Grad School on a Budget

Apr 25 2013 Published by under Academia

Grad school in science* is a stressful time. You've got lots of pressure to produce, to do well in classes, to work more hours, to get more done, to learn faster, to teach, to volunteer.

And you're doing it all on, sometimes, less than $25,000 a year**. So on to all of that stress, you have to add more, the fact that you've got to live on that. For many people, this seems like a lot, but if you've got a family? Or other dependents? Not so much. Not only that, even people who DON'T have dependents can have a rough time. Many new grad students have never worked in the "real world". They have no idea how to manage money because they've never really made much, and have usually depended on parents or other caregivers. It's a very, very fortunate position. But it also means that a lot of grad students start grad school with NO idea of how to manage their finances.

And this can mean DEBT. In my time, I've seen grad students buy houses, new cars, more new cars, take super nice trips, wear really nice clothes, get really nice phones, eat out every day, sometimes all of these in combination. Some people can get away with it. A lot of people can't. I've seen people rack up a LOT of debt.

I myself was lucky. I got out with no debt at all, and even managed to save a little. This involved a LOT of frugal living (Costco and Aldi are your friends, and roommates are not a bad thing at all! Thrift stores can have some very nice dress clothes. Also, you'd be stunned by how long you can just keep pouring oil into your car to make it keep running before it just up and dies), but it also involved a lot of luck. Not everyone is lucky. And not everyone has the freedom to make the choices I made. I lived in a cheap area where rentals weren't horrid, so I saved a lot of money there. Food was cheap where I lived. I didn't need major surgery or anything, and neither did my cat. I only had one car die. I got out of grad school before my funding ran out. I had parents that could help me. I was able to use other talents to pull in a little extra income. I was REALLY lucky.

Grad schools know it's not easy. They know that many grad students needs to get used to living on a budget. And quickly. And so there are programs where they tell you things like "pack your lunch! Brew your own coffee! Buy only used cars!" ...like we aren't already doing these things. It can help a little, but most of the time we are left to follow our own instincts.

And so this is why I am VERY glad that Southern Fried Science is doing a series on finances for grad students! There are already a couple of really great posts up on getting a stipend, what to expect from your stipend, and how to build credit. If you're a grad student just starting out, I can't recommend them enough. Read them, take them to heart. And pack your lunch and brew your own coffee most days. Cause, you know, practicality. 🙂

So head over and check it out! I eagerly await more installments!

*I'm applying this post only to people in science, or in other fields which get a stipend and have tuition paid. In the humanities, you usually get no stipends at ALL and have to pay full tuition. They have it WAY WORSE.

**That's roughly what I made in grad school, lo these, um, three years ago.

8 responses so far

  • Anders Eklund says:

    I can really recommend doing a PhD in Sweden. The average salary for grad students is 45000 - 50000 USD per year and you have 5-6 weaks of paid vacation. There are no tuition fees and we also have free health care.

  • PUIProf says:

    That's why you should choose a good location to go to grad school! With my stipend (less than yours), I was able to buy a cute little house and when I graduated, sell it for a profit. It's not about your stipend, its about the real estate/ rental market. I had a very good social and economic life in grad school because I lucked out in getting into an excellent program in a cheap, safe, and interesting city.

  • D. C. Sessions says:

    Part of the deal I made with two of mine [1] also worked for the "build credit" part: rather than pay for stuff I had agreed to pay for directly, they took out the loans and I paid them off. Works pretty well, actually -- also saves on the gift taxes.

    [1] no driver's license until the BS, I buy you a new car for graduation. I saved a wad, net, on that.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    You can't overestimate the effect of cost-of-living - $25,000 in NYC is a hell of a different lifestyle than in Greensville, NC.

  • SuperM says:

    Sadly, science graduate programs do not all pay full tuition plus stipend. In the underfunded field of conservation biology, we pay full tuition and get no stipend (at least in my program).

    That said, excellent post. I continue to be surprised by how little my fellow students know about money, saving, etc.

  • Dylan says:

    Thanks for the links to SFS. I ran across one of those articles this weekend and it was a really great resource. I'll just echo what SuperM said -- most grad students aren't getting full tuition + extra $$ on top. That means different things for different people, but at the end of the day it makes it difficult to do anything financially productive. Living below ones means is probably the best key to staying ahead, but when you are going into debt going to school, that's rough.

  • Sara says:

    The links to Southern Fried Science appear to be broken.

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