PA school is expensive, which is something prospective PA students typically find out pretty early in their search.
If the high cost of PA school worries you from the outset (and I'm a firm believer that it should), the most significant impact you can make to help to control the expense of attending is to select target programs deliberately and to find ways of paying for PA school without relying on student loans.
But if you hope to be fully engaged in your training as a PA student, this quest to control the cost of your PA school days shouldn't cease upon entering a program.
Though tuition will be the bulk of your PA school cost, I could definitely make the argument for how the smaller expenses add up. If you're paying with loans, that means your morning latte isn't "only" $4; it's $4 plus interest.
And while I do think that every dollar spent or that you might have to pay back in the future should count, I think there is something more essential to your well-being both during and after PA school when it comes to finances at play.
When money is scarce, and especially when it's borrowed, spending it leads to stress. Even when you try to tamp the anxiety down or when spending borrowed money feels normalized because everyone else around you is in the same boat, the feeling of losing a little ground each day can eat at you.
Common refrains of PA students such as, "I'll worry about my loans later when I have a job that can pay for them," though often recited, rarely achieve the stated goal of moving that worry to the future. For many future PAs, the anxiety surrounding the mounting expense of being a student is ever-present, long before they have the financial ability to tackle it.
So if you want to decrease your stress and truly have a sense of control over your finances as a PA student, you must resist the urge to believe that the majority of "the damage is done" by the cost of your tuition.
To decrease the overall anxiety and burden that comes with being a PA student, you have to be an active participant in your financial present. Here's how to do that.
Don't mistake acquisition for commitment
As a PA student, you'll encounter endless books, tools, and resources that can aid your learning, and others that are just super cool.
Tools may feel legitimizing, as if having something in your backpack, in your white coat pocket, or as an app on your phone somehow means you're taking this PA thing more seriously.
But while you do need a few essentials as a student, you don't need everything.
Choose to spend your money on things that serve the mission of building your foundation in medicine rather than unnecessary upgraded-versions of the same tools or ones you don't need to get the job done. You are totally in charge of whatever that might be, but if you hope to control your spending, be realistic in your decision-making process.
Also, avoid the urge to spend top dollar on equipment by justifying that you'll use it later as a PA. You can probably get by with seeing someone's retina with slightly less detail as a student.
If you need the fancy equipment to succeed as an employed PA, someone will buy or provide that deluxe item for you.
This one gets harder over time as you encounter more resources being used by other students and professionals on clinical rotations. But if you pause to ask yourself if you need a particular book or resource to succeed as a PA student and answer honestly, you'll go a long way to curb the impulse to spend on tools and resources that you don't need to succeed.
Start a budget
Regardless of how little or how much you spend, you will feel like you are financially failing unless you create and live on a budget while in PA school.
Contrary to what I believed when I was in PA school, a budget isn't just for people who make money who aren't living off of loans. Nor does just spending "as little as possible" count as a budget.
A budget is a plan. It's not a tally of what you spent in a month plus the guilt or justification for every expense, which is how I "budgeted" in PA school and for a few years after. A budget is a blueprint you create before those expenses come.
Planning out your expenses and spending is especially crucial in stressful times, like, say, during PA school, because having a plan and following it eliminates the emotional element of spending.
As a PA student, you will be tired and exhausted — a lot — which means you're likely to have a lower threshold for spending money you didn't plan to spend.
Whether you are living off of loans, savings, scholarships, or a spouse or partner's income, you will be spending money to live while in PA school.
Regardless of where the money comes from, you can use it to create a monthly budget.
If you have a pile of money from loans or scholarships rather than a regular income, you'll first need to calculate how much it takes to cover your monthly expenses and build your monthly "income" around that figure.
Once you know the monthly income you are working with, you can assign each dollar to a category: groceries, utilities, rent/mortgage, fun, anything and everything you spend money on in a given month. There will be fixed expenses for each month, but each month will be a little different depending on what is coming your way in that time, like birthdays, holidays, and travel.
Be forewarned. If you're doing a proper budget, it will take about three months to get the hang of it. Over time, you will get more accurate and anticipating expenses will get easier.
To get started with your budget, be sure to grab my future-PA budgeting guide.
Have you ever treated yourself by buying something not because you needed it, but because you felt as if you deserved it? While this can be done as a planned reward or out of spontaneity, it is often done as an impulsive response to stress.
When we're under a lot of pressure, stress-spending is typically unplanned and often rationalized as something we need anyway — coffee, meals out, vehicles — or as something for our own good — books, equipment, gym memberships.
To avoid stress-spending, you first have to recognize what it is. If you check the drama and the "but I deserve," does the need to spend go away?
Then, you need to build in a buffer against it within your budget. (See? There's a reason for the order of these money-control measures.)
When you make your budget, build in a reasonable amount of money for a few lifestyle activities like coffee with friends or a weekend activity.
Initially, this may feel like an unnecessary expense, but building a little flexibility into your budget means you'll feel less inclined to ditch the plan altogether in times of stress. It also avoids piling on the guilt of unplanned spending to your standard PA-student stress level.
You can get pretty strategic with this spending money, too.
There's good research out there showing that we increase our happiness more when we spend money on others rather than ourselves. I'm not talking about substantial charitable giving, just spending a little money on something for a friend. And, the excellent news for broke PA students is that in the study, spending $5 on a friend made people just as happy as forking out $20.
So calculate enough into your wiggle-room budget category to cover your friend's coffee too, and you'll not only avoid stress-spending but will simultaneously increase your happiness.
Training to become a PA may be expensive, but you can decrease both the financial and emotional cost of PA school by avoiding the drama and overspending that exhaustion and fatigue can cause.
Even if you consider yourself a broke PA student, your stress level and mindset around money and spending in PA school are within your control.
By creating and sticking to a budget and managing the mental traps of spending under stress, you can seriously control your spending and feel confident in your ability to do so while in PA school.
Dunn EW, Aknin LB, Norton MI. Prosocial Spending and Happiness: Using Money to Benefit Others Pays Off. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2014 Feb 3. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721413512503