Budgeting During Residency

(Editor’s Note: With a new year upon us, many of us have hopes of better health in the future: emotional, physical, spiritual and, especially in the medical training years, financial. Here are a few lessons learned the hard way from a medical spouse during residency.)


By Tonya Adams

When my husband started medical school, we immediately got hooked on getting student loans. After spending years of being broke all through undergrad, we felt like we were getting “magic” checks in the mail. Life was good. We could go out to dinner, buy our son the toys we wanted him to have, go shopping. We were enjoying all the luxuries we had gone without for so long. We didn’t realize how much it would cost us in the long run. We quickly got carried away and created quite the “mess” for ourselves when residency began.

We naturally assumed that when we started residency, we’d be making a good enough salary to easily pay for a house, cars, food, and student loans-all of our needs. We quickly realized that we were in way over our heads. Let’s just say there wasn’t enough in our paychecks to make it the two weeks in between. It was beyond frustrating. My husband quickly became stressed, as if there isn’t enough stress in the first year of residency already. We decided it was time for a change. A big one.

I found work from home, anywhere I could. I started painting furniture, sold items on Craigslist and picked up a LOT of hours at work. I’m lucky enough to work from home, but I basically asked for as many hours as I could get. It has helped, but we still needed to make some major changes. This is what we’ve done to survive residency on a resident’s budget (and let’s be honest, they should make WAY more than they do).

  1. Figure out what your take home pay is (after taxes) and divide that by 25- 35 percent and that is what you should be able to afford for housing. We live in a more expensive area. As much as we would love to move into a nicer house, our budget simply doesn’t allow it. Find a house that you can afford and understand that this is not a permanent situation. Things will get better.
  1. Donate ten percent of your income to charity/religious institutions. WHAT? How can we possibly donate that much of our money when we’re living paycheck to paycheck? In all honestly, I believe that you can’t afford not to. We have been so blessed to live in a thriving country and I believe it’s our responsibility to take care of those who are less fortunate, no matter how little we’re making. I also believe that we will be greatly blessed for helping others. And to be honest, there have been many months where I’ve wondered how we’ve made it financially, but somehow things work out. Blessings combined with a great budget and hard work equals some spectacular results.
  1. Coupons. I hate that word. Seriously. However, I started following MANY coupon/deals blogs. I spent a lot of time figuring out how much we could afford for food, clothes, Christmas gifts, and then I HUNT down the best deals for everything. Which means fewer trips to Costco and more trips to Winco and Grocery Outlet. It isn’t glamorous, but it saves us a lot of money monthly. I also ask my kids what they want for Christmas months in advance and then start searching for deals. You have to have a budget in mind before you even begin looking and stick to it.
  1. Cut up your credit cards. I hate credit cards even more than I hate coupons. Yes, we still have credit cards for emergencies, but I hate them. Every time we have to use them I cry inside and I’m a basket case until we pay them off. Unfortunately you can’t always avoid using them, for example infellowship interviews. I know that we’ll have to put some money on credit cards, but my husband and I are both working hard to find ways to bring in extra money to pay them off quicker. Moral of the story, if you can’t afford your lifestyle, cut back, don’t pay more for everything because you’re paying interest on credit cards. If you have credit cards, work hard to pay them off quickly and refrain from using them.
  1. Cook your own food. Nothing kills our budget quicker than eating out. I can make most meals for a quarter of what it would cost to eat out. We budget eating out as a family once a week, and we’re only allowed to spend 30 dollars. Can we eat at expensive restaurants? No. But we still have a great time as a family. If eating out is a big deal to your family, that’s okay. Just make sure you include it in your budget.

I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to finances, however, I have learned a lot through this process. If I could do things differently, I would definitely have started budgeting in medical school. Hang in there. This time of life isn’t forever and we are all fortunate enough to have an “it gets better” phase.

Tonya Adams lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband Jake and their two beautiful children. Jake is in his fourth year of residency at OHSU in Orthopedics. Tonya enjoys spending time outdoors with her family, movies, good books, traveling, working out, and trying new food.



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