Going To Medical School While Drowning In Debt?

A reader posed this question about going to medical school while drowning in debt.
Hi. My name is XXXX, and I know that this is a bit of an awkward request, but I wanted to see if I could get the advice of someone who has been where I want to go. I completely understand if you're too busy to respond, but I thought it was worth a try to seek your advice.

Long story short, I spent my entire college career trying to figure out what I wanted to do, and I finally settled on web design/development. It wasn't until a few years after I graduated that I finally decided that I wanted to become a doctor, but four years of college and a few poor financial decisions have put my wife and me in a considerable amount of debt, over $20,000 of which is high interest credit card debt. On top of that, we're paying $640/month in car payments and $1427/month on our mortgage. We also have a 9-month-old daughter who apparently enjoys to eat on a regular basis.

Which brings us to today. I want more than ever to go to medical school, but at the age of 31 and with the level of debt my family is currently dealing with, I'm trying to determine the feasibility of doing so. At the moment, I'm working a full time job as a Flash/Photoshop trainer and a part time job as a freelance web developer, but I'm concerned that if I'm able to start medical school I won't be able to afford our monthly bills. Is this a valid concern, or is it possible to get enough financial aid to cover these kind of monthly payments?

I'm currently working on a plan to ramp up my freelance design work in order to try and pay off this debt a little quicker, but if I'm able to go to med school, I don't want to put it off TOO much longer.

So, I realize that this is kind of a generic, blanket question, but as an objective outside observer, what advice would you give to someone in my shoes?  Thanks so much for your time,
Here's my advice:

1)  First get into medical school.  It's not an easy thing to do.  You have to have excellent college grades (on average at least a 3.5 GPA).  You have to have all the prerequisites completed.  And you have to do very well on the MCATs.  It's not as simple as saying you want to go to medical school.  It takes years of consistent hard work and determination as well as high intellect to pass through the hurdles put forth in front of you.  Now, if you can pass these hurdles, my next recommendation is

2)  Don't worry about the credit card debt.  At $20,000, even at 30% interest, your minimum monthly payment is 500 a month.  You can pay for that by doing #3

3)  To pay your minimum monthly payments on your credit card debt, sell your new cars to get rid of your car payments.  and buy cheap transportation.  Perhaps invest in a $1000 vehicle that has four tires and an engine.  When I was in medical school I drove a 15 year old car that had no air, no heat, rust in the floor boards, no power anything.  I drove it until it died, the week of my residency, at which point I leased a Ford Focus for $200 a month.  If you want to do medical school on your financial status, you will have to sacrifice.

4) If you are renting, find a cheaper apartment.  If you are buying, find a cheaper house.  Your goal, if you wish to go through medical school soon on your current debt is to sacrifice every way you can.  That means your wife and daughter will sacrifice as well.  No vacations.  No luxury.  If your wife is working, great.  If she can't afford to work because of child care, fine as well.  Either way it's possible to make it through medical school on skin and bones with a wife and child.  I had lots of med school colleagues grow their family during school.  It is possible.

5)  Loans.  You can take out lots and lots of loans.  13 years ago the living expenses I got in loans was about $1,000 a month for me alone, single no wife and no children.  Fast forward to today And I'm sure it's quite a bit more, also depending on which part of the country you live in.  You very well may be able to avoid some of the above sacrifices if you can secure enough loans to cover your current expenses.

6)  At the current payment rates of outpatient primary medical fields, you would have to think long and hard if you plan to do them at your age.  You will be almost 40 years old with no retirement savings and close to $300,000 in debt.  You will never come out ahead in the primary medical fields of family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics at current payment rates.  However, hospitalist incomes rates rising rapidly.  If you choose to go into a subspecialty, you have the ability to thrive, and at your age, I would suggest you have no alternative if finances are any consideration on your radar.  What do you readers think?  Can he go to medical school in his current situation?

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22 Outbursts:

  1. Makes much more financial sense to get a BSN and go to CRNA school afterwards...but thats niether here nor there...
    The Military's still handin out fully funded scholarships, not many takers, some kind of war or somethin...and if you just can't stand wearin a uniform you can always tell em' you're gay as you walk off the stage with your diploma...
    Yeah, he's 31... they're takin 60 year olds nowadays...
    Might wanta check your math on the credit card thing...at %30 the balance is gonna double every 2.5 yrs...
    Frank, M.D.

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  2. Yes he can! Go for it! Do it for me because i can't! Seriously, i really think it is possible.

