been offered jobs in Chicago, they had had their fill of city living. Dr. Wright believes that “people care for each other in rural areas more… you’re always connected personally.”
On an average day, Dr. Wright sees around 25 patients between the hours of 8 and 5 (he has scribes that help him be more efficient). Compared to his friends who live in cities, he says, “I see a lot more elderly patients.” The needs of this population allow him to “use [his] license to the full extent.” Dr. Wright does vision therapy, infant care, and “all the medical stuff you can imagine.” On the day he spoke to ICO Matters, he had placed amniotic membranes on a 95-year-old woman’s eyes. “You feel like you’re making an impact on your community in a positive way,” he says. “It’s the satisfaction you get from taking care of your friends and neighbors.”
Upon graduating from ICO, Dr. Wright carried “about 100,000 dollars in debt,” less than most of his friends. “I’m a conservative money person by nature,” he says. “When all of my friends got out of optometry school and were buying new cars and nice houses, I wasn’t.” Paying higher than the minimum required each month, Dr. Wright was loan-free in 11 years. Meanwhile, he put additions on his “fixer-upper” house, expanding his lifestyle as he could afford it.
Dr. Wright believes that Americans “like to buy things beyond their means, which then causes them financial stress.” That negativity can affect a doctor’s mental health. For Dr. Wright, focusing on loan elimination led to “a happier overall life.” A key component of his payment strategy was to set all his bills and investments to autopay. By allowing the money to be removed before he ever saw it, Dr. Wright wasn’t tempted to overspend.
Many professions have a difficult time recruiting in rural areas, but Dr. Wright cannot recommend it enough. In a small town, he says, “your kid can participate in any and all activities that they want to do.” Dr. Wright enjoys hobbies not readily available to city-dwellers, such as water skiing, snow skiing, camping, and travel. “It’s infinite in a big city, what you can do,” Dr. Wright says, but for him, nothing beats the friendliness and stability of a small town.
GABRIELLE SZWAJCA OD ’16 – CHICAGO, ILLINOIS
Gabrielle Szwajca, OD ’16, paid off her student loans in under 2 years. She currently works 5 to 6 days a week at Target Optical in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. Dr. Szwajca initially thought she would end up in private practice. When that path offered fewer hours and more stress than she’d hoped for, Dr. Szwajca found ample alternatives in her urban setting.
“I think I’m in the workhorse period of my life,” says Dr. Szwajca, who shares her life with a husband and a dog. Her office is a 5-minute walk from her home, so even when working long hours, she can conveniently walk her canine companion over lunch.
The patient base in downtown Chicago differs greatly from that of rural Nebraska. Dr. Szwajca describes her patients as “pretty young, healthy, middle class.” Most complex cases get referred out to an ophthalmologist, with whom her office has “a really tight relationship.” Dr. Szwajca received a “pretty significant raise” when becoming a full-time employee at Target Optical, and she feels able to earn even more. She says the biggest benefit to living in Chicago is the job opportunities. “On any given week,” Dr. Szwajca believes she could use her contacts (or even a Facebook group) to sub in at another practice.
Of course, Dr. Szwajca appreciates more about the city than just her job. “There’s a lot of diversity… There’s always stuff going on.” In Chicago, she feels an OD can choose a neighborhood to live in first, then find a job based on that location. Her parents have a quiet lake house in Green Lake, Wisconsin. While Dr. Szwajca thinks the small town is perfect to “get away from it all,” she does not see it as a place she could live. “I think it would be kind of a culture shock for most people.” Dr. Szwajca appreciates the anonymity of Chicago- the opposite of Dr. Wright, who loves being rooted in a tight-knit community.
Despite the difference in lifestyle, Dr. Szwajca’s money-saving and spending strategies resemble Dr. Wright’s. She left ICO with about $153,000 in debt. Dr. Szwajca lived with her parents for two years after she graduated. She did not have a car payment, but did travel, and admits she “probably didn’t keep as much in [her] savings account as [she] should have.”
Strategically, Dr. Szwajca recommends shopping around for the best interest rates. She refinanced her loans twice, taking a chance on a variable interest rate that stayed low. “When you’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars, the percentage can make a huge difference,” she says. Without too much interest building up, Dr. Szwajca could aggressively put money toward her principal balance. “I lived like a student after I graduated. I just tried to do as much as I could to pay toward the loans so I could never think about them again.”
Dr. Szwajca also has opinions on what not to do when financially planning. She recalls a financial advisor who “targeted a lot of [her] classmates.” While the man’s initial pitch sounded decent, he started pushing Dr. Szwajca to buy more services and insurance. She found these extras too costly and doubted she would ever use them.
Having learned valuable lessons about both choosing a practice and paying off loans, Dr. Szwajca has advice for her fellow alumni. “Know your worth. Know what you can give to a practice and don’t feel like you’re taking advantage of them. If you feel like you’re worth more than what someone is offering to you, then there’s probably somebody who’s willing to offer you more. Keep your options open… especially if you live in the big city.”
Drs. Wright and Szwajca have already mentioned a few strategies for debt management, including conserving, refinancing, and consulting with paid professionals. One such professional is Travis Hornsby. He is the founder of Student Loan Planner, one of many options ODs can consider (or not) when mapping out the future. (If you are currently exploring repayment options, we suggest you check out the US Department of Education’s resources or ICO’s own financial aid team as you determine the best fit.)
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard, the median amount of student debt held by ICO alumni the year they graduate is $202,000. The mean is $191,000. These numbers are lower than ICO’s cost of attendance, and well below the $277,000 average owed by the optometrists that use Student
Loan Planner. Unlike Drs. Wright and Szwajca, Hornsby’s clients have often lost control of their student debt. The largest debt from an optometrist that he can recall is approximately $420,000.
Hornsby agrees with our alumni; student debt, even well-controlled, can affect mental health. “90% of the people on our mailing list have felt severe anxiety from their student loans at some point,” he says. To calm these feelings, he recommends doing what Drs. Wright and Szwajca did- deciding what your priorities are (opening a practice, buying a house, having a baby…) then building a payment plan around them. Many alternate repayment structures are already available to you for free under your federal loan repayment options.
When asked about urban vs. rural practice, Hornsby had this advice: “If you’re in a big city that’s a desirable place for millennials to live, and you’re near one or multiple colleges of optometry, I would avoid that place if I want to make a lot of money.” He believes that a smaller or independent practice has a better shot in a town not oversaturated by corporations. “It’s not as simple as saying city vs. country.”
Only you can craft your own definition of success. Drs. Wright and Szwajca both found theirs. Says Hornsby, “It feels good, but [loan payoff ] usually doesn’t feel as good as you think it’s going to feel. Salary, family, hobbies, and friends can all make the city or the country the perfect place to live. “There are other things that are just more important than having zero dollars of student loan debt next to your name.”
For information on federal student loan forgiveness or income-based repayment structures, visit: studentloans.gov
These resources are for informational purposes only and are not recommended or endorsed by ICO.