Medical

Keeping Costs Low as a Pre-Med

You’ve done it. The classes have been taken, the concepts mastered, the grades received. Prom happened, whether you went to it or not. Maybe sports were involved. It doesn’t really matter anymore. High school will soon be a memory, and you’re focused on the next step toward your ultimate goal of becoming a doctor. You might wonder – why am I talking about high school when this is an article about keeping costs low as a pre-med? The most important thing you can do to keep costs reasonable as a pre-medical student happens before you start.

College is expensive, and medical school is even more expensive. Students considering a doctor’s life should minimize undergraduate tuition costs while also optimizing their chances of attending an affordable medical school. Tuition is the greatest expense you’ll have throughout your medical education career. You should start thinking about it early. 

1. Tuition

If you’re anything like I was as a newly minted high school grad, you’ve been daydreaming about a particular school for several years now. For me, it was Sarah Lawrence College. I was devastated when I was waitlisted, but now recognize that it was a best thing that could have happened. Paying in-state tuition at the University of Arizona while working as a hotel receptionist left me nearly debt free after two years of undergraduate.

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Now, many years later, I realize I tackled college all wrong. I should have been looking for an excellent school that wanted me enough to foot the bill. My parents made good money, but I have four siblings and college funds weren’t in the cards. I also wasn’t going to get a need-based scholarship. I now know that merit-based scholarships are everywhere. You just need to apply broadly and be open-minded. 

An undergraduate degree at a public university will cost around $10,116/year in tuition. A private school often costs three times that – $36,801. If you’re willing to delay the typical college experience and attend a local community college for two years or for some courses you’ll see even greater savings; a year of tuition at community college averages $3666/year. If you choose to attend community college, be aware that medical schools may not accept prerequisites completed there.

You should also think about medical school. Is your state school astronomically expensive even as an in-state resident? Are your state schools so exclusive that getting in will be more challenging than if you were from somewhere else? If you’re from California but have always dreamed of living in Texas, this might be a good time to make that shift. Be sure to change your residency while you’re at it.  If you are lucky enough to get multiple acceptances, finances should not be your only consideration, but you should include them on your pros and cons lists.

2. Housing and Transportation

Ask yourself if you are comfortable living at home during college. When I first went away to school, I couldn’t wait to be free of parental shackles. By the time I was a rising junior, the novelty had worn off. I transferred to American University and loved living at home.

If you’re intent on leaving home, consider the cost of living in different areas. Your expenses in New York will be much higher than living in middle America.

If you’re leaving home for the first time it is entirely reasonable to live in the dorms. If the dorms are expensive, however, think about striking out with friends after that first year. The idea of a group house has grown in popularity as housing costs have increased. My group house rent in Washington, DC as a young adult was only $500/month. A one-bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood was running around $1200/month. Housing costs have increased since then, but you’ll still save by living with others. 

Where you choose to live will also impact your transportation costs. If you have a car and will be further than driving distance from home, consider leaving it behind. Find a home close to campus, sign up for grocery delivery, buy a bike, and call it a day.

3. Food

Another place to look to keep costs low as a pre-med is your food budget. Undergraduate is a good time to develop healthy eating habits. If your school has a reasonable meal plan, that’s great!  Many do not. Eating out, even at a school cafeteria, is likely to be more expensive and less healthy than ordering groceries. Take this time to develop a couple go-to meals. Experiment.

Companies like Instacart and Peapod can help you control your costs as well. With a yearly subscription fee and per-use delivery fee, you can have groceries delivered to your house. My grocery bills actually decreased when I started using Instacart, because I have groceries delivered from a less expensive store than my local haunt. Developing healthy eating and cooking skills now will serve you throughout your training and life. 

4. Frivolous Spending 

It isn’t the big money items that kill a budget. It is the little things that add up. Eating at Panera for lunch every weekday? Add $300/month. Drinking a Starbucks latte every morning? Add $125/month. Six- and seven-dollar expenses here and there somehow become big money items in your budget. 

The first step is just knowing what you’re spending. Luckily, we don’t have to balance checkbooks. Glance through your expenditures each week. Or link your account to a financial application like Mint.com. Mint will display colorful pie charts, neatly delineated into different spending categories. Now you’ll know if you’re spending hundreds of dollars each month on bars and restaurants. 

If any one category stands out, that’s where you should try to make some changes. 

For me, coffee is the Achilles heel. That latte is my life-blood. Nothing I’ve ever made at home can compare, even when I bought an expensive latte machine. Over the years I’ve made different coffee deals with myself. For about a year I was allowed Starbucks if I went into work early and read non-fiction. I was no longer spending four plus dollars on a frivolous coffee, but as a method of motivation for self-development. 

I took the math a step further to try to instigate change: $100/month for coffee may seem reasonable, but what about $1200/year? How about over twenty years? Did I really want to spend $24,000 on Starbucks over the next twenty years? Though I don’t have any love for the brand, turns out my answer to that question is yes. 

These days I often just buy the darn coffee. Probably not what you were expecting, but hear me out. It is important that your budget includes some of the things that you want. It’s okay to have frivolous budget items! You’re a person, not a machine. You don’t need to cut everything – just cut the things that are more habit than passion. Turns out I’m passionate about lattes. I’m not passionate about Panera. Take note of the things that add value to your life and cut the line items that don’t. You can think of it as a Marie Kondo method of budgeting: does this expenditure spark joy?

5. Beyond Budgeting

There are two main things you can do beyond budgeting to keep costs low as a premed: find paid clinical work and avoid credit cards. I’ve written more extensively about this already, but there are many hoops to jump through during undergrad if you’re planning to apply to medical school. Finding paid clinical work will set you apart from your classmates while also helping your finances. You are going to need clinical experience anyway, why not get paid for it? 

The second nugget of advice is what NOT to do: don’t get a credit card. The moment you turn eighteen you will start receiving paper envelope deliveries for credit card deals. These letters will never stop coming. Many Americans hit credit card rock bottom before learning to throw these letters out, and credit card companies love to prey on the young and financially naïve. 

The average credit card debt in America is $5554. Ten percent of college students leave school with over $10,000 in credit card debt. One in four has over $5000. If you make a 4% minimum payment on a $5000 debt at 26.00% interest, you pay it off in 14 years and 8 months. You will end up paying $10,636.77. Here is a calculator to help you conceptualize the cost of credit card debt. Don’t fall for these financial scams. Ask your parents if they’ll help you get a pre-paid credit card so that you can start earning good credit while budgeting properly with the money you have. As medical students, you will not be working. You are more likely to carry this debt than someone who plans to start working right after college.  

Conclusion

Your years as a pre-medical student are the perfect time to begin understanding and organizing your finances. If your parents are helping you out, ask them to go through you instead of paying for things directly. Tell them that you want to learn how to manage money. If you’re taking out loans, be an active participant in the process. If you have a job, start taking note of how many hours of work each expenditure costs. Is a forty-dollar meal out worth three hours of work? 

Financial literacy is a lifelong journey. Keeping costs low as a pre-med will put you on the path for financial success. The earlier you start developing good financial habits, the less stressful your finances will become in the long-run. 

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E
Erin is a non-traditional medical student training to become a physician scientist. Before starting medical school she worked as a writer, bootstrapped an educational non-profit in Cameroon, and made hundreds of underwater videos for tourists in Thailand. She lives with her husband and two children ... Erin is a non-traditional medical student training to become a physician scientist. Before starting medical school she worked as a writer, bootstrappe...