Budgeting for Law School

(Written in May, 2014)

As those invisible "improvements in the economy" fail to show up in your pocket, the law school's budget becomes a significant consideration.

Let's start with tuition. You may think it's a "fixed" cost, but it's not.

  • Is tuition per credit or term? If it's by credit hours, an overload will cost you big bucks, and may not be included in your budget.
  • Does it include all fees, or are some of them (parking permits, for instance) moved over to cost of living? Some public schools have an out-of-state "fee" that looks a lot like tuition but doesn't go into that column of the budget.
  • What about books? Law students, more than any other people I know, want to buy every study aid, outline, flash card, audio book, e-book, flowchart and hornbook in existence. Maybe one of those things is in your budget; maybe none are.
    • Look at your book budget;
    • Buy the required materials;
    • Now look to see how much, if any, is left.
    • STAY IN YOUR BOOK BUDGET! It's one of the big three for overspending. (Starbucks and rent are the other two.)

Now let's move over to the "cost of living" column. This figure is usually way too low.

The numbers are checked regularly, and for a number of public schools, are provided by some state office or another. The numbers themselves aren't out of line; the assumptions are.

Rent. It was a great musical! Did you see it? Do you want to live like that? If not, read on.

  • The most costly assumption is that you'll share an apartment. That may be a reasonable assumption for undergrads, but law students tend to think of themselves as too grown up for shared housing. Okay, you're a grown-up; are you a rich grown-up?
  • A second assumption, not quite as costly but still a problem, is that you're paying for housing for nine months. If you're in a desirable urban area you can probably get a summer sublet (assuming your lease allows that), and minimize the difference between your budget and your bank account. If there are no desirable summer jobs or programs, there's no one interested in subletting your apartment. You may be able to break the lease for a fee — how much of one?
    • The ability to sublet is linked to demography, not law school reputation. There are summer jobs in Boston. Are there summer jobs in New Haven? I don't know. There are summer jobs in New York, and students from NYU and NYLS will probably both be fine. But what about students at Pace and Hofstra? What's the summer sublet market on Long Island, factoring in the cost and time of commute to the city? I don't know.
    • I repeat: I don't know. I don't want to make assumptions. Maybe Raleigh has plenty of summer work for Duke and Carolina students; maybe it doesn't. I don't know.
  • Many schools have student housing, but not necessarily in quantity. Also, if grad and undergrad housing aren't separate it may be noisy. If you're thinking of using it, check it out early.
    • How can you find out? If the law school has a student chat board that you can access, ask them. They know :)
    • Many law schools have a facebook account. If you're looking there, make sure you know to whom you are talking. (I rarely get as fancy as "to whom," but you're law students now.)
    • Don't talk to undergrads; the assumptions are all different.
    • Married students' housing has more grad students, but also more babies.
    • Special-interest dorms (ethnic, language, LGBT, etc.) shouldn't make a difference in terms of assumptions, but check whether you're welcome before you sign a lease.

Food. Consider your peers. If they tend to have outside sources of funds, these caveats may not apply to them, and if you try to keep up with the wealthier students, you may find yourself in a lot of trouble at semester's end. That's a really bad time to be in trouble; you're supposed to be studying for finals, not scrounging for lunch money.

So if you're eating on the school's budget you're either going to cook your own meals from scratch or buy every meal at the cafeteria on a pre-paid meal plan. That means:

  • No Starbucks, pizza deliveries, or take-out Teriyaki or Thai.
  • No frozen TV dinners unless that really counts as dinner. If you add a beverage and a bag of chips, you're over budget.
  • If you're on a meal plan, get to the cafeteria for every meal, no matter what that does to your study-group schedule. If you oversleep, you get no breakfast. If you miss dinner, you get to have a pack of frozen bagels or fries to fend off starvation, but nothing with costly ingredients like chicken tenders or beef. (I omit tofu only because it freezes horribly, defrosting into a crumbly mess.)
  • If you cook, you must eat the leftovers.
    • That was a really hard one for me; I hate the changes of texture that come with freezing and microwaving food, and after three days or so I start to worry about bacteria. We'll deal with this one further in my next blog, on eating like a law student.
  • Learn to make coffee and tea. Buy a water filter and refill a travel cup instead of buying bottled water. The ecology will love you as much as your budget will. (I'm linking to Amazon because they seem to have more single-faucet filters, while eBay has more whole-house filters. If you worry about hard water and your skin, you might prefer them.
  • If you tend to eat certain foods frequently, shop at a discount house. I don't care if it's Sam's Club, Cost Co, or local equivalents. Muffins, tuna, canned fruits, veggies and pasta sauce are definitely cheaper by the dozen.
    • Make a list first; you'll save time and money, and planning is the type of global thinking that's definitely a legal skill.

Other Budget-Breakers

The items above tend to apply to every school's budget. The ones that follow are more hit-or-miss. They depend on the school as well as on your circumstances.

  • Travel or transportation. Most schools assume no car payments, no airfares, and perhaps no auto insurance. These assumptions are more often true at cities with adequate public transit and at public schools.
    • Why public schools? In-state students are less likely to fly home. If your state is California or Texas, check your budget carefully.
    • If a school has large parking lots, the cost of a parking permit is often included, and buses may make a circuit that includes the law school. Check how often they run; bus schedules can control your life as much as cafeteria hours.
  • Computers. Some schools will assume you have a nifty new one, Cloud and exam software compatible. Some schools require a Microsoft-based computer, although I'm told this is less common than it used to be. (Until perhaps 2010 or 2011, Exam Soft didn't run on an Apple.) If your computer doesn't meet the school's requirements, they may include more money in the budget, or they may not. They may require you to buy a pre-packaged computer that they sell, so you'll have everything you need to be compatible with their systems.
    • If you must buy a computer, look at ebay. I've bought all my laptops there and been happy with every one. (I do my office work on a system that was custom-designed for me by a senior analyst at Microsoft. Thank you, anonymous kind sir. Thank you, my sister Ardell, for referring anonymous to me.)
  • Wardrobe. You'll need two good suits and four or five shirts or blouses of a professional nature, plus accessories (ties, watches, conservatively tasteful bling (earrings and necklaces or tie clips and cufflinks), and appropriate shoes.
    • Why so many? In case you spill something on the one you're wearing tonight and have a meeting tomorrow. If you've never, ever, had someone bump into you and spill your drink onto your clothes, you may be excused.
      • I can tell that one of these future blogs will have to be a photo-tour of clothing.

This list is as exhaustive as I can make it without knowing your school's budget, and, as I said above, the school's chat boards or facebook page will know more about the local scene than I possibly can. And thanks to my friends in the law school world who remembered a few things (like facebook pages) that I'd overlooked!


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