Navigating Life After Graduation

Times they definitely are a changing.  And it couldn’t be more true for those that are graduating with a professional degree.  Be it a new graduate in medicine, law, engineering, dentistry or optometry (my profession of choice), there is a whole different world to face after the years of living in the university bubble.  And it can sometimes be a new and cruel world.  Now I’m not trying to garner sympathy for these new graduates.  After all they usually end up in pretty high paying jobs with plenty of room for advancement.  But there is also a unique set of challenges that face newly minted professionals that they should be aware of.

Lifestyle inflation.  This is arguably the BIGGEST reason for new professional graduates getting into financial trouble.  To become an optometrist, for example, you have to complete your prerequisite classes in college and get a Bachelor’s degree along the way.  This usually takes about 4 years.  After the grueling process of applying to schools and flying out for interviews, when you finally get into optometry school, 4 years of even more intense studying and clinical work await you.  After completing these 4 years (and passing the nerve wracking board exams), you are finally free to find a job or open a practice and finally start making some money.

After years of schooling and (hopefully) living like a poor student, it’s only natural for one to get in the I “deserve” this mindset right out of school.  As in, I “deserve” a new BMW because of all the work I put in (along with the $700 monthly lease payment).  And I “deserve” a sweet new fancy townhouse since I’ve been living like a pauper the past few years (and the $2500 monthly payment plus maintenance that goes along with it).  The examples are endless.  With inflation eroding buying power over the years and incomes not rising in the same manner, a dollar doesn’t buy you as much now as it did 10 years ago.  This is an essential point to realize, as simply having a certain title doesn’t enable you to get the goods right out of the gate.

Student loan debt.  The issue of the high cost of tuition and subsequent massive amounts of student loan debt is a hotly debated one.  And for good reason.  Tuition is increasingly rapidly year after year, widely outpacing inflation.  College was once thought to be an essential stepping stone for success.  Sky high tuition prices are making many re-think that.  While student loan debt is a big problem for all students, it is an especially big one for professional school graduates.  For the graduating class of 2012, the average student loan debt was $29,400.  This is not an amount to sneeze at, but I probably incurred that much debt sitting through my first 5 classes in optometry school.

While my final student loan debt (undergrad and optometry school) was around $140K, many of my colleagues were well into $200K.  So my student loan debt was almost 5 times the national average.  That’s a huge discrepancy and a problem that needs to be tackled hard.  Many students, myself included, underestimate the effect of student loan debt while in school.  And who can blame them?  With tests every week and sweat inducing clinical practicals to prepare for, who has the time to prepare for life after graduation?

Student loan payments will make up a substantial chunk of a new grad’s monthly payments.  In a lot of cases it can be the largest payment one has to make per month.  And if the banks have their way, this will continue for decades.  That can end up being tens of thousands of dollars in interest payments.  That’s money that you earn but you will never be able to use because it is lining the coffers of the country’s biggest banks.  As if their coffers need lining.  Students and new grads should be prepared for the hit that student loan debt brings and get ready to hit right back.  This means cutting back on your consumption and throwing whatever extra money you can towards your highest interest loan and then moving to the next one (also called the Avalanche Method).  If you can be diligent in this process, you can reduce the time you pay student loans by years and save thousands and thousands of dollars in interest payments.

Building a good credit score.  Unfortunately, the importance of a good credit score is lost on many.  Most people don’t know the difference between a credit score and a credit report, and why they should even bother checking them.  I’ve noticed that this is especially widespread among new grads, as they’re focusing on finding their place in the world and spending their new found money.  Eventually, most people end up applying for a mortgage or a car loan.  Even if it’s not in the near future, it will most likely happen.  This is the best time to improve your credit score, as it can potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars over your lifetime.

Applying for a mortgage or credit card will initiate a credit inquiry by the lender.  They want to look at your past history to make sure you’ll pay them back.  Instead of hiring a private investigator, your credit score gives them this info in a nutshell.  A low score means you’re not a good borrower.  You get the highest interest rate possible on your loan.  A high score means you are a pretty dependable borrower, so you get the lowest interest rate offered.  On a big purchase like a house, the difference between a low interest rate and a high interest rate can cost you potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars.  That’s a lot of cheddar.  Giving your credit score some attention even for just a few years will get it right where it needs to be.

A professional degree isn’t a ticket to a lifetime of riches like it used to be.  Many new grads are falling into financial trouble by not paying attention to these three big issues.  If you can weather the student loan debt storm and resist lifestyle inflation early on in your career, you will be setting yourself up for a lifetime of success.



  1. I think this pattern of sky high tuition and loads of student debt is unsustainable. I know I personally have been rethinking my views on the necessity of college- at least expensive, private colleges.

    • Syed says

      Yup the bubble seems ready to pop any day now. Student loan debt almost seems like a rite of passage nowadays. I think it’s a situation that will get MUCH worse before it gets any better.

  2. The lifestyle inflation that you speak of is something I’ve already seen in others! And I’m not done with school yet! I think it’s motivated by the (scary) personal finance belief that you’ll be making way more after graduation. Essentially, it seems to be a bet against future earnings. I used to spend money like this. No longer! 🙂

    • Syed says

      Yeah I had some fellow graduates already start financing houses and cars before they even got jobs. Very irresponsible because making a solid 6 figure income and deciding to save/invest what you can will most likely set you up for a comfortable early retirement. Instead, most will be stuck paying off mortgages, car loans AND student loans for decades.

  3. The question these days to ask is whether there is any value in college these days and going forward. Tuition is beyond sky high and who wants to graduate saddled with debt and low job prospects. Better get a professional degree and learn a trade, skip college work online, start a blog, work min. wage and work your way up. An 18 year old is better off earning $8/hour with 0 debt and work his/her way up, blog, side income, ebay, whatever than graduate owing $30k, $40k, $50k and get that same min. wage job to start. Just my 2 cents.

    • Syed says

      That’s a great point. Having a bachelor’s degree used to be a pretty sure ticket to a good job with potential. Now it’s just a ticket to get another degree and incur even more debt. Thanks for the comment.


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