I Live On A $21K Stipend In Med School—And I’m Saving For A Nicer Apartment
Success stories

I Live On A $21K Stipend In Med School—And I’m Saving For A Nicer Apartment

Welcome to Scrimp City—an anonymous, week-in-the-life chronicle that provides a real-world look women who are trying to save money—across a range of pay scales and industries. Each installment dives into one woman’s progress toward one overarching savings goal, and breaks down where she save and splurges while navigating a career, planning for the future, and still making sure there’s something left over for snacks.

This week, we get to know a 28-year-old med student who relies on free food from campus events and the occasional research study to raise extra funds.

Meet Our Saver:

Job: Full-time medical student
Age: 28
Location: Irvine, CA
Income: Thrice-yearly $7,000 stipend for living expenses
Monthly rent: $825 for a room and shared bath through graduate student housing

Current spending habits:

I just completed my first year being a full-time student in medical school and I feel proud of how I’ve managed to budget my expenses. It’s a change from when I was an undergraduate and I spent money on so many small purchases that quickly ate through my financial aid stipend. Medical school isn’t cheap, so before I began the year I really took a look at how I could cut back on my living expenses.

Right now, I receive about $7,000 per trimester, three times a year, while in school. I was offered a $10,000 allowance but I didn’t accept the full financial aid package to decrease the number of loans I would take out. I thought the extra $3,000 was unnecessary and I’ve found that [the $21,000 for the school year] is actually just enough to get by. I sometimes have to be wary of what I spend, but I’m never short.

The good thing about being in school is that you have to budget your spending months in advance and my expenses remain pretty stable. I always start budgeting by keeping the biggest bills in mind, like my rent ($825), my car payment ($330), and my credit card payment ($200), followed by utilities and, finally, food. I don’t really think about shopping for myself. When you’re working with a set amount of funds and you watch the numbers in your bank account slowly dwindle, all spending comes down to asking yourself, “Is this really necessary?” I’m also lucky that my mom covers payments for my car insurance and phone.

Savings goals:

I’m not proud to admit this, but I’ve been struggling with credit card debt for some time. One of my long-term goals is to pay off a credit card with a $5,500 balance at an interest rate of about 18 percent. This is part of the reason I don’t spend much of my money on unnecessary things such as clothes, shoes, or vacations. I just don’t feel good about spending cash when I have non-school loan debt. I’m paying at least $40 in interest every month so even though I try to pay $200 a month, I’m really only paying $160 toward the principal balance.

But beyond that debt, I’m also trying to save more than usual so I can purchase couches for my new apartment. Since I currently live in graduate student housing, I pay less than the market value of an apartment in the area. (My two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment is $1650 instead of the $2,200 market rate.)

That said, soon I’m moving in with my boyfriend to a better, albeit more expensive apartment. It’s a one-bedroom, one-bathroom place for $1810 and even though I’ll be paying more, I know I’ll be much more comfortable. To be honest, I was actually nervous about living with my boyfriend. I have this theory that “If it’s not broken, then why fix it?”. And moving in with my boyfriend is not really a bad thing, but it’s also not completely necessary.

Budgeting and savings tactics:

Before I began medical school, I was working full-time before and was able to build a $3,000 savings fund. Having that small fund has helped me maintain some wiggle room throughout the year because I’ve spent my financial aid as if I didn’t have the extra cash. Sometimes, in order to save, you just have to switch your mindset. If I pretend I don’t have savings, I’ll spend less.

“If I pretend I don’t have savings, I’ll spend less.”

Since my expenses are pretty regular and I’m not working, I’m always on the lookout for random ways I can earn some extra cash on the fly. One my favorite and most lucrative ways to do so is by being a lab rat, of sorts. A friend of mine told me about this research lab that’s a short, 20-minute drive from campus. They’re working on developing more accurate medical tools to measure your blood oxygen concentration and they’ll pay you to be a study participant. You really just need to be healthy and not be on any other medication to qualify.

The screening process alone will earn you $75 for one hour (they really are just paying you to draw blood). If you go through and participate in the actual study (about 3-4 hours of time), you’re compensated $325! I love it. You basically just have to remain awake while watching Netflix and you can’t talk or fall asleep (so you neither raise nor lower your heart rate).

I’ve done the process twice over the course of the year. I guess since they’re taking out arterial blood, some people see it as being too dangerous since your heart rate can drop.

It’s been mostly uneventful; though there was one time when I couldn’t finish the process since my heart rate began slowing down and the doctor thought it would be too risky to continue. I know I’m healthy overall, though, and I feel like I can keep doing in the future if I need extra cash.

“Talk to any student, and they’re lying if they don’t cop to going to campus club events for the free food.”

Lastly, I’m also really big on scoring online deals. I’ve used Groupon to do everything from buying my mattress to purchasing a yoga class pass for my mom on Mother’s Day. Oh, and free food on campus. Talk to any student, and they’re lying if they don’t cop to going to campus club events for the free food. I’ve even joined groups on Facebook that are basically just online community boards where students post about “buy one, get one” pizza deals and half-off smoothie days.

Action plan:

For this week, I’m going to try to curb my spending on food. It’s really the only variable I have at my disposal. I’ll be doubling down on my regular savings tactics.

Monday :

Because I discipline myself throughout the month, when I spend on special occasions I don’t worry about the final amount. I’ve cut back on eating out throughout the month from 2-3 times a week to 2-3 times a month—and only for special occasions. Monday was one of them.

