Documenting the dental school debt journey | American Dental Association

Documenting the dental school debt journey

Dr. Brittany Vacura shares her experiences in paying off her student loans, reason for sharing it on Instagram

Image of Dr. Vacura's 2022 goals

Share: Dr. Brittany Vacura has shared her financial and student loan journey on her Instagram account, @debtfreedds.

Brittany Vacura , D.D.S., was on Instagram when she had stumbled across a “debt free community” that consisted of thousands of everyday people sharing their financial wins and losses as they pay off their large amounts of debt.

The stories, especially from millennial professionals, resonated with Dr. Vacura, but she noticed something was missing.

“I realized there were no other dentists sharing their journey,” she said.

Dr. Vacura had graduated in 2017 from the University of California San Francisco with about $181,000 in student debt.

“So I decided to share mine,” she said.

From participating in the National Health Service Corps’ Student to Service Program to help pay for her student loans to becoming debt-free in December 2021, Dr. Vacura has shared her financial journey to her 1,350 followers on her Instagram account, @debtfreedds.

The New Dentist News spoke with Dr. Vacura to learn more about the NHSC’s Student to Service Program, how debt affected her life goals, how documenting her student debt experience has helped her, and to see if she has any words of wisdom for other new dentists struggling with student debt (Hint: she does).

Photo of Dr. Vacura

Dr. Vacura: "It's definitely made me more accountable for my own journey, but it's also forced me to become open-minded to how many different ways one person can do the same thing."

NDN: You tackled your student loans with assistance from the National Health Service Corps’ Student to Service Program. What what made you decide this was a good opportunity for you? 

Dr. Vacura: I was one of the first dental students to participate in this program when it was announced in the summer of 2016. It had previously only been offered to medical students. I never considered or knew about going into public health or community dentistry until I was on my externship at a Native American health center. After my first week at my externship, I felt completely at home working in community dentistry. I loved treating patients who had nowhere else to go (many of whom had never been to the dentist before). I also loved providing high-quality care and education to help them improve their oral health. It was very challenging at times but also so rewarding to make tangible differences in people's lives. This experience made me contemplate my plans after school, which up until this point was to go into private practice. I truly believe that seeing this program announced was a sign that this was what I was supposed to do all along. Six years later I am a dental director for a Native American health clinic. 

NDN: What does the program entail? What commitment did you have to make? And how did the program ultimately help you with your student loans? 

Dr. Vacura: The program requires you to commit three years working full-time at a qualifying community health center in return for $120,000 in loan repayment. I also extended my contract for one more year in return for an additional $20,000 in loan repayment. I was fortunate because I was able to serve my commitment in my hometown of Sacramento, California, a city that has a huge need. This program reduced my student loan burden to a feasible amount, and I was able to pay the remaining amount over the last few years. 

NDN: When did you decide to start documenting your financial journey on Instagram? What sparked the idea and why did you decide to share this journey on social media? 

Dr. Vacura: As many new dentists do, I initially started my Instagram to share the cases and personal anecdotes of my everyday life as a dentist, but I quickly realized there was no way to do this without compromising patient confidentiality and privacy. I started documenting my financial journey when I realized how much my financial situation was affecting my life and felt like no one else was talking about this. I had initially stumbled across something on Instagram called the "Debt Free Community." Within this community was an even smaller community called "Six Figure Debt," and this consisted of many millennial professionals dealing with large amounts of student loan debt from post-graduate professional school. I started to connect with these people and when I realized there were no other dentists sharing their journey, I decided to share mine.

NDN: Has sharing your student debt journey to the world helped you in any way? If yes, how so? 

Dr. Vacura: It's definitely made me more accountable for my own journey, but it's also forced me to become open-minded to how many different ways one person can do the same thing. I love when I share something and then someone challenges it in a respectful way so that I learn something new. I also love when I share something and I get multiple responses from people saying they felt the same way but had never known how to articulate it. 

NDN: How did you decide what you would share on Instagram? Or what was your social media approach?

Dr. Vacura: I've never gotten to the point of being super curated. This has been a hobby for me that I've only been able to do in my free time (which sometimes isn't a lot). But I think because of that, that's what became my approach. It's raw and genuine. It's not super edited. It's real numbers. I'm a real person. There's so much shame around debt or failure, but especially in the dental community. I think we as dentists are afraid to admit when we don't know something, so I try to lighten that pressure by sharing what I've learned and how I've failed in hopes that it helps one person.

Image of Dr. Vacura's Instagram

Visit Dr. Vacura's Instagram, @debtfreedds.

NDN: What kind of responses have you gotten from other new dentists or dental students? 

Dr. Vacura: I've had quite a few dental students and newer dentists reach out, whether it's for advice or just to thank me for being transparent. I've also presented my own lectures to pre-dental societies and dental schools who found me through social media. Personal finance has been a very taboo and male-dominated topic for a long time, so I really try to empower all of my colleagues to take charge of their financial situation.  

NDN: Obviously, in the years after dental school, life continued. You documented buying house and getting married. Did your student debt influence your approach to these life events?

Dr. Vacura: The first few years after dental school can be some of the most challenging financially because many new grads are at an age where they may be getting married and settling down, in addition to navigating their career. I struggled with this feeling of being overwhelmed and stretched in so many different directions. What it came down to was prioritizing what was most important to me, and then focusing on those goals. Buying a house became our first priority because we needed somewhere to live. I took that year of saving for a down payment to learn as much as I could about the home-buying process. After that, getting married became our next priority, so I really emphasized and prioritized the things I wanted in my wedding so that it aligned with our bigger financial goals. It all comes down to what you value. I think if we didn't have the student loans in the background I would have been less intentional with how we spent our money. 

NDN: Besides the Student to Service Program, what other things did you do that helped complement your approach to paying off your student debt? 

Dr. Vacura: For years I've used an Excel spreadsheet and created a zero-based budget to manage what I earn and spend. This has helped tremendously in planning ahead for certain expenses and "paying myself first." In addition to setting aside a predetermined amount each month, we also started throwing any extra unexpected money (bonuses, tax refunds, etc.) towards the student loans. My husband and I have always been of the same mindset which also makes a huge difference.

NDN: Looks like you recently paid off your student loans in December 2021. How did you celebrate? 

Dr. Vacura: It felt like a huge weight off, and it still does today. My goal was to do it in five years, and I did it in four and a half. We didn't celebrate with anything specific but we do have a list of things we've been wanting to buy once we were debt free, and we've been slowly working our way down the list.

NDN: For new dentists out there struggling with student debt, any words of wisdom or lessons learned based on your experience that you can share? 

Dr. Vacura: The best advice I can give is to come up with your plan early and stick to it. There are SO many different strategies and philosophies on how to pay off your student loans (some even suggesting you don't pay them off). None of them are wrong, but you probably shouldn't mix and match too many different strategies, or switch back and forth. Being consistent is the most important factor when it comes to financial success, whether you're paying off debt, building wealth, or both. 

NDN: And for dental students out there who are concerned with student loans they’re acquiring, why should they consider the NHSC Student to Service program (or other similar loan assistance programs)? 

Dr. Vacura: I think the NHSC Student to Service program is great for anyone who enjoys helping the underserved and could see themselves doing it for at least three years. Even if it's not your "forever" job, working in a community clinic can offer a diverse clinical experience as you get to work with other doctors and bounce ideas off each other. It can also offer valuable experience for eventually opening a practice without the pressure and liabilities involved.