A Guide to Tackling Student Loans

America has over $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, and dental school graduates are definitely a contributor to that number.

When you have six digits of student loans, it’s easy to despair. Many people become so overwhelmed by these outstanding numbers that they avoid acknowledging their debt as much as possible. This is what happened to orthodontist Mike Meru, who said when talking about student loans, “‘I just wouldn’t look. The only thing looking did was create stress.”

In his case, he wasn’t paying enough on his loans to cover the interest, so his debt was steadily growing.

However, there are plenty of people who have taken proactive steps to handling student debt, including this couple that paid off $200,000 in two years or this family working on student loans while also paying for childcare and building their retirement savings.

So, how should you tackle student loans? This article will guide you through some of the essential steps when thinking about your student loans.  

Step 1: Stop avoiding student loans

No matter how overwhelming your debt may seem at the moment, putting a proactive plan in place will help put things in perspective.

If you choose to work with Catalyze Dental Advisors, we’ll help you create a plan that balances loan repayments within the context of your other goals and evaluate strategies to ensure you take advantage of any federal or private loan programs that might benefit you.

If you are doing this on your own, a good place to start is by downloading your federal loan information from the National Student Loan Database.  You’ll also want pull together information for any private loans you have and organize them all in Excel or a similar program, including the following information:

  • Loan type (private or federal)
  • Principal amount
  • Interest rate
  • Term
  • Current balance
  • and Minimum payment.

Step 2: Consider repayment options

Once you have all this information in one place, it becomes easier to evaluate your repayment options.

Refinancing loans, or taking a loan out from a bank, can sometimes mean you can repay the bank at a lower interest rate. Be careful when refinancing federal loans though, as doing so precludes you from participating in federal loan programs such as PSLF, IBR, REPAYE, etc.

For federal loans, you can also consider consolidating loans. As you research these options, it’s incredibly helpful to quickly compare with your current interest rates so you know if you’ll be receiving a better rate.

For any loans that you’re not refinancing, you will still need to choose a repayment plan – either the standard repayment plan or an income-driven repayment option.  This can be incredibly complex, and the option that will make the most sense for you will entirely depend on the specifics of your situation.

However, when evaluating your options, consider how much you’ll end up paying in interest with an income-driven option. Often times, the interest accumulated makes this option the least appealing. While there are situations where you want to have lighter payments – it’s often a good idea to go ahead and make the standard payments if you can, as it allows you to be free of those loans sooner.

If you want to check what current rates are for refinancing, a good place to start is Laurel Road – the student loan refinancing program endorsed by the ADA – because ADA members receive an extra 0.25 percent discount on their student loan refinancing rate. Additionally, for students going into any one of the nine ADA-recognized specialties and general practice residencies, you can refinance your entire student loan portfolio as soon as you are matched to a residency program. Regardless of how much is refinanced, your payment will be only $100 per month throughout training.

Step 3: How high do I prioritize paying back student loans?

Generally, there are two camps of people when it comes to student loans. There are those who have not taken a good look at their loans, and there are those who have looked long enough to know they are ready to be rid of them as soon as possible.

While actively working on your student loans is a great place to be, it’s important to not let paying off student loans become your only financial goal.

Debt is commonly understood to cover any past expenses you were not able to pay at the moment. However, it’s smart to think of debt as something that also includes future payment as well – these can sometimes be referred to as “future liabilities,” or essentially, future debts.

If all the money you have is going to pay off student loans and your car needs an immediate repair, you will quickly understand what a future liability is.

Don’t forget about retirement either – if you have a 401(k) that can be matched, every year you are not putting money into that account, you are missing out on free money. While retirement may seem like a long ways off when you’re still paying off student loans, the money you can accumulate by starting early on a 401k is significant.


Student loans create significant stress for most dentists, so know you are definitely not alone in feeling overwhelmed. However, there are many, many individuals and even families who have paid off significant amounts in student loan debt simply by being proactive and making a plan.

Catalyze Dental Advisors is here to help you navigate the sometimes all too confusing world of loans and help you decide how to best allocate your money now so that you can experience long-term financial freedom. Feel free to reach out if you want advice on creating a financial plan that fits your needs and goals.

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