A Q&A with Dr. Samantha Tillapaugh from The Debtist
Why did you become a dentist? How long have you been practicing?
Oh gosh, I feel like there are so many reasons why I decided on dentistry. Even though I have been saying I wanted to be a dentist since I was eight years old, the reasoning that solidified my decision wasn’t fully formed until I became a dental assistant. As a young one, I thought to myself, “Dentistry helps a lot of people,” and I think that was the main attraction for me.
As I grew older, I got drawn into the arts. So much so that I had to choose between art school and a science degree. I ended up following my heart and choosing science, to facilitate my path towards getting into the dental field. Luckily, when I started shadowing as a dental assistant, I realized just how artistic dentistry could be. Working with my hands on the daily has been a real joy and restoring smiles (sometimes out of nothing) is the best feeling in the world. Most people wouldn’t believe this, but I use the same exact strokes with a drill in my hand as I do when I hold a paintbrush or a charcoal pencil. I would never have imagined that I could be an artist disguised as a doctor.
Finally, I chose dentistry because of a particular lifestyle. When I had to decide between art school and dentistry, my mom told me something that I will never forget. You can always choose to do art on the side when you’ve become a dentist. But you can’t choose to be a dentist on the side after you’ve become an artist. Dentistry allows me to create a meaningful impact in people’s lives, but it also gives me the freedom to choose how many days I want to dedicate doing that. Unlike working at a hospital as a doctor, there is more flexibility working as a dentist in a private practice. That fact allows me to turn my life into what it is today. I have time to pursue writing on the blog, being a bread baker at Rye Goods and Aero Bakery, and a dog sitter via Rover. I have the space to do all the things that bring me joy. In this way, I create a balance between being good to others, but also, being good to myself. It’s been three years, and I have no regrets.
Why did you start your blog, The Debtist?
When I started my blog, there was no intention to write for others. I started to write because that’s always what I’ve done. My tendencies lean toward introspection, and I’ve had multiple blogs and diaries since I was a teen. I started my blog in the middle of 2017 when I was going through a decluttering process, in the physical sense, but also in the mental and emotional sense. I had just graduated dental school, accomplished my life’s dream and work of becoming a doctor at the age of twenty-six, married my best friend, and I just needed to take a step back and ask myself, “What now?” I felt like I accomplished a lot in my life, but also that I had spent too much time going through the steps, checking off the boxes, if you will. It was time to embrace mindfulness.
I noticed you talk about simplifying your life on your blog. What are some changes you've made to simplify your life?
I’ve simplified my life so much that people can’t help but comment. In the physical sense, I own very little. Adding more things to our home is sometimes a painful process, because of my aversion to clutter. The things we do add hold a lot of meaning and are very dear to us. A lot of things we own are used daily, a statement not many can make. And we try to avoid things that would bring the planet harm, which means living a life as free as possible of synthetic materials.
Simplifying my life didn’t apply to only things. I simplified my relationships as well. As an introvert, it’s helped me save the energy I needed to focus on the things I hold most dear. I stopped saying yes to everyone, I stopped living my life to please others, and I de-cluttered unhealthy relationships, if you will. In our society, that’s seen as selfish, but the truth that I learned is that the people you choose to surround yourself with truly shape the world around you, so being selective is very important.
The most difficult part about the simplifying process, however, is quieting a monkey mind. Even today, I will sometimes find my neurons firing like crazy, trying to process twenty things at once. Yoga has helped me tremendously with finding the mental space that I need. I think that once we can zone inwards, we can almost pull ourselves away from this physical world and transcend what grounds us here. It gave me a more worldly perspective on life. Amidst chaos, I can shut everything out and listen to a pinpoint sound, like a distant bird song carried by the wind. I can appreciate the silence of an empty room. In the middle of preparing breakfast for us at home, I can find gratitude in the smell of cinnamon, the heat of an oven, the sound of drip coffee. I think a simplified life, in the end, requires a particular mental state. It’s almost like knowing your place on this Earth. Once you’ve tapped into it, everything about this life becomes simple.
Do you have a favorite post or one that got more attention than you expected?
In the beginning of 2018, I started to gain traction with the blog. I started to collaborate with others, write for an audience, and eventually, make a difference in people’s lives through my work. Even if it is to simply say, “You are not alone.”
In the early days of 2018, I changed my blog name to TheDebtist, because I realized that a lot of what defined my current life stems from the fact that I graduated at the age of 26 years old with a student debt of over half a million dollars. I started to write about its effect on my lifestyle, which caught people’s attention. You see, I had chosen a path many people did not choose to take. I decided to pay down my student loans aggressively instead of waiting 25 to 30 years for the government to absolve it. From this came a need to be frugal, which then led to a need for simple living, and consequently, a lifestyle of less waste. All of which I detail in the blog.
A collaboration with Miakoda NY
In the summer of 2018, my student loan story was recorded by ChooseFI, and when the story got released in October of 2018, things picked up speed, and fast! A month later, a second Itunes recording with Student Loan Planner was released. I am most known for my post Hashtag JOMO: The Joy of Missing Out, and for my list of Things I’ve Given Up in the Name of Frugality. I write a lot about ways to deal with a lot of debt, in the hopes that I can help others who are also suffering from the same thing. I want to change the mindset we have around money, and to have an open conversation about it. I think that sharing knowledge is the best way we can improve our future generations.
The blog became a way for me to reach people from all over the world, but surprisingly, what the blog has done for me is greater than anything I have done for anyone else. It gave me something to stand up against, and a community to fight for.
