8 Tips to graduate medical school (almost) debt free

Going to medical school is expensive! One of the biggest downsides to becoming a doctor is its incredibly high cost, which leads to a staggering amount of student loan debt. The AAMC says that the median medical school graduate owes around $200,000 in student loan debt.

But they also say that 29.9% of medical school graduates also graduate completely debt free! How is that possible?

While the average medical school student loan debt is ~$200,000, almost 30% of students graduate without any education debt. Students can graduate debt free through a combination of smart choices, scholarships, work, and family assistance, among other ways to graduate debt free.

Here are 8 tips to graduate medical school (almost) completely debt free.

1: make money before medical school

Ignoring the obvious (and unlikely) answer that you should be rich or come from a rich family to go through medical school without needing to take out any student loans…it’s actually possible to save enough money to afford your entire tuition yourself.

Most medical students aren’t starting school directly out of college. A vast majority of them actually take a year or more after undergraduate before starting medical training. During this time, you could build your resume with research or better grades or medical experiences, but you could also work. Spend that time generating and saving money that you can use to go to school.

For example, consider two friends of mine. One worked as a patent lawyer before deciding to be a doctor. While he went to school much later than the traditional student, he was able to use the money he saved as a lawyer to pay for a large part of his medical school bills.

My other friend owned a tutoring/test prep company that she built in college and was able to sell it for a profit. She then used this profit to graduate medical school completely debt free.

Whether you’re able to make enough money to completely or even partially cover your medical school expenses, it can be extremely helpful to plan ahead and have some savings available. Every dollar that you’re able to save is one less dollar gaining 6% interest over 7 years that you would owe.

2: go to a tuition free school

Did you know that some medical schools are completely tuition free? This is a relatively new development in the medical school world, and not something that’s available everywhere. But as of this writing, there are at least four medical schools in the US that are completely tuition free:

In addition to these schools, sometimes new medical schools will offer full or half tuition to their first classes. In return, you accept the risk of being in the first class of a new program. But that risk isn’t too high. This is actually one of the ways I was able to graduate medical school with less than half of the expected amount of student loan debt.

3: apply for as many scholarships as possible

Even if you’re not able to get into one of the four free medical schools, you can still graduate completely debt free with scholarships.

This is something I wish I devoted more time to. I had gotten scholarships in college, but I didn’t think there were any for medical school. But boy was I wrong.

There are a few widely advertised scholarships available that you should apply for, such as:

These are excellent scholarships that everyone should apply for. However, they’ll only cover part of the total cost of medical school, other scholarships may cover the entire cost.

These full tuition scholarships typically do require some other time/work commitment in return, but they’re great sources of funding if you’re ok with that commitment.

I also wouldn’t forget any local scholarships. You can find these by going to your medical school financial aid office when you go through orientation.

Throughout my medical school career, a number of local scholarships popped up through the various hospitals and fundraising functions. $5000 per year if you wrote an essay about being a cardiologist. Half tuition for an essay on why you wanted to be a doctor. And many, many more.

I’m certain your school has similar opportunities. It just takes asking your financial aid officers to know that they exist.

Lastly, if for some reason you can’t find any of the above, there are hundreds of other scholarships out there for pre med and medical students. Most can be found by searching here on www.Scholarships.Com.

If you’re able to get scholarships for the entire cost of medical school or even only a small amount, it’s a huge win. Not only does every little bit count against that massive pile of debt you’d otherwise have, but some of these scholarships are also very easy to get. Would you write a 1000 word essay for $15,000/year? I know I would, and I did.

The scholarships are out there. It just takes believing that you as a medical student qualify and then shaking some trees to see what’s out there.

4: ask family for financial assistance

Everybody going to medical school comes from a different background, but if you’re fortunate enough to have family who can help you pay for medical school, there’s no shame in taking advantage of that.

Family assistance can come in a number of different ways. One friend of mine graduated with zero debt because his family covered the entire cost of school. Another friend was loaned the money by their family at zero interest. Much better than the traditional 6% federal loans.

There are plenty of ways that family can help. Even if they can’t cover the entire cost of school.

I was lucky enough that my parents covered half of my rent while I was a student. It amounted to about $500/mo, and it made a huge impact ability to pay for school. Mrs. Average doctor did one better, going to medical school locally and living at home. Completely free room and board!

Any amount that your family is willing to contribute can help. Remember, though, that they’re your family. And they have to be willing. Not everyone’s family can afford to fund them through school, and going to your family expecting financial assistance can be a source of significant stress. You know your family better than anyone, so you be the judge.

