At one time, Dr. Renée and Dr. Nii Darko had $800,000 worth of debt. Today they’re helping other people navigate their finances through their popular podcast Docs Outside the Box. They sat down with Jessica Abo to talk about the struggles they faced to become doctors, start a family, and how they’re teaching other physicians about money.
Dr. Renée and Dr. Nii, it’s great to be with you. Dr. Renée, let’s start with you. Tell us about life growing up in Brooklyn.
I grew up in the East New York section of Brooklyn. And you know, it’s a really urban area — lots of activity going on. My parents are Haitian. They emigrated from Haiti in the 1970s. And so myself, my sister and my brother grew up in a household where education was really important to us. It was really important to our parents that we do well in school, and that we go on to be successful. And so that meant really putting education at the forefront. My desire to become a physician, I guess really fueled the fact that I just wanted to succeed in life and wanted to have those principles that my parents instilled in me.
Dr. Nii, you grew up in Queens, what can you share about your childhood?
I grew up in Queens — first generation. Both my parents are from Ghana, West Africa. My dad came here in the late 60s, literally by boat. And for him, the signs, or the ability for him to move on up — or move from one socioeconomic status to another — was education. That is the pillar, so as a result, in our household education was pushed. At the same time, I watched a lot of TV and if anybody who’s listening or watching right now knows, growing up in the early 80s and mid-80s knows, shows that dominated TV were doctor shows like St. Elsewhere, Doogie Howser. I was really into school. And I knew that education was the key to getting out of where we were. It was something that I really wanted to aspire to, to become a doctor, mainly because I saw it on TV. And even though I didn’t have that type of personal experience, and there wasn’t anybody in my family who was in medicine, I just knew that this is really what I wanted to do. That drive to want to help people but also, at the same time know that becoming a doctor is really held in esteem, and it’s this noble profession that, for me, pushed me towards medicine.
Dr. Renee, what potholes did you both come across on your road to becoming an OBGYN and a trauma surgeon?
I graduated salutatorian of my high school class and got a scholarship to go to college. So for me, I had always been just successful academically. But once I got to college, that kind of changed a little bit. It was really, really overwhelming for me. And what I found was that I wasn’t doing as well as I normally had done. I ended up staying in college for about five years and graduated. Four years after graduation, I made my way to medical school. That wasn’t the way that the story was supposed to happen. The story was supposed to be something straightforward, but it actually worked out in the end, because if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have met this guy.
And what did your path look like Dr. Nii?
I was an above-average student from kindergarten all the way up until med school. Going into medical school requires more than an above-average effort. I wasn’t very talkative and missed out on the meetings, and opportunities to be involved in medical clubs and societies, where people discuss when you should apply to medical school. I applied to the wrong schools for where I was academically and I did not get into school. And for two years, I ended up doing some graduate assistant work and getting my application stronger, and doing some other things including coaching track and field. When I reapplied to medical school, I was hungry and more strategic. And I got in. Since then, I always knew that in order to make things happen, in order to accomplish my dream, I had to put in more than an above-average effort to make this happen. And since then, I haven’t looked back.
So Dr. Renée, where did debt come into your story?
Even with the scholarship that I got for college, it wasn’t a full scholarship, it was a partial scholarship. And the rest of that had to be supplemented through loans. As I mentioned before, part of my pothole of not doing well academically actually ended up in me losing that scholarship. And so now when I lost the scholarship, I had to pay for all of my tuition outright. And I also stayed an extra year in college. Once I got into medical school, medical school is a whole new tax bracket of debt.
When we finally got married, we put our expenses together and found out we were broke. We didn’t grow up anywhere near doctors, so we didn’t know what their salaries were. We didn’t know that our debt was going to be multiples of that salary. And there weren’t many doctors really being open and honest and talking about this stuff. So we decided to start listening to some podcasts. But the blogs, the YouTube videos that were out there, they weren’t really of people who either looked like us or who worked in the physician spaces like us. It was almost like doctors were kind of struggling in silence. So we started watching those videos and blog posts and started realizing the same principles that worked for them, can start working for us.
Walk me through the steps that you took to get out of debt.
We had a pact that we would never create any more debt. The second thing was that we would budget and make sure that we stick to the budget. We also actually took out cash for certain things and had a joint account so we weren’t swiping. When we realized we needed help getting pregnant. I underwent about two and a half years of infertility treatments. And we realized, wait a minute, this is really expensive, and we’re in the middle of our debt payoff. So we decided we were going to pay for it with cash. Outside of our permanent jobs, we were doing what they call locums work, which is kind of like filling temporary work for doctors. Each of us kind of embarked on our own assignments outside of our permanent jobs, to be able to pay for the IVF because we were very resolved on paying off this debt. And unfortunately, that could have meant literally not being able to have a family.
And what other stress did you have on your plate at this time?
After two and a half years of doing IVF, it didn’t work and Nii was kind of insistent that I quit my job. The original plan was that I would basically rest and then start another IVF process about three months after I quit. Well, I ended up quitting and getting pregnant spontaneously. And we figured out that there are other ways to make money, other than just working for someone. So we decided to start our own businesses and started the podcast. We paid off our debt in three years.
What does your podcast cover now?
Things like student loans, investing and medicine. We oftentimes will talk about things that are happening in pop culture that are medicine related that we can explain to the public. And then we also just jump into what’s going on with pop culture.
Finally, for those who are struggling, what takeaways can you share with them?
Number one, realize that you actually can pay off the debt. I think your mindset is really important. Number two, be very strategic about the ways that you can get rid of the debt. You don’t have to pay off every debt by literally just paying out of pocket. You could sell something if you’re an accidental landlord, you could sell that property. Number three, there are other financial priorities that you also need to pay attention to — consider saving for retirement, still invest your money, you know, do those things as well. Because once you get out of debt, you are still going to be in a place where you need to invest, and you need to plan for retirement. So don’t ignore those things.