Budgeting Basics and Tips

December 22, 2023

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Money will probably be tight during medical school and residency. That’s why a realistic spending plan (budget) – one you can stick to – will be critical to your financial well-being.

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Benefits of Budgeting

The word “budget” may have negative connotations for some people; however, setting, reviewing, and maintaining a budget can offer many benefits. For example, you might be able to better control your spending by having a set budget. You might be able to reach your financial goals faster because budgeting can give you the opportunity to set financial priorities. Budgeting can also help you be prepared for unexpected expenses and allow you to set up an emergency fund within your monthly plan.

How to set up a Budget

The first step to budgeting requires that you know what your income (for a student, likely a student loan refund) and expenses are each month. Once you know this information, you will need to add up your income, determine your expenses, and calculate the difference to see if you have a surplus or deficit before you can create a budget.

If you have a hard time accurately determining what your expenses are, you may need to track your expenses before formulating your working budget. You can track your expenses and create a budget directly from your phone by using the AAMC Financial Wellness program.  It may help to categorize your expenses as either “fixed” (stays the same every month) or “variable” (fluctuates from month to month). 

After you total your monthly expenses, and subtract that total from your income, you will then know what your “bottom line” is. If you find that you don’t have enough money to cover your expenses, consider adjusting your variable expenses; this may be an area in which you can make up for some of your shortfalls. You can use the AAMC Financial Wellness program, or the Budget Worksheet for Residents to help you create your budget.

Special Considerations for Medical Students and Residents

Every medical school determines the cost of attendance (COA) for their school. This is a figure that usually reflects most expenses as well as the maximum financial aid you can receive. The COA will be very helpful when formulating a budget.

If you are currently in residency and having difficulty managing your budget, you can postpone payments on your student loans through a mandatory forbearance. You are eligible for this forbearance on your Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Direct PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans during residency. After residency, you will need to incorporate your student loan payments into your budget. See FIRST’s Postponing Loan Repayment: Grace, Deferment, and Forbearance and the Loan Repayment Options fact sheets for more information.

Review “Time is On Your Side,” a publication from the U.S. Department of Labor, Employee Benefits Security Administration that provides some tips on basic retirement information.

Decide what makes sense for you. If you live more responsibly and make smart choices about how you spend your money now, chances are you’ll be paying a lot less when you enter repayment on your student loans.

Budgeting Tips and Cost-Saving Measures 

Living on a budget as a medical student or resident is an essential step for minimizing debt. Try to think of a budget the same way you’d think about maintaining a healthy diet: make sensible, responsible choices and you’ll reap the benefits. Here are some tips and ideas to save money and/or time:

Share housing costs. You may not want a roommate, but the fact is, sharing living expenses with a roommate can save you money, which can lead to less borrowing for living expenses.

Join a cooking co-op or cook several portions at once to freeze for a later date. A cooking co-op is not only a more social way to spend your meal, but it saves time cooking. You may even get a few new recipes or meal ideas.

Make your own coffee or tea and buy a thermos. You’ve probably heard this before; endless cups of coffee from a coffee shop can really increase expenses. If you choose to purchase coffee, consider opting for a smaller size or limiting yourself to plain drip coffee instead of fancier drinks, and be sure to include this expense in your monthly budget.

Try not to buy bottled water. Not only are all those bottles terrible for the environment, but they’re also expensive.

Bag your lunch. Being short on time and having irregular hours will be less stressful if you have easy, healthy, homemade food with you. Not only will you save time and money, but you may also eat better.

Shop smart.  Buying groceries online may save you time. If you go to the store, bring a list to minimize impulse buying and browsing time. Join your market’s “shopper’s club” to take advantage of weekly specials and coupons. Design menus based on weekly sales and take advantage of manufacturer’s coupons. Whenever possible, buy generic brands, and if it makes sense to buy non-perishable items in bulk, do so if it will save you money. Buy clothes at end-of-season sales or shop at discount or thrift stores.

Take control of your credit cards. Avoid carrying a balance on your cards; this will save you money, as you won’t be charged interest. Additionally, use credit cards that don’t charge an annual fee.

Avoid late fees. Pay your bills on time and online. Late fees add up, and they may have a negative effect on your credit rating. If you do miss a payment, call the creditor and ask to have the late fee waived.

Avoid ATM fees. If you can, bank locally and use your financial institution’s ATM for cash withdrawals so that you won’t be charged a fee. Some financial institutions have ATM agreements that allow you to use specific machines without a charge – learn what’s available to you to save money.

Buy used books. There are numerous websites where you can buy, sell, or even swap books. If you and your friends need the same books or several titles, try purchasing them together to save on shipping or even qualify for free shipping.

Bike to school/work. If your climate, schedule, and location are suitable, bike to school/work. This may also help you stay in shape, and it will be less costly than the upkeep, maintenance, and gasoline for a car. To save even more money, buy a used bike.

Take public transportation. It may be more cost-effective not to rely on a car at all. Public transportation will alleviate the expenses of buying gas, maintenance, and parking. It might be less stressful too!

Join a carpool. If you drive, form or join a carpool. This will help you save money on gas, parking, and wear and tear on your vehicle. By carpooling you can even share the driving responsibilities with others.

Buy big items from online classifieds. Try websites like Facebook Marketplace or other local classified ads or apps. You may be able to obtain merchandise at reduced prices. You may even want to try Freecycle to find deals on free items. Just be cautious and careful when using these types of services.

The 30-Minute Rule

If you see something you “have to have,” wait 30 minutes. Then, if you still can’t live without it, make the purchase.

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Access free financial calculators, articles, and videos to help you create a budget, track your spending, create financial goals, and enhance your financial knowledge about credit, financial planning, money management, and more!

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