Originally Posted: Jul 7, 2015
Last Updated: Jun 20, 2018
We all know that “tuition” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to paying for school. For first-year law students, that iceberg is even bigger, since they often need more help covering their living expenses. But before you panic, take a look at these tips from a living, breathing law school financial aid insider.
“How much is this going to cost?” It’s the question everyone asks when comparing law schools, and rightly so.
Tuition and fees are certainly important factors in choosing your law school, but not far behind them should be the living expense budget that the school will allow you to borrow up to and how that budget is going to assist you in getting through your first year. While there likely isn’t too much you can do to change your school’s tuition cost besides earn scholarships, there’s wiggle room when it comes to determining how much you really need to borrow for living expenses.
The ultimate goal is to square these issues away before you start law school. You shouldn’t have to exhaust too much time worrying over the details of your finances throughout the academic year—your first job is to acclimate yourself to the law school experience and excel in your studies. As you make your decision on where to go to school, doing budget research and planning ahead will save you time and money and will help to avoid stress from financial surprises later. Remember: if you live like a student while you’re still a student, you won’t have to live like a student when you’re a lawyer.
Law school cost basics
All schools will create a cost of attendance (COA) budget for you, which will include all the various expenses of attending that school. The financial aid office may break it down in different ways in your award letter or on their website, but generally these budgets will include tuition and fees, books and supplies, living expenses, and loan origination fees (fees are charged on each disbursement of Federal Direct Stafford Loans and Federal Grad PLUS Loans and are a percentage of the loan amount you’re borrowing. For current rates visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/loans). Your school may break down living expenses further into more specific categories like housing or travel allowance, although you’re not obligated to borrow or spend up to those amounts and you can determine where you may personally need more or less funding, up to your allowable COA budget.
It’s up to each law school to set what they think is a moderate budget for living—and moderate is the key word here. The student budget is meant to encompass either the entire student population or a large, specific population, such as students living with family, living on campus, or living off campus on their own. Your financial aid budget will be very limited as to what can be included as an exception for individual needs. A major point to keep in mind is that the living expense budget will be for the academic year, which is only nine months in most cases. That leaves it up to you to cover your financial needs prior to starting school, as well as for the summer after your 1L year, because you probably won’t receive your first refund for living expenses from your education loans until after classes begin. Ask your financial aid office when the earliest refund availability date is.
At the graduate level, there are limited options for federal aid, compared to what undergraduate students have available. Federal aid boils down to Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Federal Direct Graduate PLUS Loans, Federal Perkins Loans (although this program is expected to be winding down starting in the 2015–2016 year and not all schools may have this available), and Federal work-study. You will most likely be borrowing the lion’s share of your living expenses out of your Grad PLUS Loan, which has the highest interest rate of these loans (6.84% for 2015–2016).
Geography and living expenses
If you are looking at multiple law schools, it’s helpful to compare those schools’ living expense budgets against one another, grouping your options by geographic area if they aren’t in the same place already. If you notice one school is heavily budgeting where another isn’t, don’t feel out of place asking how they arrived at their budgeted costs! For instance, schools near fewer public transportation options may allot more in their budgets for car-related expenses.
Are you making a major move to go to law school? Consider that your financial aid will likely not cover the cost of moving. Start planning ahead if you’re going to need a first/last/security deposit for your new apartment, movers, and transportation for your belongings and yourself.
Does your school offer on-campus housing (and if they do, is it comparable in price to living off campus)? If you will be living off campus, consider how far you want to be, what transportation is available, and if you’re willing to live with a roommate. Don’t let pride get to you; just because you’re no longer an undergrad doesn’t mean you’ve outgrown having roommates! Consider your new roommate as part of your 1L support network and look into whether your school has a roommate list for future 1Ls to help you get started. Even a current student roommate list can be helpful—it can benefit you to know someone who’s already weathered their first year.
If you’re completely new to the area and unsure about things like crime and transportation options, ask the admission office or see if you can get contact info for a current student who can help you figure out what’s best! Don’t assume the closest housing to your law school is the best option, regardless of its price. Also, if you’re moving to a major metropolitan area and you own a car, seriously consider the pros and cons of keeping it, as your financial aid budget may not have enough room to cover all of your needs.
Planning ahead—and thinking conservatively
This last part can be tough, but it cannot be overstated: it’s incredibly important to make a budget for yourself and be as conservative in your spending as possible, at least during your 1L year. You are not obligated to borrow the full cost-of-attendance budget, nor will you be prevented from borrowing those funds you didn’t initially accept later in the academic year. You will likely be requesting loan amounts for the entire academic year, and the loan request you make will be split into two equal disbursements, one for each semester. Be stringent with your finances at least for the fall semester to get a clear idea of which areas you might not need the full allotted budget to cover. You can then reassess what you will need for the spring semester.
Borrowing additional loans later in the year, up to your maximum COA budget, will save you from having accrued interest on those funds, had you requested them at the beginning of the year. It may be a drop in the bucket, but savings are savings! Planning smartly, you could manage to have a decent amount left of your living expense budget that you can request to borrow before the end of the academic year and use to live off of during the summer months. You may also consider initially under-borrowing to give yourself a safety net, in case an emergency or unforeseen expense comes up during the year. Your school will be limited in what they can allow as a budget increase, so leaving room to borrow later may help you avoid any serious and/or stressful hardship should one arise.