If I Had a Million Dollars (But I Don’t)

Last Updated on June 27, 2022 by Laura Turner

Someday, after years of school (then more school) and residency training, we will start earning doctors’ salaries. In the meantime, finances can be tight, but there are ways to cut costs, optimize the money you do have, and maybe even bring in a little extra on the side.
There’s an old moniker you can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. It’s hard to make a budget if you don’t know what you’re spending currently. Take a few weeks and keep track, ideally a full month. Write down everything, regardless of how you pay for it – cash, check, credit card, bitcoin. . . Even if you have a 0% interest credit card and won’t be paying it off for a while, write it down. Then, consider your monthly income. If you’re ending the month in the black – congratulations! You’re on the right track. You may still want to decrease your expenses to reduce your overall loan burden. If you find your monthly cost of living exceeding your income, it is definitely worth your while to take a hard look at what you’re spending and how to cut back.

Peanut butter jelly time

No, medical school does not mean you have to live solely on PBJ and ramen, but a few prudent choices can decrease your food bill. First, take advantage of the many free eating (and learning) opportunities provided by your medical school. Between interest groups, club meetings, and various informational events, you can easily end up with a free meal or two – or more – a week. Often admission offices offer lunch if you will come and chat with applicants. If you have time, it can be a great way to do a service for your school and enjoy a free lunch.
It pays to take the time grocery shop rather than always grabbing food from the cafeteria or local deli. Spending $8 a day for that soup and sandwich quickly becomes $40 a week, or over $2000 a year. That’s enough for a vacation (more on that later). Instead, reserve your eating out for fun events with friends – a dinner to celebrate the end of the rotation, a night on the town with your partner. You can save money at the grocery store as well. Request to have the weekly sales of your local grocery store emailed to you and take a minute to look them over before heading out to shop. I have what may border on an unhealthy love of ice cream, but I refuse to pay $8 for a carton. Instead, I wait for it to go on sale 2 for $6 and buy a few cartons at a time. Also, opt for generic whenever possible – you’ll save significant cash and I doubt you’ll notice the difference. Buying in bulk can also cut on costs, but only if you are actually going to consume the food before it expires. This brings up a final point: food waste. In the US, we toss upwards of 40% of our food into the trash1. When you’re pinching pennies, that’s a lot of money to be throwing out each week. By increasing your awareness you can work to decrease your waste, thereby leaving more money in your wallet.

About the Ads

Girls just wanna have fun

Making and keeping to a budget does not mean eliminating fun from your life. Do take a look at your monthly entertainment expenses that you might be able to reduce – now that you’ve started your third year rotations, do you really need the extended cable package? An online subscription service may be significantly less expensive. Also, if you call your cable provider to cancel, they very well may offer you a better deal that what you are paying now. For a night out, many medical schools offer discount tickets to concerts, movies and museums. Get creative – potlucks and a night of watching movies with friends can be just as fun, and much less expensive, than dinner out and tickets to a movie.

Second hand rose

With students regularly moving on to bigger and better things, whether that’s starting the next rotation or to heading off to residency, medical schools foster a second hand market for just about anything you could want. From used pots and pans to bookcases and refrigerators, items often sell for a song when compared to the department store prices. This is particularly true come May when fourth years are trying to get rid of most of their worldly possessions before moving for residency. You can also save significantly if you’re willing to put up with last year’s edition of medical texts. Despite what the publishers want you to believe, there are rarely significant changes between editions (the toe bone still connects to the foot bone). Want a new wardrobe? In addition to shopping the sales, you might consider setting up an evening of clothing swapping with friends. 

Gimme shelter

You thought you were done with roommates when you left college. Alas, as a money saving measure, a roommate can make a significant difference in the cost of rent. If your schedule is similar, this can also translate into carpooling and other cost-cutting measures.

Leaving on a jet plane

You don’t have to entirely give up your yen for travel during your time in medical school. Spent a summer doing research? If you are accepted to present your work at a conference many medical schools will foot a portion of your travel costs. Not only can you put it on your CV for residency, but you now may be able to afford that trip to San Francisco that’s been on your bucket list. Similarly, fourth year schedules typically provide ample room for electives which can include time abroad. Again, often there are funding opportunities within the medical school to defray some of these costs.

Master charge

Where credit cards are concerned, tread carefully. The average American household with at least one credit card has over $15,000 in credit-card debt. Medical students are somewhat better off, with an average of $9,000 in “non-education” debt. Having and using a credit card isn’t the issue – it’s keeping a running balance on a card that will both decrease your credit score and cost you real money in the long run. Remember the $2000 we were spending on lunch over the year? At the nation’s average interest rate of 15%, if you have $2000 in credit card debt and make $50 a month payments, you’ll end up spending over $750 in interest (and take over four and a half years to pay it off). There are a number of websites that allow you calculate how much you end up paying in interest by carrying balances on your credit card. It can also limit your ability to take out loans for larger-ticket items you may want down the road – like a new car or house. Ideally, only charge to your credit card what you can pay off each month. Then you can have the perks your card offers without doling out your hard-earned money on interest. If you find it too tempting, consider canceling your card entirely and sticking to cash and debit cards.

I’ve been working on the railroad

While medical school can consume a lot of your time, you are gaining marketable expertise that can earn you a little extra cash. Starting at home, some schools hire medical students to tutor those in earlier years who made need some additional assistance with the material. Outside of your home institution, there are a number of tutoring companies across the country that recruit medical students to tutor students at a variety of different levels – from high schoolers struggling with biology on up to medical students studying for board exams. While some of these companies are regional, others are on-line with tutoring via Skype. Other companies hire medical students to write questions for Qbanks or review books, typically paying per question or per review. While these may pay somewhat less well on an hourly basis, the time you spend on them is more flexible and can be fit more easily around your study schedule and other responsibilities. Asking fellow medical students, particularly those ahead of you in school, can be the best way to find a reputable source of second income.

The payback

The good news is physicians and surgeons have amongst the lowest unemployment rate and a median salary over $180,000 according to Bureau of Labor Statistics2. Keeping your spending to a minimum now can both decrease the debt you have to pay back as well as establish good money habits for the future. A little effort and creativity can reap benefits and make a real difference in your bank account. So take a deep breath and don’t worry, be happy.


1. Gunders D. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill. 2012. Natural Resources Defense Council.http://www.nrdc.org/food/files/wasted-food-ip.pdf. Accessed 4/21/14.

2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Physicians and Surgeons,http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physicians-and-surgeons.htm. Accessed 4/20/14.