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  3. Fend for yourselfMay 16, 2009 at 11:23 AM

    I always tell people who ask me if they should become a physician that they should if its the only thing in life that will bring them happiness and satisfaction. As an medical student, I honestly can't say that I would do this over again if I had known how much sacrifice it involved. Anyone who's not a physician will never understand what you have to go through.

    And be sure you really enjoy the sciences. Caring for the human spirit might win you a Miss America pageant but, at the end of the day, a large percent of your patient interactions aren't going to be very emotionally rewarding. You're paycheck might not be that rewarding either, and if you enjoy being popular... Point is, you'd better find the human body fascinating.

    As far as money goes, Happy's pretty much right. My wife and I drive a couple of 10 yr old, over 100K miles, rusting cars. They're long paid off and we have bare minimum car insurance. My school offers loans for cost of living, about 20K/yr, at 8.5% fixed (Grad plus). Right now tuition is at 6.8% fixed (Stafford). You do the math. Its like an inverse retirement fund. With my wife working, we're still looking at a 1/4 million in debt, including some undergrad loans.

    Just getting in is going to be expensive. You're looking at taking prereqs which amounts to at the ABSOLUTE minimum, 4 semesters of relevant biology, 2 semesters inorganic chemistry, 2 semesters organic chemistry, 2 semesters of general/university physics, and 2 semesters of English. You'll need some letters of recommendation as well, from profs, physicians, or both.

    The MCAT was $210 plus study materials or a Kaplan course. Primary applications can cost upwards of $1000, if you apply to the recommended 10ish schools, and if you get secondary applications, you're looking at 50-200$ per school for those application fees. If you receive interviews, travel expenses can really add up, and you'll have to buy a suit if you don't already have one.

    Once you get in, you're looking at fronting a non-refundable deposit to secure you're spot in the class, which ranges from 200$ to the obscene $3000. Add to that a deposit to rent a place where you get in (you'll probably have to sell your house unless you get accepted close to home, which could wreak havoc on your finances by itself).

    So to conclude, by all means, if this is for you, go for it! Just be sure you know what you're getting yourself (and your family) into. If you can't be talked out of it, you'll know its for you.

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  4. "So to conclude, by all means, if this is for you, go for it! Just be sure you know what you're getting yourself (and your family) into. If you can't be talked out of it, you'll know its for you."

    Exactly. If you've read all the above and have considered all the cons (and pros), received support from your wife and you still want to go through with it...do it.

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  5. Med school would be great! A great way to make sure you don't know your child for the next decade, or a great way to make sure your wife starts looking elsewhere for love, and a great way to be a half million in debt.

    This guy should head over to Panda Bear, MD's blog, and see what he thinks. I bet Panda would tell him not to do it, because Panda says he never would have done it, had he known the level of sacrifice involved. I was single through college, married through med school, and my first child will be arriving a bit before residency starts, and I won't be buying a house until I'm a resident. It'd be much worse if I had started this game with a wife, child, and a house.

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  6. One other thing...

    Might wanta change that name... I know
    "XXXX" is cool and edgy and everything, but Med School Admissions Committees are sorta stuffy, and its gonna mess your MCAT answer sheet up too...

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  7. What he really needs is career counseling. Might as well add financial counseling,too. Making a life altering decision at this point is a seriously bad idea.

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  8. You are looking at 10 to 15 years depending on how many pre reqs you have and what you specialize in, absolutely no income for about 8 of those years, 60-80hrs a week either studying or working for about 8 of those years, and about 200-400K in debt when you are done depending on where you go. Also, this shit aint easy. I have seen many a “pre-med” get a degree in biology and either never get in, quit, or hate it. They now have one of the most useless college degrees available. I love to listen to people say “follow your dreams,” but this is a lot bigger of a commitment than most people understand and it would be a shame to go back to college to get two years of C’s in physics and chemistry. And I will second the above poster who said you had better love science. Most people love the idea of helping people because they have never had to do it for fat, stupid, entitled people who are poor and generally assholes.