And now you've taken up baking! Has this always been a passion?
Nope, not at all! I dabble in artistic things frequently and am naturally drawn to activities that withdraw the mind into its own world… things such as drawing, reading, yoga, and writing. I have always cooked my own meals (another frugal life hack of mine!) and I started to bake bread, specifically, only one year ago… around the time when I started practicing mindful living. What had me doing it?
I value baking bread more than words can explain.
Part of our intentional living transformation involved cutting plastic from our lives, which meant our grocery runs could not involve any items prepackaged in plastic. We started making everything from pasta to sauces from scratch. For Christmas 2017, I asked my family members for presents that would allow me to make my own bread. The minute I started doing it, I felt a strong, calm pull.
There’s something about bread baking that transports me to a place of rest. The best bread only requires three ingredients, water, flour, and salt, and one very rare commodity: TIME. It takes time for the yeast to ferment the flour before baking, in order to have bread rise. Unlike other things in the modern world, there’s no rushing it. The ability to make bread in this way is a privilege that not many people have, and I value it more than I can explain.
What is your favorite thing to bake?
I cook and bake other things for myself and for my family, but I specifically focus on bread for others. It’s kind of funny, but when I tell people I own a bakery, their first question is usually, “Do you make cakes?” I guess I do, and there’s a special one that I reserve for family members on their birthdays that they seem to really love, but that’s not where my heart lies.
Sourdough bread is easily my favorite thing to bake. I can do variations of it, some with Gruyere cheese in whole wheat, Cheddar and Jalapeno, Sesame Seed, Walnut, Raisin and Coriander… but in the end, a plain country loaf of Sourdough bread is what attracts me most.
Sourdough Country Loaf, in all its hole-y glory.
Are you baking just for fun?
I’m always baking for fun! But I also do it as a side hustle now. I got my first job as an early morning bread baker with Rye Goods at the beginning of this year. We are a group of seven, and when I started, we were operating from a garage that was rebuilt to house an entire commercial kitchen. I rise at the same time that some go to sleep, and bake off loaves with another bread baker until sunrise. The ovens keep us warm, the love of bread keeps us moving. Our pastries and bread are on the delivery truck, on their way to local coffee shops before most people even open their eyes. I walk out into a view of the sun rising over the mountains, smelling like bread, feeling calm and ecstatic, all at the same time. My day already holds so much, even before it begins.
Rye Goods Pastries on Sunday mornings
Just recently, I opened my own bakery called Aero Bakery, to serve the local community. I wanted to share with them the luxury of having the time, show them how something simple can bring joy. I want to remind them that elegance can lie in a slab of butter and a slice of bread, and all the riches in the world cannot replace the feeling you get when you make something that’s your own. Hopefully, it helps them to slow down, even for a moment, to enjoy the little things.
Aero Bakery: Slowing down bread-lovers in the heart of Downtown Santa Ana
Can you tell us a bit about your recently adopted cat?
Oh, you mean the love of my life?? We met our cat, Theodore, when we used to go on a nightly after-dinner-stroll at our previous place. I remember the day we first saw him. He must have recently found his way to our neighborhood, because before, he wasn’t there and afterwards, we saw him every day. He was the first to approach us, all mews and cuddles. He loves humans, and would roll over to get pets, or jump in a stranger’s lap to fall asleep. It was hard not to fall in love.
Hi, I'm toothless Theodore!
A month later, we were moving into our new home, and we had to leave Theo behind. I remember saying bye to him when we left. But we couldn’t stay away. We would drive the 2 miles back to our old place a few nights a week just to find him waiting in the same exact spot, lurking for any human contact he can find. One day, we got to talking with an old neighbor who feeds the stray cats in the area. She was feeding the other cats their kibble, but Theo had a special bowl of soft, wet food. We asked her, “Why the special treatment?” It was then that I learned that he was a toothless cat. She couldn’t have sent a sharper dagger. That was the minute I knew it was over.
California was entering the Fall season late, and I recall that it was the first rainy day since Spring. It was a Sunday, and all I could think was that a poor, toothless cat was sitting out there, hiding underneath some trees or bushes, trying to withstand the gusty winds and wet rain. The following night, Theo had a new home. I had rushed to grab the bare necessities (off course!) that a cat would need on Monday morning before work, and my husband went to pick up the cat after work. I came home to our sweet, orange baby exploring our home. The rest is history.
Home sweet home.
Finally – what’s next?
Who really knows? Right now, I am trying to balance working as a dentist five days a week, writing on the blog, tackling the student debt, baking at Rye Goods, and growing Aero Bakery. I have so many dreams, it’s hard to say which one life will lead me to next. We’ve traveled the world for coffee, and it may be that a coffee shop endeavor will be in our future. I also dream of living a quiet life in New Zealand at some point, if only for a few years. Some days, I imagine waking up to the sound of birds, walking to a simple job of being a barista, earning only what I need, and spending the rest of our days outdoors, listening to the sound of the Earth around me doing what it’s always done all these years. Other days, I think it’d be nice to create forever, maybe write a book, become a potter, or draw and paint. Honestly, with me, you never really know what will happen next. All I know is this: the world is full of possibility.
Tekapo, New Zealand 2019
We’ve partnered with Samantha Tillapaugh, a general dentist practicing in Southern California, to help spread the word about all cool things dental. When she isn’t sharing informative posts about teeth with us, she is writing at her own lifestyle blog as TheDebtist. Aside from writing, she travels the world, reads plenty of books sidled up next to her adopted, toothless cat, bakes sourdough bread and works as a tooth-fairy.