I’ve been meaning to talk about budgeting for a while now, and today is the day it actually happens. Thanks to a series of thoughtful posts over at classragespeaks, I’ve spent a good part of Memorial Day weekend thinking about my experiences with being “grad student poor.”
I come from a middle-class background. As such, being financially independent in graduate school is something that is important to me, but I am always aware that if something major were to happen, I’d have a safety net. Classragespeaks explains this situation best:
But the real financial picture for those grad students depends just as much on their financial situation before grad school- and its impact on what they can expect after grad school- as it does on what they’re making from the moment.
I feel as if my experiences as “grad student poor” are temporary. I come from a stable place financially, and even though I am not making much money now, I am getting paid (through stipends, fellowships, and TAships – I refuse to take out a loan) for actively working towards a degree that makes my chances of getting a job with a good salary much better. Even relative to other graduate students, I am at an economic advantage. Nothing is guaranteed (and boy, does that give me anxiety), but for me, the cost of this educational opportunity is very low.
At the same time, there is some anxiety associated with trying to plan how to spend my monthly stipend. Between paying rent in Expensive-ville, California and trying to eat a somewhat balanced diet, the money just doesn’t go as far as I’d like. One of the most frustrating things is looking through budgeting websites and finding absolutely unusable tips. I can’t cut back on my daily latte if I can’t afford to have a daily latte to begin with. I can’t stock up on sale items if I barely have enough money to buy the groceries I need just for the week. I can’t invest in “quality” shoes if all I can afford is a cheap pair. I mean, if I could afford those budget tips, I’d be living a pretty swanky lifestyle.
So here is what I wish I had known when I started grad school:
- Plan grocery trips down to the last detail ““ I tend to overspend when I don’t have a plan in place at the grocery store. I can’t help it ““ I get lured in by the siren song of fresh produce. To curb my grocery store spending, I go through all the ads of all the grocery stores that are reasonably close, look at the weekly deals, and create a series of meals using those deals. Generally speaking, I have to hit about three grocery stores to be sure I get the best deal on food.
- Don’t use coupons ““ Except for rare instances, the store brand is usually cheaper than the name brand, even if the name brand comes with a coupon. I tried so hard to coupon, but it was generally a big waste of time for me.
- Every little bit counts ““ saving money and sticking to a budget is a very time-consuming, precise activity. It requires a lot of thought and vigilance, and it can be downright exhausting. I remind myself that every bit counts. It really does, even though sometimes it feels like moving a mountain one grain of sand at a time.
- Budget for something that makes you feel good ““ I’ve noticed that if I don’t include something beyond the basic necessities I needed to stay alive, I was much more likely to go and spend money I do not have. A common problem with budgeting is that it doesn’t take happiness and life satisfaction into account. Those are things people need, too. It doesn’t have to be anything big or expensive ““ I remember one time when my “feel good” line in the budget was dedicated to buying one 12 pack of Diet Coke once a month ““ it just has to be something that makes you feel like a human.
- Create a barter system with your friends ““ If there are other graduate students in a similar financial boat as you, talk to them about creating a system where you all help each other out. For example, in my program, people will pet-sit for each other, saving kennel fees. I’ve borrowed books for class from friends instead of purchasing my own.
I know that not all of these things will be feasible for everyone, and for some people, none of this will work. Budgeting is a very personal process, and it depends as much on your health and your community as it does on your paycheck. All I can hope is that this starts a conversation in the comments where people can share their experiences, tips, and tricks. I want to know what works for you.