    If you are set on the medical field look at becoming a PA if you have decent grades, if not look at either nursing or another allied health field that requires fewer pre-reqs (OT and PT I think)

    And if you still think you really want to be doctor…
    Move to a town with a medical school that is easy to get into and has a low cost of living (not Boston or NYC, think Texas or Oklahoma), file for bankruptcy (you are not going to be buying a house for the next 20yrs anyway) go to a community college for the pre-reqs, live like a poor bastard, study hard, and hope to hell that we do not get socialized medicine in this country…

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  9. ... and if nursing, you better have good prereq grades as well these days if you want to get into a good program. Sorry. One thing not mentioned is that you will meet some emotionally/technically incompetent people who are doctors, nurses, techs, instructors on your quest. This will freak you the hell out for quite some time, and will cause you to become quite nervous if a family member becomes hospitalized.
    -Second career nursing student

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  10. The guy is not a doc. Docs ask the question "how do I become a doctor?"

    He asks "can I become a medical student?"

    Beware anyone who wants to be a medical student - they're just looking for a way to escape their life. These folks never make it through.

    Every doc I know never wanted to be a medical student - it was just the only way they knew of to become a doctor.

    The dude needs a good friend, counselor, therapist or clergyman to sit down with him and figure out what it is he really wants.

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  11. My school required a 3.5 to get into nursing school. Seems the norm around here. Hope his grades are good if he wants to do any medical type program at all.

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  12. Thanks Suze Orman!

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  13. I would caution this person. Like some have said, he will have to sacrifice. He will need to take into account his family, not just his thoughts of what being in medicine might be like. When you chose to take on a wife and then a child, anything you do would now involve and affect them. She signed on with you for better or worse, but loving someone through a medical career such as this, may be the equivalent of being a single parent at times. It will not be an easy road. There are some alternatives to consider that some have thrown out here. I wish them well whatever they decide.

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  14. Wow...pretty negative comments, if this guy's heart and soul and "wallet" are really in this...not exactly encouraging, people, but then, what do i know??????

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  15. Fend for yourselfMay 17, 2009 at 9:55 AM

    Re: Anon 2:34
    I laughed pretty hard there...Well played.

    Re:tracy
    That's exactly the point. Its not to be mean, quite the opposite actually...If I told you I could save you a 1/4 million dollars and at least 8 years of your life, you'd pay attention, wouldn't you? It'd be the kindest thing someone's ever done for you.

    If there's any way that you can be talked out of it, if there's any other job in life that will make you happy, you shouldn't be a physician.

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  16. "Be careful what you ask for, as you may get it." What doesn't come through in his statement is what it is about medicine that appeals to him, and how much experience he's had exploring it. i.e. Does he like working with patients, and has he volunteered/shadowed enough medical professionals (docs and PAs and nurses, etc.) to see what patient care is really like...AND does he still want it after seeing all that (the entitled patients, the dealing with smelly, sick people, the time spent charting and coding, and the constant threat of lawsuits)? If he likes the science, he should go into science instead (I did). If he just likes the romantic notion and prestige of 'being a doctor', just forget it right now...even if he manages to get into medical school, he'ed be a miserable student/resident/clinician, and will be considerably poorer when he looks for his next 'dream of a lifetime.' If you pass all these hurdles, and still want to be a doctor, power to you, but if you don't, we're just saving you the heartache.

    Marco

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  17. Ia gree with the majority of comments that advise caution. At least financially it makes no sense for this person to go to medical school with his current age and level of debt. If this really is his "dream" I would heavily encourage him to join the military. He will receive his education with no debt AND get a salary through school (and extra money in residency). For this particular person's situation the military is a very appealing option. One of my buddies was a Rad/Onc through the navy and lived a great lifestyle (far better than mine) through med school and residency. Then, when he finished, the only two spots for Rad Onc were in San Diego and Virginia Beach - not too shabby. However, you could also end up in Greenland or Djubuti.
    In any event I also echo the comments of others in that he will REALLY have to sacrifice (stick to a budget - which seems to already be a problem) and his wife will REALLY have to buy in (or just get the divorce now). The training and school are HARD (well, with the 80 hour work week and new "nap" rules not nearly as hard as when I was a resident and fellow - back in the days of giants).

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  18. Have you ever thought of going to med school abroad? (i can hear the peanut gallery screaming in outrage). Humans are the same whether they're in guadalajara, grenada or Manila. The disease spectrum might be a little different. Basic science is Basic science, and that's what you get in the first 2 years of med school. Residency fills in the gaps. Being an American Born FMG maybe didn't get me into the topnotch residency programs (Mass Gen, anyone?) but I think this guy wants a paycheck, and not a CV as long as his arm. In my years of being a hospitalist, only one patient has ever asked me where I went to med school. (another plus of hospital medicine--no wall upon which to hang one's diploma). Many of the best doctors I've worked and trained with were FMGs.
    Also, he can take his freelance computer thingie career with him, all he needs is a broadband connection. Living expenses are less. And as an American, he can do Fifth Pathway.
    Sometimes I do feel a pang of regret that I didn't go to school here, but I also rejoice in the fact that I don't have med school student loans to pay off. Think about it.

