This is part of our new series Dealing with Debt, where we present interviews with a diverse set of personal finance bloggers who are tackling student loan debt. Today, we’re featuring Mr. Flexcents, a personal finance blogger and physical therapist who graduated with over $116K in student debt! Originally pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness, Mr. Flexcents switched his strategy and is now less than a year away from being completely debt free!

1. Tell us a little about yourself.

I am a 29-year-old physical therapist with a passion for fitness and finance. I’m married to an occupational therapist, so we’re a bit of a powerhouse. I knew I wanted to pursue physical therapy ever since high school. From there, it was as simple as networking, planning, and a whole lot of studying. I graduated with my Doctorate of Physical Therapy in 2014 and have been practicing in the southeastern Pennsylvania region ever since. While it is a rewarding profession, it came at the price of $116,000 in student loans. Still, I consider it my greatest accomplishment yet.

I’m also a first-generation immigrant to America. My parents came from Vietnam after the Vietnam War. The communists stole their business and possessions and made them work as farmers. They started over in America and worked really hard to support me and my siblings. Their example contributed much to my own work ethic and core values.

Male physical therapist working with a young female patient.
Physical therapists help injured or ill people improve their movement and manage their pain.

2. You graduated with $100K+ in student loans. How did you feel about this while in school? After you graduated?

I was terrified. To give you a little background, my siblings and I grew up on welfare and food stamps.

We quickly learned that we needed to sacrifice what other people had just to afford the basics.

We saw how our mother worked tirelessly to support us. It laid the foundation for us to make money conscious choices and led me to work multiple jobs since I was 15. By the time I graduated with my bachelors, I had already saved $10,000.

Debt is something I was taught to avoid. After graduating with my Bachelors of Science in Kinesiology, I owed $5,500 and was not too happy about it. Since they were all subsidized loans, I decided to use the $10,000 for basic necessities during graduate school. This way, I wouldn’t have to ask my mom for money.

Overall, the total amount of loans from undergrad was nothing compared to my first graduate school tuition bill, which was somewhere around the mid-$30,000s.

Going from $0 debt to knowing I would owe over $100,000 in debt was a hard pill to swallow.

I almost couldn’t keep my head on straight after receiving the first tuition bill. My advisors and teachers acknowledged the high cost of the degree but assured me that it was going to be a good investment. We just were told to focus on our studies and to become the best PTs we could be and everything would work out in the end.

I still applied to scholarships here and there. I continued living at home throughout school, didn’t buy a car and took public transportation everywhere, and packed leftovers. I worked 12-20 hours a week in grad school to cover expenses including the occasional social outings so I wouldn’t be a complete weirdo.

Towards my last few weeks of grad school, I began seeing through the initial false reassurances. I felt the fear of debt coming back but at a much stronger intensity. I was upset that our curriculum did not include any courses designed to help us cope with the financial burden that would fall upon us after graduation. I think it was important for our professors to acknowledge the difficulty of keeping your head above water when you have $100K+ in debt and are making half that in take-home pay! In the last 10 years, the average salary for a PT has barely budged!

3. How did you first approach student loan repayment? What were your biggest challenges and complications?

Like many others in my class, I didn’t really get serious about how I planned to pay my student loans until my last year of PT school. Some people were thinking about the IBR plan, some were planning to stick to the standard plan. Others avoided the question and joked that they planned on letting their loans follow them to the grave.

We quickly learned how many types of repayment options there were. With so many student loan repayment options, it is difficult to gain an understanding of the costs for each option, so I am glad that you guys developed a guide and calculator to simplify the process. I’m sure this tool would’ve been very useful to myself and my classmates if we could go back in time and plug in our numbers.

The Student Loan Repayment Calculator helps borrowers understand all of their repayment options in one place.

With a little more research we found the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. I did plenty of independent research as well and found that it was too good of a deal to pass up. Unlike forgiveness after an income-driven repayment plan, there wasn’t a tax bill at the end.

The problems was that I had many questions with the forgiveness process including:

  • How qualified payments were tracked
  • What is considered qualified employment
  • What paperwork needed to be completed

After being unable to find clear information online, I would call and get 2 different answers from 2 different people. Usually, I would have to call a third time to break the tie.

4. A few years ago, you decided to switch from pursuing Public Service Loan Forgiveness to paying off your loans as fast as possible. That’s a significant change. Why and how did you decide to do this?

Leaving PSLF was not an easy decision. One of the requirements of the PSLF program is that you need to work for a qualifying employer. During my residency, I worked at a non-profit with a toxic work environment. One particular mentor was particularly abusive, and he made my life a living hell. I didn’t feel safe, but I thought this was normal–I just had to deal with it.

He would always undermine me whenever he got the chance, and he made me feel I needed him. While others tried to make me feel better, no one stood up to him. Eventually, his constant abuse started impacting my health. My blood pressure was borderline hypertensive, and I realized no amount of forgiveness was worth this much stress.

I tried to look for another non-profit hospital, but the only one I could find was suddenly bought by a for-profit corporation. Six months into my search, I decided I would just pay off my loans the old-fashioned way: just pay it off as quickly as possible.

