By Rebecca Luczycki
Yasmin Waring was an up-and-coming young Hollywood scriptwriter when she made a decision that would change her life. She would attend law school. To do that, she moved halfway across the country, to Dayton, Ohio, gave up her glamorous $70,000-a-year job, and changed her lifestyle completely. Waring, now in her final year of school, said the drastic lifestyle change was worth it, but it took some soul-searching to make the leap.
?I went from living on $2,500 to 3,000 a month to [spending] $1,000 a month, with no car payment, no cable, no Internet and the minimum with my cell phone,? Waring said. ?I had to really count the costs. I had to consider, could I take this steep reduction in my standard of living??
Not everyone makes such dramatic sacrifices to attend law school. Many are already students living on grants, loans and parental hand-outs, while others choose to go part-time and keep their income flowing to defray costs.
Whatever your situation, there?s no avoiding the reality that law school is expensive. But with careful planning and making the most of the funding that?s out there, law school can be affordable for most students.
The real cost
For Waring, her current $1,000-a-month budget is a pretty realistic spending figure. ?That satisfies my needs and some unsolicited cash gifts from my parents have allowed me to enjoy some extras,? she said. And that monthly amount does not include large expenses such as tuition and books. But don?t tax your brain trying to figure out how much law school will cost you. The law schools have already done that part.
Every law school has an estimated cost of attendance which is available to students and lenders, updated annually. Applicants can call the school?s financial aid office, or view the breakdown of expenses on the school Web site.
Above and beyond those costs, however, you might have extra expenses, depending on your situation. Waring, for example, spent several thousand dollars to move herself and her personal items from the West Coast to Ohio.
If you have children, you may need to budget for day care, although many colleges and universities will offer on-site day care at a reduced cost.
Prepare your finances
The best way to afford law school is to spend some time getting ready for the expense before you have to write that initial check. First, start with a clean slate when it comes to debt. ?We always tell incoming students or prospective students to get rid of commercial debt or credit card debt before enrolling in law school.,? said Cari Haaland, director of admissions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minn. That allows you to start fresh and not worry about payments during your first few months of being poor. Waring did just that. ?I didn?t have any credit card debt when I came here,? she said. ?Now I do, but I budgeted for that.?
Janet Hein, director of admissions and financial aid at Dayton, suggests students also obtain a copy of their credit report before enrolling in law school, make sure it is correct and take any steps they can to clean it up. Federal lenders don?t much care what your credit is like, but private lenders do. ?In case you need a private loan,? she said. ?Many student budgets are high enough that federal loans alone will not pay for an education.?
Then, Hein said, write up a monthly budget, multiply it by the months in the academic year (usually nine) and add it to the cost of tuition, fees and books. ?Each law school has a total student budget that includes all of the above,? she said. ?The student needs to work within that budget. They should include all living costs such as car insurance, gas, electricity, rent, trash, food, entertainment, etc.? If doing that by yourself scares you, look for some help. ?Use your financial aid office, not just for the monetary aid, but for the advice they provide as well,? Waring said. ?If you are not good with budgeting, sit down with them and they can give you good advice.? Once you get into school, it?s important to be financially responsible. Stick to your budget as much as possible and pay your bills on time.
Anson Rhodes, a 3L at the University of Notre Dame School of Law in Notre Dame, Ind., said he learned that lesson the hard way. ?I had just under $5,000 balance on my credit cards when I came to law school and I?ve had some late fees,? he said. ?It?s an added expense, plus it can affect your credit.?
Simplify your life
A key step in affording law school is to spend some time preparing yourself emotionally and financially before you ever attend class.
?We tell [students] to think about simplifying their lifestyles by making more fiscally responsible decisions,? Haaland said. ?Instead of buying a coffee at Starbucks every day, make coffee at home and bring a thermos. Don’t think you can make high car payments. Perhaps you could get rid of your car and take public transportation.?
Waring said she spent the spring and summer before law school liquidating most of the things she owned.
?I sold my car and my furniture and cashed in my 401(k) and stocks,? she said. ?My lease was up in June so I spent the month of July sleeping in a friend?s guest room.?
She said it was an exercise in minimalism.
?It?s tough for me to live frugally,? she said. ?You have to psychologically prepare yourself as well.?
And when it comes to shopping, ? Target has become my best friend,? she said.
The decision about where to go to law school is also a key element in making your legal education affordable and should be based on a number of factors, including cost of living, law school administrators say. ?A student should choose a school based on the factors that are most important to them,? Hein said. ?Cost of living and or location may be two of those.?
Haaland suggests choosing based on mission, vision and the programs at the school. ?But I think that geography and price tags will always influence the decision of where to go to law school, for some students more than others,? she said. ?Students will have to determine what they can afford, but they should also remember that law school is an investment in their future.?
Cost of living was definitely what lured Waring to Dayton. ?I couldn?t have afforded to do it in Southern California,? she said. ?I couldn?t afford to go to school and live in a neighborhood where I felt safe.?
Making careful choices once you get to law school is the next step. For example, where and how will you live? Rent will vary depending on whether you live in Manhattan or rural Illinois, but you can find more affordable choices, whatever your location. ?The cost of housing right by the law school is [usually] going to be higher,? said Haaland. ?We encourage students to find roommates to help defray the cost. We also encourage students to live in St. Paul and ride the school?s free shuttle bus between our two campuses, or live further away from downtown Minneapolis and take public transportation.?
Hein said on-campus housing at Dayton also tends to run a bit higher, but students pay for the convenience of walking to class and the cost includes a lot of extras like heat, electricity, water, cable, and local phone service.
