Spending: What’s Worth It In Business School — And What Isn’t

You arrive as a first-year in business school. Within a month of arriving on campus, you have been inundated with invitations to join the Healthcare Club, attend Tuck Carnival, and join treks organized by your classmates to places like Israel and India. How do you decide what’s worth your time and money — and what’s not?

I recently conducted an informal survey of recent MBA graduates to discover their answers. Via Instagram (with additional follow-ups by email), I asked an open-ended question: “What was worth it in business school? What was not?” The majority of written responses were about travel — which was well worth it to most MBA graduates. In response to the question, “Do you agree, ‘Travel was worth it. Clubs and Swag were not?’ 45 of 50 respondents agreed.

Here’s the rest of what they said.

WHAT’S WORTH IT

Travel: The overwhelming response was that travel is worth it. It’s a great way to build relationships with your peers and is an opportunity you may not have again later in life. Business school is a unique time where it is not uncommon to travel with a group of 20 to 30. The location may not matter as much as the people. While just about every MBA surveyed agreed that they would spend the money on group trips again, these trips don’t always have to be $2,500 per person treks to a far-off locale.

One 2020 Harvard Business School grad said, “I went on three school-organized treks and each one was a good opportunity to see a new place, to meet new people, and to deepen relationships I had already made. This being said, I think there are ways to do this without paying $1,300 for a plane ticket to Australia. I’d recommend that budget-conscious students think about what they’re trying to accomplish (meet new people, deepen relationships, or do a specific activity like hiking or skiing) and understand that there’s the opportunity to do that locally or more cheaply. At the end of the day, what was most memorable about these trips was not necessarily the country-specific things but rather the friendships forged or strengthened.”

On the flip side, a 2018 Haas grad shared that the sticker shock of the $3,000 per person treks scared her from participating in her first year. In year two, she picked a few trips and they were well worth it. While expensive, this MBA grad had not traveled much internationally before business school, and those experiences led her to prioritize travel in her current life.

Taking time off before school: While this came up less frequently in our survey results, it’s also something that MBAs value very highly. Narmeen Haider, a 2020 Harvard grad, said that taking time off before business school to see family friends and unwind was definitely worth it to her. It may be harder to get that quality time after graduation.

On-Campus Housing: Going into the semester, you have the option to live on or off campus and you may also have the choice to live in a dorm. While the right choice of housing will depend on a variety of factors, think about what you are trying to optimize for in school. If you are married or in a relationship, living on campus may not be a good option for a working partner.

However, if you’re single and your primary objective is to build relationships, living on campus close to other students may facilitate that goal. While living in a dorm might be a transition from years of apartment living, they are often cheaper than apartments while offering the same great location. As one recent graduate said, “My dorm was super centrally located — I could be in class in five minutes. I didn’t have to worry about finding a sublet during the summers (I knew several people that couldn’t find sublets and paid up to six months of rent that they didn’t use.) Further, my dorm had a phenomenal community feel and I made great friends in my dorm. Highly recommend!”

WHAT’S NOT WORTH IT

Clubs: This was the most frequent answer that came up for things that were not worth it. Some suggested asking friends to forward relevant emails. The main takeaway, if you are on the fence about joining a club, do not join. By January of your first year, you will have stopped reading most of the superfluous club emails, and you will wish that you had saved your money.

Party Tickets: Party tickets frequently came up as something that was “not worth it.” One current Wharton student shared that parties range from $35 to $100 for one night with open bar. It’s easy to see why she calls those prices “ridiculous.”

While it’s easy to feel FOMO in your first year, don’t feel like you have to attend every event or party. There may be other ways to participate in on-campus experiences. For example, Tieranny Baker, a 2020 Ross Graduate said, “Football season tickets were $400 and unnecessary. I could’ve bought them from classmates when there were games I wanted to go to.

“Most times I just liked the tailgating anyway.”

THE IMPACT OF SPENDING AFTER SCHOOL

In summary, it is EASY to spend money in business school. International treks, nice on-campus housing, club dues, and party dues will all compete for your dollars. However, before you sign up for your Australia Trek and 15 professional clubs, stop to consider the impact of this spending during and after school.

At a high-level, the average cost to attend a U.S. based, two-year, top-25 MBA program is around $200,000. Within the total program cost, personal expenses — everything from rent to transportation to food — are generally 19% to 29%.

However, in my experience as a 2015 business school grad who has made a business out of helping MBAs manage their money, the school estimates for living and personal are dramatic low. They assume very little spending on travel, parties, and all of the other fun things listed above.

BORROWING MORE MAY NOT BE AN OPTION

One vitally important consideration when making decisions about travel, housing, etc.: Private and public lenders will ONLY allow you to borrow up to your school’s estimated of attendance. Therefore, if your school, like Darden, estimates that you will spend only $19,430 per year of $1,619 per month on living expenses, you will NOT be able to borrow more to cover a more expensive cost of living. The only exception to this is personal loans which are generally at a 10-15% interest rate.

Currently, Harvard Business School includes one of the larger estimated costs of living plus personal expenses. It’s currently $30,981 per year or $2,582 per month. While this is over a $1,000 per month more than what is allocated by Darden, it’s still likely less than what you will spend as an MBA.

As a reference point, when I was a student at Harvard Business School in 2015, my rent to share an on-campus apartment was $1,600 per month. Adding in food, other living expenses and travel, I easily averaged $3,000 per month in living expenses. While it’s hard to predict expenses in this new MBA world, it is important to pause in year one and make sure you are making responsible choices for the future.

Not only do some MBAs get into credit card debt, but the impact of borrowing an extra $10K to $15K per year, could translate to $300 or more per month in extra student loan payments. While this might not seem like a big deal now, it might require you to pick a different career or to postpone buying a house or having kids.

There are so many things to do and experience in business school. Enjoy your two years but consume responsibly.


Eryn Schultz is a 2015 Harvard Business School grad, and the founder of Her Personal Finance. Her mission is to demystify personal finance and to help women take charge of their financial futures. She teaches financial classes designed to make learning about money easier and more accessible. How much should you save for retirement? Should you invest even though the market is here? What’s a pre-tax versus Roth 401K and which is right for me? For answers to questions like these and more, check out her on-demand bootcamp and follow her on Instagram here.

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