I was already saving 80% of my take-home pay, so I started putting nearly all of my income towards my student loans. I was able to cut down my expenses even more, and I started working an extra 16-24 hours per week on top of my full-time job. My mom insisted on helping me pay off my loans, and I eventually accepted a $30,000 “loan” from her. She refused to accept payments from me, but I was able to convince her to let me open a Traditional IRA for her. I now pay her back by contributing towards it. My fiancee (now wife) also lent me $10,000. Before we tied the knot, I paid off all of my federal loans and what I owed my wife. Now, I’m just contributing to my mom’s IRA. It’s already at $15,000, and it should hit $30,000 by 2020.

Man holding hands up
Mr. Flexcents paid off $100K + interest in just 2 years!

5. You recently started your blog “Flexcents.” What inspired you to do this?

You know the feeling you get when you just discovered a lifehack? A new gadget that has simplified your life? Or even something you do for pure enjoyment? You just want to tell everyone you know or everyone you think could benefit from it. If it’s a new gadget, you may just purchase and gift it to your friends and family.

Well, this is the feeling I had when my wife and I discovered the concept of financial independence (FI). That led us to become more financially literate. After learning more about how to achieve it and seeing progress in our journey towards obtaining FI, I just needed to find a platform to share our journey with everyone. I think everyone’s story is unique, and if I can better the course of one person’s life through the information I share and produce, it will be worth it.

6. You had to make certain sacrifices in your lifestyle. What did you have to forgo or change?

Both my wife and I have always been conscious of spending so there was not much to forgo or change. I have definitely sacrificed hours of my life that I would have otherwise spent sleeping, working out, or hanging out with friends and family. Maybe I sacrificed a more expensive gym membership, haha. Other than that, I don’t believe I sacrificed any purchase items. Even after paying off our debts, we have continued to live frugally. We even learned to manage our money better while learning more about investing.

The key thing here is that we do not find value in materialistic or luxury items. We understand that the feeling of getting a new toy is relatively short-lived and neither of us sees the long-term value of it. Maybe our brains are wired differently, but the way I see it is that we would be sacrificing far more if we were to splurge on an expensive car, an oversized house, or frivolous luxury items. We would be sacrificing the freedom of being debt-free, the freedom of not worrying about necessary expenses, and hopefully, within the next 10 years, it will be the freedom of choosing how much we want to work.

7. For many people, student debt freedom is a highly desirable, but abstract and far-away goal. However, living a more frugal, financial conservative lifestyle can have a real and immediate “pain.” What recommendation would you give to people who want to pursue a similar path to debt freedom but find it too hard to stay disciplined?

For most people who are aren’t natural savers and view the idea of living frugally as a painful sacrifice, I would say that it is hopeless until they gain foresight.

To gain foresight, they need to gain knowledge and understanding of their current situation and the impact it has both on their current self and on their future self if nothing changes.

They need to look at their situation critically:

  • What is their net worth and cash flow?
  • How long could they stay afloat if their cash flow stopped?
  • When do they plan on retiring?

They should imagine that they have hired someone to manage their finances up to this point. Based on the answers to the aforementioned questions, would they fire that person?

If so, they need to take a hard look in the mirror and accept they need help.

They need to learn more by looking at their past mistakes and/or learning from other’s mistakes.

They need to develop a plan to attack their debt and build wealth. They need to get in the right mindset that they may be sacrificing the wrong things in life without much consideration of consequences.

They need to plan out their debt free journey:

What helps me stay disciplined in all my goals (fitness, financial, and career) is first writing them down.

I write down why I want to achieve a particular goal. I ask:

  • How will it benefit me now
  • How will it benefit me in the future
  • And who else could it benefit (if it could benefit my family, I’ll probably do it despite what I need to sacrifice now)

Once you have your what and your why, you need a how. Develop an action plan. Mark milestones for how much debt you have and pay it off. Give yourself some sort of validation when meeting your milestones.

If you don’t know what steps you need to take, go find a guide or someone on a similar path. Ask for help.

Girl holding a pen
You need to make an actionable plan to accomplish your personal finance goals.

Too many people ask for help when things go wrong. If you have more debt than you know what you do with, things have already gone wrong. Ask for help to develop a plan.

Once you have an action plan, make sure you have a routine in place to check it regularly.

If remaining disciplined is a known problem, an online coach may be worth it.

Overall, recognizing your problem, understanding its impact, and planning your steps is essential.

As Benjamin Franklin said, “if you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail.”

8. Your journey to student debt freedom has been more than financial. How has your life and perspective changed over the journey?

The biggest change in my life was that I went from being very career-focused to being very relationship-focused. The death of a loved one showed me that at the end of the day, my family, my friends, and other people were what I valued most.

9. What’s next for you and your blog?

I just want to compile and create useful information while tracking our journey to financial independence. I read a lot about finance and would like to share my resources with people I care about. I hope it spreads to others in need. I would just feel bad if I unintentionally kept it all to myself! It’s just like when you find a cool product that you found great value in, you’d likely share it with people you care about.

I also have a very difficult time writing and getting my thoughts down on paper, so it’s therapeutic for me to just practice and see the results. I am also hoping to connect with other people pursuing financial independence. For those thinking about it, I would like to help them on their journey.

Check out Mr. Flexcents blog, “Flexcents,” and follow him on social media: