Financial Health, Mental Health

Many people worry about their financial health and those in the veterinary community are not immune to that concern. Unfortunately, a person’s financial worries can be a significant cause of stress and that stress can affect wellbeing.

By Maureen Blaney Flietner

Is Financial Distress Affecting Your Team’s Wellbeing?

Many people worry about their financial health, and those in the veterinary community are not immune to that concern. Unfortunately, a person’s financial worries can be a significant cause of stress and that stress can affect wellbeing.

In her role as a veterinary social worker, Erin Wasson, MSW, RSW, University of Saskatchewan, Canada, said she has observed that personal finances exert a considerable influence on those in the veterinary community.

“Educational debt can create ongoing stress and impact individuals’ mental health. The pressure to meet financial obligations can become a persistent source of concern, affecting both personal and professional aspects of their lives. When that happens, she encourages clients to “practice mindfulness and learn to cultivate the regulation of their nervous system—a key feature of managing stress.

“The ramifications of personal financial stress extend beyond mere monetary concerns. Those experiencing financial strain commonly report heightened levels of anxiety and depression, influencing their overall wellbeing,” explained Wasson. “Because we know that emotional and psychological health is intrinsically connected to overall physical health and wellbeing, the toll on physical health is notable, with stress-related illnesses becoming more prevalent.

“Financial stress inevitably spills over into the workplace. Decreased job satisfaction, heightened levels of burnout, and strained relationships with colleagues are common manifestations. It can create a challenging work environment, which in turn potentially impacts the quality of care provided to animals and the overall effectiveness of the veterinary team. The unique challenge arises from the conflict between the altruistic values around animal care and the necessity to operate within a business model, leading to heightened moral strain and stress.”

Wages and Debt Fuel Stress

Of course, proper compensation goes a long way to relieve that distress. Financial stress has been a predominant topic of conversation among members of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), according to Phillip Russo, executive director.

“NAVTA’s 2022 Demographic Survey showed that the median salary for a credentialed veterinary technician was $45,700. Most veterinary technicians earn between $21 and $25 per hour, which does not equate to the level of education and responsibilities they have,” he noted.

“That’s why the NAVTA survey also showed that one out of every three respondents has a second full-time job. Think about it: One-third of the CVTs are, on average, working 16 hours a day just to make ends meet.”

On top of that, he explained, more than one-third of respondents said they have student loan debt of $29,700 on average, slightly higher than the overall average US student loan of $28,950.

Ryan Frazier, BS, LVT, a Certified Career Coach in the Seattle area makes the data personal.

“Early in my career, I had my car repossessed because I had to choose if I should pay my rent, buy food, or pay my student loans. This was even when I had two jobs working in veterinary medicine. It was so embarrassing,” he said.

“Even at this point in my career, many years later, I do not know how I can afford to have children because I do not make enough money to buy much extra besides my bills.”

Rebecca Rose, RVT, Certified Career Coach, owner of Rebecca Rose Coaching, LLC, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, knows from experience that “living paycheck to paycheck is hugely stressful.” As a single woman, parenting, paying bills, juggling unexpected expenses, and attempting to follow a budget, she wasn’t making enough to stash away in an emergency fund.

“I understand budgeting, living within your means, and saving for a rainy day,” Rose said. “Even 10 years ago, when I was making $45,000 a year, the expenses were $53,000. I had to have side hustles or gigs to make up the difference.”

For new veterinarians, at least, the financial news is a bit better. Starting salaries have been going up. The mean starting salary in 2022 was $111,242 for those who secured full-time employment, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

Financial stress inevitably spills over into the workplace. Erin Wasson, MSW, RSW
University of Saskatchewan, Canada

AVMA also found that the mean veterinary degree debt was $147,258 for 2022 graduates from US veterinary colleges, down more than 6% from 2020. Another key measure: 18% of 2022 graduates were able to finish their veterinary education with no debt.

But those lower debt obligations for new graduates do not mitigate the student debt burdens accumulated by their predecessors who are further along in their careers.

Financial wellness coach Grace Kim, DVM, Accredited Financial Counselor and founder of Richer Life, said she knows about that.

After graduating from veterinary school in 2003 with “very little financial literacy” and a six-figure student loan, she put that debt on a fixed-rate 30-year auto-pay. A few years later, she married, they bought a home, a new car, and went from a family of two to a family of five in a short time. That led to an increase in expenses she didn’t anticipate or know how best to handle. When they moved to a new city for her husband’s job, she also had to take a much longer break from clinical practice than anticipated.

When she couldn’t find anyone to answer her budgeting questions “without trying to get me to buy more insurance products or manage our assets,” she reinvented her career. Kim became a financial wellness coach and educator for veterinary professionals.

“Financial wellbeing is often overlooked yet is a critical part of overall wellbeing,” said Kim.

In her work primarily with early career veterinarians, she said that many express a high level of financial stress due to student loans, the tight housing market, and generally not feeling confident about making the right choices with their money. There is also a sense of feeling “behind” with finances after so many years of pursuing a veterinary degree.

“For veterinary professionals in general, there are challenges with knowing how to best budget, save, invest, and pay off debt while paying the bills and dealing with inflation and unexpected expenses. These challenges can be compounded if there are changes in jobs, a relationship status, or illness,” she explained.

A person sitting on a chair with her hands on her stomach, bent over with abdominal pain showing that financial health can affect your physical health.
Financial wellbeing is often overlooked yet is a critical part of overall wellbeing. Grace Kim, DVM
Accredited Financial Counselor

Financial Literacy Lacking

Veterinary professionals are not alone in their financial challenges. An annual US survey of 28 questions across eight functional areas—earning, consuming, saving, investing, borrowing/managing debt, insuring, comprehending risk, and go-to information sources—has found that, again in 2022, many Americans lacked financial literacy.

Developed by the TIAA Institute and the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center at the George Washington University School of Business, the Personal Finance Index measures knowledge and understanding that enable sound financial decision making and effective management of personal finances among US adults.

For 2022, adults correctly answered only 48% of the questions, which has been about the norm since the project began in 2017. The questions always found to be the most difficult are those about comprehending risk with only 35% of them answered correctly.

The survey discussion noted that, while resources do matter, as does access and opportunity in the financial system, at the same time, the ability to make sound financial decisions matters as well. It concluded that financial education programs and resources could help close the knowledge gap and improve financial wellbeing as Americans navigate challenging times.

“Basic financial literacy is not universally taught,” said Kim, “so veterinary professionals have a wide range of financial knowledge and skills that depend on their own upbringing, their personalities, and influences (good and bad) when it comes to making financial decisions. Student loan repayment, particularly, has gotten more confusing and complex due to many recent changes made by the Department of Education.

“Because there is no one right way to budget, save, invest, or pay off student loans, individuals can get overwhelmed and confused with their options, which many times lead to inaction due to fear of making the wrong decision.”

When Rose has presented on the topics of personal finances and concepts in budgeting to veterinary teams, she, too, has found that that information is foreign to many.

“Families rarely speak around the dinner table on managing personal finances or the tools and resources available. Vocational schools and veterinary universities do not have room in their curriculum to tackle personal finances. So does the topic and education of finances, personal and for that of the hospital, fall on the shoulders of the practice manager/owners? Probably not, but these are concepts that will help generate a better ROI for the practice,” she suggested.

Tips to Ease Financial Stress and Enhance Wellbeing

  • Improve your financial literacy so you can navigate your unique financial challenges effectively.
  • Consider mentorship programs and support groups as platforms to discuss financial challenges and alleviate the sense of isolation that often accompanies financial stress.
  • Review your spending to see exactly where your money is going. It’s much like ordering labs for patients. You need to know the baseline numbers before you can develop the appropriate treatment plan.
  • Automate your savings so you can adjust your spending to a level that allows you to save for the long term and live within your means.
  • Check out the free personal finance information and programs available online, through YouTube, and at nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Two online options: playmoneysmart.fdic.gov/games and consumer.gov

Pie chart showing 6 separate sections to illustrate the concept of budgeting, which can help to improve financial and mental health.

Finding, Making Opportunities to Learn

“Financial stress undoubtedly affects all levels of veterinary staff from the kennel help to the doctors,” according to Bethany Bankovich, CVPM, MHRM, CVT, CCFP, hospital administrator of Neffsville Veterinary Clinic in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“Newer associates are often strapped with extremely high student loan debt, which can take a serious toll on their mental and physical health. They’re often not comfortable with taking full advantage of employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, buying homes, or starting families for quite a while due to this stress. For other team members, one unforeseen expense such as a major vehicle repair can be devastating.”

Bankovich said she thinks that “most people don’t really analyze their monthly expenses to see where their money is going. If they did, there would probably be a lot less discretionary spending. It always amazes me how much money people spend on Doordash, Starbucks, or streaming subscriptions. Millennials and Gen Zers make up about 40% of the workforce but their financial literacy is virtually nonexistent. They’ve been told but not taught. Those are two very different things.”

The Neffsville partners/owners believe that financial wellness is a part of total wellness, said Bankovich, and have provided in-person financial literacy lunch-and-learns twice a year for the entire team for more than 10 years. She said the sessions usually cover budgeting, saving, taking advantage of employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, reducing expenses, paying off debt, and the power of compound interest.

She admits it’s difficult to know for sure if the opportunities have an effect. But, she said, after each session, “more people will pack their lunches for a time, there will be more K-cups in the lounge, and there are more requests to increase individual 401(k) contributions.”

One-third of CVTs are, on average, working 16 hours a day just to make ends meet. Phillip Russo
executive director, NAVTA

Since studies show that Millennials and Gen Zers report feeling sick and anxious about financial uncertainty, she suggested that hospitals may want to offer financial literacy training.

“We are already seeing the mental and physical effects of financial illiteracy in our practices, and we should want to provide resources and education to treat it,” Bankovich said.

Cassy Timken, CVPM, practice administrator at Tampa Bay Veterinary Medical Group, said that financial stress across different demographics is not uniform.

“We have high-salaried team members who do and don’t fret about money and lower-salaried team members who do and don’t fret about finances. People that live within their means seem better adjusted than those that don’t.”

She suggested that some team members have little to no financial acumen, “complaining about how high bills are but walking around with an expensive coffee drink or eating out lunch every day.”

She said the company has offered financial webinars and in-person individualized financial training for the last 10 years. At onboarding, she said, employees also meet with the financial planner to learn about the 401(k) offering and to ask any financial questions.

Timken said the hospital group has received positive feedback about the financial sessions they offer and suggested that other hospitals include financial literacy in their training to help the whole person.

NAVTA has not offered any educational sessions on financial literacy yet but it’s on its radar, according to Russo, NAVTA’s executive director.

“We agree that most people lack financial literacy, even with things as basic as creating and living on a budget and knowing how to get and stay out of debt,” Russo said.

Seattle career coach Frazier said he has not taken any personal finance classes but agrees that they could make him wiser. However, he doesn’t think it will help when “many LVTs make too little income to pay the standard bills.”

“If I were to take classes, I would feel like budgeting, retirement, and investing would be helpful. I was well into my 30s before I started a retirement fund. I am concerned that I will not have enough to retire when my body can no longer be a veterinary technician. I am also not sure if I would trust information coming from my practice as I believe they may be looking for the best interest of the business and they may not be looking out for my future.”

Image Credits: ©AAHA/Alison Silverman, Mikhail Ognev/iStock via Getty Images Plus, fedrelena/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Marta Sher/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Check Scholarships, Grants to Help Ease Financial Pressures, Stress

Scholarships, grants, and other assistance for debt and wellbeing are available to those in the veterinary profession. Here are a few resources to check out:

  • The Paisley Paws Charitable Veterinary Foundation, founded by Brian Hamm, DVM, will begin taking applications later this year for its first two $2,500 scholarships to help senior-level veterinary students offset education expenses. It also will offer up to $5,000 over four consecutive weeks for mental health support for veterinary professionals nationwide. Information regarding both opportunities will be announced on its website PaisleyPaws.org later this year. Paisley Paws, which officially launched in October 2022, has set a three-pillar approach to change the landscape of the veterinary profession. One pillar is directed at the wellbeing of veterinary professionals, one at the debt of veterinary students, and the third at pet owners struggling due to hardship. According to Executive Director Andrea McKown, the foundation works collaboratively with its “PAWrtner” hospitals to reduce hardship euthanasia and to help pet families in need of veterinary care. Its mental health financial support will be available for any veterinary professional nationwide who may need medical leave and mental health services to enhance their wellbeing and prevent suicide. The need for this crisis support is often from dealing with financial struggles, poor work-life balance, compassion fatigue, and other factors. Its scholarships are for senior-level veterinary students in their fall or spring semester.
  • NAVTA has partnered with Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA, Inc., (BI) to offer $2,500 scholarships to veterinary technician students and recent graduates through a Tuition for Vet Techs Scholarship program, according to Russo. BI has committed to funding the program through 2026.
    The American Veterinary Medical Association’s website (avma.org) includes information about student loan forgiveness and repayment programs, your financial life, and your wellbeing.
  • The American Veterinary Medical Foundation offers two veterinary technician scholarships and has information about national and regional scholarships on its website (avmf.org).In 2022, the AVMF and the Zoetis Foundation began to offer $2,000 veterinary technician student scholarships to address the issue of student debt and the need to foster diversity in the profession. In 2023, the AVMF partnered with Merck Animal Health to establish a $2,000 veterinary technician student scholarship for veterinary technician students in their final year and attending an AVMA-accredited veterinary technician school in the United States and Puerto Rico.
  • The American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges’ (aavmc.org) scholarships page provides links to opportunities.

    Illustration of two hands coming together for support.
    Advertisement

    Close

    Subscribe to NEWStat