Skip to main content

The ultimate guide to financing your medical school education

          Young person holding a hot drink, looking at their smart phone.

Every year, nearly 3,000 students enter Canada’s 17 medical schools. Many of them — perhaps including you — have spent years dreaming of bettering the world through their practice of medicine.

Yet your dreams of practising medicine probably didn’t include the high cost of getting there. The median debt for medical school graduates is $80,000, with 32% of grads with debt reporting owing $120,000 or more, according to the Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada.

Add this to undergraduate education debt — $28,000 for the average Canadian university graduate — and you are looking at a hefty sum you’ll likely have to start paying back once you’re no longer considered a student.

Medical school-related debt: Nearly 10% of graduates owe more than $200K

Less than $20K 7.7%
$20K to <$80K 40.1%
$80K to <$140K 28.2%
$140K to <$200K 14.5%
$200K or more 9.5%

Source: The Association of Faculties of Medicine of Canada

This guide will walk you through the most common forms of medical school funding and offer strategies to set you up for financial success. 

  1. Apply for scholarships and bursaries to avoid borrowing more than you have to.
  2. Maximize government grants to minimize debt.
  3. Get government loans to cover the remaining costs.
  4. Establish good credit to ensure financial security.
  5. Secure a line of credit for any additional funding.
  6. Budget wisely to avoid unnecessary debt.
  7. Develop good financial habits as a medical student, to prepare you for residency.
  8. After you graduate, apply for loan forgiveness and relief programs.
  9. Build a financial plan that works for you.

Apply for scholarships and bursaries

Scholarships and bursaries are the first things to look at because you don’t have to pay them back. Scholarships are earned through academic or other merit, whereas bursaries are distributed based on financial need or return-of-service arrangements.

Bursaries and scholarships tend to have application deadlines in the fall, so make sure you look for these and get your applications in early.

Keep in mind that most scholarships and bursaries won’t cover the entire cost of med school. You’ll likely have to find additional funding streams, such as government grants, government loans or other types of loans.

Let’s start by looking at government grants.

Maximize government grants

Grants are an excellent option for education funding because you do not need to pay back what you receive. Canada Student Grants provide financial assistance to post-secondary students and are distributed to qualified students based on financial need.

Seek out grants from the federal and provincial/territorial governments. The amount you may receive depends not only on financial need but also on the province where you attend medical school, and it’s difficult to determine how much you might receive until you apply.

Some grants are specially designed for certain students, such as those with financial dependants, students with disabilities, and First Nations and Inuit students. But most grant money is allocated based on student financial need and is available to all Canadians.

Even if you do receive grants (and even if that’s in addition to scholarships and/or bursaries), you will likely still have to borrow to finance the rest of your medical school costs. This next step is the most stressful part of financing: taking on debt.

Get government loans

Both the Government of Canada and provincial/territorial governments have their own student loan programs.

Canada Student Loans are available for full-time study at designated schools, including some post-secondary institutions outside Canada, to students who meet the eligibility criteria.

In non-pandemic times, you have to start paying back the loan in monthly payments six months after you finish your studies. In April 2021, the federal government announced that Canada Student Loans would be interest-free until March 31, 2023. Interest won’t accrue during this period, so you won’t need to think about paying back the federal portion of your student loan until after that date.

In a normal year, the interest rate is the same as the prime rate, which is relatively low. Each year, you get a 15% federal tax credit on any interest you paid on Canada Student Loans. You can take advantage of this tax credit as long as you owe some income tax; if you don’t, you can carry the credit forward for up to five years and use it at a better time.

Family physicians and residents in family medicine who practise in remote and underserved areas may be eligible for repayment assistance, which reduces the balance they owe on Canada Student Loans.

Read more: What you need to know about government student grants and loans

Before you apply for any financial aid, consult an advisor. Ideally, this person should specialize in financing medical school studies. From the very start of the application process through to medical school and your residency journey, a financial advisor can help you get the most value out of your funding options and help you manage and pay off your debt when you’re ready to.

MD Advisors* and Scotiabank Advisors have the experience and depth of knowledge to guide students in their financial decisions through medical school and beyond. They can help you start your journey on the right foot. 

Note that your financial circumstances may affect how much you receive from governments. For example, having assets in a tax-free savings account (TFSA) may reduce the amount you can get. If you have a spouse or common-law partner, their assets may also affect how much you can receive.

Establish good credit

Regardless of your later profession or specialization, your credit score will have a significant impact on your adult life. Demonstrating that you’re a reliable borrower will help to maintain and even boost your credit score. And that will affect your ability to borrow in the future (and the interest rates you’ll receive) when, for example, you need a mortgage for your first home.

Credit scores range from 300 to 900. The higher your score, the better. Obviously, paying your bills on time (including loan repayments) will increase your credit score, while failing to pay on time (or at all) will lower your score.

