Today’s post is written by Nicole Lindsay. Nicole is a career development expert and Founder of DiversityMBAPrep.com, where her sole aim is to increase the number of women and minorities in MBA programs.
Graduate school costs a lot of money – just one year can range from $25,000 to more than $75,000 for tuition and living expenses! It’s completely understandable then that advice and tips on paying for graduate school always focuses on how to obtain the most financial aid possible. Unless you are independently wealthy, you will definitely need some combination of scholarships, grants and student loans to cover your education expenses. But don’t overlook the financial actions that you can personally take to make attending graduate school a reality.
I finished a 4-year JD/MBA program at the University of Virginia more than twelve years ago. I took out the maximum amount of federal loans, but was able to minimize my use of private loans and graduate with almost no consumer debt. In fact, I bought my first home two months after graduation. Here are five things that I did to position myself financially for graduate school:
1) Eliminate Consumer Debt
There are so many reasons to eliminate your consumer/ credit card debt, namely more financial flexibility and less stress. If you are considering attending grad school, particularly in a full-time program, it’s even more critical that you pay off your credit card debt. While in school, you will be on a fixed budget that does not include extra cash to make monthly credit card payments. There is no way I would have gotten through graduate school without my credit cards, particularly at the end of each semester. I could purchase the essentials, like food and gas, and even buy a few luxuries like a plane ticket to see my twin brother in Germany before my summer internship began. You will definitely want to have a financial cushion of credit cards to fall back on, so pay down your consumer debt now.
2) Improve Your Credit Score
If you have credit card or any other type of debt, then you have a credit score or a FICO score, which ranges from 350 to 800 (the higher, the better). Your credit score will be a factor in qualifying for government and private student loans and also in getting the more favorable terms, i.e., the lowest interest rate. Having bad credit can make borrowing money more expensive or even disqualify you from certain loans. Your credit score and credit history may impact other areas as well, such as whether you are approved for an apartment or whether you will be admitted to a state bar association, a requirement to practice law (yes, credit history can damage a law school graduate’s character and fitness to practice law!) Visit the three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) to learn more about improving your credit score.
3) Save Your Money
I worked two jobs the summer before I started graduate school, including waiting tables, to stash cash for school. Three months and $7,000 in savings later, I had living expenses covered for a semester (it was 1996 in Charlottesville, VA so the cost of living was relatively low), which meant less money that I had to borrow in the form of student loans.
It can feel kind of useless to save when graduate school costs tens of thousands of dollars per year. How can your little bit of savings make a dent in such a big expense? Well, let’s be honest, your savings probably won’t cover the cost of tuition bill, but it can cover some of the smaller expenses and also help you maintain an emergency fund. If you saved $25 per week for one year, you would have $1,300. This could pay for a security deposit for a new apartment or moving expenses if you are relocating to a new town for school, or for a school-sponsored trip.
4) Reduce Your Expenses
As soon as you determine that you want to attend graduate school, begin to reduce your living expenses. This will help you save more, but also prepare you for the barebones student budget that you will be expected to live on when you get to school. That may mean limiting the weekend shopping trips – sorry ladies – or eating in a bit more often. I wasn’t so forwarding thinking on reducing my expenses before graduate school; I simply benefited from going straight from poor undergrad to grad student. Anna has some great tips though on how she reduced her expenses to eliminate $80,000 in debt [LINK TO ARTCLE].
5) Understand Your Financial Aid Options
The suggestions included here are a supplement to financial aid resources such as scholarships and student loans. Explore every channel for funding so that you can personally invest as little of your own money as possible. Remember every dollar counts so even a $500 book scholarship will help offset the cost of school.
Take financial action as early as possible to prepare yourself for graduate school. But know that it is never too late, even if you are only a few weeks or months from graduate school, to become financially responsible.