Today I’m incredibly excited to interview Kristl Yuen, founder and author of the blog Debt-Free Acupuncturist. Debt-Free Acupuncturist is devoted to following Kristl on her incredible journey to pay off over $100,000 of student loan debt in just 18 short months. Along the way, Kristl hopes to help other acupuncturists better understand and take charge of their own student loan debt.
I was thrilled to stumble across Kristl’s site. She’s all about transparency and tackling your debt head-on. I know that many acupuncturists graduate from acupuncture school with more debt than they imagined or know how to handle. Kristl admits that she “stuck her head in the sand” about her debt for years, ignoring it while on Income-Based Repayment and racking up interest that was added to her principle.
I think a fair number of us are in the same boat, and Kristl’s blog is brilliant because it speaks up about financial issues that many people share but are hiding from. Modern Acupuncture is all about sharing the experience of acupuncturists so that we can all learn from each other. Kristl’s blog is an outstanding example of this concept, and I’m so excited to introduce you to her today.
Let’s learn more about Kristl, her background, what inspires her, and how she plans to face her debt like a boss!
Kristl lives in Chicago with her partner, Rachel, their dog, Bradley and their cat, Delilah. Bradley’s had four surgeries (!) and loves to get acupuncture and moxa from Kristl. In her free time, Kristl enjoys cooking, singing, dancing, and taking walks along Lake Michigan.
1. Where did you go to school for acupuncture, and how long have you been in practice?
I started acupuncture school at the Institute of Clinical Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Honolulu, HI. After two years, I transferred to Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in Chicago and pretty much had to start over – so I basically did six years of acupuncture school instead of four. I’m currently in my seventh year of practice.
2. What was your first exposure to acupuncture?
I first received acupuncture when I was about 7 years old. I suffered from asthma and chronic sinus infections and was taking a bunch of pharmaceutical medications each day. I got sick all the time and was unable to run around and play like I wanted to. A friend of my mom’s suggested I see a naturopath to get acupuncture. My mom took me and, I kid you not, within a couple of weeks my sinuses had cleared and my breathing had improved significantly.
3. What made you decide that you wanted to pursue acupuncture as a career?
I’ve been telling people that I wanted to be an acupuncturist since my first experience with acupuncture at age 7, since I had such a profound experience with it. I actually wrote a report on acupuncture and Chinese medicine when I was 9 and I worked for an acupuncturist when I was in high school.
4. Where is your current practice?
I currently practice in the Edgewater neighborhood on the far north side of Chicago.
5. Have you practiced anywhere else?
I’ve only practiced in Chicago, but have practiced in three different locations. I just moved into my very own storefront clinic space last summer, so I’m planning on being there a while.
6. Do you have a specialty in your private practice?
I focus on women who feel stuck in their lives and need help moving forward. They often have stress/anxiety, insomnia, digestive, and immune issues.
7. Were you ever an associate acupuncturist in someone else’s office?
No, but I did rent space in a practice with three other acupuncturists. We each ran our own practice, but shared a space.
8. What’s your favorite part about being an acupuncturist?
I absolutely love building relationships with patients and working together to help them achieve wellness. Seeing the sparkle and clarity return to a patient’s eyes, hearing someone say, “Wow, I feel like ME for the first time in years!”, helping people feel better in their day-to-day lives – this is why I get out of bed in the morning.
9. Favorite part about owning a business?
I love the freedom – I’m super lucky in that I practice in a space that was built out to my specifications, so it’s as close to my dream space as I could have gotten at the time. I get to decide my hours, my rates, what my day looks like. It’s super rad.
10. Least favorite part of being an acupuncturist?
For a long time I felt like I had to sell people on what I do, because it’s so unfamiliar to so many. Learning how to talk to people about what I do without feeling pushy or like a used car salesperson, but being engaged and excited enough to pique their interest and get them to book an appointment has been an on-going challenge for me.