    Cranky (oops I forgot to log in )

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  19. I'm 29 and in the middle of a post-bac program to get my pre-reqs done for med school. He should note that there is quite a lead time between 'deciding to be a doctor' and starting medical school. I started classes in Jan 2008, and if all goes well I'll start med school in Sept 2011. There are programs that have all their classes at night and on the weekend so you can continue working full-time (which you must, as these classes are not cheap. You can't take all your classes at community colleges - you won't get in.) You'll also need to volunteer about 10 hours a month at a hospital or whatever if you want a realistic shot at getting in. So, 40+hr/week at work, 16hr/week at class, 2.5hr/week volunteering, 8hr/day sleep. If you budget 0.5hr for each meal, that leaves you with about 21 hours left in the week, and you haven't even started studying yet. You have to do that for two full years (summer session too) before you can even apply to med school. What is the minimum amount of hours you want to spend with your kid per week?

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  20. If you were single with all this debt, then you really wouldn't have much problems since you'll easily pay it off within 10 yrs or less after residency even with a meager salary of 150K a family doc makes. Just don't live too lavishly. I hear of so many docs who have financial problems not because of their loans but because they want to live like a millionaire. Having a significant other/family to go along on this ride will definitely be challenging, but I'm sure you realize that. You really have to look at it like this: you need a safety net of some sort for the 4 yrs of med school (i.e., through loans, or a military scholarship of some kind-but you'll have to agree for active duty every year your tuition is paid. Likewise you'll also receive a small stipend every month (over 1K). (Realize for this option you have to be in good health/physical shape). Don't worry about the debt you incur while in med school since there are plenty of loan forgiveness and repayment programs. Good luck.

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  21. Sir,
    I am in the same boat. I always wanted to do this, have 8 years medical background and now am thinking what is more practical - to follow your dream of becoming a Dr. or continue with a field that is proving stable for you and your family in a struggling economy.

    Here is my advice: Do not listen to the hippocrits, snide comments, negative remarks from annoying commentators. Follow your Dreams. It will be hard, there will be bills, it will not be easy, but the best things in life are never easy. Start with some courses at a junior college:
    •Biology with Laboratory (one year)
    •Inorganic Chemistry with Laboratory (one year)
    •Organic Chemistry with Laboratory (one year)
    •Physics (one year)
    •English (one year)
    •Calculus
    •Biochemistry
    •Anatomy
    •Englsh (one year)

    If you can make it through these courses and still want to go to Medical School, then you will have your answer. I wish you the best. Also, never let anyone hassle you about your age. Age is relative and you are only as young as you feel. Take good care of yourself and your health and you could be practicing well into your 70's.

    Good luck and God speed!

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  22. To the person that posted "I am in the same boat," good reply. The grass looks greener from any side if you can't find love or at least strong like in what you do for the rest of your life. I'm an RN and have been one for quite some time. I've seen much, and I respect the realism from others--but it is more down-sided than +/- IMHO. Yes, I am going to be a physician.

    No one can tell the OP what he must do.

    OP, if you do something else and decide to go for it when you are 40, you will be even more behind. If there is any possible way you can make this work, and if you have researched it well, taken the right courses, shadowed and volunteered, then stay the course--but it does have a lot of sucky components. I say, so what? Even when life is good, there's a lot of sucky aspects to it. I can attest to that by watching parents while treating their critically ill children.

    To add to "same boat's" thoughts though, it won't be enough to "get through" those courses. You must shoot for a 3.5 GPA, cum and sci. You must shoot for 30 or > for MCAT. If you can do that with a responsible plan for you and your family, forge ahead. If you miss the mark only a bit, still apply where you'd like but include osteopathic schools as well.

    The age ole question is still relevant, even if old and tired. Why, really, why do you want to become a physician? Helping people is not enough of an answer. Many people do this (help people) in all various fields everyday. If people really and deeply thought this through before going forward with m.s. plans, I believe there may be a fair number of physicians that were not as chagrin. Perhaps a fair number would be somewhat disappointed b/c of reality shock; but overall I'd say there'd be less chagrin docs in the world--especially in the USA. Come on folks. Compared with the rest of the world, we are huge whiners.

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