Poor 300-559; Fair 560-659; Good 660-724; Very good 725-759; Excellent 760-900

Source: Equifax

Whether you like it or not, credit reporting agencies (TransUnion and Equifax in Canada) are keeping track of your credit history and assessing your viability as a borrower. Your history is updated every time you apply for a loan or line of credit, so the information you provide on the application is used to update the score. One item that will keep your score high is the length of time you’ve had debt or a credit card (longer is better).

Check your own credit report and score. TransUnion and Equifax will send you a free copy of your credit report by mail — but it won’t include your credit score. For a fee, these two credit bureaus will give you your credit report and credit score online.  You can also access your credit score for free through your financial institution, if available. 

A credit score of 700 and above should qualify you for the best interest rates, while a score below 650 may limit your ability to open new lines of credit. There is no “hit” to your credit when you check your own credit report, so don’t hesitate to request this baseline information.

NEXT STEP: Learn more about how to boost and maintain your credit score.

Secure a line of credit 

After applying for scholarships, bursaries, government grants and government student loans, you’ll probably find that you’re still short on funding for medical school. If so, you’ll likely want to apply for a student line of credit.

The major benefits of a student line of credit are flexibility and lower interest. A student line of credit is different from a traditional loan because you only borrow money as you need it, and pay interest only on the funds you withdraw. This is an important benefit that can save you money compared with taking out a traditional loan. A student line of credit also provides more flexible repayment options, generally requiring lower monthly payments than traditional government loans do.

The snag with all this flexibility is that rates can change. The interest rate for a student line of credit is usually based on the prime rate. For example, your interest rate might be “prime rate minus 0.15%,” which would give you a 3.55% interest rate when prime is 3.70%1. As the prime rate changes, the interest rate you pay will change, so it’s important to keep a close eye on interest rates overall — and to have a sense of where those rates might be headed.

The other downside to a student line of credit is that, unlike a government loan, interest accrues immediately on the amount you borrow. Some student lines of credit allow for capitalized interest, which means that you may sometimes be allowed to skip a payment and have the interest owing added to the principal amount (the original amount you borrowed). This can provide some financial relief — but remember that it increases the debt that you will need to repay later.

A line chart of the Canadian prime rate from March 2012 to March 2022

Source: Bank of Canada, January 2012 to April 2022

To compare lines of credit, focus on the features and benefits. Though many lines of credit offered to students have similar terms across providers, they tend to diverge when it comes to the features and benefits offered — like grace periods, conversion options and payment options. There are also the intangibles: do you get along with, and trust, your contacts at a particular service provider?

You may want to consider the Scotia Professional® Student Plan, You may want to consider the Scotia Professional® Student Plan, which is available to medical students through the Scotiabank Healthcare+ Physician Banking Program. It offers a line of credit of up to $350,000 with an interest rate of prime minus 0.25%2, fully available at account opening and no payments are required until two years have finished your residency3. Note, however, that interest is charged on amounts withdrawn will be payable from the time of withdrawal. The Scotiabank Healthcare+ Physician Banking Program also offers other banking benefits to medical students and residents including a fee waiver on your chequing account and select credit cards (subject to conditions) .  

Whichever line of credit you pursue, apply early. The best practice is to complete your application at the same time that you apply for government grants and loans.

NEXT STEP: Go back to basics and learn what a student line of credit is and how it works.

Budget wisely 

One of the most crucial challenges for students is to budget effectively. Generally, about half the cost of medical school is directly related to education, while the other half comprises basic living expenses. Understanding how each piece of the financial puzzle fits together can be daunting.  

The cost of tuition and living can vary significantly. For example, medical students at the University of Saskatchewan pay almost double the tuition that University of Manitoba students pay (about $18,700 and $11,300, respectively). Another thing to think about is that it will generally cost more to live in a big city than in a small town.

Wherever you end up, accurately assessing the costs of medical school and living is one of the first steps in the budgeting process.

Building a budget starts with an honest assessment. It’s important to realize you cannot just take the amount of your funding and divide it by the number of years of medical school to cover all your annual expenses.

Using a credit card instead of cash can help you keep track of all the money you spend. The earlier you start keeping track, the more prepared you’ll be when it’s time to budget for your semester expenses.

But watch out! A credit card is also a responsibility. Be sure to pay off your balance at the end of the month — in full — or your credit score will be negatively impacted.

TIP: It’s never a good idea to borrow money directly through your credit card that you can’t pay back at the end of the month because the interest rates on your credit cards can be upwards of 20%!

Remember that you must pay interest on everything you borrow. So the best practice is to borrow only as much as you need.

Consider the sources you’re drawing from. If you earn a grant, scholarship or bursary, or if some of your loans are interest-free, be sure to spend that money before you borrow funds that you’ll have to pay interest on.

