The cost of medical school has increased significantly over the past 20 years and shows no sign of slowing down. If your dream is to become a doctor but you’re worried about how you’ll be able to afford it, this article is for you.
Let’s cover how much it costs to attend medical school in 2021 and the many things that you can do to help afford it. We’ll start by breaking down the numbers, then go into the different financial resources available, and finish by discussing some financial mistakes to avoid during medical school.
The Cost of Medical School
In the United States, medical school is an expensive ordeal. The average cost of medical school per year is about $50,000 for public schools and $60,000 for private schools. It should come as no surprise then that the average medical student will graduate with about $240,000 in student loans with $216,000 coming from medical school alone.
If we take it a step further and consider current loan interest rates and the average amount of time it takes a physician to pay back their debt, the average physician will ultimately pay between $365,000 and $440,000 for their student loans. This is a tough pill to swallow if you’re pursuing a career as a doctor.
In the last few years, more medical schools with hefty endowments have fronted the cost of tuition for their medical students. NYU, Kaiser Permanente, and Cleveland Clinic cover the cost for all medical students, and Cornell, Washington University, Columbia, and UCLA cover costs for students based on financial need or academic merit.
It is important to note that these schools are the exception and far from the rule. For the rest of U.S. medical schools, the cost of tuition rises by about $1,500 every year. So not only is medical school expensive now, but it will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
I get a lot of comments from people who believe that they can’t pursue medicine because of the cost; so I want to start by setting the record straight.
You do not need to come from a wealthy family to attend medical school.
There are many financial resources available to help you afford medical school, you just need to know what to do and where to look. That being said, these resources do require a bit of work on your end to obtain, but with some extra effort, they can help you afford medical school without breaking the bank.
How To Afford Medical School
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there are two fundamental solutions to the problem of affording medical school. You can either increase your financial resources or decrease your costs. Let’s start by talking about how you can increase your financial resources.
The first resource will be the financial aid offered through your medical school. Most schools will ask for your and your parent’s financial information, even if your parents are not going to contribute a dime to your medical education. Schools will use this information to determine which students will receive need-based grants and scholarships or receive loans with better terms. Although the financial aid from your school is a wonderful resource that can save you tens of thousands of dollars, it is less in your control than the next few resources.
Scholarships and Grants
Next up are grants and scholarships. These are essentially free money, and the best part is that you can take action to increase your chances of receiving them.
The largest scholarships are merit-based, meaning they are offered to well-rounded students with impressive MCAT scores, GPA, and applications. Although these are quite rare to receive, the more desirable of an applicant you can make yourself, the higher your chance of receiving them.
I admit, receiving these types of scholarships and grants is much easier said than done; however, with a bit of perseverance and grit, it is very much attainable. It is ultimately your responsibility to seek out the resources and mentorship to help you get there.
Although I don’t recommend having a job during medical school, and many medical schools explicitly prohibit having even a part-time job, side hustles can be a great way to supplement your income during these 4 years. If you do choose to have a side hustle though, it needs to be flexible and not demand a lot of your time.
There are a variety of side-hustles that you can choose from, but let’s go through a couple of my favorites.
Tutoring can be a great side-hustle as it is flexible and can help you reinforce material that will help you in your own studies. For instance, you could tutor the incoming class in subjects like anatomy. This is a win-win because you can generate income while simultaneously reviewing the material for yourself.
Another popular side hustle is becoming an influencer in the medical student and studying space. This method does take a bit of time and effort to set up, but once you get it going, it doesn’t require a lot of time to maintain.
YouTube has its strengths and weaknesses as a platform and depending on how you want to approach content creation, you may find a better fit on Instagram or TikTok instead.
There are countless other ways to generate income during medical school, but the most important thing to remember with any side-hustle is that it should not interfere with your studies.
Medical school is your top priority and you must treat it as such.
If your side-hustle gets to the point that it is impacting your studies negatively, you have to be prepared to cut back or let it go completely. If you don’t, you might just find yourself leaving plastic surgery residency a few years down the road as I did.
For the remainder of your expenses that are not covered by the above methods, you will have to take out student loans.
There are two main categories of student loans: federal and private. Federal loans are almost always better, as they have lower interest rates and come with special income-based payment and forgiveness plans. You should always try to max out federal loans. Private loans have some of the worst terms and should be avoided if possible.
Decreasing Your Expenses
Now that we’ve discussed the different ways to increase your financial resources, let’s look at the other side of the equation and discuss how to decrease your expenses.
Choose an Affordable School
There is a lot of variation in the cost of tuition between medical schools, so choosing an affordable one can save you tens of thousands of dollars in the long run. At the lower end, there are medical schools that cost less than $20,000/year. At the higher end, there are schools that cost upwards of $70,000/year.
Tuition is not the only expense that comes along with your choice of medical school either. The cost of living can also vary widely depending on where your medical school is located. If you plan on attending medical school in California as I did, be prepared to spend a pretty penny on your living expenses.
There are many factors beyond cost that you need to take into account when choosing a medical school; however, it should still be a part of the conversation.
Minimize Your Expenses
Regardless of where you choose to go for medical school, there are always ways to save money and reduce your reliance on student loans.
To start, having a roommate during medical school can be a great way to reduce your monthly expenses. Don’t get me wrong, having a roommate does have its pros and cons, but if you can find the right roommate, it can actually elevate your medical school experience and make it that much more enjoyable. If you live with a friend who is also in medical school, for instance, you two can study together and help motivate each other to stay on track.
Next, you should learn to cook at home. Not only is it significantly cheaper than eating out, but it is much healthier as well. Cooking is also just a valuable skill that you can take with you for the rest of your life. You don’t want to be the kind of person that tries to boil pasta without any water. Trust me, I’ve seen it happen.
Buying and reselling textbooks, holding off on upgrading to the latest tech, and steering clear of the strip club – any way that you can reduce your expenses will minimize your reliance on student loans and reduce the amount of interest that you have to pay back later. If you can cut back now, your future self will surely thank you.
Financial Mistakes to Avoid
That being said, there is a limit to frugality that you should be aware of. You can think of managing your finances in medical school, and in life for that matter, as somewhat of a bell curve. You don’t want to be at either extreme but instead somewhere in the middle.
At one extreme, you have the people that think every purchase is just a “drop in the bucket.” They go out and buy the newest iPad, or computer, or car and think to themselves, “I’m already taking out so much money in loans, what’s another couple of hundred dollars here or there?” The issue with this mindset is that loans have a compounding effect. What costs you a hundred dollars now can easily cost you double or triple that down the road.
At the other extreme, you have the people that are so concerned about saving every penny that they make themselves miserable. I know we’ve talked about choosing a medical school that is affordable or cutting back on your monthly expenses, but if those choices make you miserable then they are likely not worth the cost savings.
If going to school in California lets you stay closer to family and friends and you genuinely enjoy living there, then the cost savings should not stop you. Additionally, if your $4 pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks brings you joy in the morning then go ahead and get it – no matter what Graham Stephan tells you.
Living frugally during medical school is about being conscious of what you’re spending your money on, not spending so little that you suck every last bit of joy out of your life.