How to Fit EMS into Our Budget

When I talk about fitting our jobs into our budgets, I’m usually met with looks of confusion. Yes, it may seem counterintuitive being that we come to work to make money, but let’s face it, this job comes with expenses. Licensing fees, continuing education, meals and transportation costs are all expenses that we often overlook when writing our budgets.

In this week’s article, we are going to address some of the common expenses we see in EMS, talk about how to prepare for them and save money while we’re doing it.

Start Meal Planning

It’s no secret that bringing your meals to work will save you money. The problem is, it’s not always practical in EMS. If you’re working in system status management, you probably don’t have access to a refrigerator, and if you’re pulling station shifts, you never know when you’re going to get a chance to cook or sit down to eat. When working these kinds of shifts, it’s usually easier to just grab a quick meal either between calls or while sitting at post. Unfortunately, this usually leads to excessive spending and before we know it, we’ve spent over $300 for the month on fast food just while we’re at work!

Before we even get into planning for meals, we need to budget for it. I don’t recommend tying your work meals into your regular monthly food budget. You need to get a handle on what you spend while you’re at work and it’s hard to do when your work and home food budgets are combined. I recommend setting a work-spending budget for each pay period. If you find yourself working a lot of last-minute overtime, then set your budget assuming that you’re going to work extra hours. Any money that’s left over can either be carried into the next pay period or applied towards debt-reduction.

Meal planning when working EMS shifts can be a bit tricky, but it’s not impossible. We just need to understand the challenges that we face in order to adequately prepare. If you’re working station shifts, you simply can’t go wrong with a crock pot, sandwich materials and anything that heats up quick. Also, be sure to either keep a small pack of snacks in the ambulance, or keep a $5 bill clipped to your medic license in case you find yourself away from the station for extended periods of time.  For system status shifts, invest in a decent cooler and pack a couple sandwiches, some fruits, and various snacks.

Setup a per-Meal Budget

For some of us, bringing our food to work just isn’t going to happen. Whether we’re running on a tight schedule each morning, or just lack the motivation to do meal planning, we sometimes find ourselves slipping back into our old habits of just swiping our debit card 3 times a day for meals and feeling bad about it at the end of the paycheck. While I strongly recommend bringing your food to work, I also understand that it isn’t always an easy task. If you’re going to be spending money at work, at least set a cap on what you’re going to spend each meal. Even if we are going to spend the money, we can still be intentional by setting per-meal budgets.

This simple strategy will save you tons of money (although not as much as bringing your food). Actually, the savings from this strategy alone could fund your retirement plan. Every time we swipe our debit card at a fast food restaraunt, we easily spend anywhere from $7 to $10 dollars. On most EMS shift schedules, that will easily exceed $300 a month. That’s way too much money to be spending at work considering that we could easily feed ourselves for the month on that kind of money if we were to shop smart.

I recommend setting a maximum $5 per-meal budget when you’re at work. This will exclude just about every “value meal”, so you’re going to have to be creative when you order. With the exception of McDonalds, the drink is what would break your per-meal budget. To beat this, bring your own drinks. Try investing in one of the 64-ounce travel mugs that most of the gas-station markets offer. You might be surprised to find that just about every gas station and truck stop has a standard refill price of under $1. That includes drinks of all sizes, including the kidney buster that I just mentioned. Trust me on this, I own a 100-ounce one and I’ve never paid more than $1 to fill it up. These mugs are really well insulated and will easily last you an entire 12-hour shift. I just don’t recommend filling them up with soda for obvious reasons.

To help develop the habit of sticking to a $5 per-meal budget, leave your debit card at home and bring just enough $5 bills to get you through the shift.

Plan for Work Expenses

While meals are usually our biggest expense when it comes to working EMS, we still have other things to plan for like transportation, continuing education and license fees.

Fuel costs are easilly overlooked when writing a budget which typically causes us to under fund that category and put us in a tight spot towards the end of the pay period. It’s not uncommon to see EMT’s and paramedics travel long distances to report for work so it’s important to plan accordingly. I completely understand this challenge as my station assignment changes every month. Depending on the month, I’m driving as little as 3 minutes and as much as 45 minutes to get to work. To prepare for these expenses, I did the math and figured out how much gas I use to get to each station. This makes it really easy for me when I sit down to write my fuel budget each pay period.

License renewals and continuing education are due the same time every 2-4 years. Don’t let these expenses sneak up on you. Create a “license and continuing education” budget and put money aside every pay period for these expenses. Schedule CE classes regularly so you aren’t cramming at the last minute to keep your license current and aren’t having to shell out excessive fees for last-minute roster spots. I use Google calendars to send myself reminders of renewal dates and to remind me to schedule regular CE classes. Planning for these expenses should be one of your top priorities being that your job is what provides you and your family with an income.


Healthcare and public safety are unique in that we have a lot of costs associated with our jobs. While most of these expenses are tax-deductible, that doesn’t do us a lot of good when we’re down to the wire and don’t have enough money to pay for a license renewal or a tank of gas to get to work. Just like everything else, we need to be prepared and make sure we have enough money set aside so these expenses don’t catch us empty-handed at the last minute.

I want to hear from you guys. What are some expenses that you have when it comes to working in EMS?

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