Medical

Using Government Assistance During Medical School

The medical journey is filled with many new experiences and challenges. The financial commitment of a medical career choice is frequently overlooked and can sneak up and surprise us. 

Medical school and residency are called “the lean years” for a reason. During this time, student loans are the main source of income for your med SO (significant other). For most couples and families, very little money will be coming in during this time, but a lot of money will be going out. 

Medical school is expensive! And not just in terms of tuition. You’ll have your regular living expenses and healthcare costs, as well as the various extra tests (like Step One and Two) and fees associated with medical school. You’ll then top it all off by applying and interviewing for residency. 

It can feel like you’re constantly throwing out hundreds or thousands of dollars regularly. At times it can feel overwhelming and daunting. How do people do this?!

For med couples with little to no additional outside money coming in, the reality of living off of student loans can be a stressful wake-up call. You’ll see that the debt—including student loans, credit cards, or other types of borrowed money—quickly add up. Now is a good time to make educated financial decisions and to look for additional ways to help you get through this time without sacrificing your financial stability. 

We’ve talked in the past about managing finances and budgeting ideas, so check out those articles if you haven’t already. For this article, let’s discuss some additional options you and your SO may have for receiving extra help during the lean years of medical school. 

Government Assistance

Federal government benefit programs can help people with a low income cover basic expenses like food, housing, and healthcare. Benefits are distributed through individual states. 

Did you know that many medical families qualify for some form of government assistance during medical school? If you are unemployed, only work part-time, or have children while your SO is in medical school, it’s worth seeing if you qualify for any benefits. 

Types of Assistance

The most common forms of assistance medical families use are WIC, SNAP, Medicaid, and CHIP. Below is an overview of the these four programs with links to find application instructions. You can also visit the government’s main benefits website at Government Benefits | USAGov for more information on the various types of assistance and to get a preliminary look at what you might qualify for.

WIC and SNAP (informally known as “food stamps”)

WIC (women, infants, and children) is a special nutrition program that provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods for low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding postpartum women, and to infants and children up to age five. To find out if you’re eligible for WIC and to apply, go to Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) | USDA-FNS

SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) is a separate nutrition program that helps supplement the food budget for low-income families. Benefits are provided once a month through an EBT card that you can use like a credit card for eligible food items at approved SNAP grocery stores and farmer’s markets. Apply for SNAP through your local office. Find your office here: SNAP State Directory of Resources | USDA-FNS.

Medicaid and CHIP

Most medical school programs offer their students health insurance during their program. The amount of coverage is variable, with some programs offering free insurance for students and others offering regular student plans or employee-type health plans. 

Some programs will cover the spouses and children as well with added deductibles or additional co-pays. Other programs do not offer insurance plans for families, or if they do, the price tag can be beyond what your family is able to pay. 

This is where Medicaid could come in. Medicaid offers free or low-cost medical benefits to eligible low-income adults, children, pregnant women, seniors, and people with disabilities. 

Is it more cost effective to use Medicaid than your program’s insurance? You’ll need to speak to a Medicaid specialist and crunch the numbers yourself to see. Apply by contacting your state Medicaid office and filling out an application at State Overviews | Medicaid.gov

If you have children and your income is too high to qualify for Medicaid, your child/children may still qualify for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). It covers medical and dental care for uninsured children and teens up to age 19. To find out if you qualify, find a program through your state at Find Coverage for Your Family | InsureKidsNow.gov or call 1-877-KIDS-NOW.

The Stigma of Using Government Assistance

Our country has very diverse opinions on the use and need for government assistance. It’s a heavily political issue that needy families often get tangled up in. Many medical families express that they feel embarrassed that they use government assistance because of the judgment they face. Especially as a medical family, people assume your SO is becoming a doctor, so you must have lots of money. Most people outside our community are not educated about or don’t understand the huge financial burden and risk taken in becoming doctors. 

Some medical families express that most times when they use something like WIC or SNAP, they feel judged by the other customers in the store—from how you look, to what you’re buying, to how your kids behave. It’s unfortunate, but something to be aware of. 

Please don’t let the negative stigma of using benefits hinder you from using them! If you qualify for assistance and need the services, that’s exactly what they’re there for. Additionally, keep in mind that once your SO is a practicing doctor, you will be paying into this system threefold, so you will contribute far more in the future than you ever could take out now. 

For another perspective and personal story about using government assistance during medical school, check out the following blog post: “Using Government Asssistance During Medical School and Residency” by Lara McElderry and and Kristi Hargiss.

Assistance During Residency

Many medical families find that they lose government benefits once they enter residency. Once your SO is making a residency salary, it often puts you over the income threshold. However, it does depend on your individual situation and how many children you have. You’ll want to look into this beforehand so you’re not surprised if your benefits are canceled.

Additionally, anytime you have to move states or change jobs (medical school to residency), you’ll need to communicate with your local benefits office for guidance on how to maintain or reapply for assistance. 

The Bottom Line

Sometimes it’s hard to receive help, especially when we feel completely capable of providing for ourselves and our families. However, during medical school your SO does not have the ability to provide any income. As the spouse, you are capable, but your ability to work might be complicated. You may have moved away from your previous job, be unable to find a new job in your field, be unable to find affordable and quality childcare, or have other individual limiting factors. 

Government assistance is available to help, and if you qualify, you should absolutely give yourself permission to use it. There’s no need to feel ashamed or stretch yourselves way too thin when you could receive benefits. The reality is medical school is financially very difficult, so take the help now when you need it most and give you and your SO a little bit of relief.

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Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and two young daughters. She enjoys helping other spouses navigate the world of medicine and actively participates in support groups and activities. Her hus... Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and tw...
This is great! Something my wife and I are definitely stressing about over the next few years. We have used SNAP and Medicaid in the past and it has been a lifesaver.
Graduate students need to be working at least 20 hours a week in order to qualify for food stamps
agree with chicagotech. I tried applying for food stamps and they denied me. You NEED to be working at least 20 hrs a week to get it. Maybe for residents who are working but make scrap change but if you're in medical or dental school...sorrry.
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