How to effectively manage money during a healthcare program

Attending any type of health-related education is undoubtedly hard.

It’s hard to even get into a health-related school in the first place.

Countless hours of studying before and during medical, pharmacy or nursing school—on top of stressful exams and arduous standards—can make any health or science-related degree a real feat.

But you know this. You knew it before choosing to pursue a health-related career. And you still moved forward. For many, becoming a healthcare professional was always the dream, the goal, the passion.

And for many students, the goal of a high salary helps the light shine brighter at the end of the tunnel. That, plus the satisfaction of achieving a long-standing dream can empower you to tackle all obstacles.

Medical student budgeting and how to spend smarter


Medical and science programs are hard, but what’s the biggest obstacle of them all?

There is one obstacle that is even more frightening than the hours of study and the strenuous exams. This obstacle is, of course, the financial burdens that almost every healthcare student faces.

Attending any type of healthcare program is often one of the most expensive bachelor or graduate programs out there. Start with tuition fees, student fees, books, health insurance and living expenses, and your tab skyrockets in the face of making your dream a reality.

To get a taste of how expensive healthcare studies can be, let’s discuss this recent analysis by the Association of American Medical Colleges on the average medical student debt in the United States. According to the study, in 2018 the average debt per medical student at graduation was $200,000. Again, that was the average. For pharmaceutical and nursing students, the average debt was approximately $157,000 and $50,000, accordingly.

Fat wallet only when parents can pay for school is your budget different

So, unless you have a family with a thick wallet or a trust fund at your disposal, you most likely need (or needed) multiple loans to afford graduate, pharmacy or nursing school.

At this point, you might be so far in it that you think a $200,000 loan is not a lot next to the salary of many graduates (or compared with your friends, who sometimes graduate with even more debt). However, especially with interest tacked on, this is never a small sum. Paying off this kind of loan can be an extremely difficult and stressful task for anyone wanting to lead a normal life and can impact other major life decisions such as when to start a family or what specialty to choose.

If you do want to learn more about managing debt after graduation, check our detailed article on how to survive graduate, pharmacy or nursing school debt.

But before you even get to paying it off, the point here is to graduate from your healthcare studies with as little debt as possible. Although tuition fees, books and health insurance costs can’t be avoided (unless you have a heck of a lot of scholarship funding), you can still budget by properly by managing your living expenses with a few key practices that will keep the growing bill under control.

This article will focus on analyzing the living costs of health-related programs and will provide several clever tips on how to minimize expenses—while still maintaining a decent quality of life. Let’s start!


Setting up a smart budget

Setting up a budget is the first essential step in managing your finances during your healthcare program. Creating and sticking to a budget will not only help you control your spending but will also guarantee that you can cover all your essential expenses. Because, if you have a plan, you will always know what your essential expenses are and you be able to plan them out before spending money on optional expenses. In addition, staying organized will also allow you to build an emergency budget and have some savings for the times you need them the most.

Step 1 in creating your budget in school is to determine your expenses. In this step, focus only on the necessities. You should leave optional expenses out in this category, because you actually need to figure out if your income (including loan income) allows for optional expenses later. If you aren’t sure about the total amount for your essential expenses (like groceries), you can track your most important expenses for a period of time (ideally a month) in order to figure out your expenses for your long-term plan.

Next, it’s time to create a list of those expenses. In this list, you can categorize your expenses as “fixed” (meaning they stay the same every month) and “variable” (meaning they change from month to month). Common fixed and variable expenses include:


Fixed:

  • Rent
  • Loan payments (if you pay your loan during your program)
  • Car fixed costs: maintenance, car taxes and car insurance
  • Household fixed costs: internet (cable is hardly “essential”)
  • Cell phone
  • Health insurance

Variable:

  • Household variable costs: electricity and water
  • Gas (if you own a car)
  • Groceries
  • Clothing
  • Household and hygiene
  • Educational variable costs: books and other materials
  • Interviews, traveling costs for conferences and any other cost that comes up as part of your studies

How to budget variable expenses in school

Last and most importantly, you’ll need to calculate the difference between your income and core expenses to see if you have a surplus or deficit. To do this, simply subtract your monthly expenses from your income (a cinch for a science wiz).

Finally, you will have a clear image of what can and needs to be done.

If you have a deficit, you will need to adjust your expenses, such as finding a cheaper place to live or debating if you really need a car. If you have a surplus, congratulations! You will even have enough to save a little and potentially buy certain non-essentials.

For both cases, continue reading for some cost-saving tips that can help you fix your deficit or populate your surplus. For starters, here are two worksheets that can help you create your budget:

  1. The budget worksheet for students
  2. The budget worksheet for residents

Cost-saving tips

Although it’s good for everyone to save where they can, if you find yourself with a deficit at the end of the month you have an immediate need to cut down on fixed and variable expenses the best you can. Let’s take a look at some of the areas where you can reduce costs and make up for some of your shortfalls.