Financial experts warn, however, that students shouldn?t just go for the cheapest option. You should consider all your needs. ?You have to strike a balance between frugal and sensible,? said Kaye Castro, associate dean for student affairs at Ave Maria Law School in Ann Arbor, Mich. ?Everyone wants to live in a safe and healthy environment. You might live with three other students and save money on housing and have more to spend on other things, or you might decide to live alone. Then you might have to eat a little more Top Ramen [noodles].?
Choices you make about essentials such as food can affect costs.
?I don?t really know how much I spend on food but it?s probably more than I should because I don?t cook very much,? Rhodes said. ?I eat two meals a day out and I am afraid to do the math for that.?
Cooking at home can save a lot of money. ?I have one roommate who cooks and over the course of the year he saves a considerable amount of money, maybe enough for a couple of plane tickets for interviews, or just less debt,? Rhodes said. Another big expense is a computer. If your school of choice does not require laptops, it?s a choice you have to make. ?Should I buy a laptop or not? That?s a big consideration,? Waring said. ?I did, but I know people who have done equally well with no laptop. Don?t get distressed if you can?t afford a computer because you can do without it. I wrote all my exams since mine crashed during my first semester exams.?
Cut back on expenses like buying clothes, as well.
?It all depends on how you want to look, but first year is cool because you don?t have to impress anyone,? Waring said. ?That?s a great way to save and then you can save it all up for that interview suit.?
Health insurance is another cost to consider carefully. ?I chose not to [get insurance],? Waring said. ?It was $300 or more a term, so I decided to use the health center and pay per visit, like $25 or something. But I was sick a lot my first semester. They said it was from making the transition from Southern California.? Rhodes got health insurance, and he?s glad he did. It was expensive ? $2,407 over the three years of law school ? but he?s had a lot of unexpected health problems. ?I was diagnosed with a heart condition just before law school started,? he said. ?The big expensive thing for me was having all these tests done. Those costs were totally unexpected and they were not all covered by my health insurance.?
Thankfully, the hospital waived some of the costs because he didn?t have an income. Castro said every year she sees someone who chose not to get health care, then had a major expense such as a car accident or appendix operation. ?What you are really looking for is the catastrophic care, if you broke a leg and had to spend a week in hospital,? she said. ?It?s a really traumatic expense.?
Be prepared for surprises
You can plan all you want, but there will still be surprises. ?Books were the biggest surprise for me,? Waring said. ?Books are phenomenally expensive. When I saw the estimated amount at first, I thought I could save there but I didn?t.? Kathleen Exel, a 3L at St. Thomas, suggests buying used books online to save money. ?There are a lot of used books out there that are in good shape,? she said. The library may also have books you can check out, and upper classmen may loan or sell their books to you.
Keep in mind, supplements such as study aids and outlines are not usually included in the estimated book costs the school will give you. ?I spent about $150 on those in my first semester alone,? Waring said. ?The second year I checked them out from the library.? Some groups you want to join may have costs associated too. ?Everyone?s dues were really reasonable except the Black Law Students Association,? Waring said. ?It was $65. That was a big surprise. I didn?t join because of that. They have reduced the price since.? Exel said she joined several local bar association groups to help with networking. They each cost about $20 for the student rate. ?Then you have a fundraiser here and there and you usually have to shell out to participate,? she said. ?I have made some great contacts through them but at the same time, it?s an extra expense.?
So how do you pay for all of this if you don?t have a rich benevolent uncle? Law school administrators urge applicants to investigate scholarships and grants through their law schools, undergraduate schools and any other sources [like local service agencies, bar associations, churches and public interest groups] at the earliest possible date.
?And meet all deadlines [to ensure you qualify for the most money],? Hein said. ?Some law schools have separate applications for scholarships. Some simply use the application for admission to award scholarships.? Hein said about 40 percent of the entering class at Dayton receives a scholarship. Most schools hand out money based on merit ? undergraduate grades, LSAT score and your resume are considered ? and on financial need.
?The scholarships have renewal requirements in order for the student to retain the scholarship in their second and third years,? she said.
Next, submit federal loan forms to get the cheapest loans you can.
?Federal Stafford loans are at historic lows. In many cases for students in school, they are below 3 percent,? said Erin Korsvall, media spokesperson for law school lender Sallie Mae. Those rates are up for review next summer and will likely go up, but will still be attractive. ?We do encourage borrowers who are eligible to secure federal loans first, not only because they have the lowest rates, but they may also be eligible for interest subsidies while they are in school,? said Karen Kurtz, Sallie Mae?s manager of law loans. Federal loans will cover up to $18,500 a year. After that, you have to look for private loans to cover the rest.
In total, you?ll be able to borrow up to the maximum estimated cost your school has published, minus any grants and scholarships you get. But only borrow what you think you?ll need. You can always ask the financial aid office to help you get more during the school year if you think you?ll be short.
?The loan limits are fairly generous, particularly when you combine both federal and private loans,? said Daryl Leake, senior vice president of the customer segment channel and products for lender Key Education Resources. ?You don?t really want to borrow unless you need the money.?
Also look into consolidating any outstanding undergraduate loans you have before you start law school. It might save you money in the long run.
?As long as you consolidate while you are in a grace period or repayment, it?s fine,? said Jeffrey Hanson, director of borrower education services for Access Group, a law school lender. ?Once you have returned to school the lender puts your loans back into in-school status and they cannot be consolidated.?
Rebecca Luczycki is editor in chief of PreLaw magazine.