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A financial aid expert shares her top tips for navigating the complicated world of law school budgets, borrowing, and more.

Law school financial aid can be confusing. Even if you sailed through the undergrad financial aid process, there are new things to consider as a law student—and lots of questions to answer.

When should you apply? How can you make sure you have enough in the bank to cover your summer expenses? Should you borrow “extra” to pad your savings account? And much more.

Luckily, financial aid expert and Assistant Director of Financial Aid at New England Law | Boston Nicole Bonito is here to share her top tips, tricks, and reminders for navigating the process and paying for law school.  

1. Don’t Assume You’re Ineligible for Financial Aid

Bonito says one of the most common mistakes law students make is to assume they’re ineligible for financial aid. This often happens to students who were ineligible for certain types of aid as an undergrad due to their parents’ earnings and assets. But as a law student, everything is different!

Once you enter a graduate program like law school, your federal financial aid eligibility is based on your information alone. Part of that funding may even be guaranteed. In any case it’s rare for a law student not to be eligible for at least some federal aid, Bonito says.

They only way to see if you’ll get federal financial aid is to file the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). And you should do so as soon as the form becomes available on October 1 the year before you intend to enroll in law school.

Remember, you have nothing to lose by applying.

2. Your Federal Aid Package Is Virtually the Same No Matter Where You Go

Once you file the FAFSA and the government determines your federal aid eligibility, that’s what it is for the year—it’s not going to change from school to school. “Students don’t realize that the loan offers they receive will be very, very similar at every other law school they apply to,” Bonito says.

What is most likely to change is the amount you can borrow in Graduate PLUS loans, because that’s determined by the budget set by each individual law school. “The big difference is the cost of attendance budget that a school sets up,” Bonito says. “One thing that might be helpful when comparing law schools is what the nitty gritty details of the cost of attendance budget looks like, because that's where you'll see big differences. Besides tuition, of course.”

FYI: Institutional merit scholarships and grants will likely vary considerably too, because they’re awarded by the individual institutions.

3. “Financial Aid” May Not Include Scholarships

At New England Law, like most law schools, “financial aid” largely refers to federal loans or work-study; merit-based awards and other scholarships are awarded separately. Keep this in mind as you’re reviewing your financial aid award letters as you consider what’s “free money” for law school—and what you’ll be expected to pay back.

“It is important to make the distinction that scholarships are granted during admissions at our school,” Bonito says. “Our office largely deals with determining the federal loans.”

So if you have scholarship questions, you may want to direct them to the law school’s admissions office.

Related: Expert Tips for How to Get Law School Scholarships

4. Law School Budgets Determine Everything

Federal regulations require law schools to create and share their total cost of attendance budget, which is used to determine federal loan borrowing limits. But this budget can be an invaluable tool in your own financial planning too, and Bonito suggests law students budget very thoughtfully.

The New England Law Office of Financial Aid sets a moderate estimated budget to make room for a variety of student borrowing needs, Bonito says. They develop this budget by looking at the previous year’s cost of attendance, local cost of living and transportation expenses, and the College Board’s recommended budget for the region, which is based on the consumer price index and other factors. Then they then adjust for the New England Law community as needed.

“We want this budget to be a real, reasonable amount,” Bonito says, “but it is up to every student to decide how they want to spend that money once they have it.”

Before you even look at a school’s budget, create a budget of your own and compare your estimated living expense to what the school will allow. Study living expense budgets closely too, because they may differ even between nearby law schools, Bonito says.

Create a budget of your own and compare your estimated living expense to what the law school will allow. Study living expense budgets closely too, because they may differ even between nearby law schools.

5. Don’t Forget About Your Undergrad Debt

Like so many law students (or, you know, anyone who went to college after 1975), you might have debt from your undergrad days. It’s important to make sure your loan servicers know about your current student status to pause or prevent your undergrad debt from going into repayment.

During the summer before your 1L year, in June or July, check on the deferment status of any prior borrowed federal and private education loans. Federal loans should go into an automatic in-school deferment when classes begin, since each law school is required to report the enrollment status of its students. But sometimes a private lender needs additional deferment paperwork.

Law students should contact their lenders and/or loan servicers, get clarification on what is needed to prove their enrollment, and forward any paperwork that needs to be approved to their law school’s registrar. 

6. Now Is NOT the Time to Live Large

The more conservative you are with your budgeting and spending in law school, the better. “Live like a student when you are a student!” Bonito says. (Free pizza at campus events, anyone?)

