“Thrifty budget” reduces overall MU law school debt by $25,000 since 2014

The financial aid office works with students on reducing living expenses with hopes that they graduate with significantly less debt.

The School of Law’s budget plan, which is now available for all law school students as of this fall, has decreased student debt by 21 percent.

The “thrifty budget” is specific to MU law students, said Jeff Turnbull, coordinator of student financial aid at the law school. The budget includes group and individualized counseling from MU law financial aid officers, such as Turnbull. Students are provided with tips and advice on how to decrease the amount of debt they may graduate with.

“What I like to tell students is that ‘this is not your landing point; this is not where you're going to stay for the rest of the career,’” Turnbull said. “‘While you’re here, just nickel and dime your way through it and do everything that you can to save money throughout law school.’”

Turnbull said the law school determines the cost of living as a law student at MU through the annual consumer price index. Using this data, the financial aid officers try to decrease that cost as much as possible for students.

For example, Turnbull said the thrifty budget emphasizes the financial benefits that come with having roommates and sharing living expenses.

The financial aid officers at the law school also use survey data from MU students about how they allocate their individual finances. Using this data, Turnbull said the budget then informs students of areas where they can cut back on spending after calculating their total expected debt using scholarships, family support and student savings.

“It directs students to be proactive and to be aware of how they can potentially impact their cost by focusing on the one area they have the most control and that’s in the living expenses,” Turnbull said.

The budget was initially proposed and phased in fall 2014, Turnbull said. Only incoming freshman law students had the opportunity to learn about it while the second- and third-year students kept to the standard budget. Now all students have the option to adhere to the new budget.

Since 2014, the thrifty budget has decreased overall student debt by about 21 percent, Turnbull said. MU law students are graduating with about $25,000 less debt than they were five years ago, Turnbull said. The average debt in 2012 was $78,110 and has since dropped to $53,480. He said that this is mainly due to both the budget plan and an increase in scholarships.

Turnbull adopted the thrifty budget idea from Michigan State University’s law school after meeting with other financial aid advisors from various universities and learning about the benefits the budget offers for students. Turnbull proposed it to the dean of the MU School of Law and it was soon brought to life with help from Michelle Heck, director of admissions and financial aid. The budget is an “opt-out” program, meaning that students are automatically provided with it when they enroll and begin school but can choose to stop working with it at any point. Turnbull said that about 74 percent students maintain the thrifty budget.

Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the MU School of Law, said she appreciates the thrifty budget because less debt allows students to pursue different career paths that they might be more interested in despite a lower salary.

“The advantages are that students are not left paying off all this debt after they graduate and are free to pursue their passion, whatever that may be,” Lidsky said. “It gives them more of a financial freedom.”

Lidsky said she was “lucky enough” to attend law school on a scholarship and knows the benefits of not having to worry about debt after graduation. Because of this, Lidsky said she was able to pursue teaching at a university, even though she wasn’t paid as much at first.

From here, Lidsky said she would like the thrifty budget idea to expand to more law schools across the country as well as other schools within MU.

“I would love to see more law schools adopt this budget,” Lidsky said. “I think all higher education institutions can use it. Success hinges on professional counseling and the help they provide to students.”

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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