It was my mom’s birthday and I took her out for lunch and to the movies. It only felt right that I pay for things since not only was it her special day, but I’d eaten breakfast at her house in the morning. My mom has always been super supportive, so I felt she deserved a nice treat on her day. Spending on her will never be a big deal to me. All in all, I spent $65 on the movie tickets and lunch for the two of us (I also had leftovers for dinner, which was a plus).


I spent the day at my apartment with my boyfriend and whenever we’re together we like to eat out, but only if there’s a deal involved. Usually this means we go for things like “Taco Tuesday” specials. Today, we chose a spot that has these amazing, big tacos that are usually about $4-5 each. On Tuesdays, they’re only $3. Score! Later we went to watch the Deadpool movie and he’s such a gentleman that he paid for everything. Except I’m also a great girlfriend and I took us to happy hour for beers. All in all, I spent $40 on drinks for the two of us.

It’s really important for me to pay what I can for our dates together. I just think it’s fair. When we first started dating, my boyfriend always wanted to pay for everything. We tried to portion out how much each of us spent on things together relative to our income levels. Since I’m in med school, though, these days he pays for 80 percent of our dates. When I told him I was trying to save for a “fun fund” for the summer, he told me, “That’s why you have me.” Which, it was very sweet. But, it hasn’t stopped me from trying to earn cash whenever I can to offset costs!


I managed not to spend a dime on Wednesday since I spent the day at my boyfriend’s mom’s house for a family get-together. I’m currently on break from school and my boyfriend was off from work so it just made sense for us to spend time together as a family. He’s a firefighter, so his days off from work usually fall on random days.


I drove from Irvine to Hollywood to attend a free “For Your Consideration” event at CBS studios. It was basically producers talking about why they think they should earn an Emmy. I’m a big fan of Jane the Virgin and I was excited to hear the show’s producer talk about what’s next. Even though it was a really long drive (60 miles each way), it was really fun. I managed to drive there and back without having to refuel my car (it’s a Toyota Prius hybrid) but the gas tank total took quite a hit.

I was a little disappointed that I spent $6 on Starbucks ahead of the event. When we arrived at CBS, they had free coffee and snacks on hand! Lesson learned, PR events usually have snacks. After the event, I spent $20 on lunch for my friend and me. She’s younger than I am, and I know her budget is even more limited than mine so I didn’t mind. I tried to make up for what I spent during the day by scoring a free dinner at a special graduation ceremony hosted through the medical school. The program I’m enrolled in hands out free tickets to current students. To get the free dinner, I joined the 150 graduate students, faculty and family for the ceremony.

“There’s no shame in eating for free while cheering on graduates from your program.”

Every week there seems to be a new event with refreshments at the school. All sorts of interest groups will invite speakers and in order to ensure a big audience, they basically bribe students with food. Some people attend these events just for the snacks, but I’ll usually go for the speaker and the food (honest!).


I began a new internship today which provides a stipend of $1,500, but I don’t receive payment until the end of the month. So I’m operating as if I won’t have that extra cash. I had a simple breakfast at home and my mentor at my internship bought me lunch. I was grabbing my bag to go get food when my mentor instead offered to treat me. It feels a little weird sometimes to accept the gesture and goes back to how I never want to let men pay for the entirety of my expenses. He insisted, since he said he understands what it’s like to be a med school student. I told him I’d accept today, but that I’d pay for myself next time. To avoid spending more on food, I had a bowl of cereal for dinner.


I paid my rent today and had oatmeal for breakfast again. I skipped lunch altogether to cut down on food costs. For dinner, I got creative. I’m moving in two weeks so I’m trying to get rid of everything that’s in my fridge. And by “get rid,” I mean I’m trying to eat it all. Using only the leftover ingredients from other meals and snacks, I concocted a carrot and butternut squash soup with crumbled cheese for dinner. It was actually pretty tasty!


I spent the day at home and relied on more home-cooked concoctions for meals. Things are a little extreme right now since I’m working with limited ingredients, but I generally cook a lot at home. I remember I used to spent $40 a week on lunch alone when I was an undergraduate. These days I spend that amount over the course of a month.

I’m also not ashamed of the fact that I bring my own tumbler with coffee to cafes when I’m studying in a group (it’s their idea to study there). Plus, I usually still end up buying a snack, so I don’t feel as guilty! If I really have to use anything other than my Keurig for coffee, I’ll go the Starbucks on campus. It’s owned by the school and they do a special where you get a free drink after a certain number of purchases. My rewards card has gotten me at least four free drinks this year!

Total money spent: $135

Final thoughts:

This past week was extreme with my random fridge-clean-out dinners and sprinting for free meals on campus. These are really short-term tactics I’m able to do because I’m done with classes. When I’m studying during the year, I need to be happy and I’m happiest when I have a good meal.

Looking at how little I’ve spent, I think I’ve done a good job budgeting throughout the whole year. I feel like I have extra money saved for those new apartment couches and possibly for my summer “fun fund.” Doing this money-saving challenge has reinforced that I’m doing all that I can to save since I stuck with the same money-saving principles that have gotten me by all year. I’m happy with that. I’ll likely have to increase my student loan amount for the coming year in order to keep up with the new apartments costs, but I’m confident I’ll be able to scrimp and save where I can.