Housing costs

Housing costs will vary based on your location and if you live off campus or at a dorm or student apartment. If you aren’t a student yet, you can consider rent as one of the factors for where you might want to study.

To lower your rent, you can consider two options: finding a cheaper place (sometimes living off campus), or getting a roommate. The average apartment costs generally range from $600 per month to $3,000 per month depending on the amenities and the metro area. But for some students, renting outside campus can cost you as little as $450 per month for shared rooms (like the housing options discussed in this article). Besides the economic benefits of living off campus, you will also enjoy having more space and freedom—plus you can stay in your rental all year round, unlike with many dorms.

If you do start looking for apartments off campus, start with a solid search online and ask friends or classmates who live off campus to learn about the best areas to rent (and areas to avoid). You might also need to have some money in-hand when you start looking to pay for a security deposit and the first month’s rent upfront.


Transportation costs

The second area with the most room to cut down expenses is transportation. To begin with, if you don’t own a car, it’s better not to buy one while you’re in school. A car requires mandatory expenses like insurance and maintenance plus variable expenses like gas. If you already own a car, try using it only when necessary, instead relying on public transportation.

When purchasing a monthly pass to public transportation systems, the variable expense of gas and all the fixed expenses of owning a car whittle down to a single fixed expense averaging between $40 to $80 per month for most metro areas—it just depends where you live. Many municipalities even offer discounts to students.

Though, unless you study close to home, the biggest transportation cost will probably be visiting your family. Airplane tickets are not cheap, and if you don’t control their cost they can cause problems in maintaining just about any budget.

To avoid this, plan well in advance the dates you want travel home, check if your budget allows for your preferred number of planned trips, and then book your airplane tickets as early as possible (usually one to three months before your trip). And always search for ticket deals before booking a flight. Something as simple as signing up for free flight alerts can also help you find surprisingly affordable prices.

And finally, according to U.S.News, the cheapest flight is typically the first flight of the morning. The cheapest days for travel are typically Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. In case you do need to make an emergency trip back home, you can cover the expense from your emergency budget (we’ll get to this later).


Food costs

How much you spend on food can really make or break your budget. But this absolutely does not imply eating less or eating foods of lower quality. The reason that food can become expensive is simple: bad buying habits.

According to Dept.org, the average American eats out four times a week. In addition, according to young consumer behavior, American college students spend up to $11 billion per year on snacks and beverages. And last, according to The Simple Dollar, the average meal outside the home costs $12.75 per person.

That really adds up, doesn’t it?

In order to decrease your food expenses, cook and eat at home as much as you can. Don’t have the makings of a chef? YouTube comes to the rescue with some remarkable videos on cooking just about any plate you can think of.

You don’t need to eliminate eating out, but you should control it and be very aware of how much you’re spending. Take that $12.75 average, for instance. With eating out four times a week, that’s more than $2,600 each year. Have you ever taken a sober look at how much you spend eating out? And remember—snacks count, too.

But back to preparing meals at home! A great strategy you can follow is meal prepping. Meal prepping is exactly what it sounds like: cooking and preparing a week’s worth of meals all at once. By using this technique, you can control your food and groceries expenses, not to mention your nutritional intake. According to College Info Geek, a full meal can cost as little as $4 by meal prepping! And you only have to cook once per week.

If you do want to meal prep, a microwave and plastic containers are the only additional expense to get started.


Some special considerations for your budget

The previous sections focused on how to create a budget, plus tips to reduce your fixed and variable expenses. We also mentioned at the beginning of the article that the key point here is to graduate your med school with as little debt as possible. So, besides the costs discussed above, a huge factor that will determine the total debt after school is the cost of attendance of your health-related program. This cost includes tuition, health insurance, books, and other mandatory fees.

Although the cost of attendance cannot be avoided or reduced by anything but grants and scholarships, you can still do your research before applying to schools to factor cost in. If you are interested in pursuing a medical, pharmaceutical or nursing degree, by finding a school that is both affordable and still high quality you can save tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition alone. At the end of the day, your debt after graduating can be up to $100,000 less by attending a more affordable school.


The financial realities of attending a health-related school is somber for most, and therefore can be stressful and hard to tackle. However, by doing your research and creating a budget, you can reduce the costs of living the dream you’ve been after for years.


You knew from the beginning that pursuing a health-related career is hard. However, it is also rewarding—there’s a reason you’ve been fascinated by it from the tart. Be strong, and don’t let cost stop you from making your dream come true!

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