11. Least favorite part about owning a business?
I don’t feel like we got a good enough business education in school, so the steep learning curve and often feeling like I’m winging it are my least favorite parts of owning a business. I’ve figured it out and obviously made it work, but I’ve definitely made a number of mistakes along the way. There’s also the downside of not having sick days or paid vacation, but I’d take the freedom over those any day.
12. Would you mind sharing how many patients you see a week?
13. In your blog, you mention that you were making enough money to live comfortably but not enough to really tackle your debt. Would you go into detail about this? I think most of us assume if we’re living comfortably, we’ll also be able to start paying down our debt. But this is not always the case.
My partner and I were making enough money to be able to live a life that seemed comparable to my friends’/peers’. We were able to live in a nice apartment, go out to eat, go on vacation, that sort of thing. We never really felt like we wanted for anything, but I also was basically ignoring my debt. It felt so insurmountable that it didn’t even seem worth bothering with.
I’m on Income-Based Repayment, so my payments were totally doable and I figured I’d pay until 25 years were up and then get the rest forgiven. I had no real understanding of what that meant or what my options really were.
There are all of these societal pressures around what we “need” to be happy – new cars every few years, giant homes (sometimes more than one!), TV, cable, new cell phones every time there’s an update – that we feel the need to buy into that to feel normal. I feel like this is often especially true of people who are struggling financially because they don’t want people to know they’re struggling. They end up buying things because they want to be accepted as “normal” or “cool”, so then they end up in more debt because they didn’t want people to know they were in debt to begin with. It’s a vicious cycle (one that I totally fell into last year when I bought an iPhone 6 because my old phone was dying – I “needed” a new phone, why not get the newest, fanciest option? If I had that to do over again, I’d have done things really differently).
14. What was the final trigger that made you decide to tackle your debt (student loan and credit card)? When was that?
I stumbled across a blog post by Mr. Money Mustache in the middle of January. It was a wrap-up of how much money he and his family lived on last year. I poked around his site a bit and found out that with aggressive saving he’d been able to retire from his desk job at the age of 30 and that totally piqued my interest. Then I found his post entitled “News Flash: Your Debt is an Emergency!!!” and it blew my mind. I decided shortly thereafter (within the hour) that I needed to focus all my energy on paying off my debt. Luckily, my partner is super agreeable and went along with the idea pretty easily.
15. I see that you’ve already paid off your credit card debt of almost $12,000. How did you do this?
It was actually $16,560, as I forgot to include my partner’s card in my initial total. My grandparents bought me stock when I was younger with the intention that I use the money for a down payment on a house or for a wedding or to start a business. They passed away a few years ago and I held on to the stocks, waiting for the right moment to use them. I used some of them to furnish my new practice space last summer and decided to sell the rest of them to pay off the credit cards.
I figured the money wasn’t doing me any good tied up in stocks, especially since my credit card balances were costing me money every month, so it made sense to cash them in. Plus, the stocks were in pharmaceuticals, which I do my best to avoid in my day-to-day life, so there was a slight energetic conflict as well.
16. What made you decide to pay off your credit card debt before taking on your educational debt?
The APR on the credit cards was higher than the interest rate on my student loans, so that made the most sense.
17. What advice would you give to those who are also feeling overwhelmed by their debt and loan payments? First steps or plan of action?
The first step is to really get to know your financial situation. It can be terrifying, but knowing is always better than not. Knowledge is power. Start by writing down all of your debt information – type of debt, interest rate, balance, minimum payment. If you want to start to attack your debt, you need to know how much debt you have. I’m also a huge proponent of budgeting. If you don’t know where your money is going, how can you possibly get your financial situation under control? I use You Need a Budget (YNAB), but there are a number of options out there.
