How to Budget During Medical School
According to the AAMC, the average medical student will graduate medical school with at least $200,000 worth of debt. Whether you count your cash in terms of rent checks, pizzas, or late-night coffees – that’s a good chunk of change. No one ever expected medical school to be cheap, but facing numbers like that can be more than a little daunting.
I know when I started medical school the excitement of getting in (woohoo!) was quickly replaced by a fear of being broke (oh no).
However, you’re not the first person to face a mountain of medical school debt and you won’t be the last. Luckily there are plenty of ways you can trim the fat in your budget and develop a sustainable plan for affording life as a medical student. We collected 8 easy tips for developing an airtight budget during medical school:
- Plan, plan, plan
- Utilize your school’s cost of attendance
- Meet with your financial advisor
- Develop a meal plan
- Utilize school resources
- Find a roommate
- Think outside the box for travel and vacation
- Find a side hustle
Plan, plan, plan
The most important part of developing an effective budget during medical school is, you guessed it, actually planning out that budget. For most people that means writing down and estimating all of your expected expenses – including everything from eating out to health insurance to secondary resources like First Aid or Physeo.
The AAMC has a great budget worksheet that can serve as a starting point for developing that budget. This worksheet includes the 3 main categories you want to think of when you start writing down the money coming in and out of your account each month – income, fixed expenses, and variable expenses.
Whether you use a set worksheet like that one or create your own spreadsheet, it’s important to actually have these numbers laid out so you can see them. Try tracking your expenses for a few months and then using that to guide you when you set those budget limits for each category. Then, take that budget for a test drive.
Try sticking to the limits you set for each category (for example, $50 for eating out or $100 for house expenses) and see how it goes. Then, come back at the end of the month with your receipts and expenditures, and review what worked and what didn’t. The most important part of a budget is sticking to it, but you have to be realistic and make necessary changes as needed.
Utilize your school’s cost of attendance
Did you look at that budget worksheet, see those open categories like “books and supplies” or “rent and utilities”, and draw a blank? It can be hard to know where to start in terms of estimating the costs of certain budget items. This is where your school’s cost of attendance, or COA, comes in handy.
Each year, your school’s financial aid office compiles this estimated “cost of attendance”, which is typically a generous estimation of the living expenses a student will require at that certain school and location. They will typically break down costs into categories such as tuition, rent and utilities, books and supplies, etc. – giving you a great starting point for estimating your yearly expenses for the specific city you’ll be living in.
This COA estimation can serve as a great maximum budget, but don’t feel the need to utilize every penny your school outlines. The COA is typically a maximum amount a student will spend and defines the maximum amount of loans you can take out, but remember when setting your budget the goal is to save – not to max out your loan options.
Meet with your financial advisor
Remember that you aren’t the first medical student to look at that cost of attendance and try to stifle a touch of nausea. Your school’s financial advisor is a great resource for helping you start and refine your budgeting process, or even just provide some reassurance.
Financial aid advisors can also give you great advice on costs and expenses of the specific location you’ll be living in; the COA is a great starting point, but the advisor is a great resource for any additional questions that may come up.
It’s really never too soon to reach out to the financial aid office and start discussing your financial aid options. The loan application process is a lengthy one, and there are many items you need to submit by a certain time, like the FAFSA, in order to get a timely loan application decision. Add “reach out to my school’s financial advisor” to your summer to-do list to get a head start on the budget process.
Develop a meal plan
In medical school you’re not just short on money, but on time as well. Between studying, socializing, and sleeping, sometimes a good meal can get (metaphorically) stuck on the backburner.
One easy way to manage eating well while staying on budget and on schedule is to meal prep. Pick a day, Sunday afternoon for example, to cook enough food for the week in advance. There are countless apps and websites out there that can help you plan a meal, even taking into account your budget or meal preferences, so there really is no easier way to cook quickly and on a budget.
Aside from the cost and time savings, cooking at home is often a healthier way to eat than ordering out – so meal prepping counts not only as a budget saver but as a personal wellness boost.
Utilize school resources
Each school is different, but take the time to learn about all the resources available to medical students through your university. Many schools have shared resources such as study drives or books for loan through the library, which can shave dollars off of your books and supplies budget.
Fellow students and upperclassmen are also great resources to pepper with questions about what secondary resources are most helpful to them. Finding affordable and effective secondary resources is a great way to save money, as buying more resources does not necessarily equal better studying – often it’s the opposite if you go into resource overload.
Aside from study materials, most schools also have plenty of other perks available to medical students. Look into recreation opportunities like free or low-cost access to the school gym, free or low-cost childcare if you have kids, or even food banks or food co-ops among students.
Again, this is definitely a school-specific resource and will take a little digging on your end, but the cost savings will be so, so worth it. Remember that you’re paying to be there and often your tuition costs will include many of these built-in benefits, so don’t be afraid to reach out and take advantage of them.
Find a roommate!
Having someone to split rent and utilities with is probably one of the easiest and most effective ways to shave your expenses in half. It’s also a great way to be able to afford nicer apartments or houses – in most cities, you pay a premium to live alone.
Roommates can even be fellow students, although it’s definitely not necessary. Having a built-in study buddy can be nice, but having a roommate who enjoys talking about things other than the Krebs cycle can also be a good mental break. Roommates don’t even necessarily have to be BFFs – the baseline is essentially to find someone you can stand living with, and anything beyond that is a bonus.
Many schools organize meet-ups for students before beginning school, or set up social media pages to allow students to get to know each other. These can be great resources for finding roommates or even just getting advice on places to live. Keep a roommate in mind as a quick and easy way to save a good chunk of change.
Think outside the box for travel and vacation
Just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you’re barred from having fun. It’s important to still plan and budget for travel and vacations if that’s something important to you and your wellness.
There are plenty of low-cost vacation options – especially if you’re into the outdoors. How about a weekend camping trip with your classmates? There’s no cheaper way to see beautiful places and bond with friends. Other options could be using credit card points for flight miles, crashing on friends’ couches instead of paying for hotels, or even just taking time to explore the city you live in.
Living on loans might mean taking a pass on that all-inclusive cruise to the Bahamas, but it doesn’t have to mean taking a pause on vacations forever. Build travel into your budget and think local for trips, and you can still have amazing vacations when you break away from the med school grind.
Find a side hustle
This tip isn’t one that works for everyone, and much of the time medical school takes up most of your bandwidth – and that’s okay. However, if you have a long summer between MS1 and MS2 year, or even holiday breaks where you feel like you have some extra effort to spare, side jobs can be a great way to save up a few weeks of living expenses.
Some students hop back into old jobs during school breaks or find paid research opportunities – no matter how small or short-term, any dollar saved is two to three dollars earned in terms of loan repayment. Jobs can also be a great thing to talk about when it comes to residency applications, so it can really be a two-for-one deal in terms of saving cash and building your resume.
In the end, living on a budget as a medical student has its challenges but it’s not an insurmountable task. By keeping these tips in mind, you can live a full life in medical school even if your bank account is a little empty. Remember that smart budgeting now will directly translate into a more manageable debt burden later.
The future you is depending on the current you! Do you have any extra helpful tips on budgeting during medical school? What has worked for you?