This is particularly important to remember if you’re borrowing money—which most law students are—because it’s easy to go overboard. What’s another $1,000 when you’re borrowing $50,000, right? But that money comes at a price: interest payments, which can really swell over a twenty-five-year repayment plan.

In addition to living well within your means, Bonito recommends law students examine their cost of attendance budget and adjust their expenses based on that guide, erring on the side of under-borrowing initially if they can. You can always borrow more later in the academic year if you need it. That being said…

“Yes, you could borrow more,” Bonito says, “but should you?”

7. Be Extra Careful Your First Year of Law School

Your first year of law school sets an important financial foundation, as you’re learning the true costs of being a law student. For some students, especially those coming directly from undergrad, it may be the first time they’re living off campus and away from home.

“Use your 1L year as a test,” Bonito recommends. “After a few months, you can see where your budget has gone.”

Keep a close eye on your real-world spending and cost-of-living needs that first semester. These findings should inform your future choices, especially when it comes to student loan borrowing. “Assuming that you haven't borrowed your full loans, you can ask to borrow more a bit for the spring,” Bonito says. “That way you’ve saved a little, interest-wise.” Conversely, if you overborrowed in the fall, you’ll know to scale things back for the spring.

Keep in mind that the first year of law school is potentially the most expensive too. If you’re traveling across the country for school, you may have additional costs, like a security deposit on a new apartment or other moving expenses, which are typically not included in the official academic year budget.

8. Keep Tabs on Timing

When planning your law school finances, timing is critical.

Law schools aren’t allowed to release any federal funding prior to the beginning of classes, so if your budget is dependent on student loans, you need to plan accordingly. Confirm when you’ll get your fall semester financial aid refund check, especially if you plan to use it for living expenses and books.

“When you are accepting loans, the request is processed for the full year, with funds dispersed in equal amounts each semester,” Bonito says. “You can talk to the financial aid office in November or December if you need to amend your spring disbursement in any way.”

9. Factor in Summer Spending

Bonito warns law students to remember the summer months in their law school budgeting. That’s because schools’ official budgets only account for the academic year (usually nine months) for the time you’re enrolled in classes. Planning your finances for the summer is up to you. Bonito recommends breaking the official law school budget into twelve months and stretching your money—student loans, earnings, savings, or otherwise—to fit.

After all, you don’t want to pass up an amazing unpaid or low-paid summer internship because you had to take a part-time job over the summer to make ends meet. (Fun fact: all New England Law students can participate in our Summer Fellowship Program, which comes with a $3,500 stipend for “unpaid” legal positions.)

Use your 1L year as a test. After a few months, you can see where your budget has gone.

10. Don’t Borrow Money to Put in Savings

Saving money in preparation for law school is a great idea. However, deliberately over-borrowing isn’t the way to do it. While it might seem like a fine way to give yourself a financial cushion, it’s better to plan your budget carefully (including your summer expenses) and borrow just enough to cover your needs.

“The interest you’re going to get off that savings is nothing compared to the interest that’s accruing,” Bonito warns. “It’s not really the wisest thing.”

The best strategy is to borrow conservatively during the academic year, Bonito says. The financial aid office will give you the chance to borrow any remaining funds in your budget before the end of April each year. This would be a good time to borrow more to help cover summer expenses, if you think you’ll need it.

11. Ask for Help

Money stuff can get confusing fast. Don’t be shy about reaching out to the financial aid folks if you need help, even before you get to law school.

“It's never too early to call and ask a question,” Bonito says. Just be sure to mention what you want to do with your law career, so the financial aid office at your law school can tailor their recommendations to what will benefit you most down the road.

You can ask for help as an alumnus too. Bonito says they get a handful of alumni each year asking for financial recommendations and advice. “If they’re having trouble with their loan servicer, they might not know where to turn, and we can point them in the right direction,” she says.

The New England Law Office of Financial Aid also connects graduates to their partner organization, AccessLex Institute, which offers free comprehensive financial resources and advice for law students and alumni. Speaking of which…

12. Take Advantage of Free Resources

Your law school will almost certainly have helpful financial aid resources available to you, both as a student and after you graduate. And even though they’re typically free, you ostensibly “paid” for them with your tuition, so you might as well use them!

For example, Bonito and her team host financial literacy workshops every year, covering everything from budgeting basics to “financial psychology” tips to student loan strategies for soon-to-be graduates. “Everyone can benefit,” she says.

Want to learn more about law school financial aid? Take a look at the offerings at New England Law | Boston.