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Women in Academia: Budgeting in Grad School

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

7 replies on “Women in Academia: Budgeting in Grad School”

I agree that being “Grad Student Poor” is a really strange situation. On one hand, I live on less than $900/month. (Only possible because I am in North Carolina and take the bus). On the other hand I am priviledged, well-educated, and have very real prospects of future wealth. It is hard to think of myself as working class.

The borrowing books thing is something I’ve always done — we go in halvsies or otherwise split the cost of books. Or one of us gets the lone library copy and we all pass it around. That also helps if, like me, you struggle with making friends in a new program: sharing a book with someone will help you get to know them PFQ.

I have also shared books. You can make it even cheaper if your get the “international version” textbooks off ebay–they are usually the same content, but in softcover. There are huge savings on math and science books especially.

Master the art of cooking big meals and eating them for days on end! When I was in grad school, I survived on a combination of vegetarian chili, toast, potato salad, bean salad, eggs, and pasta. One jar of pasta sauce will have enough sauce for three 1-cup servings of pasta, and jazzing up jarred pasta sauce with spices is really easy. Also lucky for me I lived two blocks away from Total Wine, and I was able to buy my favorite bottle of sparkling wine for $9 a bottle, so I’d get it about once every six weeks.

I felt super pinched last year, so I took a part time job teaching children’s dance. Then I started taking the train to visit my boyfriend 1-2x/month and all my money from my second job goes to transportation now. So I’m in basically the same place I was, but with less free time. Fun! But luckily this year I can look forward to a decent summer job to tide me over and fewer bridesmaid dresses to purchase on my $0 summer TA salary.

Great advice, and I agree with everything, except the part about coupons. You’re right that a lot of times the store brand is still cheaper and/or they entice you to buy things you don’t need. But if you are going through the ads anyway to see what is on sale, you can often use a coupon for something already on sale and get a ridiculously good deal.

I usually bring the coupons for things that are on sale that I need, and if the store brand is still cheaper than I skip the coupon. Or if it’s not on sale and I don’t need it immediately, I save the coupon until the item is on sale. Doing this has let me get boxes of brand name cereal and spaghetti noodles and condiments and stuff for usually less than $1… in fact, I just got some bbq sauce last weekend for 5 cents after sale/coupon.

So use your good judgment and math skills, but don’t ignore coupons all together. Sometimes you might just end up with free nail polish :-)

I find coupons to be helpful only for stuff that a) I’m brand loyal to and won’t buy generics and b) I can buy in bulk and it won’t spoil. I mostly buy generics, but I have pretty sensitive skin, so things like body soap, deodorant, laundry detergent, toilet paper, etc, I have to stick with brands that I know will not give me a rash. That 18-pack of Dove soap with a coupon is worth it because it can sit in my closet and be there when I need it. A buy-4-get-1-free cereal deal is not worth it because three of those boxes are going to go stale before I can get to them, and Wegman’s Bran Flakes taste pretty much the same as Raisin Bran anyway.

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