Something I’ve never admitted to anyone before: medical school seemed like a pipe dream. With the projected six-figure debt burden, I simply did not see a way to afford it. We couldn’t even afford home internet. Still, I kept faith, hoping that my family’s situation would change by the time I got there or, rather, that developing my own strong financial habits would amount to something. Today, I am a second-year medical student with projected debt that I can feasibly pay off during residency. I’d like to share the most impactful financial habits and decisions that made it possible for me to attend medical school. I hope that my story will encourage others to avoid catastrophic debt, develop sustainable financial habits, and pursue their passion for medicine despite their socioeconomic background.
Debt aversion: One of the most crucial decisions I faced was where to go for my undergraduate education. Like every other pre-med, I felt pressured to attend a prestigious university. It seemed like a name-brand college set you up for getting into medical school. There was just one problem: it was thousands of dollars, even with my scholarship offers. I chose my safety school which offered a full-tuition scholarship. It was the best decision I ever made. Additionally, I applied to a lot of outside scholarships and these covered the cost of my dorm room during my freshman and sophomore years. For junior and senior years, I worked as a Residential Assistant and received free room and board as compensation. I graduated with no debt. My medical school application cycle cast away the last of my doubts about attending a safety school, too.
I highly encourage students to choose the undergraduate school that sets them up financially for medical school. It is what you achieve at that university that will set you up for success more than the name alone. Something I told myself to make the decision easier was that if I chose the undergraduate school that afforded me the least debt now, I would have more leeway to choose the medical school I wanted in the future.
Market value: I am the first (and only) member of my family to apply to medical school. When I received my first admission offer, I stared at the financial aid package for longer than I’d like to admit. I wasn’t staring at the cost of attendance, though. I was staring at the words “scholarship offer.” For some reason, I thought medical school meant you paid the ticket price, whatever it may be. The news was life-changing. When I got my next offer, I don’t know why or how, but I decided to negotiate. I never knew anybody who had and didn’t know if it was even possible. With each new acceptance, I was able to determine my market value and started using these competing offers to increase my scholarship. By the time I matriculated, my annual cost was half of the initial offer. Now I know this is a common occurrence and totally acceptable. I confidently advise pre-medical students to consider negotiating any time they receive multiple offers, especially if the offers are substantially different at similarly ranked schools. It does not hurt to politely ask if your scholarship can be reconsidered.
Live like a student: First of all, because we are students. Secondly, because we will be students much longer than the average person. We often underestimate how much our personal spending will matter in comparison to the cost of medical school, but the truth is, it adds up quickly and every dollar spent increases the amount of debt-compounding interest. I adopted the perspective that if I learned to live like a student now, I could reach financial independence faster and gain more control of my life later.
One of the most tangible examples of living like a student is demonstrated by how I shop for groceries and plan meals. It started my sophomore year when I didn’t have a car and only bought what I could carry home. Naturally, it made me very intentional about what I purchased. I checked the ads and wrote a list of exactly what I was going to buy that week before I made the trip. I also meal-prepped to save time and ate the same meals all week to save money. Now, I have a car, but I use the same habits and spend an average of $30 a week. That car I mentioned is a 2001 Ford Taurus which I got for $500 from an ex-Marine. It initially smelled of cigarettes and boasted scratches from a side-swipe incident, but it only had 70,000 miles and got decent gas mileage. To this day, it is my most prized possession. I plan to drive it through residency, if it’ll have me. I remind myself that the small sacrifices I make as a student will pay dividends in the form of good financial habits. Plus, it’s easier to live this way now than when I have a family to consider.
Side hustle: An obvious, direct way to impact your finances as a student is to develop a source of income. For me, I happened into buying and selling used items. I had furnished my apartment during my gap year but needed to adjust when I moved into a different apartment for medical school. I sold every item for profit. It turns out a lifetime of being aware of the cost of things allows you to buy low and sell high. I know this particular side hustle is ridiculous, but I convince myself that it is preparing me for investing in stocks when I actually have a job. In the meantime, any money I earn in this way makes an impact on my grocery, gas, or electricity bills each month. It also creates a fund for me to go out to dinner with friends or go on day trips with my classmates guilt-free. If you’re unsure about what your niche is, try the common flexible jobs like rideshare, tutoring, and food delivery. I promise, you don’t have to sell used printers or desks, but if you’d like to buy one, I think I know somebody.
Learn: Since I picked up my first The White Coat Investor book, I have become more intentional about increasing my financial literacy. Medicine requires lifelong learning, so you may as well add a few things for yourself to your studies. I read about the conditions of my loans and repayment programs, researched the type of insurance I should have as a resident, and explored retirement accounts. On my commutes, I listen to financial podcasts and audiobooks. I truly believe you will never regret being financially literate or financially independent.
Happiness: My last piece of advice is to understand the difference between what you can and cannot change. Once the price of tuition, rent, etc. is set, there is no sense in losing sleep over it. There are realistically going to be expenses in life. When you get into medical school, your primary focus should be on making the most of the opportunity and experience. Enjoy the ride.