If your family is offering financial assistance, it’s an incredible source of help. But if not, there are still plenty of other ways to graduate medical school with less debt.

5: choose your school wisely

Take a look at a typical annual cost breakdown from a medical school:

In state out of state
tuition $28,111 $62,532
university fees $3,719 $5,440
loan fee allowance $410 $410
books and supplies $2,085 $2,085
room and board $14,372 $14,372
transportation and misc. $12,305 $12,305
total $61,362 $97,504

The biggest difference between the two is in state tuition vs out of state tuition. You could save over $34,000 simply by choosing to go to an instate school over an out of state school. Over four years, that’s a savings of $136,000.

Knowing that, why would you want go somewhere out of state?

I understand that not everybody can choose which medical school they go to. The process to get in is tough enough as it is, and your local in state school might not be an option. But if it is…and you’re choosing between well known out of state school, fancy private school, and local in state medical school, why not choose the local one?

There’s a lot of prestige that surrounds these out of state and private medical schools. Think of the top programs like harvard or johns hopkins. For some students these are the only type of school they’ll go to. But to an average doctor like me, I know that school name doesn’t make that much of a difference.

Students tend to think that school choice has a major impact on the rest of their career. The truth is that your career actually depends a whole lot more on you.

If you want to get accepted into a competitive residency for a competitive speciality, it’s more important that you ace your boards, do well on your rotations, and show solid interest than if you went to a top medical school. I would know, the best students in brand new local medical school class still went to some of the best residency programs.

The actual difference between local state school and prestigious big name school is much more objective. It’s something along the lines of $136,000 in student loans by the time you graduate.

6: consider a three year program

Instead of paying for four years of medical school, you could just pay for three.

There are a number of medical schools offering shorter pathways to graduation than what has been traditionally offered, but many of these come with requirements like entering into family medicine or primary care specialties. There are only four schools currently that offer three year medical training programs for students without these requirements.

The financial benefits of going to an accelerated medical school like these are two-fold.

First, you’ll only pay tuition for three years instead of four. This amounts to a one time savings of $30,000-$60,000 depending on the program.

And you won’t lose a whole lot my skipping your fourth year. Traditional medical students pay full tuition for a very light course load in their final year. By going to a three year program you’ll be able to skip that entirely.

In addition, one less year of medical school means you get to make your attending level salary one year sooner. With physician salaries currently ranging from $200,000 to $500,000 per year, being able to graduate medical school one year earlier could have a huge impact on your finances.

While technically an additional year of attending level salary won’t impact your student loan amount on the day you graduate from medical school, the total combined benefit of one less year of school and one more year of full salary is anywhere from $230,000 to $530,000.

7: work while in school

It is absolutely possible to have a part time job while in medical school. Yes, the course work in school is intense and you will spend a lot of time studying, but you should still have time to work 8 hours per week doing something.

I remember being surprised when my friend told me he was making $20/hr two days a week as a tutor all throughout medical school. Unlike him, I wasted most of the time I didn’t spend studying on netflix or social media. If instead I worked half as much as him, I could have had almost $8,000 per year less in student loans.

Of course, your primary focus should be studying to be a good doctor and doing well on your exams. And some people will need all of their available time to do that. But if you’re like I was and you have extra time that you’re wasting, realize that you could be working and accruing less debt.

8: read a book on personal finance

If none of the tips we’ve discussed earlier in this post apply to you and your situation, this one will. While learning about personal finance isn’t a way to make medical school completely free or graduate debt free, it is a way for you to graduate in a much better financial position than you otherwise would.

Learning personal finance can seem daunting. There are hundreds of different sources. Everyone who teaches it seems to have an angle that always seems to cost you money. And there’s a lot to learn. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, 401k’s, roth iras, credit cards, churning, budgeting, capital gains, taxes, insurance, and so many other topics.

The trick is to start slow. Start by reading one book. This is the one I recommend:

This was the first book that really got me to care about personal finance. It’s an easy introduction, and while I’ve learned a bit more since reading it and don’t follow every recommendation from it, it’s a great starting point. I just wish I’d read it when I started medical school.

It’s as they say, the best time to learn about personal finance is yesterday. The second best time is today.

If you start learning about personal finance early, you get the benefit of not making the same mistakes that everyone else makes. Maybe you learn to house hack and lower your room and board costs. Or you graduate with some money in a roth IRA. Or maybe you’ll just know what to do with your first residency paycheck when you move to a brand new city.

There are tons of tricks to personal finance that can help you graduate with less student loan debt. But start with the basics, with just one book. And if you like it, maybe try one book a year. Here are two more good ones: