Can You Afford to be a Veterinarian?
I used to work in a small town that could support only a handful of veterinary clinics. I was surprised when I heard that a new mixed animal practice was opening up nearby. The cost of living in this area was extremely high, the real estate market (rental and sales) was in the stratosphere, and I had heard that the owner of this new practice had just graduated from veterinary school. My reaction was, "How in the world can she afford it?"
Turns out the veterinarian in question came from an extremely wealthy family. I can only assume that she had graduated with no debt and had cash on hand to finance her dream of owning a practice in her hometown. If the business remained in the red for a few (or more) years, it wasn’t the end of the world.
This was certainly not my path to becoming a veterinarian. I graduated in 1999 with about $70,000 in student loans. This number could have been much higher except for the fact that I was blessed with parents who were willing and able to pay for my undergraduate degree, I received several scholarships, attended my "in state" veterinary school, thereby receiving a break on tuition, and lived VERY frugally during vet school.
Despite doing my best to keep my educational expenses in check, I have been paying almost $500/month towards my student loans since graduation and will continue to do so until November of 2026 (I just realized I’m halfway done!), at which point my total payment (principle and interest) will be over $140,000.
Put in perspective, my situation is really not that bad. (Although before we got married my husband did ask me whether or not he would be responsible for my school loans if I died. I wonder if he would have gone through with it if the answer had been "yes.") A general rule of thumb that you’ll hear tossed around is a person’s student loans should not exceed twice their expected starting salary. My first job out of veterinary school paid $44,000/year so my $70,000 in loans was not excessive, by that barometer at least.
The financial toll associated with becoming a veterinarian has only gotten worse since I attended school. Tuition is higher, salaries have not kept pace with inflation, and the job market, particularly for new graduates, is extremely competitive. An article that appeared in the New York Times on February 23 entitled "High Debt and Falling Demand Trap New Vets" does a great job explaining what people new to the field face when it comes to paying for their education. It should be required reading for anyone who is thinking about entering the profession. Another great eye-opener is the website iwanttobeaveterinarian.org.
The reality of one’s financial situation will eventually raise its ugly head. I love being a vet, but if I had to do it all over again in the current environment, I think I’d pick a career with a better return on investment.
Dr. Jennifer Coates