Editor's Note: For the latest developments regarding federal student loan debt repayment, check out our student debt guide.
The member’s experience below is not a typical member representation. While their story is extraordinary and inspirational, not all members should expect the same results.
As a resident, Dr. Saira Z. worked in one of the most expensive places in the country—the New York City area. Besides managing the high cost of living on a residency budget, Saira was also paying back loans from medical school.
Figuring out how to stretch her $65,000 a year medical resident’s salary wasn’t easy, even after she got married. She and her husband tried to be as frugal as possible. When they took stock of their spending, however, they found places to cut back.
The couple drew up a budget to help them stay the course through Saira’s three-year residency and when her medical fellowship salary dipped. It also allowed them to set good habits that still serve them well. Saira and her husband are now expecting twins, and she’ll be joining a private practice on the East Coast.
As Saira learned, residency can test your finances. While you’re finally drawing an income—the average annual salary of a first-year resident is around $60,000, according to 2021 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges—a residency budget needs to cover a lot. Your medical school finances likely include considerable student loan debt. The median medical school debt for the class of 2021 is $200,000, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges, which doesn’t include undergraduate student loans, credit card balances or other debt.
Having a financial plan is a way to make the most of your income and set up for the future. These tips for budgeting for residents may help you get started.
Identify Your Biggest Budget Busters
A budget can serve a variety of purposes. It can help you make progress toward your savings goals, adopt healthier spending habits, and pay down debt. It can even allow you to spot the biggest drains on your money so you can look for ways to curb spending.
For Saira and her husband, meals out with friends were a top budget buster. But they had no idea that was the case until they reviewed their finances. “You don’t realize eating out is such a huge expense until after the fact,” Saira says. As a result, the couple decided to temporarily stop going to restaurants, which allowed them to put that money into their savings.
Build Your Financial Foundation
Budgeting for medical residents should include working on your financial foundation, says Brian Walsh, CFP, senior manager, financial planning for SoFi. “These foundational pieces are so critical to establish,” Walsh says. “Then, once you get that big paycheck, it will be much easier to sock away 25% or more of your income toward retirement.”
Here are a few steps he recommends:
• Pay off “bad debt.” Walsh defines “bad debt” as anything that accelerates consumption and comes with a high interest rate (such as credit cards).
• Build up an emergency fund. This stash of cash should cover three to six months’ worth of your total living expenses and be placed in an easy-to-access place, like money market funds, short-term bonds, CDs or a high-yield savings account.
• Protect your income. There are two types of protection you may want to consider. Disability insurance covers a portion of your income in the event you’re unable to work due to an injury or illness. Monthly premium amounts vary, but generally, the younger and healthier you are, the less expensive the policy. You may also want to consider purchasing a life insurance policy if other people depend on your income.
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Start Saving for the Future
Next, Walsh suggests putting any leftover funds into retirement. Over time, as your emergency fund grows and “bad debt” diminishes, you’ll be able to put more money into retirement.
One simple way to build up savings now is to contribute to your employer’s 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plan, if one is available, and tap into any matching funds program. There’s a limit to how much you can contribute annually to either plan. In 2022, the amount is $20,500; if you’re 50 or older, you can contribute up to an additional $6,500, for a total of $27,000.
There are other investment vehicles Walsh suggests exploring if you have additional money to save, don’t have access to a 401(k) or 403(b), or simply prefer to have more control over your money. These include an individual retirement account (IRA), such as a traditional IRA or Roth IRA, both of which can offer tax advantages.
Contributions made to a traditional IRA are tax deductible, and no taxes are due until you withdraw the money. Contributions to a Roth IRA are made with after-tax dollars; your money grows tax-free and you don’t pay taxes when you withdraw the funds. However, there are limits on how much you can contribute each year and on your income.
Another option is a health savings account (HSA), which may be available if you have a high deductible health plan. HSAs provide a triple tax benefit: Contributions reduce taxable income, earnings are tax-free, and money used for qualified medical expenses is also tax-free.
Recommended: Budgeting as a New Doctor
Come Up With a Plan to Pay Student Loan Debt
As a resident, you have several priorities competing for a piece of your paycheck: lifestyle expenses, long-term savings goals, and medical student loan debt. Loan repayment typically starts six months after graduation, and options vary based on the type of loan you have.
If you have federal loans and need extra help making payments, for example, you can explore a loan forgiveness program or an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, which can lower monthly payments for eligible borrowers based on their income and household size. You also have the option to postpone payments during residency, but the interest will continue to accrue and add to your total balance.
Additionally, the Biden administration’s new federal student loan forgiveness plan extends the pause on federal loan payments through December 31, 2022. The program also cancels up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for those who make less than $125,000 a year ($250,000 for married couples) and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients who qualify.
Your medical student loan debt may feel overwhelming, but there are a couple of ways to consider tackling it. With the avalanche approach, you prioritize debt repayment based on interest rate, from highest to lowest. With the snowball approach, you pay off the smallest balance first and then work your way up to the highest balance.
While the right approach is the one you’ll stick with, Walsh often sees greater success with the snowball approach. “Most people should start with paying off the smallest balance first because then they’ll see progress, and progress leads to persistence,” he says.
Find Out If Refinancing Is Right for You
You may want to consider refinancing your student loans as part of your repayment strategy. When you refinance, your existing loans are paid off and you get one new loan. You may be able to get a lower interest rate, which could potentially reduce your monthly payments. Some lenders, including SoFi, also provide benefits for residents and other medical professionals.
Though the refinancing process is fairly straightforward, “People overestimate the amount of work it takes to refinance and underestimate the benefits,” Wash says. A quarter of a percentage point difference in an interest rate might seem small, but if you have a big loan balance, it could save you quite a bit.
However, refinancing may not be right for everyone. By refinancing federal student loans, you could lose access to benefits and protections, such as the current pause on payment and interest or federal loan forgiveness plans. Your best bet is to weigh all of your options and decide what makes the most sense for your situation.
After years of medical school, you’re finally starting to make some money. But you also likely have a lot of student loan debt that you need to start paying back during your residency. Having a solid plan for repaying your loans, and using a few key strategies to start saving money for your future, can help position you for long-term financial success.
If part of that plan includes refinancing your student loans, SoFi can help. With our medical professional refinancing, you may qualify for a special competitive rate if you have a loan balance of more than $150,000. You can also reduce your monthly payments to as low as $100 during residency and fellowship, for up to four years.
Photo credit: iStock/Andrei Orlov
Student Loan Refinancing
If you are a federal student loan borrower you should take time now to prepare for your payments to restart, including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. (You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.) Please note that once you refinance federal student loans, you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans, such as the SAVE Plan, or extended repayment plans.
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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.