Sherry Shih is a 3rd-year veterinary student at UC Davis. This blog post is her personal experience in saving money with living expenses through diligent budgeting efforts. We hope you enjoy! As always, please reach out with any questions or feedback, or leave a comment below.
The first step to cutting on spending is to know WHAT you’re spending on. Before we dive into the dreaded “B-word”, i.e. budgeting, we want an idea of where your money goes. I keep a spreadsheet that I update every 2 weeks to a month with columns for the item, cost, form of payment, and category. I use my credit card to buy almost everything so I go onto my online banking account and copy over the items. If I buy something with cash, I keep the receipt and toss it in a jar that has all the receipts that need to be put into the excel spreadsheet. Don’t forget things like rent, parking permit, subscriptions, utilities, and health insurance. Do this for a few months to start to see your spending patterns.
Here are the categories I use:
Dining is any form of eating out, including boba, bars, and snack foods I did not buy at the grocery store. I will explain the difference between grocery store snacks and non-grocery store snacks in the food section. Necessities are household and school supplies, and entertainment is anything I buy for myself that does not fall into any of the other categories. I categorize my spending so I can graph it and see how much I’m spending in each category. Am I eating out a lot and that’s the main chunk of my bill? Or is my utility use really high? Or are my fuel bills high because I drive to places I can easily walk to? This helps me with deciding what to cut my spending on later.
I like to know what form of payment I am using for each expense to determine if I tend to spend recklessly when using a specific form of payment. For example, I tend to forget about my Venmo spendings. When I go out to eat with friends and Venmo them back my part of the bill, it doesn’t quite register that I spent the money and I often forget about the purchase. Knowing this, I try to avoid paying by Venmo. Instead, I offer to foot the bill and have my friends Venmo me instead. If you spend more with cash, you can carry less on you, and if you spend more when your credit card is saved automatically to a website, like Amazon, then remove the card and manually enter your credit card information each time.
Now that you know where you’re spending, let’s see what you can reduce. Is impulse Amazon buying taking up a large chunk? Or do you have a subscription service you haven’t used in a while? Are you eating out a lot? Or drinking boba every other day? This is a personalized part, but I would suggest picking one category to work on and focus on that until you have a good handle on it before taking on something else. Controlling spending will take some lifestyle change and taking on too much at once can be frustrating and make you more likely to stop trying. My next few points are ways I like to cut spending. Maybe they’ll work for you too!
Food can be one of your most expensive monthly budget items after rent. Fortunately, I find food the easiest to save on, so this is a big category for me. Let’s jump into how you can start saving. The difference between cooking at home, eating frozen food, and eating out are vastly different, and I have been able to save quite a bit by cooking at home. Let’s look at the numbers a bit. Eating out costs ~$10 per meal (I live in California where cost of living and taxes are pretty high), so that’s $30 a day, $210 a week, and $840 a month. Ouch. Frozen food is ~$5-7 per meal so I’ll average it at $6. That’s $18 a day, $126 a week, and $504 a month. Slightly more cost effective, but frozen food tastes horrible in my opinion. If I cook at home, even if I splurge on every ingredient I want, and even add snacks to my grocery list, I spend $50 a week. That’s $2 per meal, $7 a day, $50 a week, and $200 a month. I also very often don’t hit $50 a week on groceries and average at about $30 a week. That’s $1.5 per meal, $4 a day, $30 a week, and $120 a month; a four-fold difference from eating frozen food and seven-fold difference from eating takeout!
Hopefully I have convinced you to cook, but what about the time? That’s where food prepping comes in. I find food prepping to be the most time-efficient way to cook, and I only have to think about it once or twice a week. I pick a day of the weekend (it will take at least half a day when you’re not used to it, but you do get faster over time) and then plan out my meals for the entire week. I write down exactly what I’m going to have each meal of the day and what ingredients I need. Don’t forget to add drinks, snacks, and desserts (like ice cream or chocolate) onto your plan so you don’t get tempted to buy unlisted snacks at the grocery store! Then I go grocery shopping and buy ONLY the things I have on my list and cook all the meals and put them into containers. I like cooking half a week’s worth at a time because I don’t have the patience to cook for too long. I set meals that take less time to make for the second half of the week, like salads or pasta, and food prep those in the middle of the week. I then don’t have to think about what I’m going to eat or spend time getting food for the rest of the week. I’m also less tempted to eat out or get impromptu snacks because I have ready-made snacks and desserts waiting for me at home.
Here is an example of what my meal prep week looks like:
I separate meal-planned snacks and impulse-buy snacks into different categories because I tend to spend more on impulse snacks. A $5 boba is way more expensive than if I plan and make the boba myself (comes out to less than $2 a cup), and if I’m not careful I can spend quite a bit on cakes and drinks. The same kind of savings can be realized making your own coffee vs. buying one at a coffee shop each day.
Meal planning doesn’t mean I never eat out with friends or impulse buy snacks. I just don’t have to feel guilty doing it. Cutting the food budget by 75% means I can spend that $6 on a fancy slice of cake and afford it. I can even go out for a $100 meal and my total food cost for the month still won’t reach what it would be if I ate takeout or frozen food regularly!
What if I don’t know how to cook? Well, it’s time to learn, buddy! Most online recipes will have star ratings for how difficult a recipe is. Start with the easy ones and learn as you eat. It’s going to take more time and result in some burnt dinners at first, but the learning curve is worth it. You can even google “easy dinner recipe” and go down the list.
