Living on a Graduate Student Budget

After a professional career in the computer software industry, one of the biggest adjustments in my return to Graduate School was changing my attitude to money. Now, here in my fourth year, I truly have new found appreciation for the value of a dollar!

I was poking around on the web today for advice on how to live on a graduate student budget. Most sites focus on housing choices. No surprise, it’s probably the single largest financial decision and one that drives many other expenses (like transportation, utilities, even recreation and shopping expenses).

I did find even more specific advice laid out at the Harvard School of Public Health:

Choices and Adjustments
Many HSPH students have not been in school for several years and have developed a lifestyle that is dependent on their level of earnings. Returning to school as a graduate student may require an adjustment to spending habits. A more frugal lifestyle may seem like a difficult sacrifice, but should be viewed as a temporary measure that will be well worth the short-term inconvenience. Below are some ideas for reducing costs:

  • Roommates: Sharing the cost of rent is always less expensive than living alone.
  • Inexpensive clothing: For those moving from warmer climates, inexpensive winter clothing can be purchased at local second hand clothing stores, consignment shops, and discount stores. Dressing in several layers is warmest so that a few sweaters, a coat, a hat, a pair of gloves, and a pair of waterproof boots can take you through a Boston winter.
  • Limit entertainment costs: Planning for recreational activities should be done within the limits of your budget. As part of a university community, you may be able to use your student status and ID for discounts for movies, plays, museums, and other cultural activities in the Boston area. Many area schools also offer free social activities as well.
  • Do not bring a car: Financial aid cannot cover costs of car payments, insurance, parking, or maintenance. Owning a car in Boston is very expensive; insurance rates and parking costs in most areas are expensive. Using public transportation is most economical.
  • Pay off credit card debt before school begins: Your budget should only include current living expenses.

It all looks like sound advice to me, with the caveat that in some locales a car is an unfortunate necessity.

In other money-saving tips, I would add: shop for textbooks online, avoid impulse buying and look into all the possible avenues (your dept., your school, other grants, professor’s research budgets) for conference travel reimbursement.

Did you find the transition to a graduate student budget difficult? What strategies have worked (or failed!) for you?


10 Responses

  1. It was an adjustment for me as well, and arriving from outside the country brings its own expensive lessons!

    The most annoying was the need to use cheques (or checks ;), as these had gone out of fashion in the 80s! The biggest surprise was the $30 charges for going even a few dollars over one’s limit.

    Even worse I took a while to realize that taking cash out of the ATM could cause these fees too. ie The ATM wouldn’t say no even if there wasn’t money in your bank account, it would say yes and then hit you with a $30 convenience fee.

    I know that many colleagues, Americans included, have been hit hard by these fees after coming back to graduate school.

    Thankfully they are simple to avoid. You need to get an ‘overdraft protection’ credit account. If you exceed your current account they move money from that at no cost. The interest is high, but this is just to cover between paycheck shortfalls and internet banking makes it trivial to payoff when one’s next pay arrives in one’s account.

    Of course one needs a US credit record to get such a thing (don’t even think about asking them to check international records, even if it’s an international bank like HSBC or Citibank).

    But you need credit to get credit and there are two ways I know to build a credit record so that you can get overdraft protection. The first is to deposit $500 with the bank and then they give you $500 ‘credit’ on a Visa/Mastercard which you have to use and pay off for a while (3 months, 6 months, 12 months?) before they give you the $500 back. Fine if you have $500 to spare!

    The second is easier. American Express will issue their ‘Blue’ creditcard to students without credit records. That’s what I did, but it is vital that you don’t miss payments, otherwise you are going backwards. After 3 (6?) months of making payments, you can finally get your overdraft protection account and avoid those nasty $30 fees.

  2. I executed a strategy that’s probably not common among graduate students: buying a house. When I considered that I would be in the same place for four or more years, the decision to invest in a house just made sense. Of course, there are some factors that helped me buy a house, such as the fact that I had previously owned a house and had good credit. But rather than throw rent money out the window, I was able to acquire a house payment for a reasonably comparable rate (to rent). Plus, I’m able to write off mortgage interest at tax time.

    One painful adjustment has been my ability to purchase good coffee. When I had a real job in my previous life, I became a Starbucks addict. I wouldn’t buy specialty drinks, just their coffee. Also, I limited my trips to the Starbucks store and instead bought the bagged coffee and made it at home. Over time, I grew to like such “premium” coffee if you will, and I have developed a strong distaste for “non-premium” coffee (e.g., Folgers, Maxwell House). I’m not saying such coffee is bad; in fact, I wish I liked these latter brands of coffee. Unfortunately, I have developed a strong habit for Starbucks coffee. Luckily I have found that Sam’s Club coffee provides a reasonable middle ground to this dilemna. Sam’s coffee (forgive me, I forget the brand name – maybe Members Mark?) is not as expensive as Starbucks, but it is also not as “ordinary” or “bland” (for lack of a better term) as something like Folgers. If you are a coffee fiend like me, I encourage you to check out Sam’s Club coffee if you haven’t already. If you don’t have a Sam’s Club membership, well, find someone who does or look around Wal-Mart for Members Mark.

    My apologies to Folgers fans. 🙂

  3. I think, it depends where are you located for your study. For example, in Australia, it is not too bad. I have been doing research for a year on scholarship and found that so far so good. Actually, I prefer to live in a college accommodation, so I don’t need to cook for meals.
    Social life is quite important to keep up as you need friends from time to time as well as to keep up the feeling of a “normal” person.

  4. Living in a budget life ! Considering to be a vegetarian, you will save heaps of $. Just to share some of my lifestyle as a vegan. I don’t drink coffee, save $$ already,and it is healthy too.

    I plant my own veges, again, saving $$ !! you may ask ” what about expense on seeds or seedlings ” ? no problem, just use the seeds from veges which you bought from the supermarket then plant them. You will have veges from no time. you will be benefited from eatting organic and nutritious veges from your own garden and balancing your study stress by doing gardening on your garden.

  5. […] read Living on a Graduate Student Budget, I am pretty there are lots of smart PhD students out there with creative solutions for attending […]

  6. I get most of my business clothes and dress shoes from discount stores like Ross, Marshalls and TJMaxx. I also shop at Talbots & Ann Taylor outlet stores.

  7. I’m starting a 4-year PharmD program in August. I will need to take out loans for living expenses. Can anyone here recommend a modest yearly amount to request? I expect my rent (incl. utilities) to average out to approximately $500/mth and will still be paying the rest of my car loan at $325/mth (plus insurance) til July 2008. Any advice on how much to take out in private loans? I’m pretty good at living frugal, just don’t really know what I’ll need for a year’s worth of living.


  8. Maria — A good resource to look into is your school’s financial support requirements for foreign students. They will have a budget laid out for the annual support amount that students entering the country are required to have to get a student visa.

  9. Olá
    Infelizmente sofro de queratocone e podem ter a certeza que a qualidade de vida devido a isto.

    Desde os meus dezoito anos que sei o que é ter queratocone

    Ler o teu blog ajudou-me muito pois infelizmente existem muitas pessoas que sofrem disto
    Boa sorte a todos os doentes como eu


  10. Why visitors still make use of to read news papers when in this technological
    world the whole thing is presented on net?

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