There are two main schools of thought of paying down debt – one is to start focusing on the debt with the highest interest first, since you’ll save the most money in the long run (debt avalanche). The other is to focus on the debt with the lowest balance as it will be the easiest to pay off and the satisfaction of paying it off will motivate you to keep going (debt snowball). In both of those methods, you pay the minimum for each of your debts except for the one you’re focusing on. That one gets the minimum plus any extra you can throw at it. Once that is paid off, you move to the next debt and add what you were paying toward the first debt to the minimum you were already paying for the second debt.
18. In one of your recent posts, you discuss setting priorities. What are your priorities and what sacrifices do you make to keep those priorities at the forefront?
Other than paying off my debt (which is the main priority right now), we also prioritize eating healthy food and making sure we are taking proper care of ourselves with regular acupuncture, herbs, chiropractic, and massage. My partner has epilepsy and has ended up in the hospital three times in the past 18 months, so we also pay a little more for insurance with a lower deductible just in case. Once she’s been stable for a while, we will probably switch to a higher deductible plan.
As far as sacrifices go, we don’t have a TV, we only go out to eat once a month (we’ve pledged to spend no more than $500 eating out this year), we don’t eat processed foods so we cook all of our own meals, we sold our car, we don’t go to shows/movies/concerts, and we aren’t buying new clothes (though eating non-processed foods and walking everywhere has caused both of us to lose enough weight that we are going to need to budget for new clothes soon, but we’ll be hitting up the thrift stores for that).
19. As a new acupuncture graduate, did you ever imagine that you’d still have debt after 5 years in practice?
At first, no. When I was younger I used to calculate how many patients my acupuncturist saw by her rates and was astounded by how much money she was making. However, because I was a kid, I didn’t take into account taxes, business expenses, employee salaries, etc. I always figured I’d be making a good amount of money and that would be that. Then I graduated and saw what it was really like. I discovered Income-Based Repayment and figured I’d either have my debt until it was forgiven or until some mysterious benefactor paid it off (ha).
20. When you initially decided to pursue acupuncture, did you give any thought to your future debt burden and how you would pay it off?
I had no idea what I was getting myself into. None. I naively figured that we wouldn’t be “given” more money than we’d be able to realistically pay off. I didn’t educate myself on what student loans actually meant, essentially that you’re taking money (lots of it) from your future self.
21. For students currently in acupuncture school, what would you recommend in terms of educating themselves about their debt and preparing for payments once they graduate?
First, I’d recommend borrowing the bare minimum of what you need. When I was in school we were told repeatedly that we should max out our loans, which is actually the opposite of what you should do, unless you really need that money to live on. If it means you need to take on a job or take a little longer to finish school, then do it. Interest starts accruing the minute the loan is disbursed, so start making payments as soon as you can, even if you’re in deferment, as it can (sometimes greatly) decrease the length of your loan.
Find a repayment calculator online and play around with different payment amounts and the effect they have on total interest paid and total repayment time. Even just an extra $20/month can make a huge difference over the life of the loan. There are a lot of awesome resources out there about student loans these days, so read up and ask for help if you need it.
22. What do you wish you’d done differently after you graduated from acupuncture school, in terms of starting a practice and/or paying off your debts?
I wish I’d known what student loans actually meant. I would have focused on paying them down much sooner instead of thinking that Income-Based Repayment was some sort of gift from the heavens. As far as my practice, I would have specialized sooner. Acupuncturists are often scared of specializing because they don’t want to alienate people, but the truth is, when you specialize it’s a lot easier for the right people to find you. I also would have gotten a bookkeeper and a business coach/mentor a lot sooner.
23. Any final thoughts or last words of advice?
Don’t be afraid to talk about your debt and/or ask for help. If we stop ignoring our debt, we start to take away its power. Having a positive mindset and gratitude practice is also hugely important, as it helps foster a feeling of abundance and possibility.
Thank you so much for sharing, Kristl!
Be sure to follow Kristl on Debt-Free Acupuncturist to journey along with her as she pays down her debt.
Have questions or thoughts for Kristl? Feel free to leave her a message in the comments below.