Medical school, graduate school, dental school, any graduate or professional school: they are all expensive! Many students are only able to pay for their education by taking out loans and living on a strict budget. The financial decisions and habits made as a student can make a major impact on future financial stability. Here are some suggestions I have learned through reading and experience to help steer towards good practices.
Keep costs as low as possible.
Reduce overhead: We all have various possessions which drain money each month, including housing, utilities, and transportation. Consider living with a roommate, using energy saver appliances, carpooling to school, or finding a car with reasonable city gas mileage. Nowadays, the list includes entertainment services like Netflix (whose monthly price is increasing!) and a cell phone bill. With cell phones, there are actually a number of options to reduce the monthly bill, like leasing a phone, using an older model, or limiting a data plan. Just saving ten dollars per month, over the course of a year, becomes real money.
Limit eating out: With the busy schedule of healthcare professionals, time is almost always in short supply. Convenient meals served at restaurants—requiring no cooking or dishwashing—are definitely appealing. However, the cost adds up quickly: one meal out could probably buy food for the better part of a week! I have learned that it is most feasible to limit my eating out to once per week with my close friends. This way, it remains something special and helps me stretch my groceries an extra evening.
Cook when you can and shop at lower-priced grocery stores: Cooking is an important skill that takes practice to improve efficiency and taste. Start with basics and build on your skills. There are many beginner YouTube videos that offer quick and entertaining recipe demonstrations. Once you improve on a small set of recipes, you might find yourself enjoying your own home-cooked meals more than those at a restaurant! During busy weeks, making multiple meals at once may be most practical. The CrockPot has always been my go-to appliance when making meals with plenty of leftovers. To prevent spending too much on groceries, try looking around for local grocery sales or consider splitting a membership to Costco or Sam’s Club with a friend.
Make things easier on yourself!
Keep your estimates reasonable: Budgeting can easily become a stressful chore. Find the simplest tool to track spending and create a budget. Tracking every penny may be extra burdensome, so rounding to the nearest dollar may be appropriate, so long as the log is honest. Remember that a practical budget that is followed is much more useful than the ideal budget that is ignored (more on this below).
Use your phone to track spending: Spending logs are useful for many reasons. They allow more accurate estimation of a budget in the future, determine where the budget is spent, and may show areas to reduce spending. Smartphones have a huge range of banking apps to choose from, including those that connect to a checking account to monitor spending. I personally use the stock Notes app on my iPhone, where I have a running list of each purchase, where I was, the date, and the amount subtracted from my monthly budget (almost like balancing a checkbook). For monthly purchases (like rent or my phone bill), I log the date, time, and amount into my calendar so that it is searchable and trackable. If I am consistently over budget, it only takes a little bit of math to determine where the overspending is happening.
Emergency Money: Minimizing the amount taken out in loans is important. Each dollar will be repaid either with more money or time. With this in mind, it is still important to have a small amount of money set aside in case of serious emergencies. A car breaking down, a large parking ticket, a broken computer, or even a surprise increase on rent or utilities is important to consider when a budget is tight. I believe that setting aside approximately an extra month’s rent is a reasonable estimate, so long as I treat it as untouchable money.
For larger purchases, consider your options.
Meet with your financial aid advisor: Financial aid advisors are there to help guide students through the complexities of budgeting, loans, and finances. My school’s financial aid office also offers occasional presentations on various financial topics like buying a house or financial changes when getting married. While it may be your first time attending medical school or buying a house, these professionals have worked with many people in the same position and they often have excellent advice.
Loan Tracking: Similar to college, many school financial aid offices offer free fee/loan calculators to help estimate recommended loan amounts. For any help or suggestions, the financial aid office and advisor should be the first stop. If you are like me, you may appreciate learning a bit about the loan process and keeping a record of the amounts received. I use a Google Sheet to document and formulate my loan amounts, which I can copy for each academic year to check my work. With some small updates, checks, and information from my financial aid advisor, this spreadsheet ensures that I am aware of my loans so I am not surprised when I graduate medical school.
Look for sales and coupons: Sales and coupons go far beyond the grocery store. For non-immediate purchases greater than $100, waiting for the item to go on sale or asking a company for a discount may save a sizeable amount. Even Question Banks offer holiday discounts or school discounts.
Read financial books or follow a financial blog: “The White Coat Investor” is an excellent financial blog (and book) that discusses a myriad of the issues facing healthcare professionals, both in training and in practice. Many of my own personal questions regarding loan repayment options and major financial decisions (car, house, retirement, etc.) are discussed and defined in relatively simple terms. The book includes many topics found on the blog, but collects them all in a single volume with additional reading recommendations. I consider Dr. Dahle’s book a must-read for anyone (especially students) wanting to take responsibility for their finances.
Attaining financial stability is often more of a marathon than a sprint. Making consistently intelligent and prudent choices eventually builds to produce good monetary habits. By making better choices in times of a constrained budget, you are preparing for future success and stability!