Hi everyone, I’m Mr. Mechanic. Financial Mechanic has been begging me for weeks to write a guest post and I finally have a topic to share! This article gives a brief look at the cost of my medical education, then goes on a deep dive into my costs on the residency interview trail.
It’s no surprise that medical school is expensive. In 2017 the AAMC reported median annual tuition and fees for state institutions around $49.6k, or even worse $71k for private medical schools. As an in-state student at a public school and thanks to some scholarships, I am a bit below average at $40k a year. I live on a monthly living expenses budget of $1200, or around $14k annually.
One of the major unadvertised costs of medical school is residency interviewing. After completing 4 years of medical school, every student in the country interviews for spots in the specialty of their choice. For my specialty, radiology, experts recommend interviewing at 10-15 hospitals to find a spot successfully. Here’s the kicker: the whole process is on your own dime.
I tracked every dime I spent and made handy graphs like the one below to share the various costs:
At my school, we’re lucky enough to have an in-house financial planner to help us plan for expenses. He sat down with me in the first month and said to expect to spend a ballpark of $10k for the whole ordeal. I saved up the full $10k in a savings account and left it untouched until interview season.
This fall, I cracked open that account and hit the trail. 15 cities and 18 interviews later, here are some of my big wins, some mistakes to avoid, and the breakdown of what I spent.
I knew going in that this was going to be the biggest cost category. Interview invitations come in over several months with pretty short notice, as close as a week or two out. Worse, they come in randomly, so clustering schools in particular regions can be difficult to accomplish. To account for this, I put my first interview for each region in its own week, with a plan to fill in the week with other schools nearby as more offers came in. This was moderately successful, but not always possible; despite my best efforts, I still made 5 separate flights from Portland to the East Coast. A lot of my flights got booked a week or two ahead of time, something I had to swallow as the cost of flexibility on the interview trail.
All The Airlines
I hit almost all the major airlines in the US: Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, Jetblue, Spirit, Sun Country, United, and Virgin (Delta is cushy, Spirit was rough). Notably missing here is Southwest. They are an excellent option for this kind of travel, offering 2 free checked bags and unrivaled flexibility to cancel/rebook flights. In my case, I checked Southwest for every leg of my journey and always found a better deal elsewhere, but I still recommend looking.
Advice on Airline Miles
One of the pieces of advice hammered into us early on was to get an airline mileage credit card, advice I echo wholeheartedly. Travel points were a huge help in my trip. I redeemed around $1000 worth of points over the 3 months. I used a combination of my Chase card, previous miles I had collected from United, and some gift miles from my folks on Alaska.
My flight down to Santa Barbara was going to cost around $600. I realized that if I left the evening before, I could do an overnight layover in the Denver airport and get in the next morning. Admittedly it was a rough night, but I made it there for just $150 and got myself a nice breakfast instead.
I had a one-off interview in Ann Arbor the week of Thanksgiving. Flights and housing for that jaunt cost over $600, a full 10% of my total budget.
Grand total: $3300
This is the other area where costs can balloon. On the trail, you’re realistically sleeping in a different bed every night. I stayed with friends and family in the few places I could, but mostly had to find housing on my own. Most programs will provide applicants with a list of hotels in the area and many offer discounted rates for interviewees; even so, with so many nights on the road these can still seriously run up your final tally.
Financial Mechanic and I are accustomed to crashing in €15 backpacking hostels abroad, so I have no problem traveling a little rough; all I need is a bed, 4 walls, and a roof. I found much better rates with Airbnb, and as a side benefit met some wonderful people and got great tips about the cities I was seeing. This cut my housing costs in half. I was also able to choose places that would be close to the airport, downtown, or the hospital to cut transportation costs.
One night in Santa Barbara was going to run me $200. Instead, I found an Airbnb for under $40 with an older gentleman from the UK. Besides the free tea and breakfast, he made me a sandwich when I got in and we chatted for an hour about days gone by, one of the highlights of my trip.
A two-day stopover in LA for a board exam ran over $90 a night, the worst of my trip.
Grand total: $600
It costs a lot of money to get places. Whenever possible, I stayed somewhere walkable to everywhere I needed to go; my fitness tracker was loving life, chalking up an average of over 20k steps daily. I also took advantage of public transit, both for convenience on that trip and to get a feel for the system, as it’s an important factor when living in a city. However, this isn’t always viable (December in rural Connecticut, hello?) so I had a decent number of Uber hops as well. I also rented a car a few times for less accessible locations; as a bonus, my institution has a 10% off deal with several companies that I was sure to take advantage of.
Uber has made it to Dartmouth, but a round-trip to my interview at the hospital was looking to be at least $30. Turns out there’s a free bus that runs to the hospital twice an hour!
The $12 bus leaving Ann Arbor for the airport was booked solid leading into the Thanksgiving holiday, which turned into a $40 Uber ride, the highest of my trip.
Grand total: $900
This category can be sneaky because of how quickly many small purchases add up. I saved here because almost every interview included a light breakfast and lunch, and often a fully paid dinner out the evening before or after. If they served sandwiches, you bet a leftover one went in my bag. I made sure to leave for the airport on a full stomach, and every time I stopped at home in Portland I restocked with snacks like granola bars and fresh fruit. I never went hungry and managed to avoid wasting money at the airport.
On the other hand, I’m a big believer in trying the local food when you travel to a new place, so I made sure to get something authentic off the menu in every city.
Big Win/Ouch Moment
The lobster roll in Portland, Maine, was listed as “market price”, which is code for “if you have to ask you probably can’t afford it.” I didn’t know the next time I’d be in Maine so I went ahead anyway. It turned out to be $18.50 and one of the best seafood treats I’ve ever tried.
Grand total: $200
In total, the whole trip rounded out to about $5000, a pretty hefty pricetag but still great savings from the advertised $10k. I had help from friends and family giving rides, housing, and meals (Thanks everyone!) as well as around $1000 in airline rewards travel.
I saw 8 new states and almost a dozen new cities. It went by in a whirlwind, and a few times I found myself scrambling to remember what program I was interviewing with (felt a bit like this moment from my favorite Flight of the Conchords song. I wouldn’t travel that way all the time, but it was a great way to see where we may spend the next few years of our lives.
What have you done to save on travel– whether on housing, flights, ground transportation or food costs?
Have you (or someone you know) gone through the medical residency interview process?
Leave a comment below!