Anticipate major looming costs. Large expenses like tuition, books and exams can put a dent in your bank account, but they’re foreseeable and manageable with proper planning. The final years could also be more expensive than the first ones because they may require travelling for electives, exams and more. Stay on top of upcoming expenses because the last thing you want to deal with during medical school are fees for overdrafts on your bank account. 

Even if you budget properly for your first year of medical school, you might find yourself feeling suffocated by rising costs throughout your education. Having (and, most importantly, sticking to) a budget will be critical in preparing you for those rising costs.

Develop good financial habits 

The habits you’ll develop by sticking to a budget will serve you well throughout your life. During medical school, there are ways to control spending and keep debt manageable, including estimating your expenses and setting a monthly allowance.

After you graduate from medical school, next up is residency, during which you get to practise medicine under the supervision of senior practitioners while earning a salary. Residency specialties normally take four or five years, while a residency in family medicine is generally two years.

That’s why it’s critical to have access to a line of credit, whether it’s the same one from your medical school years or a new one. Unlike student loans and grants, a line of credit may still be available to you after you graduate. This is a great option if you can’t confidently estimate how much residency will cost (think exams, Canadian Medical Protective Association dues, training, immunization, police checks, etc.) or how long it will take to complete.

After you graduate, apply for loan forgiveness and relief programs 

Depending on where you want to practise, you may qualify for loan forgiveness programs. Provincial programs, especially family medicine programs, provide financial assistance through the governments of several provinces and are often designed to attract physicians to underserved areas. Family physicians and residents working in underserved or rural communities may also qualify for loan forgiveness through the Canada Student Loan forgiveness program.

Certain programs have location-specific financial perks. For example, in Prince Edward Island, you may be able to avoid paying interest on your student loans through the Medical Residency Provincial Loan Repayment Relief program.

If you’re completing your residency in Ontario, and you’re willing to stick around for another five years after your residency, you may be able to avoid paying any of the principal or interest on your medical school federal and provincial loans through the Resident Loan Interest Relief Program by entering into a Physician Return of Service agreement. You’ll have to make sure you can abide by all the terms of the agreement (location, duration and other terms). Otherwise, you’ll be dropped from the program and will have to pay back your medical school loans in full.

Now, build a financial plan that works for you 

Deciding how to finance medical school is just the first of many big financial decisions you’ll make on your journey through medical school and residency, and into practice. Now that you’ve started the process, you’ll find out quickly why it’s so important for you to understand what strategies available, and which ones are make the most sense for your particular needs.

MD Financial Management and Scotiabank are happy to help in this and other ways. If you follow the advice in this guide, you’ll likely ace the subject of medical school funding — we only wish we could make it that easy for you to ace your exams! 

Talk to an MD Advisor* or Scotiabank Advisor today.

All banking and credit products and services are offered by The Bank of Nova Scotia (“Scotiabank”) unless otherwise noted. Credit and lending products are subject to credit approval by Scotiabank. Terms and conditions apply to all reward programs and benefits and should be reviewed carefully before applying. All offers, rates, fees, features, reward programs and benefits and related terms and conditions are subject to change. Visit scotiabank.com or speak with your MD Advisor or a Scotiabank representative for full details

® Registered trademarks of The Bank of Nova Scotia.

* MD Advisor refers to an MD Management Limited Financial Consultant or Investment Advisor (in Quebec), or an MD Private Investment Counsel Portfolio Manager
1 current as of June 22, 2022
2

The annual interest rate will vary with Scotiabank Prime and, where applicable, the adjustment factor. Scotiabank Prime is the prime lending rate of Scotiabank published from time to time and is subject to change. We may also change the adjustment factor with prior notice. You can find the current Scotiabank Prime lending rate at https://www.scotiabank.com/ca/en/personal/rates-prices.html or by contacting Scotiabank 1(800) 4SCOTIA (1-800-472-6842)

3 While you remain in school and for 24 months after your residency program ends (the “Repayment Grace Period”) no payments will be required on your Scotia Professional Student Plan Line of Credit (the “Account”) so long as your balance does not exceed the credit limit on your Account but interest will continue to accrue during that Repayment Grace Period and is charged on any amount you borrow starting from the day you borrow until you pay that amount in full. See the Application Disclosure Statement we provide to you or speak with your Scotiabank Advisor for more information about the repayment grace period and how interest is charged to your Account.
The above information should not be construed as offering specific financial, investment, foreign or domestic taxation, legal, accounting or similar professional advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of independent tax, accounting or legal professionals.

The above information should not be construed as offering specific financial, investment, foreign or domestic taxation, legal, accounting or similar professional advice nor is it intended to replace the advice of independent tax, accounting or legal professionals.