Lastly, get all the free food you can! Veterinary school is full of lunch and dinner talks that give you free food AND often have leftovers. Sign up for them! Go to them! And stick around until the end! Learning while securing several meals checks a lot of boxes all at once. People also tend to bail on dinner talks more, so there is usually a SUBSTANTIAL amount of leftovers. These leftovers usually get thrown out if you don’t take them! So help out the environment (and your budget) and go eat them. I once got enough Panda Express leftovers for an entire week. That’s a free $50 dollar bill as far as my budget is concerned!
Yes, lunch and dinner talks aren’t entirely free, but let’s do the math. Club fees are around $10 per year per club. If I go to 10 lunch and dinner talks combined, each meal costs around $1. And if I am able to take one additional meal of leftovers each time, each meal becomes 50 cents. I think we can call it free at this point. I schedule meals provided by lunch or dinner talks into my food plan for the week, and if I have more leftover meals than expected, I reschedule meals that have ingredients that won’t go bad as fast into the next week.
A final note on grocery shopping. Not all grocery stores are equal! Fancy grocery stores charge more for the same item. With meal prep, you don’t have to worry about ingredients going bad if you’re going to cook it immediately, so I like to shop at grocery stores that are cheaper but have less pretty produce, such as Grocery Outlet or imperfect produce (they deliver!). Safeway charges $4 for a head of cabbage while Grocery Outlet only charges $1. I can assure you they taste the same. One has a slightly longer fridge life, but it won’t matter once it’s cooked.
This is one category I’m bad at. I have a very hard time making it to class on time, if at all. I wake up with enough time to get dressed and eat breakfast but somehow the time slips by. Biking is way cheaper, gets you exercise, and is also great for the environment, but I tried it for two weeks and promptly gave up. With biking I’m not just 5 minutes late, I’m 20 minutes late, and I arrive so winded and tired that I promptly fall asleep in class the moment I sit down, which makes the entire trip to campus useless. So I drive, and I know it takes me exactly 6 minutes to get to campus from my apartment and 3 minutes to walk to class from the parking lot. (Yes, I bike so slow a 6 min car ride takes me 30 minutes). I prioritize time and energy efficiency in this case and chose to drive. But if you are better at biking than I am, or can carpool, this is a great category to save on! You can save on not only parking, but gas, car maintenance, and even gym membership costs.
For winter months, heated blankets are useful. Instead of heating the entire house or even your entire room, warming just the bed can save even more electricity. And investing in good thick comforters also goes a long way. You can even heat up your bed for a short time before bed and turn it off by the time you get in. This way each person can personalize the temperature in their own rooms, and avoid turning on heaters for long periods of time in a poorly insulated house. Heat insulating curtains can further trap the warmth in your room!
For water use, big things are long shower times and running laundry. Cutting down shower time by one minute saves 2.1 gallons of water. There’s no need to aim for 3 minute showers every day, but if you like to stand under the water for a while, perhaps you would rather buy yourself a drink instead with that money? I also wait until I have a full load of laundry before washing it and plan out my outfits so I don’t so desperately need an item that I have to run a load of laundry for it (is it time to get one more pair of scrubs?).
I love thrifting and repurposing things. And it’s no different for veterinary school. Better yet, graduating seniors know exactly what you will need AND need to get rid of their student stuff as they move on to be veterinarians. I have bought every pair of scrubs (in very good condition or even brand new) from graduating seniors. Other things like textbooks, bandage scissors, suture practice kits, models, and lab coats I have also gotten used from seniors. Ask around! More people need to get rid of things before graduation than you would think.
As students, our breaks align with the busiest holiday times, and air travel can get quite pricey. I usually book tickets to go visit family the moment I know my schedule to get the best prices. Even if you are driving, your car might need maintenance or other services; don’t forget to factor in those costs! Knowing when I am going to travel allows me to set aside money each month to pay for the trip, without having a large bill threatening my budget during the holidays when everything is more chaotic.
Take advantage of pet food discounts! Purina, Hills, and Royal Canin all have great discounts for vet students (including specialty diets), and they usually have a small fair each year where you can grab free treats and swag for your pets.
Whether you have a pet at the moment or not, I would set aside a small amount of the monthly budget for any type of pet emergency or large spending down the road. This can be adopting a foster kitten, if your cat really needs that dental, or if you need to take your pet to an emergency visit. This prevents budget panicking later on if any of those things happen and lessens the likelihood that you end up in credit card debt. And hey, the money’s not going anywhere if you don’t use it. It can sit in your savings account accruing interest until you need it.
This article is about saving money, but I want to also address the income part of your budget. Veterinary school takes a lot of time and energy, but flexible part-time jobs can be a refreshing distraction and give you some extra cash. I pet sit and dog walk part-time. Overnight house and pet sitting still allows me to study and allows me to get to know the community (even some faculty!). In small college towns, most clients understand that I’m a student and do their best to provide me a quiet space when I house sit (with cute dogs!), and it’s nice to have familiar faces around town. I like having even a small income each month so I can indulge in things that aren’t necessities like ice skating, or a fancy new teapot.
It may feel like every penny saved has to go toward your educational debt. But don’t forget changing your lifestyle and watching your budget takes time and effort! So give yourself that pat on the back every once in a while and treat yourself to something nice.