How a 30-year-old physical therapist with over $230,000 in student loan debt spends her money

How a 30-year-old physical therapist with over $230,000 in student loan debt spends her money

August 27, 2020

This story is part of CNBC Make It's Millennial Money series, which profiles people around the world and details how they earn, spend and save their money.

Dr. Adrienne Colman is living her best life, student loans be damned. 

The 30-year-old physical therapist attended Georgia State University for undergrad and the University of St. Augustine for her doctoral degree. She financed both with loans adding up to $230,000 with interest. It could be an overwhelming figure, but Colman doesn't lose sleep over it. She's only a few years into her career and already earns about $100,000. She expects her income will keep growing, which will help her pay off her debt down the road.

In the meantime, she isn't willing to sacrifice everything just to put more toward her loans each month. She doesn't live extravagantly, but she does want to enjoy her life. She makes room in her budget for travel, nights out with friends and family and weekend shopping trips.

"It doesn't make me feel great that I have that much student loan debt, but I don't let it hinder me in the way that I live my life," Colman tells CNBC Make It. "I'd rather live my life than throw thousands of dollars into trying to pay this debt off."

Colman puts $453 total toward her private loans each month. Normally, she also pays $229 per month toward her federal loans, but those have been deferred through the end of the year due to Covid-19. She expects to pay off her private loans in eight years and her federal loans in 25. At that time, any remaining balance on her federal loans will be discharged, and Colman will pay taxes on the amount forgiven.

She also has around $2,600 in credit card debt, mostly from shopping for clothes and accessories, and she is paying off around $17,000 for her 2017 Mazda CX-5. 

Most personal finance experts would balk at that amount of debt, Colman concedes, but she says it's representative of her generation. In fact, 1 in 6 millennials has at least $50,000 in debt, excluding home loans, according to Bank of America. Colman wanted to share her story to show that "a person with student loans can live fully," she says. 

It helps that she can expect six figure earnings throughout her career and that her cost of living is relatively low.

Building a career she loves

Colman lives in Atlanta, Georgia, near where she was raised. As a child, she knew she wanted a job in the medical field. And when her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, Colman decided to pursue physical therapy, which can be a critical component of MS treatment.

More than 15 years after her diagnosis, her mother, thankfully, is doing well. "It's funny because I treat my brothers and my dad more than I treat my mom," Colman says.

She typically works seven days a week, treating patients with chronic neck and back pain at her full-time job Monday through Thursday and helping older patients increase their strength and endurance on Fridays and the weekend.

Between her full-time gig, over time and the extra hours she picks up on the weekend, she made $100,000 pre-tax in 2019. She was on track to earn that again, but the coronavirus pandemic has limited the number of patients she can see, and she has not worked on the weekends throughout the pandemic.

Colman loves her job — if she had her way, she would work more. It's relatively stress-free, she says, and her boss gives her the autonomy to create her own schedule. The paychecks don't hurt, either.

"I can pay all my bills without having to worry about anything," she says.

Learning from her parents

Colman grew up in Kennesaw, Georgia, which is about a 30 minute drive from Atlanta. Her parents, Joe and Sharon, are both Jamaican immigrants who moved to the United States in the 1980s and still live in her hometown.

Working hard is in their blood, Colman says. Her mother is an accountant and her father is a food auditor, and they have always encouraged their children to have multiple income streams. "They have this saying that Jamaicans always have more than one job," Colman says with a laugh.

Her parents have had a lasting influence on her relationship with money, too. Her mother is the more conservative of the two, encouraging her children to save 10% of each paycheck since she started giving them an allowance. She also taught Colman the value of investing for the long term rather than day trading.

Her father, on the other hand, is more of a spendthrift, keen to reward hard work with travel and other indulgences. The two balance each other out, says Colman, and she has taken a little from each of their philosophies.

Not every lesson has stuck. Her mother always bought the least expensive version of any product, Colman says, remembering $2 bottles of lotion from childhood that had more in common with water than moisturizer. Now, Colman prefers to invest in quality over quantity: Her favorite brands include high-end designers like Acne, Helmut Lang and Maison Margiela. 

"Growing up, my mom would buy, like, a $2 shirt or $10 pants," says Colman. "As I've grown older, I've realized that I don't like $2 shirts or $10 pants. I'd rather get good quality garments that will last for a long time and spend the money on them."

Being near family is important to Colman. Two of her brothers live nearby, and her parents are a quick car trip away. Nights out with friends and her boyfriend of seven years, Stevie Pettus, fill much of her time when she isn't working. She also enjoys traveling and shopping.

Colman is happy to be rooted in Atlanta, which she calls "one of the top cities for Black millennials," thanks to its many job opportunities, entertainment options and relatively low cost of living for a big city. It's home. "I think [living in Atlanta] exposes you to a lot of different cultures and talents that you can't get in other places," she says. 

How she budgets her money

Here's a look at how Colman spent her money in July 2020.

  • Rent: $1,494 for a one-bedroom apartment and utilities, including heat, hot water and Wi-Fi
  • Debt repayment: $903 includes credit card ($450) and student loans ($453)
  • Transportation: $508 for her car payment and gas
  • Investments: $462 for her 401(k), Roth 401(k) and Roth IRA. Her job matches 8% of her 401(k) contribution.
  • Savings: $400
  • Insurance: $280 for car, dental and health
  • Miscellaneous: $210 for hair appointments and shopping
  • Phone: $62
  • Food: $50 for take out (Colman's boyfriend buys most of the couple's groceries)
  • Subscriptions: $16 for Amazon Prime and Apple Music

Colman hasn't traveled since the start of the pandemic, saving her around $600 per month. She is also spending less on clothes and shoes, allowing her to put more toward her credit card debt.

"Before coronavirus, I would travel at least once a month, even if it was going to the beach in Florida, because I do work a lot," she says. "I like to take vacations."

Though Colman was already saving around $400 per month and investing over $460, she plans to start setting aside more of her money for emergency savings. She has around $3,000 in liquid savings, but the past few months have made her realize she needs more of a financial cushion. Now, she's aiming to stash away six months of living expenses. 

"Coronavirus has changed my financial goals," she says. "I'm grateful that I still have my job. But in the event that I didn't, I wouldn't have been able to survive the past two months." 

She is also prioritizing paying off her car note and credit card debt, leaving her student loans as her only debt. When that is settled, she is interested in investing in real estate.

Though she's happy with her life and her choices, she concedes that if she could give her younger self some advice, she would opt to go to a public university for graduate school instead of private. "If anybody out there wants to be a physical therapist, please go to a state school because it's not worth it to go to a private school," she says.

Still, she's confident that with enough hard work, she will reach her goals, regardless of her student loans.

"I spend money on what I want to," she says. "And I'm still able to live the life that I want."

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