This article was co-authored by Allison Kierzek, a financial advisory intern with Wipfli Hewins Investment Advisors in Appleton, WI.
You did it! With your medical school acceptance letter in-hand, you’ve achieved an incredible academic feat, one that is bound to yield a career that is both exciting and rewarding. At this very moment, your mind is likely swarming with thoughts about your class load, future residency location and area of specialty, among other factors. But as you embark on this new chapter of your life, it’s important to start thinking about your short- and long-term financial picture, as well.
Here are five tips to help you get started.
1. Minimize student loans and pay them off as soon as possible.
Make sure to fill out your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which can open the door for special student loans from the federal government. If you plan to apply for any private loans, do your research and compare interest rates. A one-percent difference in interest rates may not seem like a lot now, but it could end up saving you thousands of dollars during repayment.
If you earn any extra income during your med-school years, start paying off your student loans early if you can, for some loans immediately begin accruing interest. The longer you wait, the more interest might accumulate, so it is important to make repayments as soon as possible. Another easy way to minimize the financial impact of your student loan debt is to find a roommate. Your roommate’s contributions can bring down the costs of rent and utilities, meaning you can forget about taking out a loan for housing expenses.
Finally, apply for a part-time job to cover smaller expenses during the school year like food and clothing (that is, if you can manage it with your class schedule). Not only can a part-time job help pad your finances, but it can also enhance your resume and help you ease into the working world when graduation rolls around.
2. Consider doing your residency in a city that has a lower cost of living.
The Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) created a Cost of Living Index for 2016, which you should consider referencing when it comes time to apply for residency placement. The index is based on the costs of housing, utilities, grocery items, transportation, health care and miscellaneous goods and services in 264 urban areas across the United States. New York (Manhattan), NY, has a COL index of 228.2, which means the cost of living there is more than twice the average. In contrast, Memphis, TN, has a COL index of 83.0, meaning the cost of living there is 17-percent below the national average.1
Living in a big city like NYC might sound like a dream come true — but if you are paying for medical school on your own, it might not be the most financially wise decision. Therefore, you might find that applying for residency in a city with a lower cost of living is a more economical alternative.
3. Set a budget for yourself and stick to it.
Find out how much money you can reasonably spend every month and on what items you can spend it. There are plenty of free, convenient budgeting apps on the internet that can help ease the process. Many of these tools allow you to sync up your bank account and organize your spending into categories. You can use these categories to find out where to cut costs, and create a budget for yourself to stay disciplined. It may be hard to stick to this practice at first, but your bank account will thank you for it in the long run.
4. Look into alternative programs that can fund your schooling.
Are you interested in pursuing a medical career with the military? You may consider applying for the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which is offered through the United States Army, Navy or the Air Force. Two-, three- and four-year scholarships will cover civilian medical school tuition and fees, and are available for both future and current medical students. The program also offers students a monthly living stipend with the potential for a signing bonus.2
Another option you may consider is the Medical Scientist Training Program (MSTP). This highly competitive, eight-year program is designed for those students interested in pursuing biomedical and/or research-related careers after graduation. Graduates receive a combined M.D.-Ph.D. degree, and the program also includes a stipend and tuition allowance.3
A third career alternative is the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), which can offer you scholarship and loan repayment paths after medical school. The scholarship pays for tuition, books and other costs after you sign a contract to serve for two to four years in an NHSC-approved site (you can view a guide to NHSC-approved site requirements here). If you’re interested in pursuing the loan repayment path, you can sign a two-year contract to work for high-need/underserved areas. In exchange, the NHSC can provide you with up to $50,000 to repay your student loans, depending on where you serve. A nice feature of this path is that you can reapply for additional loan repayment options after your two-year contract expires.4
5. Consider purchasing disability insurance.
Chances are, you’re going to work hard to get through medical school — after all, you’ve come this far! Disability insurance can help ensure that your future income is protected against the unexpected. For instance, if a life-changing injury prevents you from ever working in the medical field, disability coverage can help ensure that you are able to pay back your student debt.
If you purchase disability insurance as a student — before you start your career as a physician — you can reap the benefit of lower rates so you may want to consider that option as graduation draws near. Financial aid packages often include the option to build these costs into schooling, giving you the chance to get coverage early. Lastly, some medical schools actually require that you have disability insurance, so make sure you seek out this information prior to enrollment and prepare appropriately.
While most of your in-school financial concerns will likely center around budgeting and debt repayment, you will face other important decisions once you enter your field of choice. When that time comes, you may consider enlisting the help of a qualified, credentialed financial advisor, particularly one with experience assisting health care professionals and physicians. He or she can work with you to create a defined plan for the present and future, so you can start your career with a solid, financial foundation.